This Isn’t Meditation, It’s Simulation

By Wendy BooydeGraaff

About the Author: Wendy BooydeGraaff’s fiction and essays have been included in The Shore, X-R-A-Y, Miracle Monocle, About Place, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, she now lives in Michigan, United States.

Field of Dreams

By Connor White

Short played with the buttons of the voice recorder, hitting fast-forward, rewind, fast-forward again, scrubbing through the last movie recording until he queued it exactly where the film concluded. He stood the voice recorder on the concrete floor of the storm shelter. I was laying on my stomach on the bunk above him, worrying about the winds. We were getting close to our last can.

 “Okay, movie time,” Short said. “Whose turn is it? It might be yours, Tall.”

 “I forget,” I said.

 “Well, lemme look at the list.”

 Short got up and found his spiral notebook on the desk. He flipped through to the last page of entries.

“We forgot to pen in John Carpenter’s The Thing, which was two nights ago; 28 Days Later; our triple-feature of Friday the 13th parts 1, 2, and 3; The ExorcistNight of the Creeps. . .”

“Which one was Night of the Creeps?”

“Directed by Fred Dekker who also directed Monster Squad, which you listened to a month ago. In the zombie classic Night of the Creeps, Tom Atkins, who plays Detective Cameron, is holed up in the Kappa Delta Sigma sorority house with all the sorority sisters dressed up and ready to go to their formal dance, he looks out the window at the zombies in tuxedos staggering toward the house, cigarette betwixt his lips and says, “I got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is, your dates are here.” Then one of the sisters astutely asks, “What’s the bad news?” The camera pushes in, emphasizing the revolver in Cameron’s hand, held at the ready as he says through gritted teeth, “They’re dead.”

 “Oh, right.”

“Then we had: Tales from the Hood; Army of Darkness, obviously preceded by Evil Dead 2Ganja and HessThe BlobIn the Mouth of MadnessCarrieThe BabadookInsidiousSigns.

 “I guess it’s my turn.”

  “Any movie in mind?”

 I listed my favorites. Fantasies like The Lord of the RingsThe Princess BrideThe NeverEnding Story, then more of the realist dramas like Serpico and The Godfather. Short had never seen The Godfather, but he’d seen all ten Friday the 13th movies, and, Short liked to point out, if you included Freddy vs. Jason and the remake of the first film, that made the count twelve. There was some overlap in the films we’d seen, but not much. Mostly from dates we took to a matinee. It had been a long time since we saw a movie.

The night before, after we’d finished a quick session of fooling around, Short began to cry. He was feeling claustrophobic. We both were. That night he’d told me the story of The Ring and got nostalgic for the night he’d seen it in theaters with his first love, Henry. He hid his face in the crux of my arm and wept.

“I’ll never watch a film in a theater again,” he said. “I’ll never sit in the dark and watch the triangular rays of light dance from the projector, lighting up all the particulate floating in its beams. No one will ever make another horror movie. There’s no one to make them for.”

“On our next run, we’ll look again for working players. Anything—VHS, DVD, hell even Laserdisc. Eventually, we’ll find one. There’s gotta be horror movies you haven’t seen. They’re out there. You haven’t seen them all. And someday we’ll watch them.”

“How many DVDs could possibly be in the radius of the shelter? We’ll never get far enough to find them. The winds won’t allow it.”

 “We’ll try.”

I thought more about the films I had seen and recounted the titles for him. Short had an encyclopedic knowledge for horror movies. He could recite half the lines, even giving the camera cues. He remembered what the characters wore, how they styled their hair, the color, contrast, and intensity of the lighting in each scene. I couldn’t even remember the name of the main character half the time. 

 “Have you ever seen Field of Dreams?” I said.

  “Nope, is it good?”

  “I can’t believe you haven’t seen it. And to think, you’re from Sioux City. It takes place in Iowa.”

 “Would I like it?”

 “I think so.”

  “What genre?”

 “It’s a horror movie.”

  “You’re kidding?”

    “No joke.”

    “It’s not a Children of the Corn ripoff is it?”

    “Completely different.”

   “Do you remember enough to tell it?”

   “I’ll try.”

 Short grabbed his tape recorder. He recorded every movie we told each other and carried it with him in case other memories came back to him. In case we couldn’t remember the details later on. When we’re old, he meant. He wanted to preserve the accuracy of the tellings while we still remembered, so we could play them back when we no longer did. It made me slightly shy to know my voice was being recorded. Though, unlike Short, I didn’t think that we’d make it far enough to suffer senility. When I listen to the tapes, I curse myself for sounding timid and unenthusiastic when Short sounded so exuberant. I’m embarrassed by my embarrassment. I enjoyed telling the stories, I really did. I just wanted to do a good job.

“A farmer in Iowa plows over acres of his corn to build a baseball diamond—”

“Tell me about the characters first before you dive into the plot. I wanna fall in love with them so I can feel their calamities.”

 “The aforementioned farmer, Kevin Costner, is the son of a washed-up, triple-A baseball player.”

“The character’s name is Kevin Costner? Like Waterworld Kevin Costner?”

“Just a coincidence.”

“Oh.”

I closed my eyes and conjured their backstory. The type of backstory that Short could appreciate. Something horrific.

“When he was still in diapers, Kevin lost his mother to a stampede at Ebbets Field—”

“Is this a Slasher?”

“It’s a Haunting.”

“The mother? She comes back doesn’t she?”

“Do you want to keep fast-forwarding, or do you want me to tell you the story?”

“I’m sorry, go ahead, I’m liking this so far.” 

“His father never recovers, blaming the sport for the loss of his wife. Each night at bedtime, his father recounts horrible stories of lives ruined by baseball. The tale his father always circles back to is the tragedy of Shoeless Joe Jackson, banned from the league after his team, the Chicago White Sox, are caught fixing the World Series by throwing the game in exchange for kickbacks from underworld bookies. Kevin is eighteen when he flees Brooklyn. He never sees his father again.”

 The LED lights flickered and went dark. The solar batteries had run out of power. A whistling came through the seam in the tornado shelter’s doors. The wind was picking up outside. It had been blowing for eleven days straight. Not the longest storm yet, but getting there. 

For hundreds of miles in every direction was flat land. Nebraska farmland. No forests or high ground to block the winds. No bodies of water to divert the pressure systems. When the winds ripped across that barren landscape, the air filled with dust, a grey cloud of debris that blocked out the sun. Power was hard to conserve when the winds lasted that long. Night and day, it was pitch black in the tornado shelter. We turned on the lights only when it was time to eat. Once the winds finally subsided, we had an opening of clear weather to go scavenging the nearest townships for supplies.

The winds carried a disease. Scientists from the CDC said on the news that it might be a fungus that survived in the upper atmosphere. Buoyant in air, never resting on the earth. Microorganisms that by evolution or by design floated like microscopic balloons. The winds pulled them to earth to infect us. And when they did infect an organism, no water could enter its cells. At least, that was the suspicion. They never found out for sure. It wasn’t long until there were no scientists left.

Birds were the first to drop. Then desiccated animals began showing up around the country by the millions. Deer, squirrels, raccoons, dogs, any animal caught out in a storm. Once infected you can drink all the water you want, but it just passes through on the long slide out the other end. Not a drop absorbed. Death comes by dehydration.

It took some time for it to affect plants. A disease that infected plants and animals alike? The botanists and epidemiologists said it wasn’t possible. First, they thought it was a simple drought. But then farmers noticed that the water from their irrigation was running off the land. The roots of their crops weren’t sucking up any water. Hectares of farms and wild vegetation began to dry up overnight. And soon nothing grew. It stopped raining altogether. Above the prairie now is an endless, uninterrupted sky. Not a cloud in sight. 

It was summer when it started. Before the winds, May through September was muggy in the prairie. Oppressively humid. People complain about the humidity of the south, but they’ve never experienced Iowa and Nebraska humidity. The Corn Sweats, they called it. A phenomenon whereby the corn stalks that blanketed the land transpire an excess of moisture. But now the land is dry. 

It rains over the ocean still. One of the last reports we heard before the silence was of a hurricane approaching the East Coast. Maybe we can make it out to the coast someday. It would be nice to feel rain again. Though the rain might carry it, too. That’d be a nice way to go—a walk in the rain on a hot summer day.

In the dark, I lay back in bed and listened to the winds and the revving of a gear from Short’s flashlight, charged by a hand crank. Finally, after much effort, a bar of blue light sparked to life.

“Want me to keep going or are you ready to sleep?” I said.

“Just a few more minutes,” Short said.

“Trying to put as much distance as possible between him and his father, Kevin moved to Iowa and married a strawberry blonde named Annie. They had a daughter. He became a farmer, growing corn for pig farms. Financially, they were getting by, happy even, but the winds shifted for the little family. One day Kevin heard a voice call to him from deep within the corn. Initially, he dismissed it as a trick of the wind. He ignored it for weeks, but the voice kept calling to him. Like the sirens, it drew him near. He resisted, but the harder he fought it, the clearer the voice became. 

It said, ‘If you build it, he will come.’

An almost sexual urge overtook him—an impulse to rip each stalk of his corn from the ground by its roots. He hungered for it. One afternoon it was too much to resist. 

The corn called to him, ‘If you build it, he will come.’ 

He ran for the shed and mounted his cultivator. While his neighbors looked on from their fields, he drove into his crop, bursting with ecstasy as whole streaks of vegetation were churned under in one continuous spiral, a whole-body orgasm that pulsed through him, aching for desolation. The feeling was too good to stop. He would have kept mowing over his crop until nothing was left, if the engine hadn’t sputtered to a stop, empty of gas.”

Short’s breathing had turned heavy.

“You awake,” I said.

“Yeah, but I’m fading,” Short said.

“Is the movie putting you to sleep?”

“Just tired. I’m digging the movie. Finish it tomorrow?”

“Sure hun.”

The recorder clicked off.

Short shook me awake. 

“It stopped,” he said.

 “What?”

  “The winds, they stopped.”

 “How long?”

I sat up and dangled my legs over the side of my bunk. Short was hustling to get his clothes on in the dark, knocking into things.

 “Short, when did it stop?” I said.

 “I don’t know. While we were asleep.”

 “Have you looked out yet?”

  “I just woke up like you.”

  “What’s the time?”

  “Ten after five.”

  “Morning or night?”

   “AM.”

Short cranked up his flashlight and shined it on our map. The town’s stock had dried up. Each house, each store, each boarded-up restaurant we systematically searched, and after coloring in their little blocks on the map, we never stepped in them again. The time had come to make a run for the neighboring town of Stantzville to our east. It’d be a risk. A necessary one.

“Okay, let’s move,” Short said.

The whole world looked like an attic left abandoned for half a century. A fine layer of dust settled on everything. Mixtures of ash and dirt and dead cells. It made a cloud if you shuffled your feet too much. The remains of every living thing that the winds had touched, turned to dust, scattered about by storms. After the Prairie Fires, the land had turned gray. 

Our bicycles were tuned-up as best as we could get them. We carried a spare air pump, but we didn’t have any spare inner tubes left. A week before, I had popped my front tire. We used our last spare to replace it.

We made good time riding to Stantzville. Before we searched the houses, we decided to check the stores. There was a good chance a can could be found, rolled under a counter or fallen behind some boxes during the runs on the supermarkets. 

Short wanted to try the Casey’s General Store since it was right on the corner. Its windows were shattered, so I wasn’t optimistic. While he climbed inside, I went to examine a mound in the street. With the sole of my shoe I brushed away the dust covering it. 

The body lay facedown. I turned it over to see if it was anyone I knew. The corpse was lightweight. Only skin and bones and clothes. Preserved like a mummy. The towns were small enough that occasionally we recognized acquaintances and, once in a blue moon, friends. A stranger, a man wearing a tattered black leather jacket with chrome studs pinned in the collar. A button in the shape of Australia read, G’Day Mate. Another pin said, Stay Free.

It’s funny, in our isolation, corpses were a welcome sight. Like running into someone you knew at the store. Short would call me over and say, “look who I ran into.” And there would be a friend of ours mummified in their living room. We once found a woman we knew, Ruth, dead in a bed that wasn’t hers, with a man who wasn’t her husband. The nightstands beside the bed displayed an assortment of vibrators and dildos and lube. You might think it’d be grim to witness, but it was comforting to see that she’d had some fun before the end.

“Clear,” Short called as he climbed through the window.

We rode to the main strip, aiming for the Hy-Vee. I stopped at the window of a realty office. Signs in the windows gave details of local sales. A craftsman home, 3 Br, 2 Ba listed for $280,000. A ranch, 2 Br, 1.5 Ba listed for $230,000. 

“You on the market,” Short said. “Come on let’s hurry.”

“Wait, look at this one,” I said. “Rustic country home, 2 Br, 2 Ba, on 3.2 acres nestled in an old apple grove. Well water, septic tank, and in-ground storm shelter.”

“It’s got a storm shelter?” 

“Yup. It’s east of here, too. Right off of Prairie Du Chien Rd.”

“You still dreaming of heading for the coast?”

“Why not? We got nothing else to do? We could do this.”

“Do what?”

“String together a chain of storm shelters.”

“It’ll take years, maybe decades.”

“What else do we have to do?”

“We’ll talk about it.”

“What’s there to talk about?”

“It’s dangerous for one.”

“We’re in danger already.”

“It’s more dangerous. It’s best to stay put while we—”

 “Hold it.”

 What I’d thought was a feature of the landscape was moving. Short turned to face what I saw. On the sidewalk was a person. A figment of imagination covered in dust. We hadn’t seen another person in a year. The figure trudged toward us. Their limbs were thin. A dress strap hung off one knobby shoulder.

 “Holy shit,” Short said.

 “I thought I was losing my mind,” I said.

 The figure came closer.

 “Stay back,” Short said.

 “They might be starving,” I said.

We quickly backed up as the person hastened their shuffle, trying to reach us. There was still so much we didn’t know. We knew the winds carried the infection, but person to person transmission? Still, I felt for that emaciated soul. They were isolated, starving, dehydrated. How long had it been since they’d seen anyone? Maybe they weren’t sick. Just starving to death, like us. Short stumbled into me and nearly fell. 

 “We gotta move,” he said. 

We turned and ran for our bikes as the figure broke into a labored jog. Short started to ride off, but I stopped and turned around. The person had fallen over in the street. A haze of dust clouded the spot. 

 “Short, wait a sec,” I said.

They weren’t moving. If they were still breathing, it was incredibly shallow. The skirt of their dress had flipped up past their naked hips. The skin stretched tight over their bones. Tendons and muscles strung underneath the skin like poles in a tent. I got close and nudged them with my toe.

 “Don’t touch,” Short shouted.

  He rode up alongside me and grabbed a fistful of my shirt and dragged me a safe distance away.

 “Are you crazy,” he said.

 “I’ll put on my mask and gloves,” I said. “They need help.”

  “Don’t bother, they’re dead.”

   Short was right. They weren’t breathing. 

 “Let’s go to Hy-Vee before it gets too late,” Short said.

The Supermarket was picked clean. Most were since the run on stores during the first wave of deaths. The places we typically found cans were in the loading areas, in the break rooms, and in the back offices. I found a can of peaches stashed behind a crate in the loading zone. Short found a cup of Ramen in the break room. We searched the cabinets and drawers in the back office.

 “So what happens after Kevin mows his crop down?” Short said.

 “Doesn’t it wear you out?” I said. 

“Wear me out?”

“Look at the state of the world. After all the terrible shit you’ve seen? Don’t you want to hear about something nice for a change?”

  “I just like creepy stories.”

   “But why?”

 “I don’t know, it’s fun to get scared and survive. It used to be that I’d watch a truly terrifying movie, typically, a midnight showing, and on the way out of the theater they’d lock the doors behind us. I’d be scared out of my wits walking back to my car alone in the empty parking lot. But once I was inside with the doors locked, I was happy. Horror movies make it easier to return to life. Your life can be all fucked up, but you’re happy to return to it.”

  “What about now? There’s no movie worse than this.”

  “Good horror movies also make you realize that you live in a horror movie.”

   “I already know I live in one.”

   “It’s not so bad. Oh damn, a Snickers bar!”

   “Where’d you find that? Is there anything else?”

 “It was next to the keyboard on the tray. We never check there. We’ll eat this tonight when we watch the rest of the movie.”

We’d have to save the rest of the building for the next trip. It was getting late, and we couldn’t be caught out after dark. The winds had a tendency to start up at night. We returned to our bikes and started riding. 

I was staring ahead, watching for debris in the street that might puncture a tire. On the horizon, the sun shone bright. I had to squint my eyes against it. It took me a moment to realize I was seeing in color. The street was divided. Ahead of me was technicolor, while the street behind me was black and white. The signs on the buildings across the street stood out in stark, neon relief. My brain wasn’t processing the divide between grayscale and color. Short skidded to a stop.

 “Turn around,” Short said. “Go back.”

I braked. The dead branches of the trees were swaying. Dust blew off the roofs. The colors of the town were being unearthed by the winds.

 “Oh god,” Short said. “Ride Tall.” 

We pulled on our masks, spun our bikes around and pedaled. Colorful signs showed behind us. The dust rolled across town like a freight train miles long.

 “We’re cut off,” Short said.

  “Head for Prairie du Chien,” I said.

  “That’s the opposite direction of home.”

   “The real estate listing.”

    “The one with the shelter? I don’t know, it could be padlocked shut.”

    “There’s nowhere else to go.”

 The winds were building around us. Dust devils were spouting from every direction, gray funnels that twisted across the landscape. We rode to Prairie du Chien and cut down a gravel road. We found the house from the picture. 

 Branches were cracking and falling from the dead trees surrounding the property. The winds grazed us. I could only hold my breath for so long. We were panting from exertion. We had to try to get into the shelter quick.

Built into a hill behind the house was a set of storm doors. Miraculously, they were unlocked. We dragged our bikes inside and slammed the doors behind us, latching them in place. The winds got louder as they increased in speed. Updrafts pulled on the doors, trying to suck them off their hinges. 

Short got his flashlight out and found an old Coleman lantern on the shelf, still filled with fuel. He found the matches and lit the lantern, placing it on a small wooden table against the wall. 

The shelter was small. No beds. Only a couple chairs and a small table to play cards at. It smelled of mildew and rodent droppings. Built for the threat of tornadoes, long before anyone had ever heard of the winds. 

“See any food?” I said.

“There’s a water jug,” he said.

Short unscrewed the cap on the jug and gave it a sniff. He took a sip, shrugged and handed it to me. The water tasted of plastic, but my dry throat welcomed it. The storm might last for weeks, but at least we wouldn’t die of thirst.

“Dinner and a movie?” Short said, shaking the Snickers bar at me.

“Field of Dreams or something else,” I said.

“I wanna hear how it ends.”

We pulled chairs up to the table. Short placed his tape recorder between us and pressed 

RECORD.

When I play back the tape, I can hear the crinkle of the Snickers wrapper. His hands working excitedly, but carefully. I can almost make out his voice when he said, here, and placed my share on the table, bundled in half the wrapper. It’s one of the parts I always rewind to listen to.

On the recording I say, “Kevin told Annie about the whole Black Sox scandal with the Chicago White Sox, and his father’s mission to steer him away from baseball and avoid another tragedy. Annie knew the project was important to Kevin. She sensed that he was exorcising some sort of demon with it, and so she was supportive. But she was also worried. They used up their life savings on the construction. Most of their crop was plowed over to make way for the baseball diamond and stands and facilities, and the income from their remaining corn couldn’t cover their mortgage payments. Annie was happy to give to Kevin’s obsession, but he had put their whole future at risk. Kevin had complete tunnel vision in regards to building the field. When she tried to bring up her concerns, he would snap at her.

One night, when Kevin was in a good mood, Annie attempted to convince him to slow down on construction, arguing that maybe they didn’t need the metal halide lights on fifty foot poles to illuminate the field for night games. She was arguing her point to Kevin as he painted lines in the dirt of the diamond, when a man emerged from the corn. They thought he was a neighbor, stopping by to see the progress, but as he came closer, they noticed the leather mitt in his hand. The stranger was dressed in full vintage Chicago White Sox uniform.

The White Sox player came near but didn’t dare cross the newly painted lines, the borders of his world. He introduced himself, Joseph Jackson. Shoeless Joe Jackson. His father’s idol who broke his heart. Joe was right in front of them. Real as day. Annie saw him, too. 

‘Where’d you come from?’ Kevin asked.

‘In there,’ Joe said, pointing to the corn. ‘And there’s more of us.’

‘More?’

But before he could press him further, Shoeless Joe turned and walked back into the corn and disappeared. Kevin and Annie stood there dumbfounded, watching the border of the corn for hours, waiting for movement. 

Annie relented to Kevin’s insistence that they invest in lights. Right when they finished wiring power to the lamps, Shoeless Joe emerged again from the corn, joined by a team of players. The lights sparked on, and the team began their practice. Kevin and Annie were in shock. They watched from the bleachers as the ghosts practiced pitching and hitting and catching. Dawn approached and practice ended. The ghosts returned to the corn. The sun had yet to crest the horizon when the voice returned saying, ‘Ease his pain.’ Shortly thereafter the bank threatened foreclosure.”

“Can we take a break from the story for a bit,” Short said.

“Sure,” I said. “You good?”

“It’s just a headache. We haven’t eaten much today besides sugar.”

The recording is choppy from that point on. Years of dust have worn it down. The gears have stretched the tape, and sometimes it comes off the rollers, and I have to respool it centimeter by centimeter, turning the gears with the tip of my thumb. 

What wasn’t recorded was our panic the next morning. 

 Short couldn’t sleep. His headache got worse, and he started having diarrhea. The water he drank hours before passed right through him. He pushed me away and shouted at me if I came near to hold him. He feared infecting me. In the corner of that shelter he tried to sleep, shifting and rolling and changing positions, trying to get comfortable, but his headache was too severe. 

We were trapped there by the winds. For a week, the winds blew. I wanted Short to see daylight one more time, but by the time it was safe to go outside, he had been dead for several days. 

I listen to the recording of Field of Dreams once a week. I have to limit myself. There are only so many listens you can get from a tape before it breaks. But I have the others, Les DiaboliquesOldboyThe OmenThe Strangers, all the spooky movies that Short loved. 

I like listening to Field of Dreams the best. He was so pleased to hear a new one. And it made me happy to be able to creep him out, at least once.

It’s scratchy, but the tape continues like this: 

“Kevin and Annie don’t lose their farm. Thousands of people heard the voice too and were drawn to the field. The travelers thought they were going mad, like Kevin and Annie did, until they saw the lights of the field. They came in lines of cars down the county road and paid good money to watch the ghosts play their game. Each night, rain or shine, the ghosts played for cheering crowds. Kevin and Annie kept the games running, but it wasn’t always enough. Occasionally, the corn needed an offering. 

The Field of Dreams was growing thicker. It needed food. Shoeless Joe convinced Kevin to kidnap a Sportswriter to feed to the field. So he did and brought the Sportswriter to meet Shoeless Joe. When the Sportswriter saw Shoeless Joe, he was caught in a spell. Then Joe led the bewitched man into the fold of the corn stalks, and he was never seen again. 

Soon, the Field of Dreams needed more. It was dependent upon Kevin and Annie to feed it, to maintain its lawn, to rake its dirt, to paint its bleachers, and to keep spectators coming. It would never let Kevin enter. That is, until he was no longer useful. 

Kevin grew tired of the field and tried to put an end to it. He filled his fertilizer cart with salt and spread it over the finely manicured grass of the outfield. He flooded the diamond and tried to burn the corn, but the Field of Dreams fought back. One night, the field lured their daughter into the stalks. It consumed her like it did James. On the same day that it took their daughter, it forced Kevin and Annie to mate. The Field of Dreams needed their progeny. Someday Kevin and Annie would be too aged and frail to take care of it anymore. It forced Kevin and Annie to beget more children. Their children would inherit the upkeep of the field. They would inherit its shackles.

Kevin and Annie tended to the field for the remainder of their natural lives, feeding it offerings whenever it was hungry. They had many more children. Some they sacrificed to the field. The others, they taught the art of its maintenance. The family was enslaved to it. As long as they were still able to deliver it food, it would never let them go.”

When I finished, Short said, “I’ve heard so many people talk about Field of Dreams. I thought it was supposed to be trash like It’s a Wonderful Life. One of those flicks boring-ass families watch together once a year. But they share my taste.”

There was a faint, mechanical click and the tape went silent.

About the Author: Connor White is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, Monkey Bicycle, Postscript Magazine, Clarion Magazine, The Des Moines Register, and Guesthouse. His novel excerpt “Waking Up” was recently shortlisted for The Masters Review novel excerpt contest, and he also has an essay forthcoming in LitHub on the power of storytelling in the criminal legal system. 

Birds

By Charles K. Carter

About the Author: Charles K. Carter (he/him) is a queer poet from Iowa. He holds an MFA from Lindenwood University. His poems have appeared in several literary journals. He is the author of Read My Lips (David Robert Books, November 2022) and several chapbooks. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram @CKCpoetry.

An Interview with Donna and William Burtch

By Megan Neary

Ohio-based siblings William and Donna Burtch have written a captivating biography of their ancestor, William Gould “W.G.” Raymond. The book’s cover gives a glimpse into the complexity of Raymond’s life, reading “W.G. The opium-addicted, pistol toting preacher who raised the first Federal African American troops.” The Burtches do a superb job of examining this man’s complexity, his flaws and his virtues, to give the reader a three-dimensional view of Raymond. Raymond’s story and that of his troops have largely fallen through the cracks of history, making it particularly encouraging to see new light shone on these individuals’ contributions to the union. 

I had the opportunity to sit down with the Burtches and discuss their work with them. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Megan Neary (MN): How did you learn about this story to begin with?

Donna Burtch (DB): I’ll tell you the real genesis for it was family conversations in Pennsylvania years ago. Our mother and her sister were really close and my aunt, our aunt, had this manuscript of W.G.’s that he wrote in 1892. So we had heard the stories in the conversations with our relatives and in, probably, 1986 we got a copy of the manuscript…. We all read it and thought there’s so much unique stuff around this guy’s life and we would like to know more. Well, you know, life gets in the way, we had careers, I had children, we went through the whole lifespan of what you can do and it takes you off track of writing…. I started doing genealogy, too, maybe ten years ago and [W.G.] was in part of the family tree. So, of course I got some more scoop on him through my ancestry research. … And so, every once in a while, we’d talk about him. Well then, it was right around Thanksgiving we started having conversations…. Our original plan was to try and create a documentary. … The most exciting thing was we were able to see pretty quickly that everything we researched that [W.G.] had talked about in his own notes was true. You know, we were able to pretty early on corroborate this stuff, so that gave us a lot of encouragement to keep going. 

William Burtch (WB): We both said one of the best life experiences we’ve had is researching this book and writing it and corroborating it. W.G. Raymond widely fell through the cracks of history … so it’s gratifying that we can bring this man’s story out 160 years later and find a receptive audience for it and we have. It’s remarkable and just makes us feel so glad that we took the time to do it. And it was just an interesting story that kept unfolding for us and amazingly the writing just worked out well. We just divided it up by life stage and then we’d share each other’s writing and by editing between us it became just sort of our voice. Because the risk you run obviously when you co-write something is just that, that you’re going to get two very different voices and it won’t jive, and by doing that we were able to make it essentially one voice. … So, it’s been just a remarkable ride for us. 

MN: What was the process like to get it published?

WB: Yeah, it was interesting. We’ve learned a lot. It’s been a real crash course in the publishing industry, which, as you know, has gone through a remarkable, really, sea change over the last few years due to technology and so forth. We wanted to go the traditional publisher route for a variety of reasons, but mostly just for access to a certain distribution. Our motive all along has been to get W.G. Raymond’s story told… so we wanted to go traditional if possible. … So, we knew we’d have to reach out to agents, but, that being said, we knew there were also a small number of publishers that will still look at a manuscript and they tend to be university presses, smaller independent publishers. So, what we did is we covered our bases. We were reaching out to agents, and we were reaching out to those publishers that still accepted manuscripts concurrently and we got encouraging feedback from all those channels. We got some interaction with agents that wanted to read the full manuscript and we responded to those and we had different questions back and forth but there wasn’t anything really concrete happening. We were hopeful, and, at the same time, we got some feedback from traditional publishers, including Kent State University press, that were interested. … Sunbury press,  who is a small independent press in Pennsylvania, they specialize in history. Notably, it was baseball history in the beginning. That was their niche. But then they expanded into regular history and biographies and autobiographies and that’s why we had targeted them. And I’ll step back a minute and say that we were very targeted in our approach… we didn’t just shotgun to anybody, and we think that helped us and it was time well-spent. … Our main goal, we always felt like it’s less important how big or how well known the particular publisher, than it is just to get us to have the book in our hands because we knew that we would do a lot of outreach. So, we were excited, and Sunbury, as it turns out, really appreciated the manuscript and that meant a lot to us. We felt that it was important to them and that meant a lot to us. …. We’ve also learned that publicity, as publishers are doing less and less of it, they’re pushing more of it on to the authors, for budget reasons. It’s so competitive, so we’ve had to learn a lot about publicity and outreach and so forth, but it’s been a wonderful experience. We’ve learned a lot and we’re just so happy that we had the opportunity to do this.

MN: It seems like it went pretty quickly.

WB: It was an unusual time. You know, it was covid, we were all trapped at home. Research on the internet is so much easier now; everything fell together. I had lost my wife three years ago in November and it was, this was somewhat of a salvation too, because being alone all the sudden… it just helped me fill the time in a creative way and an engrossing way. And that helped so much with the mourning process as well. It’s just strange everything fell together with the timing so we were able to write it quickly. It’s not a real long book; it’s barely over a  hundred pages, but his story, he’s a very interesting man and we didn’t want to fill it with minutia. We wanted the bigger headlines because we had some– he had some pretty big moments and we really wanted to focus on those and let his autobiography, even though it’s 160 years old, speak for itself. …We wanted to focus on the things that fell through the history, that fell through the gaps, so that’s why it’s only one hundred some pages. But we feel like it’s a hundred, hopefully, impactful pages. 

DB: The weirdest part of it—I think it’s true for both of us—but in going back 160 years and looking at the dynamics of what Washington D.C. was like and then what the president was like and what these major players were like and then you fast forward 160 years and you realize things haven’t changed very much. Like, the opioid addiction, you know, and WG himself had a ten-year battle with full-blown addition. Race relations … divided country … that was one of our takeaways. It was strange that the story, in many ways, though the backdrop was different, the storylines could be from today’s time.

WB: The risk of a lot of, any history book, really, is is it relevant to today’s reader. Is it providing something new and is it relevant? Can they relate to it? And… it’s just remarkable how the headlines could literally come from today with the challenges we’re facing as a country. …This is very relevant to today and it’s important that people understand, you know, it’s easy to look at any given time and think, wow, things have never been this bad. I mean, the world’s falling apart and that’s why the study of history is so important because it gives perspective and you learn 160 years ago—guess what? We had racial tensions; we had drug addiction; we had an incredibly divided country with people shooting at each other. … You go back, and you say, what lessons can we learn, having dealt with this 160 years ago? How are we dealing with this today? And so, hopefully, that’s resonating with different readers and the feedback we’re getting seems to say that it is. And that makes us feel really good. 

DB: There were so many times in WG’s life when things happened, as they do in any of our lives, and it was largely a story of kind of rebuilding and forging on. In some ways, of kind of redemption. So, that was another element that drew me, was his personal challenges 

WB: It’s a wonderful thing at this stage of life and there’s a message for your audience, or your readers. I mean, clearly, we’re living proof that’s it’s never too late if the stuff’s in you. It’s just a matter of accessing it and getting it out and that’s the joy of it—it’s discovery every day.

MN: Is there anything else you want to add?

WB: A good part of our story has to do with African Americans enlisting heroically on the streets of Washington D.C., which, at that time, was a wild place. … It was right on the cusp of the north and the south. … It was a very wild town and, as you know, there’s a lot of talk of the 54th, as there should be. The 54th of Massachusetts regiment, which was founded and authorized by the governor of Mass. And the movie, Glory, was made in the late 80s. … That was always my take on African Americans fighting in the civil war, what I sort of saw in the movie, Glory. But, in doing this book, we saw that there’s so much more, so many more stories that, as we said, fell through the cracks. … Importantly, though, were the troops that he [WG] raised in Washington. He got authorization directly from Lincoln to do this (WG did), and he set about raising these troops and recruiting and hundreds came forth. And these had been escaped slaves, freed men, different backgrounds. And they came forth to fight. And they trained on the streets of Washington. And they took terrible jeers and, you know, horrible abuse from the crowd. There were supporters of course, too. But, you know, it was tough. And WG himself almost got shot in the head in a recruiting meeting because people were so opposed to this. And that story is important in a lot of ways because it didn’t obviously have the benefit of dramatic productions and so forth, but it was very real. And these people were very real, and they were signing up, and it was before they had real sponsorship or support from anyone. So, probably, the most rewarding thing for us from this journey is to get their story out there, and to make sure that people are at least aware. As important and heroic as the 54th of Massachusetts were, there are others as well that had heroic stories that just were lost. … If nothing else comes out of this whole thing, you know, we take great comfort in knowing at least we’re getting that part of the story somewhat told.

About the Interviewer: Megan Neary is the co-editor-in-chief of Flyover Country. She is a teacher, writer, and editor living in Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals and newspapers.

The Old Mare

By Kimberly Ann Priest

About the Author: Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird (Sundress 2021), Parrot Flower (Glass 2020) and White Goat Black Sheep (FLP 2018). Winner of the New American Press 2019 Heartland Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in The Berkeley Poetry Review, The Meadow, Moon City Review, and Borderlands.

A Midwestern Goodbye

By Will Musgrove

“Welp,” Friend One said, slapping his dining room table.

 Friend One stood. His chair squeaked across the linoleum floor. Friend Two remained seated, sipping the remains of his lukewarm coffee while staring out a bay window. Friend One whispered something to his wife, who was getting their kids ready for bed. She whispered something back, and he answered with a shrug.

“Remember that time you choked on that piece of steak, and I had to give you the Heimlich?” Friend Two said.

“I remember.”

Friend One put his and Friend Two’s mugs in the sink. Friend Two rose with a grunt. The two men tried to look at each other like they had as boys but could only see who the other had become.

“Remember how we’d get drunk and go steal lawn ornaments?” Friend Two said, hugging Friend One.

“I remember.”

They separated, and Friend One crept toward the front door. Friend Two followed, bombarding him with nostalgia. They moved so slow Friend One’s wife was able to get the kids tucked in and a bedtime story read before they made it to the mudroom.

  “Remember how we’d egg people’s houses? We were pricks.”

 “I remember.”

 Friend Two grabbed the doorknob.

“Remember—”

“I remember, promise.”

“Well, I should get going,” Friend Two said.

The two men tried again to look at each other like they had as boys but, like before, only saw who the other had become. Friend Two stepped outside. Friend One locked the door behind him. Friend Two ambled down the driveway to his sedan, remembering. His memories were so thick he could almost chew on their rose-colored, existential comfort like a piece of gum. Next to his sedan, he remembered something he’d forgotten to say to Friend One, but the house was dark. Friend One had gone to bed. 

Remembering, Friend Two hopped into his sedan and drove to a twenty-four-hour grocery store. As he shopped, he made idle chit-chat with the few other browsing customers. He bought a couple cartons of eggs and headed back to Friend One’s house.

 Splat.

Crouching behind Friend One’s topiary bushes, Friend Two heaved eggs at Friend One’s siding. After each egg exploded into a yellow and white glob, Friend Two raised his hand for a high five only to glance around and realize he was alone. 

 Splat.

 Remember when…

 Splat.

A light on Friend One’s second floor flicked on, and Friend One stuck his head out of his bedroom window. He could see Friend Two hiding behind his bushes, readying another egg. Friend Two could see Friend One’s silk pajamas, his balding head.

For the last time, the two men, straining, focusing hard, tried to look at each other like they had as boys but, like before, could only see who the other had become.

Friend Two chucked his final egg and retreated to his sedan.

As Friend Two fled, Friend One waved goodbye. 

About the Author: Bio: Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in TIMBER, The McNeese Review, Oyez Review, Tampa Review, Vestal Review, and elsewhere. Connect on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.

Urban Pastoral

Author Bio: J.R. Barner is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Athens, Georgia. They are the author of the chapbooks Burnt Out Stars and Thirteen Poems and their forthcoming first collection, Little Eulogies. They were educated at the University of Minnesota and the University of Georgia. Their work has appeared in online and print journals FlowAnobium, and Release. New work is available periodically at jrbarner.tumblr.com

Hot Breakfast

By Anthony Neil Smith

Too tired to keep driving. Too dark to see anything but headlights spiking our eyes like fuck. My wife had driven most of the way from Minnesota to Colorado. I can’t drive so far anymore, lulled to sleep like a baby. That left Priceline duty to me. Small print on my phone, shitty reception. But hey, it was a VIP deal. Those never steered us wrong, did they?

Once part of a popular brand, a tarp covered the original sign, with its new name sloppily painted across – Day’s Rest or Sleepy Inn or Blurry Blur, my poor eyes. It once had a hacienda theme.

The girl who checked me in looked at least eighteen but small enough to wear a kid’s t-shirt, Rainbow Brite-y or anime. Faded and ripped in a couple of spots. Grime under her nails. Short and dirty blonde. Friendly, even flirty, as my wife waited in the car. 

At the tail-end of Covid restrictions, there was still a plastic divider between us, but she easily bypassed on the left hand side, dealing with me directly, maskless, no hand sanitizer in sight. She handed me key cards with wifi info, local food delivery options – all two of them, one a Domino’s – and at the bottom: Hot Breakfast, 6:30am to 10:00 am.

love hotel breakfasts, and I’d had a two-year pandemic drought. Even little boxes of Froot Loops and unlimited coffee, I’m happy. Better was muffins, cinnamon rolls, fresh(ish) orange juice. Best of all was hot scrambled eggs, hot sausages or bacon, hot biscuits. Hash browns or American fries, either was great. Colorado seemed a hash browns sort of state. I was very much looking forward to the next morning. 

I’m no hotel snob. I’m no stranger to Super 8 or Meh 6. I’ve picked out some real winners on kitsch value alone. I know well the odor of citrusy-sick disinfectants hiding smoke in non-smoking rooms. I’ve held many remotes with the batteries duct-taped into the back. 

And still, this place.

We parked in the creepily empty lot.

I whispered about the girl to my wife.

“Has to be meth.”

“Tell me later.”

“But look at her when we pass by.”

“Stop it.”

But the girl wasn’t at the front desk this time.

On the way to the elevator we passed the breakfast room. The lights were off and there was a rope across the entrance, a sandwich board sign attached. It had a drawing of a fried egg on it, and a piece of paper with Hot breakfast! written in bold black Sharpie, so I didn’t bother to read the rest. 

The elevator was miles from the desk. Our room was on the second floor, but the elevator was the only way up. The tile in the hallway grew wetter the closer we got to the elevator because it was so near the indoor pool. You know the way a hotel pool smells when chlorine reacts to all the piss, spit, snot, and sweat in it?

On the second floor, we followed the signs and walked more miles from the elevator to our room, on a mezzanine overlooking the lobby. The same lobby we’d started this trek from ten minutes ago. 

“Fuck!”

Scared the shit out of us. A shout like that, no warning. No follow up. Some man on our floor shouting “Fuck!” as we walked by. 

My wife turned to me, wide-eyed. 

“But…hot breakfast.” 

Here was our room. 

The door was already open. 

Imagine, right? As soon as you discover the door to your hotel room is already open, you cycle through fear, then anger, then self-righteous anger, then maybe more fear thinking someone’s installed hidden cameras in the bathroom. 

I found the switch. Inside, even though the air smelled like betrayal – or, really, smoke trapped in twenty-year old carpet – nothing was out of place. Nothing to indicate this was anything more than a mistake. Housekeeping didn’t close the door all the way.

What do you do? 

I shrugged. “It’s prepaid.”

And we were exhausted. 

And hot breakfast!

For our first post-Covid vacation, my wife really wanted to visit Mesa Verde in Colorado, where ancient indigenous tribes carved entire cities into cliff sides, then abandoned them, mysteriously, left for modern people to rediscover later and turn into a National Park. It fascinated her, because before meeting me, she’d been an archaeologist, traveling the Midwest digging up arrow points and other Native American relics before big bad developers built malls or wind turbines or another Casey’s gas station – the Starbucks of the prairie. 

In a few days, we would arrive, only to be told we should’ve gotten a reservation way ahead of time.

The rest of the evening was dull. Loud kids ran up and down the hallway. I watched one of the alphabet shows on CBS (FBI, NCIS, CSI). My wife fell asleep reading her Kindle. My CPAP mask drove me nuts. The hotel pillows sucked. 

Didn’t matter. I had a hot breakfast waiting for me.

I’m a creature of habit. At home, I wake and head downstairs, feed the pets, and immediately start the coffee. Pop Tarts in the toaster oven, or a cup of dry kid’s cereal – Honey Smacks, Corn Pops, Count Fuckin’ Chocula – for breakfast. 

Me. A nearly fifty year-old man.

I want the fastest possible tasty thing taking no effort on my part. 

At a hotel, I get up, put on yesterday’s clothes, and race to the breakfast room before those loud kids and their comatose parents wreck the joint. Same in Colorado, too. Woke, stretched, blew gunk out of my nose. I jiggled my wife’s foot on my way to the bathroom. 

“Get up. Hot breakfast!”

I wet my hair down because my CPAP mask gives me an effortless Johnny Rotten every day. I stepped out of the bathroom to find my wife still in bed, cocooning in the comforter. 

“Hot breakfast,” I said.

“I bet there’s not. Because of Covid.”

“But they said, remember? They said hot breakfast.”

“I’m just saying.”

I sat on the edge of the bed, hands hanging off my knees. 

She said, “Why don’t you check it out? If there’s hot breakfast, text me. If not, come back to bed.”

Alright, then.

Back down the hallway, bracing myself for another “Fuck!”

None this time. 

Down the elevator, the pool’s morning chlorine dump burning my nose. Almost slipped in wet patches. 

I rounded the corner to the breakfast r – 

It was dark. 

The rope still in place.

No eggs or sausages. No kids or sleepy parents. No TV blaring Fox News. No one hogging the waffle irons. 

Instead, there was a card table with a tray half-filled with hardboiled eggs in plastic Ziplocs. A woman in men’s jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, her hair a mullet, sat in metal chair. She took an egg from a stack of crates up to her waist, dropped it into a bag, zipped it, and placed it next to the others. 

She looked up. “Yeah?”

I glanced at the sandwich board I’d passed over the night before. 

Hot breakfast! Until further notice, our breakfast buffet is closed due to Covid-19. We offer you a complimentary breakfast bag and a hardboiled egg.

The woman waited, egg bag in midair.

“Can I have…a breakfast bag and some, um, light roast?”

“Some what?”

“Coffee. Plain coffee.”

She got my coffee first. The cup was half the size of my usual first mug every day. “Sugar? Milk?”

“Sure.”

“How many?”

“Three?”

“Three?”

“Three’s good.”

Another trip for sugar packets and little milk cups. I didn’t ask for Splenda and half-and-half because I’d interrupted this woman’s day enough already. 

She walked behind the buffet divider and pulled out a paper bag, scotch-taped closed, and passed it over.

“You want the egg?”

The egg. 

“No, thanks.”

I don’t like hardboiled eggs. My wife doesn’t like hardboiled eggs. No one really likes hardboiled eggs.

She sat back down, picked up an egg, and dropped it into a bag.

On the way up to the room, I peeked in the bag. 

A tiny blueberry muffin, plastic-wrapped. 

A small tub of strawberry yogurt. 

An apple.

The elevator opened to my floor. I dumped the bag in the nearest garbage can, then poured the coffee on top. 

In the room, I climbed back into bed. Slid in behind my wife, spooned up close and wrapped my arm around her.

“Told you.”

Later we went to Sonic. 

I can’t find the receipt for that hotel, or its name, or the name of the town it was in. I don’t remember passing it on our way home a week later. If I really put some effort into retracing our steps, I’d still never find it again, like the island in LOST

Our next hotel outside of Mesa Verde promised hot breakfast, too. All you had to do was microwave one of their frozen breakfast burritos. 

Heaven.

About the Author: Anthony Neil Smith is the author of numerous crime novels including Yellow Medicine, All the Young Warriors, Slow Bear, and The Butcher’s Prayer. His short fiction has appeared in Cowboy Jamboree Magazine, Exquisite Corpse, Bellevue Literary Review, HAD. Juked, and many others. He is a professor of English at Southwest Minnesota State University. He likes Mexican food, British beer, and Italian crime flicks from the 70s. 

Roots

By Bethany Jarmul

I’d left it all behind—the sun-faded trailer and asbestos-filled house with broken-teeth windows at the entrance of the dead-end street; the man with pit-stained tank top, cigarette hanging from the corner of his lips, cat purring around his legs; the dogs, one or two in each yard—barking, howling, whining; the rusted cars—some in spots, others all over; the smell of burning wood and the distant gunshots in the woods; touching our neighbor’s house with my fingertips and ours with my toes; hills so steep you can scrape the bottom of your car on the cracked asphalt; neighbors that know when your mail piles up, lawn mower breaks, when you’re sunbathing or laughing or fighting with your sister over a borrowed sweater found balled up beneath your bed; the way the houses start to peel or grow moss or lose their shutters; the Appalachian Mountains as both beautiful backdrop and formidable, omniscient jailers.

I’d left it all behind at 18 when I accumulated enough scholarships to attend an out-of-state college, a few hours north, a state away, far enough to feel like I’d escaped. I’ve visited my parents a few times each year, but each time with a rubber-band ball of dread bouncing in my gut, lurching up my throat with each pothole that I hit or swerve to avoid. 

I’m 30 with a family of my own, we’re visiting my parents for the July 4th holiday. The next town over, Stonewood, West Virginia, where my mother grew up, is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a festival. We’re at the festival, sitting at folding tables inside the local fire station—me, my husband, and our two-year-old son who is enjoying a purple-grape snowcone. My mother is nearby chatting with someone. 

“Bethany, I want you to meet Willa Jean. I taught with her at Norwood,” Mom leads an older woman over toward me. 

Willa Jean—I’ll soon learn—is 88. She wears glasses, sunspots, make-up in the creases around her mouth. She smiles wide as she talks, standing so close that I can see her nose hairs when I look up at her from my seat. 

“You know, I went to Norwood from 1st through 9th grade. Then, I taught there for 30 years. And I didn’t even go to college until after my kids were in first and second grade. When I went to Fairmont for college it was 99 dollars per semester!” 

“Wow!” I say, realizing she’s lived her entire life in this tiny town. 

“I have my great grandkids over every Sunday and feed all of them.” 

“How many do you have?” my mom asks. 

“13,” she says. 

We chat about her children, grandchildren, community activities. I cut off a few of those rubber bands on the ball inside my gut. 

 “I see her out-and-about all the time,” my mom tells me after Willa Jean leaves. “She’s 88, but she doesn’t let that stop her. She always says, ‘The Lord has been good to me.’ She’s volunteering here cleaning off the tables all day; bless her heart.” 

More rubber bands dissolve. 

As we explore the festival, the smell of pepperoni rolls and kettle corn hangs in the humid air, clings to our clothes and the sweat under our arms. In my suburban, near-city life, I’m accustomed to seas of unfamiliar faces. Here, my mother stops to greet an acquaintance or friend every 10-feet, getting pulled into conversations, greeted with handshakes or hugs. 

My son sees a booth selling cake and cookies. “Cake. I want cake!” He runs over and reaches toward the table. 

“No, no. We’re not buying cake,” I say. 

One of the young men who is working the booth says, “Would he like a cookie?” and pulls out a bag of peanut butter cookies. “Here, reach your hand in there and grab one. You can have it for free. It’s our snack.”

My son reaches his hand in and grabs two.

“Oh sure, you can have two.” The man smiles. 

I thank him, feel the ball in my gut shrinking to the size of a marble. 

During the rest of the weekend we splash in a blow-up pool, hang out on a deck with neighbors and sip flavored water, swing on the porch swing, read books, sit in the sun, discuss theology with my dad late into the night, light sparklers. 

On our way home, the ball of dread is gone. I turn to my husband and say, “Something was different this time. I don’t feel the angst that I used to feel when I went back home.” 

Home—I hadn’t thought about it like that for years.

Porch-sitting; pepperoni rolls, hoagies, hotdogs with chili sauce, blackberry cobblers with vanilla ice cream, apple juice popsicles; neighbors who watch you grow, strangers who offer cookies, share stories; fireflies and firepits and fireworks; bare toes in mossy grass, sunshine and shade and splashing in the creek; folksy fiddle music that plays between my ears long after the musicians are gone; $10 in my pocket for a festival meal; the earthy smell after a rain, earthworms emerging from warm soil, robins feasting; being known by a place and the people of that place, feeling that place reverberating in your chest, soaking into your pores, pickling your heart; growing deep roots—I’d left it all behind. 

About the Author: Bethany Jarmul is a writer, essayist, and editor. Her work has appeared in The Citron Review, Brevity blog, Gastropoda, Literary Mama, and Sky Island Journal among others. She earned first place in Women On Writing‘s Q2 2022 essay contest. She lives near Pittsburgh with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @BethanyJarmul.

Real Life

By John F Duffy

The buzzing was overwhelming.  An avalanche of noise that muted the usual din of cars and air conditioners.  The seventeen-year cicada brood was big news in a very midwestern way.  Journalists interviewed entomologists to talk about cicada life cycles and to offer interesting trivia about the orange legged, red eyed creatures that felt like a rubber ball when they bounced off the side of your head.  Cicadas, according to the papers, spend most of their short lives underground, and when they finally surface, they mate, lay eggs, and then die, all within a handful of weeks.  Their mating call is so loud that the males turn off their own ears so as not to deafen themselves while seeking a partner.  Dragging her rolling suitcase behind her, Sarah waved her hands at the air to deter the hefty insects from flying into her face.  She was walking faster than usual as she rounded the corner onto Noyes Street, where she climbed the stairs to the Purple Line El stop.

 Alan had offered to drive her to the airport, but Sarah told him not to bother.  She deflected his kindness with fraudulent decency.  “I don’t want you to waste your time stuck in traffic there and back. Besides, the train is faster, especially during rush hour.”  She had smiled as she said these things knowing that she was lying, knowing that she was eager to start her trip and fearing that a long car ride to O’Hare with her fiancé would just delay the moment she was desperately looking forward to.  The moment when she would be alone.  Once she was a single unit, a person only concerned with her own needs, her own wants, no matter how miniscule or selfish, then she could relax.  Funerals might not be a common cause for relief, but ever since Whitney died, Sarah had been looking forward to going home.

 Waiting in the terminal with a paper coffee cup in one hand, Sarah held her phone with the other.  Whitney’s Facebook page was blowing up with comments expressing surprise and grief at her passing.  She was so young, she was so undeserving, it was such a tragedy, and even a host of statements suggesting that Whitney was now with a God her real friends should have known she didn’t believe in.

 Sarah’s thumb flicked the glass phone screen, then flicked it again.  All she wanted to know was if her briefest of high school boyfriends was going to be at the funeral.  Ever since getting word about the car accident, Sarah had imagined how she would approach the man who took her virginity if she were to see him again.  For the last three days she had silently practiced what she would say not only to Blake, but to all of the people who had filled her days so many years ago.  With as few words as possible and in the most bland of tones, she would tell them all about her life in Evanston and her job at the university.  Brevity would invite intrigue, and her old friends would all be left believing that Sarah’s life was far more interesting than it actually was.  Why she needed them to think this, she wasn’t sure.  Why she so often wondered about where Blake’s life had taken him, she also couldn’t explain.  Sarah did know one thing for sure; if it had been her who had gotten ripped in half by a FedEx truck, Whitney wouldn’t have sat around crying about it.  When she touched down in Chicago to go to Sarah’s funeral, Whitney would have exited the jetway in open toed shoes with a manicure and her blonde hair perfectly blown out, ready to cruise the airport bars for the hottest guy without a ring on his finger.  

 Though the service was going to be in Millard, Sarah stayed at a hotel in downtown Omaha.  Tonight, Whitney’s parents were having a gathering at their house for relatives and friends.  Sarah figured she would go to be polite and cross her fingers that Blake would make an appearance.  If he didn’t and she was bored to tears, she could always make her way back downtown for a drink.

 After showering and towel drying her chin length brown hair, Sarah stepped into a short black skirt and reached behind her back to drag up the zipper.  In the floor to ceiling mirror, she observed herself from all angles before settling on a T-Shirt that revealed one of her shoulders and a pair of black Doc Marten’s. Standing up straight, she proudly looked at her trim profile.  While fixing an out of place strand of hair that no one else in the world would have noticed, she wondered if her look was too casual, but decided to go with it because it was in line with how everyone would remember her.  Before leaving, she grabbed her phone and ‘checked-in’ at her location, hoping to subtly announce that she was back in town.

 Driving the I-80 to Whitney’s parents’ house, Sarah was subsumed by nostalgia.  She smiled as the projector behind her eyes cast her teenage life onto the landscape all around her.  In pale colors she saw the city as it existed at the turn of the millennium, complete with Whitney at seventeen, riding shotgun in a Pedro the Lion T-Shirt, taking long drags from a brown clove cigarette that Sarah could taste on the sides of her tongue.  Sarah sang loudly to Braid’s Hugs from Boys as her rental car took the exit ramp a little too quickly.  She was fully permitting herself to travel through time, to ignore the two decades that stood like a chasm between who she was, and who she long ago thought she would grow up to be.  Like an end times cataclysm, old music that no one remembered, and the imagined laughter of her dead best friend slammed that chasm shut, and now Sarah was deftly stepping over the hairline crack in the Earth that remained, banishing Alan, her apartment, her career, and everything else she woke up every day to bring into being.  She encased all of it in glass and left it on a shelf one thousand miles away, and as she pulled into the suburb where she grew up, her heart warned that she may never want to pick it up again.  

+++

Knick-knacks filled every end table and shelf in Whitney’s parent’s house.  Impeccably dusted Hummels watched over Whitney’s father as he sat watching SportsCenter.  

“Sarah!” Whitney’s father said, pushing himself to his feet, his tan recliner clanging and clanking beneath him.  The chair had a permanent ass shaped depression kneaded into it by the man’s ever-expanding carriage, and looking around the family room, Sarah noted that his increase in size and the switch to a flatscreen TV were the only visible signs that time had passed in this home.

“How are you?”

“I’m well, Mr. Beck, all things considered.  How are you holding up?”  Sarah and Whitney’s father joined for a nearly imperceptible hug.

 “Oh, you know.  It’s hard.  Cathy is taking it especially bad.”

 “I can’t imagine.”  The kitchen was bustling with voices.  “Is she in there?”

 “Yeah, most everyone is out back.  Cathy is in the kitchen with Whitney’s aunts getting the food ready.”

 Sarah passed through the short hallway to the kitchen where Whitney’s pear-shaped mother and aunts were all busy bumping into and reaching past each other as they pulled casserole pans from the oven, chopped carrots, and poured whole bags of corn chips into floral print bowls.

 “Mrs. Beck,” Sarah said, announcing herself as she stepped onto the linoleum floor.  Whitney’s mother turned, and her eyes brightened.  

“Sarah!  Oh my God, come here sweetie,” she said with a booming smile and wide-open bosom. Sarah had known Whitney’s family since she was eleven years old, and as the plump, rosy cheeked woman pulled Sarah’s taut, spin-class frame into her doughy mass, the old woman’s eyes began to glaze with tears.  “Oh, my girl.  Thank you so much for coming!”  Mrs. Beck released Sarah just enough to be able to stare into her face, while still gripping her shoulders.  “It means so much to me, and I know it means a lot to Whitney.”

“Of course, I came.  I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” Sarah said as Mrs. Beck hugged her again, squeezing the wind out of her.  

 “I know you two grew apart a bit after college, but Whitney still thought of you as her best friend.  You brought so much joy into her life.  She was so excited to be your maid of honor next year, and…”  Mrs. Beck couldn’t finish her sentence.  She stepped back, gripping each of Sarah’s hands.  Sadness overtook the woman, and she began near convulsing.  Her face turning purple, Mrs. Beck threw her head back and wailed out, “Oh God!  Oh, God, oh God!”

 Whitney’s trio of aunts were frozen behind Mrs. Beck, the oldest and grayest of the three still squirting ranch dressing from a plastic bottle onto a platter.  Sarah was locked to Mrs. Beck who clamped her hands fast and poured forth her sorrow to a yellow water stain on the kitchen ceiling as if it had some connection to the divine merely because it existed in the space between the old woman’s head and infinity.  

“Why’d you take my girl?!  Why? Why? Why?”  Whitney’s mom was whipping Sarah’s arms like the reins of a racehorse with every “Why,” and Sarah, desperate to find a polite exit, was relieved to see Mr. Beck lumbering into the kitchen to take hold of his grieving wife.

 “It’s OK honey.  It’s OK.”  Ranch dressing farted its last onto a Disney print vegetable tray behind the distraught woman.  

  “Do you want me to take that outside?” Sarah asked a curly haired aunt.

  The backyard had twenty or so people gathered in small clusters of four or five.  Sarah dropped the plate of vegetables onto a glass picnic table and scanned the attendees.  There was an obvious demarcation between the mostly older family members and the younger, more sharply dressed friends, most of whom Whitney had met in college or after.  Sarah did see one woman she knew from high school named Dylan, so she moved towards her and the pack of young thirty-somethings she was standing with.  Sarah said nothing as she breached their circle, only laying a gentle hand on Dylan’s shoulder.  

    “Oh my God, Sarah!”  Dylan pulled her chest to Sarah’s, lifting her chin.  “How are you?” 

   “I’m fine.  Sad, obviously, but I’ll be OK.”

  “You guys,” Dylan said, turning to the group patiently observing the introduction.  “This is Sarah,” Whitney’s best friend from back in high school.”

  Not bad, Dylan, Sarah thought, as Dylan introduced her handsome, well-dressed husband.  Then there were Jim and Jenny, or John and Jenny, or whatever.  Both had “J” names that Sarah immediately forgot, and both worked with Whitney at the insurance company.  “I heard you were getting married, and that Whitney was going to be your maid of honor?”  Dylan said.

   “Yeah.”  

  “That is so, effing, sad,” Dylan offered, with her hand over her heart.

 Sarah stood and made small talk with the group, frequently looking away to the sliding door that led back into the house.  The first glass of drug store cabernet went down quickly.  Sarah split time listening to tiny conversations and looking at her phone.  During her second glass of wine, the sun began to fall behind the cluster of houses to the west, and Sarah ceded the event to Whitney’s older relatives and distant cousins who sat listening to stories about a relation they knew mostly from toothless elementary school photos and horrendously sweatered Christmas cards.  To them, Whitney was a fifth grader with high bangs and braces.  Mrs. Beck was at the center of them all, seesawing between laughter and tears as her husband clasped her hand.  Supportive aunts nodded at the tales they didn’t remember, or maybe never knew, in between bites of boxed coffee cake.  

 While draining the last drops of Malbec from her glass, Sarah told the group of reminiscing elders a story about being on the volleyball team with Whitney when they won state their junior year.  It was her way of tithing the pot.  Though the story didn’t capture the truth of who Whitney really was after editing the best, but most scandalous plot points out, Sarah saw the Beck’s both smiling, and she realized that the truth didn’t much matter.  These were people who needed to cope and to move on with what life they had left, and the truth would only hold them back.  They had a narrative of who their daughter was, of the parents that they had been, and keeping that narrative intact was essential for the Beck’s who were coasting towards their own fast approaching deaths.  So, Sarah withheld uncomfortable details as she told her story, and kept her telling in line with what the Becks already decided that they knew.  Sarah had her Whitney, there was no reason that the Becks couldn’t have theirs.  

 Showing excellent judgment, Dylan left early.  There was no way Sarah was going to suggest getting a drink with Jerry and Jessie, or whatever their names were.  She knew for a fact that Whitney must have thought these two were a galactic bore, and agreeing with her dead friend’s assessment, she yawned and lied, telling everyone that she was tired from traveling and that she needed to head back to her hotel for sleep. 

 Once downtown, Sarah sat at the bar of the Wicked Rabbit and drank a vodka martini.  She sipped it slowly, searching Facebook and Instagram for random people she knew from Omaha.  Classmates and coworkers with last names she fought to remember.  The bar was full of people, and Sarah made sure she looked very single as she played with her phone, but after her second drink she still hadn’t been approached by anyone.  Alan called twice, and twice Sarah silenced her ringing phone.  She planned to later lie and tell him that she got roped into staying at the Beck’s longer than expected.  Pulling an olive from a tiny plastic sword with her teeth, she looked up.  There was a mirror lurking behind the liquor bottles directly across from her.  Locking eyes with herself, Sarah wondered what the hell was wrong with her.  The vodka allowed her cynical inner voice a chance to speak, and it asked her why on Earth she was so desperate – not to see – but to be seen – by people she once knew, people connected to her by nothing more than the flimsiest accident of geographical proximity at birth, people who the passage of time had effectively rendered into strangers.  What did she think would happen if their particular sets of eyes passed over her?  Did she want the very average boys she once knew, who had since grown into spectacularly unimpressive men, to look upon her and to lust?  To question their own life choices?  To quietly scold themselves as fools for not having seen her potential so many years ago when she was an awkward alt girl whose great personality they never made an effort to know, and whose body would hold out much longer than those of all the popular girls they’d paid more attention to?  Why would it thrill her if this particular set of men, who she knew in name only, whose faces had grown weary and sad, agonized over her, if only for one night?  

 Between the necks of the glowing green gin bottles, Sarah squinted at her own sapphire eyes, cold with judgment.  On the bar next to her empty stem glass, Sarah’s phone began to vibrate.  She silenced it, stuffed it into her clutch, and gave a nasty look to the Sarah who was staring back at her from the mirror.

“What?”

+++

Your best friend’s funeral isn’t supposed to be the highlight of your summer social calendar, but Whitney was far too dead to be offended.  Sarah would certainly have preferred that it was a lesser friend who bled to death on the 480 loop, because Whitney would have made a fantastic companion this weekend.  Had they gotten to attend someone else’s funeral together, Sarah knew that she and Whitney, failing to lend the situation the gravity it demanded, would have been on the receiving end of many quick glances that would forever exist for them as a source of laughter.  But Whitney did die, and Sarah was on her own.  Leaning close to her bathroom mirror, Sarah carefully applied a heavy layer of bright red lipstick.

 On the expressway, Sarah listened to Mineral’s Five, Eight and Ten.  There was a voice in her head that tried to call her out, to make her feel silly for listening to twenty-year-old albums, but in the bright light of morning, that voice had no power.  Sarah turned up the volume and painted the world with the same panicked guitars that she and Whitney had screamed along to in their youth.  She was in it now, fully embracing her desire to play at being young again.  Fuck it, it felt good.  It felt right.  Was it really any more embarrassing to listen to her favorite records from high school and to hope to run into an ex-boyfriend, than it was to slouch forward through life towards an ever more dull, more overweight and under-inspired future like most people did?  And who was judging anyway?  Just the little voices in the back of her own head, and they could all just shut the fuck up as far as Sarah was concerned.  She wanted a cigarette and stopped at a gas station to buy a pack despite the fact that she was running late.

The funeral home in Millard was textbook.  Diffuse light restrained by gossamer curtains, buoyant salmon colored carpet, air conditioning cold enough to render embalming fluid unnecessary for those interred.  Mr. and Mrs. Beck were standing at the front of the large parlor room in their department store formal wear.  Brass rimmed chairs were occupied by black clad family and friends.  Whitney’s casket was open from the torso up, and a short line of people was making its way forward to offer condolences to Whitney’s mother and father, and to take their turns silently hovering over Whitney’s wax dummy corpse.

Sarah took her place at the rear of the line, her hands folded in front of her stomach, her back straight.  She looked side to side as she made her way to the casket.  When she saw a face she recognized in the crowd, she would offer a very faint, lips-only smile, enough to say, “Hello, I see you,” without robbing the room of the grief that everyone was working to collectively manifest.  

Amongst the strangers were thirty or so people from her graduating class.  A few had barely aged, but the rest looked as though they had done the excess aging for them.  Men were balder, with thicker necks.  Women were wider, with more lines on their faces.  Sarah absorbed their short nods and subtle waves like flashes from paparazzi cameras as if she was walking a red carpet.  Her dress selection was perfect.  From a few feet away, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Sarah wore nothing but a layer of black satin paint.  She reveled in knowing that she was the best-looking woman in the room, that she had kept it together, that she not only hadn’t gained weight since she was seventeen, but that her figure was even more firm and toned than it was back then.  She didn’t decline, but improved, and she loved that the men whose wives were still carrying pregnancy weight were noticing. 

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Sarah said to Mrs. Beck, who was clutching a crumpled wad of tissue.  Mrs. Beck leaned in and embraced Sarah, saying, “No, it’s all of our loss.  But God called her home.”

Sarah nodded solemnly to Mrs. Beck and turned on her black suede heels towards the polished mahogany box.  Looking down on her dead friend, Sarah wondered if Whitney’s legs were there in the bottom of the box, and if so, whether any effort had been made to reattach them.  

Your make up looks like shit, she said silently to her friend.  And your face looks kind of smashed.

Gravity yanked all my face skin down and it hardened this way, what do you expect?

Sarah smiled at Whitney’s unspoken retort.  Who picked lavender eye shadow for you?

Ugh! Is that what I’m wearing? Dammit mom!

Well, now you get to look like a hoochie for eternity.

I got painted by a mortician, what’s your excuse?

Tears began to fall down Sarah’s cheeks.  Their years apart were a mistake.  Their belief that there would always be more time, that keeping up over text and Facebook was enough, it was so foolish.  Sarah found herself audibly crying, and her hand flew to her bright red mouth to keep the sound in.  She hadn’t expected this.  She hadn’t imagined crying in this moment.  As Mr. Beck came to escort her to a chair, Sarah caught hold of her choking breath.  Once seated, she dabbed at her wet eyes and wondered who she was actually crying for.

A pastor spoke.  Whitney’s father spoke.  Whitney’s college roommate read a poem and the veggie platter aunt led the room in a prayer.  And that was it.  It was over.  Across the foyer was a dining hall with several long folding tables that absorbed the shuffling guests.  Steel coffee carafes, one with a black lid and the other orange, stood as sentinels on a ghastly yellow countertop.  Several cakes, all of them store bought, waited to be devoured next to a stack of paper plates and plastic forks. 

The guests who didn’t find their way into the dining hall littered the parking lot, sucking on vapes and hunching over their phones.  Sitting amongst her former classmates, Sarah sipped black coffee from a Styrofoam cup.  Many of these people still lived in Omaha, and it was the few like Sarah who made it out and established a life elsewhere, it was these individuals who had something to report, who had to be caught up with, who may just have returned from the wider world with some insight not available to those who had shamefully continued living their lives where they had begun living their lives.  But it was bullshit, and though Sarah knew it, she pretended she didn’t when it was her turn to tell the group what she had been doing all these years.  

“It’s no big deal,” she said of her position at Northwestern University.  She spoke this line as if behind her humility, maybe there was a big deal, some mystery that should be scratched at with further inquiry.  Sarah was deferential.  She asked all the right questions and made every effort to appear interested in the lives of the rest of the group, with special attention paid to those whose existence was so obviously the most mundane, those whose last seventeen years were the most aimlessly shambled across.  Muted envy was palpable, and it warmed her.  Tiffany Schwartz, a girl that was never anything more to Sarah than just another kid in the hallway, a blonde girl in sophomore English, a black and white postage stamp in the yearbook, she hated Sarah right now, she hated that she was elegant and educated and probably highly paid, and that she was pretending that she was none of these things.  She hated how by Sarah’s pretending that she didn’t possess them, that all of her qualities were on full display.  Sarah felt Tiffany’s bitterness, and she gathered it up inside of her, folding it like a cardigan she was saving for a cold winter day.  Around the table there was adoration, lust, and even genuine glee for Sarah, and she wanted all of it despite judging herself for the wanting.  I’m such shit, she thought to herself.  Then Blake stepped into the room, and her heart was a kick drum.

“Hey everyone.”

“Blake!” came the chorus.  

Sarah didn’t react as men rose from their seats to shake Blake’s hand, and to do that thing where guys use the handshake to pull each other into a one-armed hug.  Not wanting to stare, Sarah only nipped at Blake’s visage like a child stealing a few candies at a time until they have eaten the whole dish.  His black hair was held askew by product.  His beard was full but well-trimmed and seasoned with silver strands.  Blake’s black suit was not expensive, but it was a good cut, and it hugged his frame expertly.  Tattoos on the backs of his hands added to his quality.  Though he didn’t look outwardly muscular, he had filled out, and Sarah generally approved of his appearance.  The men who had been greeting Blake returned to their chairs, and Sarah finally turned her head to truly look at him, forcing him to meet her eyes.

“Oh my God, Sarah, you came!”  Blake stepped to where she was seated, and deftly, Sarah pushed her orange vinyl chair backwards, and rose.  She stood erect in her heels making sure every curve screamed at him from above and behind her flat stomach.  Opening her arms, she grasped him as intimately as she thought he could get away with in front of so many sets of eyes.  He said, “It’s so great to see you!  I didn’t think you’d show up.” 

It was plain to everyone watching the interaction that these two people were going to fuck, even to those who knew and enjoyed Blake’s girlfriend Candace, and especially to those who listened carefully when Sarah bragged about her fiancé, Alan.  What they didn’t know was how quickly it would happen.  It took less than an hour for Sarah to excuse herself to the restroom, for Blake to tell the group that he had to step out to make a call, for Sarah to peek out of the bathroom door to make sure no one was looking, and for Blake to close that door behind himself.  In the dining hall, Sarah’s classmates continued to talk about the old days, stabbing their forks into artificially moist, artificially yellow cake, while Blake lifted Sarah by her trim waist and set her down on the edge of the sink.  Her eyes were wide, staring past Blake’s ear, the sweet tobacco smell of his pomade drawn deep into her throat by her muffled gasps.  The last time Blake was inside her she was sixteen and terrified.  She hadn’t expected to have sex that night on the trampoline behind Carolyn Bartlett’s house, and though she was eager to get past her first time, teenage Sarah was convinced that she made every wrong move, including having thrown her bloody underwear away in the kitchen trash can after not so subtly rejoining the party.  Tonight, she wasn’t wearing underwear, and she was on birth control, and she was doing everything right, rolling her hips in time, holding her mouth just agape, and making eye contact as she whispered, “Your cock is sooooo big.” 

Blake came in less than three minutes.  Resting his forehead on her shoulder, he exhaled deeply.  Sarah waited, hoping he hadn’t finished, hoping that he was changing his tempo, when he groaned, “Fuuuck, that was good.”  He chuckled, and added, “I have thought about doing that again for a very long time.”  Before he pulled out, Sarah tried to kiss him, hoping to reignite his interest and to keep the moment alive, but Blake turned his head to the side, only allowing her lips to glance off of his.  “We should get back,” he said.

And then she was alone again, sitting on the toilet to drain what Blake had left behind.  She washed her hands and fixed her lipstick.  Into the mirror she asked, “Was it good for you?”

Whitney was alone, too.  The room in which she lay dead was empty of mourners when Sarah returned to walk down the aisle between now vacant chairs.  She stopped at the side of the casket.

“I just fucked Blake Lewis in the bathroom.”

Whitney didn’t respond.

“It wasn’t much better than last time.”

Whitney didn’t respond.

“I don’t know what I expected, coming here.  I just feel like…” Sarah paused to find the right words, then continued, “Like since we graduated, there was a big bang and everything just started expanding away from me in every direction, and I felt that if I didn’t move too, faster and further than everyone else, that I would be left…floating.”

Whitney didn’t respond.

“When we were in high school, I assumed everyone felt like I did, that the lives we were being primed for were bullshit.  That waking up every day to drive to some job that we hated so we could get a mortgage to buy a house in a suburb that was just as boring as the one we came from, I thought we all knew that it was a lie.  A trap.  And I thought that that was what all the music, and the drinking, and partying, and wanting to get tattooed and to dye our hair pink was all about.  I thought the rebellion was real, that none of us wanted to be our goddamn parents!  I thought we had all seen how they chose to live and that we saw the results – their misery, their stress, their demoralizing acceptance of life on a couch, and I thought that we were all saying, ‘Fuck that!’”  

Sarah recognized that she was raising her voice, so she looked behind her to make sure the room was still empty.  Seeing that it was, she returned to her dead friend, and sighed.  “Maybe there is no escape, no path that actually leads to a life that would feel like more than a shuffled deck of workdays and weekends, meetings and grocery runs, but I thought that the burning need that I felt way down deep in the basement of my soul, to look it all in the face and to say, ‘No!’ I thought we all shared that.  I thought we were alive, and that no matter what, we would be different.  Maybe not all of us, but people like you and me, who had felt a taste of what life could be on so many crazy nights.  I thought that you and I at least, that we were something special.”  Sarah had been gesturing to no one, and finally she rested her hands on the rim of the casket and brought her eyes down from the ceiling to which she had been appealing her case and looked hard at Whitney’s petrified face.  “Do you remember when we drove to Lincoln to see Jimmy Eat World before anyone knew who they were, and my car got towed, and we went to that weird after party and had to walk around taking donations so we could afford to get it out of impound, and when we finally did, it was like four in the morning, and even though we knew we were in total deep shit, we said fuck it, and stopped for French toast before driving back to Omaha?  That was the best night of my life.” 

Whitney didn’t respond.

+++

Sarah texted Alan that night before falling asleep on one side of her king-sized bed, telling him that it had been a long day and that she would see him tomorrow.  The next morning while waiting for her flight to board, she listened to Rainer Maria’s Ears Ring while scrolling through photos people had posted to their Facebook and Instagram profiles from outside Whitney’s funeral.  They all justified this vanity by captioning the pictures with some words of tribute to Whitney.  Sarah swiped her index finger up the face of her phone, clicking her way through a series of options until she found what she was looking for.  A link that read, Delete Account.

 Back in Evanston, Sarah clung to the silver bar that kept her upright against the heaving and jostling of the Purple Line train.  She decided not to tell Alan about Blake.  Not yet anyway.  She was numb to herself.  No choice seemed obviously right or obviously wrong.  Should she go forward with the wedding?  Could she?  Was it terrible that she felt that either path forward was just as good as the other?  That she felt entirely indifferent to all of the decisions before her, and that this worried her more than the decisions themselves?  As all of these thoughts and questions passed through her mind, an electronic voice was calling out train stops from a speaker.  Sarah snapped back into the present as the voice declared, “This, is Noyes.”  The double doors of the train car parted, and Sarah stepped out into the world.

 On the sidewalk, dying cicadas inched along while the already dead curled their limbs towards the blue sky where their brethren zipped through the air on their way to mates and meals, to trees where they screamed in a mighty chorus and laid millions of eggs, before scattering at the sight of birds who ripped their tender bodies clean in half, leaving only their exoskeletons to float back to the Earth like brittle autumn leaves.  It was a seventeen-year-brood.  In a few more weeks they would be forgotten, and the hum of passing cars and air conditioners would be the only sound.

About the Author: John F Duffy is originally from Chicago, but currently lives in the backwoods of southern Indiana.  His debut novel, ‘A Ballroom for Ghost Dancing,’ will be available in the autumn of 2022.