SOFIE ATHANASIA TSATAS is a music historian and aspiring archivist currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Information Studies at McGill University. She received her Bachelor’s degree from McGill University and her M.A. in Musicology from the University of British Columbia. She loves to read, paint, write poetry, and take photographs.
I push the ocular lenses into my tear ducts until I hear a faint click. Derek wants me to meet him in VR. I fasten my haptic suit. My vision blacks out; I’m confronted with the loading screen. I quit VR months ago and now I have to go back. I pick a server and I immediately teleport to the roof of an apartment complex. The buildings are all unrendered 3D assets, white and boxy. A generic skyline glitters in the distance. I cannot identify what city it is supposed to be. The skylines of major cities are copyrighted.
I peer into one of the apartment suites voyeuristically, only to find a fully furnished unit with no one inside. There are dishes, half-washed, left in the kitchen sink. A fluorescent light flickers.
Before I can zoom back out, I hear Derek’s disembodied voice.
“Kyle! Hey, is that you?”
I stumble on the edge of the rooftop, until I remember that I am not actually on a rooftop. I hold the button on my controller, shooting back.
“You okay?” Derek asks.
“Yeah, just disoriented. Let me figure out where I am, uhh…” I reconfigure the zoom settings, waving my Muppet hands in front of my face. I usually play as Kermit. “Alright, I can see you.”
He’s yet again using an anime girl model, a pink-haired waif in a sailor uniform. Even as human 3D models were refined to be less creepy, people still opt to play as anime girls – especially the men.
Someone sprints to the edge and does a backflip, jumping up and into the nameless, featureless streets below. Everyone claps and cheers when he instantly respawns.
“He has full-body tracking!” I hear someone say.
“Nah, it’s probably just a script,” another interjects.
Another player approaches the edge, this time it’s Waluigi: “Goodbye, cruel world…waaa!”
And he drops off. An uproar builds in the room.
“Dare you to jump,” Derek remarks to me.
“No. It freaks me out.”
“Everyone’s doing it,” Derek presses. “Wuss.”
I approach the edge again. I look down. Everyone goads me on:
“Jump! Jump! Jump!”
“It’s not easy being green…” I singsong. I inch forward and I fall. It reminds me of a dream that I sometimes have. Although I’m lying in bed, safe, my heart lurches as if I fell from a great height – and I wake up instantly. Like so, I respawn instantly.
“Yes Kermit!” A girl calls out in the crowd. A few people surround me and cheer.
“Go away! Go away!” I yell out in my Kermit voice, running back to Derek. I hide behind him like a shy child.
“Good to see you, man,” Derek laughs.
“We haven’t done this in a while, eh?” I try to say, but it’s drowned out by twelve-year-olds mic-spamming the Soviet anthem, bass-boosted. We’re forced to hop onto another roof, but we can still hear them droning on in the background.
“I said we haven’t done this in a while.”
“Yeah, why haven’t we?” he asks.
“I was busy… I, uh, actually haven’t been doing anything for a while.”
“Oh right, you graduated! Congrats,” Derek says.
My graduating class is the first to complete our entire bachelors’ degree online. In-person classes were more like an occasional treat, something that you’d choose carefully to avoid rush hour.
“Yup, I’m still applying to places. Employers keep contacting me for an interview, and when I say I’m available – they ghost me. I don’t understand it.”
“Have you tried being a mechanical turk? They take anyone.”
“It burns my eyes too much.”
We go server hopping. On one server (“Ecclesiastical Church Of VR”), we witness a baptism in a river. Someone claiming to be a pastor (some are, most aren’t) stands over SpongeBob, preparing to lower him into the water. The shadows hit his face ominously. I think he was meant to stay two-dimensional. I can hear him crying, exalted, into the microphone.
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
The pastor, the only player to use a human model, holds him submerged underwater. We stand around him with a few other people. The river water rushes over my feet, hitting my ankles with a strange sensation, that of water without temperature. With the convert, we all look up. The clouds roll, uniformly, across the sky. I count four rivers in total which lead to a massive headwater, some sort of oasis and a fiery silhouette. The red sun lingers on the horizon and cracks form in the barren soil. At the end of days, seven trumpets are supposed to sound. Angels will rise from the river Euphrates, where they’re bound underwater.
I bring it up.
“What always gets to me about the apocalypse is that they’ll play trumpets. What would a divine trumpet even sound like? What kind of trumpet does an angel play?”
“It’s not Chet Baker’s trumpet, that’s for sure,” Derek says.
“Do you think it’s coming?”
“Couldn’t tell you,” Derek replies.
On the next server (Impossible Maze… 😉 If You Dare), we navigate through a corn maze. The sky is a recycled texture from the previous map. There are only three directions to go in: left, right, and middle. Every direction is a dead end and the map creator drew dicks all over the walls. I try to roll my eyes, but the lenses force them in place. I wipe away the discharge collecting in each corner.
We settle in a mall inspired by ‘80s vaporwave aesthetics: escalators lined with neon lights, palm trees on either side, the gaudy storefronts of fast-food joints that no longer exist. We wear bucket hats supplied at the entrance. Blank Banshee, Floral Shoppe, and other oldies play. I’ll meet the odd teenager in a tattoo choker, who wishes they came of age in the mid-2010s.
“I think we can sit here,” I point to a bench by the fountain.
Players walking by grasp soda cups, I imagine, just to have something to fidget with. Pennies glimmer from the bottom of the fountain, some of them marked with players’ names.
“Hey, wanna throw one?” Derek suggests.
“I vaguely remember this one movie where like, if you toss a penny into that fountain in Rome, you’ll come back one day,” Derek says. “Maybe the logic applies here.”
“I really hope not,” I laugh. Italy is now a black zone.
I toss the penny in. Another anime girl approaches, trying to strike up conversation. I’m surprised that, when she speaks, it’s actually a woman. Her voice is sugary and nasal, a performative hypersexuality that is in every way sexless. She wears a form-fitting, latex minidress, and thigh-high socks. There’s no life behind the eyes. A link to her OnlyFans hovers above her head in floating text, a demented halo that charges you $20.
“Hey guys, having a good time?” she says, with serious vocal fry.
“We’re good, thanks,” I shut her down immediately. Derek grows uncomfortable and looks off, ignoring her. Some maps disable the blocking function and, as it seems, this is one of them.
“You sure you don’t want company? You two look lonely.”
She sits right between us, and when she moves to stroke the back of my neck, I break away.
“Can you go away? We seriously don’t want your services,” I have to repeat myself to her.
She turns to Derek, trying to cozy up to him, and he kicks her in the shin.
“Ow! What the fuck?” she shrieks, jumping up and away from us. The freak has her pain settings toggled on.
“You don’t know what it’s like for me, asshole,” she hisses. “I got laid off.”
She drops her sultry voice, as well as her model’s initial poise. She slouches, sounding worn out. Her hand massages a knot in her temple in small, tired circles.
Derek finally speaks up. “Yeah, we’re all laid off – why do you think we’re hanging around here? Aren’t there specific rooms for this kind of thing?”
“They’re all full,” she sighs.
We scroll through the server listings and, she’s right, the strip clubs and “private rooms” are at capacity. The woman disappears, and the chatlog in the corner notifies us that she left the room.
“That was…something?” Derek says, trying to lighten the mood. “Did we nearly get assaulted on VR?”
I huff, releasing a long-held breath.
“It’s not funny, and I’m pissed off at you, too.”
Derek pauses, completely dumbstruck. “Wait, what did I do?”
“I don’t know why you wanted me to come on here. The same thing always happens. Someone weird tries to pull something. We watch someone have an epileptic fit, and we’ll have no idea what happens to them.”
“It happens, and it happens offline, too. Get over it,” Derek dismisses me.
“Is that a supposed to be a normal reaction that someone has? Jesus. I hate being here. I hate having to be on here. Everyone’s acting like it’s fun, like it’s all a big joke, but we have to be here, and we’re alone.”
Derek scoffs incredulously. “Oh, that’s what you think being alone means? Socializing in VR, temporarily? No one’s been alone for the past two decades.”
“You see, I don’t think it’s temporary.”
“I’m just saying – Kyle, if this were a century earlier, we wouldn’t see each other again. Is that what you want instead? The good old days?”
“Maybe I do,” I say, fuming. “maybe I do. I could focus on something big, if we were allowed to be bored. I could do something great. You know, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in-”
“VR isn’t stopping you from doing that,” Derek fires back.
A pall casts over the room. The rebuttals I had prepared in my mind fizzle out.
“Okay, fine, I’m an idiot, I’m sorry,” I apologize. I still believe every word that I’m saying.
“Thank you, Kermit.”
“You’re very welcome,” I say with my best Kermit impression possible.
“I saw there’s a rave happening soon, you wanna go? I know it’s not usually your thing,” Derek asks.
“I guess I’ll try it this once. Whatever.”
The rave is more immersive than I expected it to be. I’m able to shake off my inhibitions, drinking some vodka that I have on my shelf. The stage lights and sirens flood my senses; I crank up my volume, I’m okay. There’s a full crowd. We bump up against each other, we flail and jump around. I forget myself; I’m really there, I’m free. I’m surrounded by everything from furries to Hank Hills and Peter Griffins. I have to stop to catch my breath.
But the room freezes. The drum and bass lags on one extended note, repeating ad infinitum, rattling in my ears. The people around me float away. Their models revert to the default T-pose, clipping through the walls, limbs extending and breaking. I reach out, and although I can move, my model does not.
A massive error message looms over me: “CONNECTION DISRUPTED. PLEASE EXIT PROGRAM.”
The only option is OK. Instead of reconnecting, I switch off the haptic suit. My eyes are watering. I grope around for my phone and text Derek.
“sorry had to go. nice seeing you. sorry.”
All of the sensations are gone, and I am playing a game like I used to as a kid, holding a controller, staring at a bright monitor in the dark.
LANA GLOZIC is a student of Classics and Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Her work has previously appeared in Goose Fiction and the Trinity Review.
In a bar where a flickering cocktail sign lends respite to weary travellers, a man sits and he watches his world burn. His fingers are calloused and lead into taut, scarred forearms. Decades of barbed hooks and fishing lines have made his skin a battlefield rubbed raw by saltwater. He wears heavy rubber boots and a woolen sweater. His thick hair tumbles out from beneath a beanie that once might have been red. An anchor’s voice drones from a staticky TV, mounted high on the wall. The man’s hollow eyes settle on long, panning shots of a coastline: grey seawater, thin waves, the shadows of a harbour. Now the camera zooms in on a column of billowing smoke. Behind that, a boat sinking as flames tear its metal and wooden flesh. The man’s chapped lips and pockmarked cheeks do not move, even as the anchor says that there is a person inside. His mouth is dry, but he is not drinking. Not yet. He wants sober regret, before searching for his reason at the bottom of a glass. Or maybe he will find his reason in the glowing sign above the bar, where men like him have sought answers to the ghosts that chase them inside. But the man knows his reason will soon be at the bottom of the harbour, entombed in the boat where he spent his life. Where his father showed him the world, one he can no longer leave, and passed on his scars for the man to hide, as travellers hide in the neon light of cocktail signs.
DANIEL HARRISON is a young writer and poet from Calgary, Canada. His work has been published in Blank Spaces magazine, and he has self-published a short chapbook of poetry. Daniel is currently enrolled in the English program at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire.
if we move rapidly
inside this honeycomb
and still find ourselves
maybe we’re somehow balancing
on solid ground
while earthquake tremors
sound off beneath our feet
art recovered from tasks:
eat, commute, laugh
we wander toward home
faces buried in cell phones
the pulse in our fingertips
the heartache poem
we can’t seem to perfect
so we write, rewrite,
we wander toward home
ANNE STRAND is a writer from coastal Maine, USA. Her poems and short stories have been featured in journals including Sonora Review, Angel City Review, and The Metaworker. Connect with her on twitter @anniestrannie
Josh wants nothing to do with my idea of digging up half the back lawn. He thinks it’ll be too much work and plus, he doesn’t have the energy. A garden will save some trips to the grocery store, maybe, a bit, by midsummer, I say. We both know this is a reach. A few carrots and tomatoes won’t make a dent. I need a distraction, I tell him. A project.
I’ve noticed that people are going back to the basics—growing things and sewing things and baking. My friend tried churning butter. I realize how truly incapable I am. People used to make their own flour, and I can’t even bake a loaf of bread. I tell Josh I need something to help me feel wholesome. I already have the kids on board, so we all know we’re about to become vegetable gardeners. They’ve started painting some wooden stakes, labelling “beets” and “zucchini” in shaky vertical letters, and they’re bouncing around and cheering. Josh gives me his blessing, once he makes it clear that he does not, personally, want to deal with a shovel.
Digging it up is more difficult than I thought, though I’m too stubborn to admit it. The boys give up after two minutes. I tell them to keep the dirt in the garden, but they chase each other around the yard, shaking the clumps of sod. There are grubs hanging onto the grass roots. Hundreds of them, it seems. It’s revolting, but I can’t help but fixate on the word juicy. The grubs are juicy. They don’t seem to have bothered the grass by chomping on the roots, but I don’t want them in the garden. I pick them off with my gloved fingertips and throw them across the yard. Robins are gathering at the edges, the bravest of them hopping forward for a bite. The boys whoop with delight.
The sun sinks low and Josh turns on the barbecue. I’m soaked in sweat. The boys are gone now, probably sitting in front of the TV. I regret having marked out the perimeter of the garden before I started digging, before I knew how difficult it would be. Josh gives some laughing encouragement, and I appreciate that he hasn’t once said I told you so. He cheers me on for being a third of the way done, and there’s no way I’m stopping now, not until the whole job is finished. Bags of dirt, seedlings and seed packets line the fence, and I’m not going inside until they’re safe in the ground.
I notice Josh and the kids eat the burgers, but I keep digging. The repetition has me in a trance, and the rhythmic tck tck tck noises made by the shovel have become music. I don’t want to interrupt my flow, and as the sky darkens, I see Josh illuminated through the kitchen window, putting my dinner in the fridge for later. Later, later, I see the lights flicker on and off upstairs, trailing the bedtime progress. Bathroom for baths and brushing teeth. On, off. Bedroom lights for the length of a couple of stories. On, off. Pale blue glow of the nightlight. I look up, and I can see Josh’s face reflecting back the light of his laptop from the couch.
My back starts aching in that way that’s tolerable, but indicative of something worse to come. My hands are sweaty inside the gloves, and I know when I remove them, I’ll find a blister sitting atop each tender spot. I almost have all the grass out. I tear at the last few clumps of sod and bang them against my shovel to shake off the excess soil. The grubs appear to glow against the blue smudge of night. The robins have left, so there’s no one there to eat the nasty little things when I toss them.
It feels like I’ve really accomplished something now. When I step back to survey my progress, it hurts that it looks like a mess. I begin to stalk around my new kingdom, plunging in my shovel like an errant javelin and turning big scoops of soil, over and over again. I smash at the largest clumps I find, breaking everything into smaller and smaller pieces. When I run out of clumps, I look up to the sound of the sliding door, and Josh tells me he’s going to bed.
It doesn’t really get dark in the city. Nights don’t even have stars, not really. I know you can see a few, but when you’ve actually seen a true night sky, it’s impossible to accept a city’s attempt. And if it isn’t dark enough for stars, then I don’t see any reason why I should stop working. I slice open the bags of topsoil and manure and whatever else the salesperson sent me home with, and spread it all around. And then I dig and turn the soil some more. I exchange the shovel for a rake and stab around at the few remaining clumps, and then it feels like it’s time to smooth things out. This part is nice. The rake runs through without resistance, and the little patterns from the tines bring to mind monks and sand. A raccoon pops its head over the fence and then disappears again.
It occurs to me there is probably an ideal time to put plants into the ground, and after midnight is not that time—but the moon is hanging low in the sky, full like a breast, and that has to count for something. The boys and I had drawn a map together, laying out where everything should be planted. I reference the creased sheet as I work. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs, zucchini. I pile up some furrows and pop in carrot and beet seeds.
It’s so humid, and the air presses in. Time eludes me, but it must be late because none of the interior lights are on in any of the houses around me. The garden centre boxes have been emptied, and an untouched swath of dirt across the front edge alerts me that something is missing. I consult the map again. Marigolds. We didn’t write the word in, but the boys had drawn orange flowers along the edge. We had planned on planting them along the front of the garden to help keep pests away, and I forgot to pick some up. I step back and try to admire my handiwork, but it bothers me that I can’t complete the job properly. I can’t remember the last time it felt like I was fulfilling any of my roles completely—a bit of an employee, a bit of a mother, a bit of a friend, a worn-out shell that’s a bit of a partner. I feel weary, and realize that it isn’t just the marigolds; it isn’t just the physical labour. I’m exhausted.
I sit in the grass and take off my gloves. I run my hand along the empty space, pinching tiny clumps of soil with the tips of my fingers. If I were a plant, I would like to be here, I think. There’s a comfort in knowing that the world is asleep around me. Now that I’ve stopped working, my arms heave a sigh of relief and make it known that there will be no more exertion from them tonight. I take off my shoes and socks, and step into the garden. I’m sweaty, and filthy, and because it doesn’t matter, and because it is so tempting, I gently lay down and stretch my body along the plot of the missing marigolds. It’s soft. Alive, like a body. I snuggle in until the earth is comfortably hugging every part of me. I close my eyes, and at some point, I fall asleep.
I wake up to a fat, cold rain, falling through thick air—not drops, but balls of water exploding all around me. When a person swallows a mouthful of water, they must first form it into a ball, and if one loses the ability to do that properly, they will choke. It’s still dark out, but softened in a way that belies morning. I’m surprised that I don’t feel cold, and I’m surprised that I have no urge to stand up and go inside. The soil is still holding all of the warmth from yesterday’s sun, and is breathing it on me and around me. And because the dirt is taking care of me, and everything is alive and grateful for the rain, I go back to sleep.
I see red light through my eyelids and feel the sun on my skin. When Josh comes out with the boys, he looks worried. The boys kiss my cheeks and then run around the garden, careful to stick to the paths between furrows, exclaiming about the new plants. I had saved some of the label stakes for them, and they match the plants to the stakes and verify with me before pushing them into the ground. I decline breakfast, and I smile at Josh, letting him know that everything is fine.
It’s the boys who understand best, sooner. Instinctively. It’s afternoon, and as if it were sand at the beach, they scoop soil with their hands and sprinkle it over my body. I used to take pictures of their hands. Sometimes, scrolling through my phone at night, the photos made me cry; their delicious puppy-paw-chubbiness, their potential, disbelief at the man’s hands they would become, and the things I pray they’ll never be used for. The handfuls become bigger, and they make sure to cover every inch of me. Not my face though, not yet. And because I’m smiling, and Josh notices my encouraging nod, he helps the boys with this last task. They kiss my forehead, my eyes—the last things left—and when they are finished, I feel the water. I’m so grateful they remembered the water.
I feel held, everywhere—what I imagine a womb must feel like. Warm and enclosed, pulling everything that I need into myself from my surroundings. I am comfortable. I exist. I’m not sure what else there is.
It’s hard to judge how much time passes, drifting in and out of sleep without a view of the sun. When I can feel them walking around above me, I know it must be daytime. To hear their voices fills the space between us with the energy of a smile. I feed off of it, and send it back with all I can muster, which is everything now. That’s what I can finally give to them: everything. What is it, to love?
The changes have been so strange. I have tendrils. They are being pulled from the back of my body, and instead of getting pulled out, they tug and reach deeper into the ground. I keep burrowing deeper, glad the grubs are gone. I’m the unraveling ends of a knit sweater. It doesn’t hurt, and I don’t feel as if I’m becoming less, but more. It makes me feel powerful—more and more as time goes on. And even though I can’t feel the drops on my skin, I know when there’s water falling on the soil above. It soaks in all around me, and I pull it up from below. It’s an insatiable thirst, but I haven’t yet felt anything lacking, and I recognize that I have everything I need. I used to imagine what this must feel like.
I know something is about to happen, so I’m not frightened when I start to split open. It is just meant to be, and I feel accomplished because I realize everything has been working towards this. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, one step after another. When I break through the soil, back in the sun again, the children are delighted to see my split shell. They each take hold of a half and help to pull my old self away. And the sunshine, it fills a cup I’ve never had before, and I drink deeply, with purpose.
Now that I’m back on the surface, the people spend more time with me. The small ones make a plant marker that is different than the others, and they stick it into the ground beside me. I am pleased, and I recognize that the markings on it used to mean something important. On dry days, they give me water. They spend more time in the garden on those days, when the light is most nurturing. They uproot some plants, but tend to others. And often, when it’s dark, the large one sits beside me and makes sounds I can’t interpret; they roll in and out in comforting waves, and flutter and vibrate in the air around me. We are alone, together. I am entranced. I reach, I stretch my leaves. I grow.
There are patterns and cycles. Things that help, and things that don’t. There are things that could help—I have cravings and desires they may never comprehend, but would be within their grasp to fulfill if they ever learn to use their other senses. This is enough though, enough for now. I flower, and the small ones exude energy of pure joy and surprise. They stick their noses right inside my blossoms and as they breathe in, I curl my petals around their soft skin. Loves, I will create something for you. I sing, and the bees come.
All of my energy is directed into my offerings now, and they get larger as the days get shorter. I hope for acceptance. And there’s a feeling I know I used to have a word for, and I feel like I would do anything for these beings, and I want the best for them. I want them to feel good. When they reach to pick from me the fruit I have created, I feel realized. It’s all I ever wanted, to be able to give them a piece of myself. I give them all I can. And they take from me—they take and then they give some back, saving my seeds to return to the soil next year, and in this way we will always be together. They understand.
NADIA STAIKOS lives in Toronto with her two children. Her work has appeared in perhappened mag, Blue Lake Review, and The Daily Drunk. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @NadiaStaikos.
Tendrils of purple vine, voices floating on temperate air—Findlay park, empty in the cold morning dew, was now brimming in the warm embrace of midday. A myriad of people passed through the park. Many of these people moved with a brisk liveliness, a purpose. A minority of others moved slowly with slumped shoulders, a concede in their walk, a relaxed sort of tiredness behind their squinting eyes. These people were heading home. A woman with black hair moved like failure and was headed home to a cramped, cellar-sized apartment, or perhaps she was going to a more spacious dwelling, which she shared with strangers or with family, or, else, maybe these tender horizons were still another train ride away. If you really look, you can always identify the people going home.
In the park people stood around each other in awkward, misshapen semi-circles, like candlesticks placed by a self-conscious altar boy. Children ran over patches of grass, the rapidity of their movement leaving behind them colourless trails, like heat from a flame.
The sun was low. The early afternoon light was brimming with humid freshness. The shadows were soft upon the brown, uneven earth. The light was long and hazy. Each patch of sunlight was blurred around the edges, as though rendered by an Impressionist. The green undergrowth glowed translucent under the afternoon light.
In the midst of the park’s activity, two men sat still and focused under the shelter of two oak trees. One man placed his queen carefully on the board, taking the other’s knight. Mere moments ago the younger of the two had been engrossed in the game, each move the sole occupier of his attention, but now awareness called him to accept the inevitable. Two ebony bishops and a queen held his king cornered in the right edge of the board. He had only his rook left, save for a few forgotten pawns. These next few moves would determine when the end would come. He looked up, losing interest in the strategy of the game, and glanced at the man across from him, who was his senior by quite a few years. The older man knew that he had won, but the end game, the closure, he always found to be the most difficult part. He glared at the board with tense, full eyes. How to frame the king such that another move was impossible? The task overwhelmed his concentration. Resigning momentarily, he broke his focus, and upon glancing up, noticed the younger man had already lost interest in the game. The older man then looked around, remembering his surroundings, and became aware of music drifting over the park from afar. The beat was barely audible from the distant stereo from which it emerged. Thump, thump, thump. Checkmate.
Parallel to the park walked two young women. Their burgeoning friendship would be short-lived, despite that they shared much in the way of experiences. The woman on the left walked slowly. A stoic comfort was compressed behind her dark eyes, but beneath her atropine exterior there lie a gentle stirring. Permeating her demeanor was an anxious resistance, an inability to accept the evils of the world. The other, to her right, was a somewhat frenetic young woman. Detectable in every flick of her cigarette was a restless hunger. A palpable fear, like she was waiting for the other shoe to drop. She had a gnawing feeling inside that something dark and destructive was nearing. In this moment on the sidewalk the two felt connected. They laughed as time slipped away. There is a lushness to young friendship, a kind of magic. The same kind of magic that makes summer feel eternal.
Strange things swell in the heat of summer—an idea bursts forth. The former of the two saw in her mind a vision of the day unfolding. She could see the gold sunshine become empty darkness, but not in the gentle way of a gradient. The sun did not sink evenly behind the forested trees and slip gently beneath the horizon. The day twisted and tautened into night. The evening pulling strong against the day, the light becoming angular with tension. The day became distorted, strange, and when the last bit of light slipped away and the night finally moved over the earth, it was an empty darkness, like a shadow. A gaze, a vacancy—two headlights flare and move with heat over a road. A dark like this needs whiskey.
And opposite the two women, up the street walked a father with his school-aged daughter. She ran ahead of him, the pavement scuffing her white sneakers. She departed from the sidewalk to run through a bush on a bordering property. It was tall enough for her to run in circles around without her head hitting the branches. As she frolicked she began singing a playtime song. “Are you the sunshine? Are you the rain?” Her father watched her carefully. When he was her age, he would sit with his sister next to the Port Island River most afternoons during the summer. The air was black, hot with the smell of sewage and rot. He can recall seeing a body surface in the river. He never would forget it. The slow pull of the water shifted its weight uneasily—grey, brown, yellow, purple, plump and bloated, covered in grime and matted hair. His sister denies that this ever happened. And maybe it didn’t, he sometimes found himself thinking. The memory was too vivid. Nothing in the real world looks that vivid, he’d concede. In a strange parallel memory, he can remember standing with his mother on a street corner when he was eleven. As he stood, a passing bus ran over his foot. The vehicle was moving so fast that, although he felt its pressure, it didn’t hurt. In shock, he told his mother what happened. Over the blaring of horns she simply rolled her eyes. This he was sure did in fact occur.
“Come out of the bushes,”he called to the child.
Diagonally the two groups approached each other at the intersection beside Findlay Park, where the two men still sat contemplating their game of chess. It was not with all the white rush of a flooding river, or the uproarious thunder of a jet plane, that metal meetingmetal. Instead the crash was quiet. No one could remember the sound that caused them all to look toward the middle of the intersection.
On the road lay a cyclist. His limbs askew over the street. His bicycle lay limply at his side, titanium twisted into knots. The car that had crashed into him was parked at the angle at which the driver had tried to swerve, spread diagonally across the intersection. The vehicle’s chrome sparkled under the beating sun. As the driver-side door opened, a woman stepped unsteadily out onto the road. The cyclist did not move as she approached him.
JACLYN PAHL is an aspiring writer and journalist. She was raised in Edmonton, Alberta. She now resides in Toronto, Ontario, where she attends the University of Toronto. She loves to read, watch films, and visit libraries.
terraced rice fields
sheltering in a wooden hut
leaking thatched roof
my yukata gets wet
with black rain
a freezing winter day
smell of roasted sesame
organic sweet miso soup
dosimeter clicking sound
I take photographs
with my father’s muddy lens
dark, blurry images
similar to my memories
which I am slowly losing
a spit of fields and sand
where a pine forest grows
after the tsunami
what I really want is to
once again live in my home
ILONA MARTONFI is the author of four poetry books, Blue Poppy, Black Grass, The Snow Kimono and Salt Bride. Her work has published in numerous journals across North America and abroad. Six chapbooks, Visiting the Ridge, Charivari, Magda, Adagio, Mud and Moth. Her poem “Dachau on a Rainy Day” was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. Artistic director of Visual Arts Centre Reading Series and Argo Bookshop Reading Series. QWF 2010 Community Award.
Siobhan already made two appearances in the parlour room to pick up the extension that morning. Her husband Frank, preoccupied with his garden, gave her ample time to ring Luke. Perhaps invite him over for tea if he could spare some time before the train. In each attempt, she managed to pull only four digits of the sequence. As she watched the dial tick back around, she knew it was just a matter of time before she resolved to hang up. The telephone, hidden in the back corner of the parlour, no longer seemed so discrete when she entered the room again for the third time. This time, she was accompanied by a rag and some polish. Buffing the polish in a circular motion, she worked in sections. Meticulous as she was, the phone’s brass fixtures would shine before she tried him again.
Luke had always made her feel this way, a feeling she couldn’t quite explain. Mopping floors were customary when he grew inside her belly. The sweep of a mop across the floor or soap suds arched around the window pane felt like a necessity even in times of complete exhaustion. With her all-consuming condition, which seemed to appear overnight, the blissful pregnancy she expected was not her reality. Childbirth was not to be discussed; her own mother had educated her well. The torments of Siobhan’s term were spoken of only in her mind and even there it felt her mother would be in earshot. Confinement was what it was called, because that is exactly what it was. She learned every crack in the house during those months, contrary to her mother’s incessant advice. There were corners of the floor that collected more dust. The removal of carpet stains, from tea spills to food remnants of long-ago parties, became experiments that helped pass the time. She would rummage together glass jars to store her creative compounds, often pilfering chemicals from Frank’s garage. She worked the house clean, day and night. Her chest felt heavy, her steps slowed; she couldn’t stop.
Labour came early, but Luke grew strong. He was like her, though she would not admit it. He was clever though. Often she struggled to find the right words to praise him. When she couldn’t, silence became her default. She sat with him across the round table when he completed his arithmetic after school. His brow relaxed no matter how difficult the equation. On rare occasions she might offer cornbread, knowing that was all she could offer him. Academia didn’t interest Luke as it did not interest her. When he came home to the typical after school snack of tea and toast, his Mother didn’t stop to greet him. She would fuss over household tasks to be done. With her apron tied so tight, everything else just seemed to drape over it, like ruffles on an old canopy bed. On some days he would find her bleaching the base boards. The smell gave him a headache. When supper was over, she would whirl past him with a sudden need to polish the silver. A leaking roof that had yet to be repaired, but a sideboard full of silver, inherited from his grandmother, now deceased. Her delusion was a puzzle he wanted to solve. At fourteen Luke left school to work for their neighbor, Mr. Owen. A successful automobile mechanic by trade, Siobhan ignored Frank when he said Mr. Owen owned half the town. Luke took note of his father’s warning, but learned from his mother that it was best not to ask questions.
Rows from the Owen household echoed down the block at all hours of the night. Siobhan was happy when Mr. Owen took her son on, regardless of his family’s reputation throughout the neighborhood. The day Luke came home in a suit, she remarked only on the suit itself. Crimson curtains were delivered one afternoon. The house carpets, still cleaned daily, were replaced with chic rugs. She accepted Luke’s gifts with thanks, but the silence that had grown between them was deafening. On nights when her son didn’t come home until long after supper, she would wait for him. Transfixed by the muted glow of the street lamps, she peered through the glass of their oculus window, wondering if her son might ever return.
When he did return, she found in her a voice that could shout louder than all the members of the Owen household combined. Her accusations of his tardiness seemed useless. A stain on his suit, not of tire grease, but what he claimed was spilt red wine came with a request for assistance. These requests carried such weight, that Siobhan’s hopes grew high once more. While knowing the stain was not red wine at all, she scrubbed the fabric clean over the sink, imagining Luke standing beside her as she taught her son household cleaning remedies as her mother taught her. This was never the case. Instead her son, now fully grown sat at the table. Head in hand, as he iced his swollen brow. Sometimes, she got greedy with offers to polish his rings, but he snapped at those offerings. They would be polished at the jewelry store in town free of charge, but not before he removed what might be remnants of the previous night’s tavern brawl. At eighteen he moved out, sending a cleaning woman daily for his Mother, except Sundays. Sunday became Siobhan’s favourite day of the week, though her glass jars had not been refilled of late. A good day’s work put her at ease. She had the buckets in the attic too, which needed emptying when it rained. Small pockets of rest until Luke took up space once more.
On the morning of his train, Luke lingered in his flat in hopes of a grand farewell, though no one knew of his departure. He examined the envelope, mysteriously left in the breast pocket of his suit, which contained one train ticket. It was placed without a note, a dead giveaway as to who left it for him. This was just his Mother’s way, he accepted. There was still a silence, but today it seemed less loud. Clutching the envelope in hand, his suit was all he left behind. He boarded the train in jeans and a t-shirt, an intentional uniform where he would not be recognized. As the train pulled out, he let out a deep breath he felt he had been holding his whole life. With the top window of the cabin open, he smelled the fresh sea air of his home town one last time. With a jolt of the engine, the train went in reverse for a couple hundred yards, its wheels switching tracks. Then, they were moving forward.
Siobhan returned the brass polish to its home under the kitchen sink. Luke had boarded the train, this she knew. The train was far away now, yet she could somehow hear its wheels moving at a steady pace. Never screeching to a halt, but roaming through hills and valleys of places she did not know. Luke needn’t come back and she wouldn’t follow, unless invited. A distance between them, a clean break. She put her feet up that afternoon. The drapes, though dusty, stayed on their hooks.
MEG CLAVEL is an aspiring writer from Toronto, Ontario. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Concordia University and a diploma in Makeup Artistry. Her passions include makeup design, creative writing and photography.
From the never-ending, dry landscape rose twenty trees in my field of vision. Some were brought down by elephants, but most were left brittle and weak, dying of thirst. It had been my first day in the African Bush and the clouds carefully shielded me from the sun.
Friday night dinner.
The generations sat around the table in soft, sinking chairs. My square-shaped father situated himself at the head with a bible at a thirty-degree angle from his hand. He laughed as he told vulgar stories from his childhood: the constant reprimanding of teachers and his dying need to contest elders.
And that is when Kayla materialized: the self-deprecating part of myself that I would never truly be able to understand.
As the sun broke free from the morning clouds, the blazing ball of fire seemingly engulfed me. The black pavement warmed my feet, through the soles of my shoes. I hear the cries of a child, a parent, a zookeeper and the gorilla.
The evening started nearly twenty minutes ago and I have not yet heard my name. So I guess this is what it is like to be average. To sit here, waiting while seemingly everyone has been called up and congratulated four hundred times.
Kayla grew short in the past few years, but her presence was nevertheless aversive. She stared at me as she danced in a tribe-like manner. Her deafening screams filled the room, yet no one turned to look at her.
Why is it that she was not getting any attention?
Why is it that she was looking at me like I was some sort of monster?
Kyle, our tour guide with fiery hair he hid under a hat, felt the incessant need to document everything. He insisted that we remain quiet as to not reveal our location. Luna, the lioness, slowly entered the open valley.
It stared back at me. The only separation between it and I was the tall, rigid glass wall. The glass wall that was tall enough to tower over my father. The glass wall that seemingly rose for miles…
Perhaps it was not only the gorilla that was enclosed.
Friday Night Dinner.
I was filled with joy, surrounded by the bizarrely comforting walls of my childhood home. As soon as anybody walked through the glass door, the light browns and blood reds made it feel as though you were in nature. On the entrance wall hung endless welcome signs in a million different languages. I always found this bizarre since anyone who ever came in only spoke the same three: English, French and Hebrew. Yet, my father bought more and more.
The walls were once made of cement, but now only glass. My transparent house left nowhere to hide.
I often wondered if people were watching me.
It had been twenty-two minutes, and the secondary four awards were coming to a start. A boy in my class had just been called up for the Awardfor Mathematics, a subject in which he received endless amounts of recognition for minimal amounts of effort. It always came so easy to him.
“Animals are fascinating,” Kyle said.
“Can you fathom how lucky we are to be witnessing this?” he repeated.
“I cannot wait to sell this footage to a documentarist,” he encouraged.
I began to understand the omnipresence of racist colonialism and white peoples’ need to exploit a land and people that is not their own.
“It is with great honour that we grant the award for Scientific Excellence to Rachel Wolf.”
I stared deep into the gorilla’s desperate eyes and felt my mother looking back at me. I slowly raised my hand to touch the cold glass. The gorilla started beating against the heavy walls of its enclosure until its hands streamed blood. It yelled and screeched until it sank down.
The tension was prominent. I felt as though its weight was both pushing down on my chest and forcing the air out of my lungs. I could not breathe. As the two lionesses surrounded the limping cub, Luna followed with silent, soft strides. Despite the deep mating calls of the male behind us, her established confidence radiated through all of us.
I ran up there trying to contain my explosive achievement. One would never be able to see it. Unless that one was Kayla.
Only Kayla can see the atoms and compounds of my body exploding and coming back together again. Only Kayla would be able to feel the chemical reactions of endorphins being released into my body. Only Kayla would be able to share this moment with me, yet I could not see her anywhere.
A wave of anger came over me. I looked at my father and he became the enemy. The enemy of the gorilla. The enemy of my mother.
I charged at him and bit into his wrist. I watched the blood stream from his arm.
The gorilla looked back at me.
I held my award close to my stomach like a pillow during a frightening film.
As I made my way toward my seat, that same boy approached me. All he managed to mutter through his big mouth was that,
“My parents did not think you deserved that award.”
All of a sudden, that award that I once held so closely, began to suffocate me. It stretched and tightened itself around my lungs like a boa constrictor.
Tighter and tighter.
I will never be able to understand how two animals of the same species can be programmed with completely disparate mentalities. The male cared for nothing more than establishing his dominance, destroying all of what could never be his. While Luna, covered in scars from battles she fought to protect others, was being punished for a crime that should not exist.
As the male walked toward them, Luna stood still. The sky started raining glass and in her eyes, a reflection of her executioner materialized.
SARAH BENSEMANA is an eighteen-year-old girl who has always had a passion for literature. While she has not shared her work with many people as she find her writing to be very personal, she hopes that her audience can find some comfort, intrigue and familiarity within her short story, “Luna.”
When my girl is not in the room
I let myself down and climb
out of the divided line. I psychoanalyze
chunks in my skin, that phase of
my youth; your condescending
glance surveying my paper:
stop using that and which
when you don’t even know the difference.
Obey precocity’s flirt,
prostrate nietzsche at stone’s depth,
flaunt abercrombie stitches.
Meet the boys with white shirts
sipping high london tea, dream
in bars at deep midnight –
dorian tried opium
maybe you should too.
When the phase moves on,
give baudelaire a good burial.
My girl cannot stop the time;
she is gone, gone
through the crowd of loose
bodies, and her eyeshadow sways
music into stillness. He did this too, morgan,
smith; there must have been clubs back then.
There is nothing soft
about the dancing of animals.
When we go to denny’s after
I ask, what does a man amount to
if he only lives for three years?
You take my temperature
and tell me to eat my pancakes.
INGRID CUI is a student at the University of Toronto and an editor for The Trinity Review (https://www.thetrinityreview.com/). Her work has been published in L’Éphémère Review, Half a Grapefruit Magazine, Ghost City Review, and Poetry Institute of Canada.
Copyright © 2020 by Ingrid Cui. All rights reserved.