This issue features
photograph by Sebastian Czapnik,
poetry by Madeline Kramer,
poetry by David Hatfield Sparks,
photograph by Debra Millet,
fiction by Woof Achoo,
poetry by David Lawrence, and
fiction by Anne E. Sonnack-Garcia
© Sebastian Czapnik.
Self-Portrait while Visiting my Parents for Christmas
Winner of the Gival Press Oscar Wilde Award-2023
A sweater baggy and hiding
my curves, and special gummies
before Christmas Eve mass,
the church aglow with colored light
from stained glass tinting incense smoke
that streaks against watery eyes,
a sip of wine and two shots of whiskey
and one shot from my brother’s gun, its echoes
shattering flocks of birds into flight,
driving past shells of shotgun
houses, their edges outlined with string
lights that tap against windows,
midnight in a twin bed, whispering
to my really good friend of seven years,
her chest rising and falling in the bed
two feet away. My roommate whispering
back, her eyes still bloodshot and glistening
and I’ve never loved her more than in this moment,
with the metal wreath hanger grating
against the window, the chirping of the alarm,
the thud of the heavy rod we’d drop
in the track of the sliding back door,
to stand in for its broken lock.
Copyright © 2023 by Madeline Kramer.
About the Author
Madeline Kramer enjoys the study of literary criticism, and much of her creative work is grounded in feminist and queer theoretical practice. She holds a B.A. in English and Psychology from Western Kentucky University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Her essay Wallpaper Girls was a finalist for the 2020 Dogwood literary award for nonfiction and her work has been published in Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose as well as multiple anthologies. Madeline is liked by most cats who mistake her anxious energy for purring.
David Hatfield Sparks
More tornadoes and earthquakes are reported in Oklahoma.
No escape it seems, Califia’s upheavals tremble east daily, sending
her queers, politicos, and artists to shake up their abandoned homelands.
Cracked and fracked, in a rented van, swept by funnel clouds and high winds
rolling towards a ominous grey dawn on the Mississippi shore,
I race east, for any reasons, other than love, remain obscure.
Ambi Darling, is that dusty cow-town, your birth place of manicured lawns,
a fitting end to your queenliness? Did your funeral cause a terrifying increase
in queer boys wearing purple lip gloss, or on Halloween the proliferation
of conical hats, green masks, Toto-filled treat baskets, and orange wigs?
Barreling down these cluttered plains towards your grave, I’m an elder
good witch horror-struck at elected fake wizards and billionaires tweeting
lies behind velvet curtained control booths.
With your coffers of drag, now in some San Francisco recycle bin,
I wonder, are you even truly buried there near strait-laced farm towns,
flying on the horizon past pre-fab farm houses on Miss Gulch's bicycle,
as you apply additional liner to your sunken Bette Davis eyes and glitter
to your hollow bone cheeks, your drag version of La Calavera Catrina,
purple plumed hat perched on your rotting sugar skull.
But perhaps, like with Miss Gale, while chasing bluebirds in vain,
rainbows once again go awry. Stonewall rebellions, flying not for Judy’s
funeral uptown, but continuing downtown, across borders, across colors,
no longer trying to justify our existence to Jesus’s Jim Crow crew? Once again
herded into police vans, driven to isolated places, maybe to style some wife’s hair,
or redecorate prisons cells, or brunch in exotic landscaped gardens? After the ball,
posing in pill box hats, then left alone to swallow sleeping pills in London flats?
Behind that Alt-Right velvet curtain, behind today’s border wall steel drapery,
it’s not wizards or witches, but wicked politicians and mutinous robocops,
tear gassing citizens, arrested, not at urinals in dingy tearooms, but protesting
in public, existing while black, brown, Asian, and queer, taized and kneed,
then, in this new Stonewall, choked and herded into high tech paddy wagons, unceremoniously seized and dumped into ICUs, then stuffed and brushed
to a couple of tra-la-las by eerie Ozians, draped in disheveled neon green gowns,
and latex opera gloves, then pricked with matching sets of needles and breathing tubes?
Or perhaps, Chopin, I search for other rainbows to chase, for new Fantaise-Impromptus
to accompany our neo-bohemian schemes, our skyward dreams, like Eurerpe,
Muse of Music, perched on your Parisian tomb, I weep over broken lyres -- your heart, removed and pickled in Polish alcohol, with all your letters, outtakes, and wigs destroyed to cover any evidence of non-conformance to legacies, academies, or genders.
I weep over those who caused your early syphilitic death – the queer Parisian lovers
left out of Music History 101. True hearts entombed elsewhere, at queer crossroads, urban bars declared holy shrines, where celebrants and dancing queens every June,
and every chance they get, dance in your honor, bejeweled with stars and arpeggios,
while veiled bearded nuns kneel to light rose-scented novenas.
So many melodies lost voguing and waltzing from secret places, from music shop
clerks singing, dancing in camp musicals, or, while hanging on trolley cars, posing
from grand drag ballrooms to dingy leather bars, newer steps surfacing from new runways, searching for sunshine and justice, finding rain and daffodils poking up like Midwest lotuses.
Eternally ready for the required DeMille close-ups, like a spectral light
emerging from the darkened sound stage of the cosmos, reborn in a trunk,
rehearsing a new act, star-posed, ready for the road, for new enchantments
gleaned from treasures mined from outrageous queers, drag queens, Hollywood divas,
and frail composers. I lip-sync for my life, howling at the moon, following bluebirds
past these trials and tribulations, to another rainbow’s end.
i Ambi Sextous was a gender fuck drag queen performer living in San Francisco in the 1970s-80s.
ii Chopin, a Polish Romantic composer, and virtuoso pianist, was until recently, considered the asexual companion of early feminist French writer George Sand. Now scholars agree that he was most likely a lover of men. The popular song based on this piece “I’ve Always Chased Rainbows” (1917) was sung by Judy Garland.
Copyright © 2023 by David Hatfield Sparks.
About the Author
David Hatfield Sparks, currently living in Chicago, is a writer, musician, and gay father who has been active in queer multicultural communities from the Midwest and Manhattan to Austin, Texas, and San Francisco. He was a finalist for the Gival Press Oscar Wilde Award. His poems and essays have appeared in spiritual, feminist, and LGBTQ publications, including the anthology Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands (Aunt Lute Books, 2017). His poetry book Princes and Pumpkins won 1st Prize in the 2015 Writer’s Digest Poetry Self-Published e-Book Awards, and he was a semi-finalist in the 2019 Saints and Sinners Fiction Contest with his short story A Little Death in Naples.
Beautiful Victorian Homes
© Debra Millet.
Is the past a mere trick of language? Does it exist external to and independent of the mind? I tend toward the latter. Every moment interacts with objects, animated or otherwise, and leaves traces—images, impressions, or scars. These signifiers and their palimpsests carry little meaning out of context, but together they compose constellations we call the past.
However, those traces accumulate and weigh heavily. Things fall apart. Places wash away. Intellects wither and corporeality rots. Our biological clocks run down while we dither away our time.
The past drives mad those who seek it because it’s dying, one flickering star at a time.
One month after my paternal grandfather’s funeral, my father called with news about my grandmother: “Lizzy’s taken to wandering through neighborhoods in town and knocking on doors, asking about her brother. Someone posted about it on that Neighborhood app, and one of her church friends sent it to me.”
“Wait, hang on,” I said. “Her brother? You mean Buddy?”
“Yup. So, I went over to her apartment yesterday and actually caught her gearin’ up to leave. Y’know, had her walking stick and putting sunscreen on her neck and face. She wasn’t too happy to see me. Kept goin’ on about, ‘I gotta talk to my brother.’ Anyways, I called Deale and asked him what we could do. He got her a spot in Haven Healthcare so they could run some tests.”
Dr. Deale lived up to his “family doctor” title, as he either had or still cared for my grandparents, parents, brother, and me.
“Any idea when you might get a status update?” I asked.
“Next coupl’a days, I’d guess. I’ll let ya know.”
No satisfactory diagnosis came forward. My father reported that my grandmother remained physically healthy if a little uneven in her diet. Her greatest issue, then, lay in her ironclad belief that her brother wanted to speak with her. Yet her faith in this point signaled the depth of her problem, as her brother—my great-uncle Samuel “Buddy” Russell Jr—had passed away 70 years prior in a Philadelphia hospital.
As it happened, I was a resident of the city during these events. I had a studio apartment a few blocks off South Street. In the days following my grandmother’s bizarre diagnosis, I became unnerved by the fact that I was nearest of all my family to the place of my great-uncle’s passing. Irrespective of the detail’s harmless aspect, my subconscious buzzed with this supererogatory knowledge. I thought of it at work while filling ice buckets, slicing lemons, and other mundane tasks. I thought of it while crawling from pub to pub with my coworkers, our pockets overfull of tips. I even thought of it during predawn trysts with the girl I was nominally seeing at the time.
Once, lying in bed postcoitus, I said to her, “Y’know . . . I had a great-uncle who died up here in the city from polio. Back in, like, the fifties.”
Her immediate response was silence. Indeed, looking at the words written out now, I struggle to see what I had hoped to accomplish in their utterance.
“Oh . . . kay?” she said after a pause. “So what?”
“I don’t know, it’s . . . just been bothering me lately.”
She rolled onto her side and looked at me. I followed suit and returned her gaze.
“Do you know which hospital he died in?”
I thought for a moment. “No.”
“Do you know whether it’s still around?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”
“Then what the fuck, dude? My grandmother died in a hospital nearby, ya know? People die every day in the city.” She returned onto her back, gazing sleepily at the ceiling.
“Yeah,” I said, putting my arm around her midriff and pulling her close. “Yeah, you’re right.”
Still, these uninvited thoughts continued to rise before my mind’s eye. During the day, I mostly ignored them by busying myself in a task, letting them pass over me. I reminded myself that the decades separating my great-uncle’s demise and my residency in the city were a barrier that brooked no passage. Yet when I climbed into bed, alone and in pursuit of sleep, the same thoughts emerged from the shadows. In the night, drifting along the shores of unconscious annihilation, time’s physics dissolved. I felt the once-impenetrable barrier weaken into a shaky boundary, a wall under siege from the past’s crush and groaning under its burden.
I still have a journal from this era of my life in my possession. An entry from around the time of these occurrences reads: Is a dream autobiography or fiction? A fiction of one’s self? An autobiography of one’s nonsense? What does a dream become when it overruns its shores and spills into wakefulness? When that imaginative capacity—Poe calls it perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term—blends with “reality,” and the rational mind can no longer distinguish its self-generated phantoms from external perceptions? One who conforms to the delusions of others is religious. One who uses their delusions for creation is artistic. One who fails to differentiate between delusions and reality is lunatic.
My grandmother’s condition deteriorated in the weeks that followed. Although the doctors ran tests and suggested novel theories near-daily, according to my father, they still struggled to explain her rapid decline. She had arrived at Haven with no worse than an odd notion about her deceased brother, but—after a few weeks’ residency—lost mobility beyond a few steps. She also started suffering cramps, an inability to pass foods, and rapid blood pressure drops.
My father stopped by the facility most mornings before he went to work. My uncle also came to town and visited her a few times. “She seems sharp,” my father reported, “but still brings up her brother like she just spoke to him. They tell me she asks nurses and staff all day whether she can go see him. She’s even tried getting out of bed and leaving on her own.”
“Jesus. She’s really taking a plunge,” I said.
“Well, apparently the confusion and cramps are symptoms of potassium deficiency, so they’re running tests on her kidneys now. Anyways, when she mentions her brother to me, I remind her that he passed seventy-plus years ago, and she clams up. Won’t speak to me again until the next day.”
During one such call, he advised me to plan a trip down to visit my grandmother—the sooner, the better. While she did not yet sit on the threshold between our realm and the next, she seemed in search of it. I promised to request off work as soon as possible.
At the risk of drowning in sophomoric meditations, further scribblings in my journal from that time read: An experience is a pin on reality, a moment where one forces the natural state of uncertainty into a shape for the duration of an observation—or rather perception, since “observation” implies vision and perceptions extends beyond that sense. Yet we misremember events and facts. Our imaginations add and embellish details to experiences.
The human mind is impressionable and erratic, though it (consciously) believes itself otherwise. It wants certainty, finitude, boundaries—it is at war with its own nature.
“She’s asked me for a lot of stuff,” my dad said, and he presented a motley collection of belongings on the kitchen table. One patch was composed of Christmas decorations—the holiday’s passage six months prior notwithstanding—including a small, ceramic tree and wall hangings. Another spot was given to a stack of letters, standing even and unpossessing, that constituted my grandmother’s pen pal correspondence. Finally, an assortment of framed photos: the black-and-white snapshots from her bachelorette and newly-wed years up through muted print colors and more recent shots from the past few decades. My cousins, brother, and I smiled in our nonage from several of the most recent.
“She wanted some other shit she can’t use,” my dad said, leaning onto a chair and looking back over the items. “A printer . . . guess she doesn’t realize ya need a computer to use it. Some of my dad’s old tools, which I wouldn’t hand over if I had them—but he gave ‘em away when they moved to that apartment.”
“How much longer will she have that apartment?” I asked, stepping forward and shuffling through the old photos.
“Just two more weeks while we’re packing her stuff up. We were hoping she’d pull herself together so she could go back, but every day she just seems to . . .” he waved his hand before his face. “Slip a little further. But she’ll be thrilled to see you.”
I looked up at him, nodding and smiling sadly, then back down at the pictures. Moving the frames aside, I discovered an old piece of sketch paper featuring a roughly drawn figure. Its left-hand side was sitting top wise, so I turned it for a proper look: a young man seated at a desk, his face turned toward his illustrator. Faint recognition dawned as I scrutinized him.
“Yes,” my father intoned, coming to stand beside me and look on the portrait himself. “The man of the hour: her brother. She insisted I bring this. I was gonna hold off, but her doc thinks it might help her drop her fantasy.” He shrugged, smiling mirthlessly. “Worth a shot, I guess.”
That afternoon, we visited my grandmother. The atmosphere outdoors was sultry, the sun loath to drop from the sky. My father and I crossed the health facility’s parking lot, laden with my grandmother’s possessions in bags. We went through one set of sliding doors that opened at our approach and then stopped before another, which remained shut.
“The passcode is the day’s date,” my father said, setting down a bag and typing the numerals into a keypad beside the doors, “so it updates daily.” The doors hissed open and released a blast of cool, nonenal musk. We entered, nodding to the nearby receptionist behind her glass. I followed my father to the lobby’s terminus and past an unsmiling, wheelchair-bound codger. Silent, my father took a sharp right then a quick left.
The succeeding corridor bustled with residents, nurses, staff pushing wheeled equipment, and other visitors. We dived into this congestion, and I noticed nurses near my age with slim figures and pretty smiles. I made brief, retiring eye contact with them as I could. Near a nurses’ station at the end of the corridor, my father turned into an open door. An adjacent sign held a paper slip, upon which was printed Elizabeth Crawford.
In the room, reclined on her bed, my grandmother—watching TV—turned to us and smiled radiantly. “Oh, Colin, it’s so good to see you!” she said. I set down my burdens, went to her bedside, and embraced her. We then exchanged standard pleasantries, as we’d neither seen nor spoken to one another since my grandfather’s funeral a few months prior, while my father started unloading the bags and organizing their goods. My grandmother paused her conversation with me to order the arrangement of her belongings.
With her attention thus occupied, I had convenience to note changes in her appearance: her hair now appeared wispy and unkempt while her neck and shoulders drooped more so than I remembered. Spidery varicose veins stood out starker on her hands and arms than I’d ever seen—though, I realize now, this may have been an effect of the room’s fluorescent lighting. I recalled that when she and my grandfather first moved from their house to an assisted living apartment a few years prior, she seemed to lose some mental alacrity, though she remained mobile and energetic. Now, in addition to bed-ridden, she appeared overwrought and frustrated by merely conducting my father’s unpacking. She demanded her items be placed just so, unable to overlook minor irregularities.
“No, that one in front—in front, Dave,” she clamored. My father’s face remained grimly set other than its brief tics of irritation. “Where are you working now, Colin?” my grandmother asked, continuing to observe my father work.
“I’m up in Philly, remember? At a restaurant up there.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful! What’s it called?”
“It’s got a funny name: Ca-co-we-thees. It’s a Greek place.”
“I’ll have to come up sometime and try it.” She looked up and smiled at me. “Did you know that I was born up thataway? My father worked in a cabinet shop, and we lived in South Philly before we moved down here.”
“Yes, you’ve told me about that! And since I was born and raised here in Lewistown, it’s only right I live up there now, isn’t it?” Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my father had almost emptied all the bags’ contents. He paused, then pulled out the hand-drawn image.
“Oh, there it is!” my grandmother cried, holding her hands outstretched. My father stood frozen and unwilling to hand over the picture, so I rose, took it from him, and placed it in my grandmother’s lap. “Oh, Colin,” she sighed, gazing at the picture, “this is my brother. I drew this picture of him. Did you know that?”
“Yeah . . .” I said slowly. My father took a seat, shaking his head and crossing his arms. “But that was a long time ago, Lizzy. He’s been gone for a while.”
She remained pinned to her contemplation of the image. “Oh, he’s never left me. He’s looking down on me now—he knows how much I miss your grandfather—” Her voice caught on the last syllable, and she closed her eyes and put a hand up to her mouth. Her initial surge of excitement had vanished, and I saw the frail, bedridden woman she had become. Eyes wide, I turned to my father.
“Lizzy,” he murmured, dropping his arms, and leaning forward, “when was the last time you spoke with your doc?” My grandmother’s head remained bent, as if in prayer, for a moment. When she finally lifted her eyes to meet my father’s, I saw unshed tears filling them. She stood on a precipice overlooking an abyss of lamentation.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she managed, her voice cracking. “I saw him this morning . . . but he didn’t have time to chat.”
“Why don’t I go find him,” my father said, rising from his seat. “Let’s get an update on your status. You two keep catching up.” He offered a quick smile—I suppose to reassure me—then turned and left the room. After a quiet moment passed, my grandmother grabbed my hand and gently pulled.
“Colin,” she said, now sotto voce, “I have to tell you something.” I got down to my knees as she brushed away her nascent tears. “I have a job for you,” she whispered, again giving her radiant smiled. “I need your help.”
I glanced down at the sketch of her brother in her lap. “Look, I don’t want to make trouble between you and my dad—”
“Oh, don’t worry.” She flicked a hand over her shoulder. “He won’t find out—this’ll stay between you and me. All I need is for you to tell my brother I’ll get back to him once I’m out of here. The doctors just have to run their course.”
“Lizzy,” I said, then sighed and rubbed my face. “Neither of us can speak to your brother. He’s gone. He passed 70 years ago.”
“Oh, I know that,” she said impatiently, then sighed and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, I saw her earnestness therein. “Colin, I didn’t hear him during all my years with Frankie. And after I had Dave and your aunt and uncle, then you and your brother and cousins came along . . . oh, I was always so busy. But after . . . your grandfather passed,” and she inhaled quickly, “I finally heard him. And you’re gonna go see him.”
“Oh?” I asked, bemused now. “And where might I find him?”
“The home place! That’s where he stays,” she said. “He always wanted to—”
Suddenly, she broke my stare and cocked her head. I heard nothing beyond the buzz of activity in the hallway, yet she appeared to harken a distinct signal.
“Stand back up,” she urged. “Your father’s coming.” She yanked my hand upwards, and I compulsively rose while she sat back on her bed. As my father re-entered the room, she said, “I’ve got a test up at the hospital this week. I suppose I’ll have to take the bus into town—your father says he’s sold my car.” My dad glowered at her and resumed his seat.
They picked up a conversational thread and followed it for the next ten minutes. My father listed further tests that the docs wanted, and my grandmother asked for another batch of belongings—I can’t remember what, exactly. I stood there, eyes widened again, during their back-and-forth until she called me from my stupor.
“Colin,” she said, pulling on my hand, “this is my brother. I drew this picture of him. Did you know that?”
“Well,” my father said, rising from his chair, “we gotta head out. We’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Oh . . . sure,” my grandmother replied, reaching for the TV remote. “You take care now.” She squeezed my hand and smiled up at me. I reached down and hugged her, and she kissed me on the cheek.
Back out in the hallway, my father said, “When I visit in the morning, I usually stay until she starts repeating herself. She’ll drive ya crazy talking about the same thing again and again.” He went on about her daily schedule and doctors as we made our way back out of the facility. We passed the wheelchair-bound codger and nodded at the receptionist again before walking back through the automatic doors.
Outside, the air remained heavy with humidity, but the sun had—it seemed to me—relinquished its highest peak. Its light had begun deepening to gold, while the star itself just peeked in through the windshield of my father’s SUV. As he turned the vehicle on and set the AC to blast, my father asked, “What’d ya think?”
I sighed and shook my head. “She looks stuck to that bed. It’s weird not seeing her up and moving around. But she’s not quite . . . out of it, either.”
My dad grunted and put the SUV into drive, directing the car toward the lot’s exit. “She say anything weird while I was out?”
“Not . . . really.” I paused, briefly unsure of my path. “Just asked whether I had a girlfriend.”
I live on the 400 block of Hoornkill Rd. We have had repeated visits during the past month by a petite elderly woman who is walking from door to door, ringing door bells and seeking the “home place” where she’ll find her brother. She gives his name as Samuel Russell Jr. She says she lives in an apartment off Kings Hwy. She always carries some sort of walking stick and seems to be physically healthy, quite fit actually. She is always polite and apologizes for bothering after ringing the doorbell and being told the person she is seeking is not in the house. During one of her visits, she also spoke to our postal carrier, who told her there was no one by that name anywhere on his route. Has anyone else had experience with this lady? I am concerned for this woman. What can be done for her?
After my father reported moving his mother to Haven Health, I tracked down the online Neighborhood bulletin that had notified him to her plight, and it seemed to describe a senior clinging to a delusion. Moreover, based on the near-concurrence of this behavior to his funeral, I felt my grandfather’s passing explained my grandmother’s actions. Perhaps a natural confusion arising from senectitude also played a role.
However, my grandmother rattled my ratiocination when she told me to call on “the home place,” a phrase weighted with ancestral significance but one that I’d never heard her use before. So, after my father and I returned from our Haven visit, I disengaged from conversation by claiming need for a nap. Luckily, we alone occupied my parents’ house that weekend—my mother was visiting my brother and sister-in-law to help care for their infant, so I could retreat to solitude without recapitulating the trip. Although I did lay down on my bed, no rest settled my roiling thoughts.
While I hoped to spare my father some anxiety by keeping my grandmother’s instruction to myself, an inchoate doubt also motivated my silence. “The home place” was—and remains—a household idiom emanating from my paternal family’s history, affection for a locale, and hereditary possessiveness. It refers to a particular house in Lewistown, located a mere mile from where I lay sprawled and cogitating that afternoon.
My family shares a curiosity for the history of Lewistown. In addition to serving as my parents’ and grandmother’s place of residence during these events, the town has hosted my paternal family since before the Revolution. One Philip Russell set roots here after attending William Penn as a cup bearer aboard the Welcome during the great man’s Atlantic passage toward the religious refuge Pennsylvania. Following his arrival, Philip was granted a license by the Philadelphia Council to operate an ordinary in the germinal Lewistown, located in the southernmost of Pennsylvania’s lower three counties. Having brought his wife, children, and servants from jolly old England, Philip led his family forth and—on a knife’s edge between the chilly Atlantic and the primeval wilderness—multiplied.
His progeny also sought and received warrants for land around the town. On one such patch, the house later dubbed “the home place” was built for a William Russell. He was a successful tanner and could afford a handsome, colonial-style home with attached tanyard. A mere mile from the town’s principal streets and structures, ancestor William’s house and cottage industry stood looking out on the gentle Hoornkill Creek. His property encompassed the surrounding woods and marshes.
Over the succeeding centuries, the region witnessed revolutions. The virgin forests’ cedars, pines, and hardwoods were felled to the sandy soil then dragged to the nearest sawmill. The fields and cleared lands were apportioned, plowed, and cultivated. Desire paths—first trod by wildlife and indigenous folk—were deepened and their surrounding underbrush cleared. Country stores appeared at crossroads. Vast deer herds had their numbers eroded and rambling bears were plucked from the woods. Watercraft of all sizes populated the streams and rivers. A lighthouse was erected on the cape. Settlers with handsome land grants and human chattel erected plantation-style homes. Farming families bred, then divvied up their holdings: hundred-acre tracts broke into fifties and twenty-fives, houses cropping up on each.
British battleships sailed into Delaware Bay and bombarded Lewistown for a day—to no effect. Laborers, paid and enslaved, dug through the swamps and opened more land. Scripture-quoters established a camp by the shore. Large-scale farming filled the rivers and streams with silt, preventing boats’ easy passage. The railroad arrived, and annual migrations of visitors and summertime residents swelled beach communities. Business prompted construction: more boardwalks, more roads, more hotels. Bridges reached across rivers and inlets. Electric lights lit the night. Telephone poles sprouted along the town’s roads. Model-Ts sped around horses and carts. The lighthouse on the cape toppled after the Atlantic eroded the shore from beneath it. Rough seas claimed sailors and spat empty boats back onto the shore. The estuary’s marshes were burned annually. The town dug Hoornkill Creek out into a canal. Fishing boats populated slips and piers. Even when some left for winter, the people never stopped coming.
Nowadays, “the home place” looks out on a waterway that fishing and personal craft pass through daily. The road before it, once a dirt thoroughfare subject to horse and cart, is paved and hums with traffic. Generations of Russells after William sold off the land surrounding the house—today, it’s flanked by Victorian-style manses and residential neighborhoods. Still, “the home place” remains among the finest structures in Lewistown. Its longevity has earned it designation as a historic landmark, courtesy of the town’s DAR chapter, complete with a sign: an escutcheon, emblazoned with a gold and azure checkerboard pattern, featuring a gold lion rampant and charge of Bottony silver crosses in its top-right corner.
Despite its provenance—and formal appellation “The Russell House”— “the home place” was unexplored terrain to me before that afternoon. I had approached it no further than the sidewalk that passed its front porch. A great-great-aunt had sold the property decades prior, after which my great-great-grandfather had coined “the home place” for the erstwhile familial possession. My father, hearing his grandfather use that expression across the years, had adopted and shared it with me. Thus, its utterance carried a specific denotation as well as resonations of bygone times. But, again, I had never before heard my grandmother use it until our whispered Haven conversation. Indeed, I lay atop the bed that afternoon ransacking my brain—unsuccessfully—for some instance of her doing so.
Now, from my authorial perspective, I recognize that it requires no great leap to imagine my grandmother picking up the term from my great-grandfather—that is, her father. But even assuming that were the case, my family didn’t know the house’s residents. Lost in thought that afternoon, I deliberated: was I to ask strangers whether I could enter their home and speak with a dead man? Moreover, if she knew “the home place,” why was my grandmother wandering the neighborhood around it? The online Samaritan’s self-reported address sounded like the same general location, but my grandmother’s door-to-door inquiries suggested she lacked an address. I, too, didn’t have the address at my fingertips, but I felt the house was both recognizable and easy to locate thanks to its canal-adjacent perch. Plus, should I doubt my abilities of recognition, I need only check for the DAR’s tell-tale landmark signage.
A devil’s advocate must have sat in my bedroom that day, whispering such things into my ear as: Lizzy is unwell. She could have pulled “the home place” from a fossilized memory of her father and deployed it in the logic of her ailment.
Frustrated and wavering, I rose from the bed and exited the room, crossing the hall to the restroom. Within, while I sat on its toilet, my grandmother’s utterance “I finally heard him” crossed my mind. She heard him, not—it seemed—in her memory but in her present. Some auditory hallucination? Since she kept a Bible nearby and probably read it daily, perhaps her supernal instructions amounted to no more than mimicry of biblical characters. But her prescience about my father’s return to her room appeared to involve more than faith and coincidence: she had paused our conversation to listen and, apparently, heard something outside my perception. Hadn’t I followed her command to rise, obedient despite my skepticism, then seen her divination come true?
I stood, zipping my fly, and flushing the toilet, then turned on the sink and set to washing my hands. I decided to pursue my grandmother’s request—and the mental dam, behind which my anxious thoughts gathered, broke. I gave myself to her task and conviction.
Around the desk where I write this account are scattered materials that I consider family heirlooms. Yet rather than the sparkling treasures suggested by that ceremonial term, this bounty consists largely of documents, both handwritten and printed. My father salvaged them from among my grandparents’ multitudinous belongings during the two moves that occurred toward the end of their lives, both of which I’ve mentioned above: my grandmother’s displacement to Haven Healthcare as well as her and my grandfather’s shift to an apartment from their habitual home, which preceded his death by a few years. The apartment move entailed the disposal of unnumbered trifles—my grandmother was a quasi-pathological hoarder—yet amidst much trash lay these documents, genealogical in content and either created or gathered by my great-grandfather. My father recognized their sentimental value and took them for safekeeping. However, stored haphazardly in several boxes, these records required dutiful organization before they would offer much insight. My father lacked the time and inclination for such a task.
Happily, I both inherited his interest in family history and possessed greater inclination toward the prosaic work of research. I took the documents with his blessing, and in the years following this transference, I have used—and even expanded—this pool of materials to research and author a handful of articles on Russell family origins and diffusion in America. Yet I must now move beyond their purview. What I describe below is, perhaps, my addition to family and town lore.
An auspicious mood settled on me as I left the house (pleading an errand in town to my father), drove down to Hoornkill Road, and pulled into the lot of a yacht basin. Indeed, when I noticed the lot’s “Private Parking” signs, I disregarded them and guided my car into a spot. Despite my prior misgivings about my grandmother’s mental state, her “job” now struck a deep chord in me, a rumbling excitement in my gut.
Again, I did not know the address of “the home place” off the top of my head, but my father had identified the premises to me several times when we passed it in the car or on foot. I knew it sat close to the marina wherein I parked. Setting off from my car, I squared my shoulders and traversed the lot, its shells crunching beneath my feet while sweat rolled down my back. The day’s heat, though past its peak by then, suffused the atmosphere. Nearby yacht-goers gathered around picnic tables and Jeeps gave me no more than a cursory glance. Cars grumbled back and forth along the road. Seagulls cried over the canal on their flight out toward the bay.
Marina, canal, and boat slips occupied one side of Hoornkill Road, the houses and neighborhoods the other. As I waited to cross to the latter, I considered how to explain my task to my destination’s residents—assuming they were home. Yet I did not let this concern impede my progress. On the contrary, I trotted across Hoornkill between bouts of traffic with a confidence endowed by youthful assurance.
Once across the street, I paused on the clean sidewalk and surveyed the canalfront houses. Their lawns were manicured such that not a blade of grass overhung the sidewalk. The telephone poles and wires before them seemed to encumber on the structures—a gymnast might jump from a window and catch then hang from a wire with ease. Refocusing, I peered at each decadent house: both in front of me and off to my right, they stirred no allurement. To my left, however, across a junction created by an intersecting street . . . yes. Even from the side, I recognized the three-story structure adorned with cedar shakes—painted a darkish pastel blue—and sprouting a cherry-red chimney. I hurriedly crossed the intervening road and, peering through the decorative bushes that inhabited the corner, saw a wraparound porch extending from the front door toward the house’s rear.
I stopped before a set of brick steps—split into two paths by a Japanese Maple sprouting from a small dirt patch and flanked by black handrails—which led to the front porch. Lush inkberry shrubs girded by wax begonias blossoming pink bordered this escalier. Nearby, a great cypress towered over the sidewalk. On the house’s front porch were several white rocking chairs and a porch swing, all set before grand windows with white shutters. I could see, next to the crimson-colored front door, the DAR’s historical marker affixed to the wall. That my grandmother had missed or failed to recognize this place seemed, to me, absurd. The premises appeared indelible, rooted in the proud earth.
With these thoughts, I climbed the stairs and ascended to the porch. The front portal proper was enclosed beneath a storm door, which I pulled open. Taking a deep breath, I knocked on the dark red surface—it sprang ajar beneath my rap. The open sliver revealed a rattan couch with white and sky-blue striped cushions, its back against a wall. Given that position, it must’ve faced the windows next to the front door, which would give one—seated there at dawn—a sweeping view of the sunrise over the canal.
I stood motionless, listening in vain for sounds within the house. I called, “Hello?” through the door’s opening and received no reply. The deep excitement I first felt embarking on my task again pulsed in my gut, heightened by the tension of standing before an entrance I lacked permission to walk through. Even the recollection of it thrills me, seated now behind a desk and several intervening years. In that moment, I felt—despite the cultural taboo against invading a home, the manners my parents had reared me to attend, and even my internal voice of propriety’s protests—walking in forthwith offered the surest path to achieving my goal. So, after checking to ensure no passers-by would witness the breach, I went inside.
The front door’s hinges squeaked, the storm door clicked behind me, and then I stood in silence on the indoor mat. Opposite the sitting room’s couch were a few rattan chairs; a glass-topped coffee table complemented this wicker furniture set. The light blue on the furniture’s cushions was augmented by dark blue curtains, pushed open to admit sunlight, adorning the windows. Before me and adjacent to the sitting room, a hallway led down toward the kitchen. Parallel to the hall and on my left, a set of stairs with richly stained treads and risers rose to the house’s upper reaches. To my extreme left was a dining room wherein a stocky, glass vase and lace doily were set on a dark-stained table. The vase held decorative faux flowers common to department stores.
Turning back to the hallway, I spotted a small table against one wall upon which keys, mail, and an iPhone lay. The items’ import hit me a moment too late: pounding footfalls sounded above and bare feet appeared on the top stair. I started to turn toward the front door, then a bare-chested man wrapped in a towel came halfway down the stairs and yelled, “Hey!”
The excitement in my gut turned to dread. I stammered, “Oh my god—I’m so sorry—I didn’t mean—”
“What the fuck are ya doing in here?” the man shouted. “You can’t just walk in!” His hair was dripping and small puddles collected on the steps beneath him.
“You’re right. I’m so sorry.” I turned, grabbing the storm door handle, and pushing the aperture open, then blurted, “My grandmother sent me.”
“Wait!” he called. Pausing, I turned back and saw his thunderous look now admitting strains of curiosity. “You mean Lizzy? Is that your grandmother?”
“Yeah,” I said, releasing the door handle and moving back inside. “Hang on, has she been here?”
The man laughed now, and the tight grip in my gut lessened. “Been here? She’s sat there—” he indicated his couch “—and chatted with me half a dozen times! Ain’t seen her in a few weeks, though. Why’d she send you here?”
“She’s . . . not well. My family had to put her in a nursing home. And . . . well, I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong with her.”
The man gave me a long look then sighed, shaking his head. “Alright. Just—hold on. I gotta get dressed.” He turned to head back upstairs. “Close the door and take a seat. Don’t touch anything.” He thumped back upstairs.
Hesitantly, I shut the front door and sat on a corner of the couch, looking out the window. I could still hear gulls crying, and I watched the yacht-goers pass to and fro across the street—smiling, clad in summer wear and swimsuits—wondering what had compelled my exclamation “My grandmother sent me” to this stranger. On reflection, I suspect the same voice of propriety that beseeched me to halt my intrusion also prompted this admission as a last-ditch justification. Nevertheless, I was marveling at the turn of events when the rhythmic thumps sounded again. The man reappeared at the bottom of the steps.
“You wanna beer?” he asked.
“Please,” I said. He grunted and went back to his kitchen. I heard a fridge open and close, then the man reappeared and handed me a can, cool to the touch. He sat on the couch’s opposite corner, cracked his can open, and held it up.
“Cheers,” he said, and I mimicked his movement. He frowned at me now, not unfriendly. “Lizzy—your grandmother, I mean—she used to sit in that same corner and stare out the window too.”
“Oh?” I was unsure how to proceed. He nodded and we both took slugs from our cans. As we did so, I had occasion to inspect my host: salt-and-pepper hair, skin darkened by days in the sun, beer gut, and lines that deepened in his face when he drank or pulled an expression.
“I’m Rob, by the way. Sorry to shout at you there, but you scared me. Shouldn’t be walking into people’s houses, though.”
“I’m Colin, and I know. I’m truly sorry about barging in. When I knocked, the door pushed open—”
“Really? Maybe the latch didn’t catch when I pulled it shut . . .”
“Well—right, then I just got carried away in—with something my grandmother asked me to do.”
“Speak to her brother?” Rob asked. Astonishment must’ve paraded across my face because he smiled in a knowing way. “Yeah, I heard all about him. And your grandfather. My condolences on his passing, by the way.”
“She told you about Buddy?” I asked, still shocked. “I mean, about him speaking to her?”
“Oh yeah. Said she could always hear him a little bit, like, during the day but heard him best when she slept. Saw him in her dreams. This house is . . . what’d she call it . . . ‘the home place,’ right? He told her to come here so he could speak to her.” He took a drink. “When she first showed up, I just thought she’d been out in the sun too long. Let her in and got her some water for that alone. But once she got to telling her story, ah . . . then it made sense to me.” He looked over, smiling in that knowing way again.
“What?” I asked, irritation flashing.
“She was lonely! Her husband of, what, 60 years had just passed. Her kids—I mean your dad and aunt and uncle—all have their own lives. You and your siblings and cousins have yours. I’m not criticizing you. I was the same way with my folks. Grew up, left home, called, and visited when I could. But getting old is a full-time job, ya know? And once old folks can’t get around like they used to, or they lose a life partner, they need somethin’ to fill the gap.” He took another long drag from his can.
While I found his avuncular tone grating, I saw the sense in his explanation. Indeed, my grandmother’s infirm frame and choked words struck me anew. “So Lizzy was . . . putting on an act? Or did she actually hear a voice?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe she had dreams about her brother. Maybe she just convinced herself she heard him during the day. Each time she came here, I had to let her down—I’ve never heard a peep from him or any ghost. But, once we got to chatting, that didn’t really seem to matter so much.”
“She was knocking on doors up and down the street, though,” I said, desperation rising in my voice. “I mean . . . I’m not saying this place is haunted or she’s hearing voices, but going door to door asking for her brother sounds . . . like—”
“Confusion. My old man was the same way before he passed. Part of gettin’ old.” Rob shrugged. “Yeah, she knocked on a lot of doors around here. I told everyone to send her my way, I’d chat with her if I was home. Maryanne, one of my neighbors, said she was gonna post about it online so we could spread the word that she needed help. I didn’t want to call an ambulance and have her carted off. I liked her! I looked forward to her little visits.” He drained the rest of his beer and stood up. “Want another?”
I shook my can and felt half a beer sloshing inside, but Rob didn’t wait for my answer. He ventured back to his kitchen and I heard the fridge open again, then he returned with two more beers. Wanting to indulge his hospitality, I chugged the remainder of my first can and accepted the fresh one he offered.
We sat, talking and drinking, while the afternoon wore on. I asked why he never tried to contact my family. “I tried to find out where you all live,” he replied. “But Lizzy’s clever, you know? She never mentioned full names or where your folks were. I could tell she was from around here but didn’t know about the rest of you.” In return for his largesse, I leveled with him about my upbringing in the region, my parents’ home a mile away, and my grandmother’s new residence at Haven Healthcare. “Well, if it's alright with you, maybe I’ll visit her,” he said, smiling.
Outside, beachgoers and cruisers returned from their day out—cars and boats passed the front windows in waves. Rob himself had just returned from a short fishing jaunt out in the bay when I stumbled through his door, and he described the trip and his boat across the street in a slip.
The conversation outlasted several rounds of beer, and Rob and I cracked new cans as our dead soldiers peopled the coffee table. I watched a crisp cloudbank on the eastern horizon turn from rich gold and orange to violet and blue while my host talked on. His early sympathy, which had inspired recognition and earnest counsel as I’ve described, mutated into a species of ugly munificence: he now recounted his possessions, his upbringing, and his assorted opinions in excruciating detail. Even my internal voice of propriety could not overcome my growing enervation. Rob was far from a villain, but I came to realize that his sympathy was self-serving. A feudal heart drove his conduct—it ached that I recognize and respect his ascendancy.
At long last, I could no longer feign interest. The sunlight had nearly vanished when I interrupted: “Rob? I’m sorry, but I’ve really gotta head home. My dad’s probably wondering where I’m at.”
“Oh, sure. Sure,” he said, hand frozen mid-air where he was emphasizing a point in his soliloquy. “Must’ve lost track of time here.” We both rose from the couch.
“Would you like me to help—” I indicated the legion of beer cans.
“No, you can leave ‘em there. I’ll clean ‘em up,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck and moving toward the door. He flicked a switch and a porch light turned on, then he opened the front and storm doors and led the way outside.
“Beautiful night,” he said, stopping on the porch and holding the storm door open with his back. He put his hands on his hips, and I saw that he meant to make one further point before I departed. I paused on the threshold, leaning my hands against the doorframe.
“I’m gonna miss her,” he said. “Lizzy, I mean. I really enjoyed her visits to the house—I think she really enjoyed ‘em too. I hope I can see her at the health center.”
“Yeah, just let me run that by my dad,” I said, casting my mind ahead to the awkward conversation I’d have to have at home with him: Lizzy visited the home place to speak with Buddy and made a friend . . .
Rob began elucidating another point, gesticulating, and gazing out at the offing, but his speech degraded into a hollow syllabification from which I failed to comprehend meaning. A peculiar prescience had taken residency of my mind: I could perceive my father’s reaction to this account of Lizzy’s “walks” in town, his shaking head and sighing. He’d keep Rob at a distance from my grandmother—we could not abide the man’s irresponsibility. I would also level with my father about Lizzy’s “job,” apologizing for my reticence and pleading understanding for an impulse of curiosity.
We’d visit my grandmother once more before I returned to Philadelphia. This time, my father would remain in the room for our entire visit, never admonishing my grandmother but ensuring no quarter existed for her delusions either. She’d not discuss Buddy or “the home place,” though she would draw our attention to her sketch of her brother several times. In the coming months, her condition would continue to deteriorate toward a second childishness. I’d never have an opportunity to tell her about my trip to the home place, and she’d not mention hearing her brother again. One day, in a year or two, she’d refuse to take meds or meals and thereafter follow my grandfather. I’d receive no answer to whether she heard heavenly voices—no such closure underlies our lives.
The past exists like the skin of a leaf: perfect in the moment it blooms then tending toward decay. It perforates and crumbles until the barest skeleton remains, an outline that observers may find unrecognizable. I fight this desiccation by sharing the past. I fight it seated at my desk, years after the events I describe, surrounded by the scripts and dust that constitute my heritage. In this way, my grandmother’s task came to no end.
That summer evening on the porch, while Rob yammered, such thoughts cascaded through my mind. Yet, with his point made, Rob turned toward and recalled me to the present with a question: “Whatcha think?”
Standing on the threshold, I cocked my head to meet his look. Then, in one smooth motion, I took a swift step back and slammed the front door shut, locking it.
I turned and put my back against the door, sighing, before Rob started pounding against the opposite side and turning the handle fruitlessly. “Hey! Kid, hey! Open this goddamn door! You’re in my fucking house, remember!? Open up!” I took deep breaths in and out, enjoying the pulse his impacts made on the door. “Open up, you fucking bastard, or I’m calling the cops!” Briefly perturbed, I glanced around the room and spotted his phone still lying on the hall table. I laughed and continued to press my back against the door, against the oncoming night and the bad-tempered dullard. Inside, with me, I held the past—briefly, my life as I had lived it remained in my grasp.
Copyright © 2023 by Woof Achoo.
About the Author
Woof Achoo writes dark fiction, poetry, and marketing copy. Visit: woofachoo.com or find him on Twitter at @AchooWoof
I am Surreal
A line of poetry is self-generating, and the words tumble out of invisible mouths so that I am vocative and talkative to the deaf ears that whirl around me.
I rattle on not liking myself. I am the movement of the tongue. I am words out of nowhere to somewhere whether they are almost around.
I am free association although I am tied to my impulses which drive my lines like a race car at the Grand Prix.
My poetry is wonder independent. It has a life of its own. I am 76. I am coming into a death of my own. What will I hear in the lack of life where aid was precedent to the silence. It is the soft rustle of a woman’ hem.
I am free verse. I am surreal. I am the son of Breton. Even though I don’t remember reading him, his poems must have entered my unconscious and turned me into a son of surrealism
My poetry is pieces of scrabble. I put the tiles together on the tile holder and put the letters in my heart where they discover feelings I never knew I had.
Copyright © 2023 by David Lawrence.
Bracketed by Brackets
Brackets are a monstrous form of parentheses. They are the shape of cages. They are the gorillas of language swinging from bars. They are the cell I was in at Schuylkill Federal Prison camp. Not really, I was in a dorm with a bunch of cons who just didn’t give a damn.
My mentality is surrounded by my cage and the paranoia of tourists throwing me peanuts and a banana. Look at me. Whoopee. I am a gorilla hunted by a stupid, self-satisfied system.
Bracket me in love which allows no freedom but tongue kissing in obsession. I am tired of being hurt by your disapproval. I need some affection.
Brace me away from all casual nature and let me swing from your love like an ape playing with his banana. When I make love, I make love to myself finding peace inside of my head. Thoughts lean on me, embrace me, find truth in consequences.
I am bracketed by brackets and find separation in my diacritical marks. They are either square or round. I think square is more separating. I don’t know. It is in not knowing that I am separated from the self-justifying. Give me peace. Give me myself.
Copyright © 2023 by David Lawrence.
An ellipsis is an act of omission with a trail of dots….to hint at the ill-defined. It indicates where the ghost is lurking in a hidden meaning.
It is a slide into home plate promising the meaning of a home run after the slugger’s swing in the uproar of the fans.
It hints at what is missing and promises the possibility of what is to come after the expectation has been revealed.
It is a grammarian’s excuse for being abstruse about logic and an escape from the logic of definition by escaping into come what see, come what may.
It is not a naked space which implies absence of effort but a doted approximation of measles like a darkly held effort at meaning’s encapsulation.
When the sentence is avoided, the ellipsis is punctuated by dots dribbling along Ebbitt’s Field in the fifties. I always hated baseball. I always liked what you could do with a sentence.
Copyright © 2023 by David Lawrence.
About the Author
David Lawrence is the author of Living on Madison Avenue (Future Cycle Press), Lane Changes (Four Way Books), Dementia Pugilistica (Mudfish), Steel Toe Boots (Fithian Press), Blame It on the Scientists (Pudding House Publications), King of White Collar Boxing (Rain Mountain Press), Broken Paragraphs (Black Spring Pub., UK), This Book About Nothing (Cyberwit, India) and Coronavirus Breaks the Back of New York, The Interrupted Sky, A Cup of Crazy and Invading God’s Possible Universe (Wipf and Strompf.) His memoir, Nuts!! How I finally Cracked the Shell: The Bipolar 21 Day Misadventures of a Former Wall Street CEO is forthcoming from the University of Western Alabama and The Embers of Suicide is also forthcoming from Tebot Bach. He a semi-famous pro boxer and a well-known Wall Street Executive, with articles about him in People Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Crains, Men’s Journal, etc.
Anne E. Sonnack-Garcia
(from the novel-in-progress Against All Odds)
As Jimmy sat on the outcrop of rocks, he enjoyed the last of the warm yellow sun before it sank behind the hills in the peachy-pink sky. By this time in the early evening a few hikers braved the hazardous dark path with its steep trek down and loose rocks scattered about. One misplaced step in the dimming light could end in a rather painful trip to the emergency room with a twisted ankle or worse. He kept an eye on his old digital lit-up watch. He waited, planning on making his trek home around the time that his dad would normally be passed out in a drunken stupor.
Once the sun fully set, Jimmy would make his way carefully down the hill and cross the Santa Ana River bottom toward home. While parts of the river bottom weren’t safe at night, Jimmy figured by keeping his ears open and eyes peeled, it was safer there than at home. One just had to be careful to avoid the many dangerous situations that they could run into.
Jimmy had come across homeless encampments while hiking through it. Most of them were harmless druggies just looking for their next fix. They wanted to be left alone and were more than happy to leave others alone. Yet, some were mentally ill, and one never knew what kind of frame of mind they’d be in if you intruded unintentionally through their area. Then, there were those crazies that were simply looking to hurt others just for the pleasure of it. Hiding under the trees and brush they waited in their paranoia, hiding from the law and others they had wronged. They felt no humanity within themselves, as if social morays disappeared at the river bottom. Jimmy did his best to keep them out of their sight. Another concern was the wild pigs. These vicious creatures would attack anyone that disturbed the areas around their lairs, especially in the spring when the sows were protecting their young. Last, were the dangerous pockets of quicksand hidden around the edges of the water trickling down the dry wash bed. One never knew or expected such a phenomenon until they found their hike or horseback rides ruined by getting stuck in the sinking sand.
Tonight, Jimmy enjoyed watching the sun sink, the last of the warming rays touching his closed eyes. It was peaceful here. The only sound was the slow chirping of crickets and frogs. He said a little prayer asking God to please help him and his dad. He pleaded for help to change the way things were. He asked again for his mom to return and their lives to get better. He promised to continue trying to change himself to make things better. He knew if he tried hard, he could control it. He apologized again to God, asking forgiveness for these sinful thoughts. As he closed his prayer with a heartfelt, Amen, he heard the sound of someone scrambling their way up the hillside. He stayed quiet knowing that if he didn’t move, he wouldn’t be noticed among the shadows of the rocks. A slim person with shoulder length curly hair appeared. The sound of her labored breathing reached Jimmy. This was clearly not the sound of a person out for a recreational hike. As the dark figure got closer to Jimmy’s position, he could see her glance desperately around as if searching for an escape. Jimmy could also now hear someone else coming closer in a slower deliberate manner.
“Yoohooooo!” yelled out the deep accented voice in a taunting way. “Where are youuuu? Come back and plaaayyyy with meee!”
A slight whimper came forth unbidden from the figure standing a mere 20 feet away. Looking toward the rocks she ran toward where Jimmy sat, clearly looking to hide.
“Come here, Girl. Your mom isn’t going to be happy once she realizes that you ran off,” The deep voice harshly threatened. “Your mom works for me…it’s time that we think about you starting to earn your keep. I can make it worth your while. Face it, there’s no getting away. Your mother might have brought you into this world, but I will gladly take you out!”
The dark shape of a man’s head appeared along the steep path. Even in the deepening dark, Jimmy could see that the figure less than 2 feet below him was a young girl by her shape and the way she held herself. She froze clearly unsure of where to hide. Jimmy slowly slid down and silently moved behind her. Not wanting to startle her into disclosing her location he slowly reached to cover her mouth and whisper in her ear.
“If you need to hide, come with me.”
After a sudden shocking physical jolt from his touch, the girl nodded under his hand. He moved his hand away from her mouth and gently pulled her arm at the elbow. She silently turned and followed him through the thin passageway between the rocks. They dropped quietly into the cave and squatted silently next to each other listening to the sounds of the pursuer outside their safe nest. They could hear him shuffling in the dirt. He stopped every few steps and continued to speak in the dark.
“I know you’re here somewhere. You can’t escape me, Nevaeh!”
He continued on until he clearly realized his inability to continue his search successfully in the deepening darkness.
“Fine, you stupid girl! You try to hide for now. But I will catch you as soon as it’s daylight and you will pay for making me chase you!”
The two figures, hiding in the cave, were holding their breath as they heard the man stagger back down the path. Very slowly the two of them let their breathing return to normal. Jimmy turned slightly and whispered,
“Are you ok?”
It was too dark to see her features clearly, but he could see her nod. She responded dryly.
“For now, but if he finds me, he WILL make me pay for this.”
“Is he your dad?” The boy asked and she replied with a grimace.
Jimmy could feel her pull away and inch toward the entrance to the hideaway. He gently reached out to stop her.
“Hey, you should stay here. If you go out, he might be waiting for you down the trail.”
He was relieved that she didn’t jerk away from his touch. He reached in the dark over to where he knew the crack in the rock was. Jimmy pulled out a little battery tea-light found previously in the trash. He switched on the button and a soft light illuminated the interior. The girl looked around with a surprised expression. Her eyes fell on the pile of blankets in the corner. She glanced over at him, and he could see she was really looking at him as if trying to get a feel for his soul. He noticed her nervous habit of pulling at her shoulder-length dark curly hair. In the dim light he could see her warm caramel colored skin. In the golden-brown reflection of her eyes Jimmy could see her pain and anguish exposed. He immediately knew he could trust her.
“What is this place? Do you live here?”
Jimmy smiled his crooked, rarely used smile and shook his head. His right front tooth was slightly chipped from a previous fall from Bill’s harsh punishments.
Nevaeh felt in her gut that this was someone that could be trusted. His smile was clearly not something he shared often. He had an air of secrecy about him. His clear hazel eyes and open smile directed at her gave her confidence that he was a good-hearted soul.
“This is my escape place.”
The girl looked curiously at him.
“What do you need to escape from?”
It was the boys turn to look uncomfortable. He shrugged. Taking a closer look, she took in the fact that his light brown hair was scruffy and not cut well. His t-shirt was clean but clearly old and worn. His faded jeans were torn in the knees, more from overuse rather than from style. The pants were a touch too short in length. His tennis shoes had definitely seen better days. She was grateful for his help and didn’t want to embarrass him, so she stopped asking questions. Instead, she thrust out her hand to introduce herself.
“My name is Nevaeh Brown.”
“Jimmy Ledesma,” he answered as he took her hand in his for a quick shake.
He gestured toward the pile in the corner and moved to unfold the worn but fairly clean blankets.
“I put a layer of newspapers underneath for protection from the small rocks and the coldness of the ground. You can pull the blankets over you and spend the night here if you want to.”
He moved over to another crevasse in the small space and pulled out a couple of the water bottles he had stashed. He handed her one. She took it and quickly removed the top to take a few quick swallows.
“Thank you,” she signed gratefully. “I’m parched!”
He nodded to the corner.
“There are a few more bottles over there, if you need more tonight.”
He moved toward the opening in the rocks and paused. He reached over and pulled out a small flashlight. After checking to see that it still worked, he handed it to her.
“If you need to go to the bathroom tonight there is a port-a-potty straight down the hill and off on the right trail by the dog park. It’s a bit creepy at night but it’s usually deserted. Just stay as quiet as you can. Keep your eyes open for the homeless wandering about. Try to avoid them. You should be ok.”
He didn’t wait for her to respond. He turned and hoisted himself up and out. He checked to make sure that the guy that had been chasing Nevaeh wasn’t still around before he headed down the trail towards home. It was full-on dark. He prayed again as he walked, asking God to watch over the girl until she headed out to where she needed to go. Jimmy couldn’t help but wish that when he returned tomorrow, she might still be there. She seemed nice. His natural curiosity kicked in and he wondered what her story was.
She clearly had trouble at home. He could probably relate to what she was dealing with. It might be nice to get to know her.
A screech owl high in a nearby eucalyptus tree called out loudly as he slipped through the brush. He mentally kicked himself. The last thing he needed was to have anyone knowing his business at this point in his life. There were only 8 months left of school until graduation. He needed to try to stay under the radar of the teachers and other students. With luck, he would be able to walk for graduation in May. Once he was out of high school, he would finally be free of Bill. He could find a job somewhere and live on his own. But first he had to finish school like he had promised his mom he would.
He came up to Mission Boulevard and quickly walked towards 34th street heading up through Rubidoux. By the time he would get home, he expected to find his dad sprawled out on his mattress sleeping off his drinking. Needing to wash out some things first, he hoped to grab some undisturbed sleep before he had to get up and get ready for school.
Copyright © 2023 by Anne E. Sonnack-Garcia.
About the Author
Anne E. Sonnack-Garcia is a retired elementary school teacher. She attended California Baptist University in Riverside, California and has a master’s degree in education with a concentration in Language Acquisition. Her first book, Angel, was published by Father's Press in 2011. She finished the sequel, Children of God in 2012. Her next book, The Evil Journal of Dr. Jurgen, was published as an E-book in 2015. Since her retirement in 2021 she spends her days painting and writing from her home in Huntington Beach, CA. Visit: anneesonnackgarciaauthor.com