Gabriela Ruíz-Leonard, BFR Staff

A pop, a rattle and a shake.

I hear the all too familiar sounds.

Pop, rattle and shake

She’s attempting it again.

Pop, rattle and shake.

Another bottle.

Week after week it is the same routine: break-up, get back together and break-up again.

I run to the usual location, the bedroom closet, hoping it’s not too late. The pills are neatly separated into five groups of five on the floor, yet to be consumed. Kneeling down beside her, I begin to cry, begging for her to snap out of it and break the cycle.

When she lifts up her head, all I see is a broken woman. A woman who has been verbally and physically abused by a man she gave everything to. I know the emotions I should be feeling—despair, pity, desperation—but instead I just don’t get it; how can you let someone ruin you?

Last week she tried cutting herself while she was alone, the week before she tried chugging a bottle of wine with a Tylenol cocktail. I share a room with her and the constant fear of another weekly attempt keeps me from sleep’s embrace. I don’t mean to sound bitter, but when suicide attempts become part of a routine you begin to feel numb.

Again, I know how I should be feeling, but all I feel now is anger. Why does my childhood have to be ruined by your mistakes? Selfish mentality, I know, but I’m not the only selfish person here.

Her daily wails and nightly muffled sobs no longer fill me with dread, instead I can rest a little easier as it reminds me she is still alive. I get a weird satisfaction from the angry voicemails she leaves him, because that means he’s not on the other line encouraging her to end it all; she is fighting back.

I didn’t understand desperation at the time; I remember looking up what manic depression was when she took me to the hospital with her. I was confused by the definition and all its big and scary words in the encyclopedia of psychology. I didn’t understand, but I was told the people in white coats did and that I should trust them.

A quick diagnosis, a new prescription and a fresh bottle of pills.

Pop, rattle and shake.

I didn’t understand why these pills would help but the others would harm her.

Pop, rattle and shake.

It seemed to work though, and a new routine was established.

Pop, rattle and shake.

One pill a day until it all went away.


After she was buried, we discovered that the trusty people in white coats misdiagnosed her and the wrong pills were prescribed, pushing my sister over the edge.

After she was buried we moved away, trying to hide from my sister’s ghost. She still haunts us in the silence; her wails and sobs may have kept me up, but at least they reminded me she was there.

My room is silent now. I hate the silence.

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Rachel Lew, BFR Staff

The trees are wet. Joey can see this through the small window of his room. For hours he has been roving, mentally, across the moist pavement and stilled cars outside. The sun is rising now, dragging itself out of its bed of clouds; soon its malignant rays will be creeping up his wrinkled sheets. Picture this: innocent Joey, helpless, the light exposing his soft shoulders, curved in meek avoidance of the other inert singularity under his blankets.

A decidedly female singularity.

He has not turned to Harper for hours, and does not do so now. Instead, lying on his side with his knees drawn to his chest like a dead beetle, he has been tracing mournfully in his head an image of her slim self. Reflexively, the voice of his art teacher guides him:

Let us start at the feet.

One curved white sole forms on his imaginary canvas, crinkled and tucked under a smooth calf.

Begin by fleshing out the light and the dark.

There is something both intimate and disgusting about bare feet. On one hand they remind Joey of public bathrooms at the pool, of slippery film accumulating on tiles; on the other, they are beautiful things in the realm of art, and make Joey think of old ivory statues, of new bars of soap, of a bowl of rich milk sitting on a table.

The toes of the other foot: creamy white dots, poking out tentatively from under pale haunches. Very good, says Mr. Meyer.

If only he could conceive this on a real drawing pad!

But Joey cannot wield even a charcoal stick with grace, let alone a paintbrush. After weeks of steady instruction, the marks on his paper are insistently large, dark, and awkward; no amount of lessons on perspective or shadow seem to have reformed his hand. Even Mr. Meyer, equipped with the blind faith of a young teacher, has become less generous in doling out encouragement to Joey.

Perhaps he has become disappointed in Joey. Indeed, even the most exuberant of instructors require the occasional verification from their student: a successful imitation, an independent epiphany—at the very least, verbal acknowledgement of the mentoring effort. But reciprocation has always eluded Joey.

The rest of his teachers have learned to ignore him. Joey is perfectly fine with this. In any case he is not the sort to raise his hand in class; the exchanges between question and answer happen too quickly to allow for the pauses between his utterances.

Despite what his teachers think, Joey is not deaf. In their voices he can discern not only the meaning of the words they speak so readily, but also certain sympathetic undertones and the leaden march of speech reserved for the uncommonly stupid. Yet, slow he may be, but not stupid—he only needs time to practice the purse of his lip, the lift of his tongue; each word must ripen before it is borne into the air. This his teachers do not understand. They catch him mouthing syllables and rush to his rescue with careful enunciations, hoping to wipe up the sentence before it dribbles down his chin. Unfortunately it is a dynamic that goes not unobserved by his classmates.

“Joey. Joey-Joey-Joey.”

“Coo-ee!”

“Fatty-says-what?

they whisper, trying to get him to utter the hallmark of the hearing-impaired.

Joey has tried to gratify them in the past. Each time, it has ended poorly; each time, he has imagined that if he is to give them one word, it will be the most articulate, scathing monosyllable that anyone has ever pronounced; whipping his head around, he will deliver it like a blow, and they, unfortunate animals, will be shocked into their own silence. Naturally, when he does turn around in his seat, he is so furious that the word comes out in funny puffs: “Wh-wh—wh—”; his classmates, capitalizing on his likeness to a heavy freight train, only burst into further mockery.

“Look at him!”

“Look at how red he is!”

From fleshy canals in his head the heat spreads; his hands creep up and cover his ears, lest they begin to spout fire. What a self-conscious dragon he is, more agitated by the sound of their laughter than the cause of it. Ugly laughter! he thinks. Unseemly, large-mouthed, like the monstrous approximations of people that blossom on his sketching-pad. And yet he makes little effort to prevent future episodes like these. Such unattractive details of his life he is only too willing to hide from others; for the sake of their own ears he stuffs them deep in cerebral folds, camouflaging them, with a sort of sick delight, amongst the couch-debris of his brain (dimes, hair-clips, crumbs, oh my!).

Alagia Cirolia, BFR Editorial Staff

Ritsa watched the witches gather.

The yew forest behind the hills bordered an absurd shade of green and were scattered with wildflower growths from the spring, which trilled with laughter in the warm dusk breeze. In a small valley within it there was dirt—a great brown clearing of soft decay that felt the absence of roots. The witches trod in all manners down to this nothing-patch, where a great yellow bonfire was stoked by the diligence of the dryad crones. Most of the women, age notwithstanding, pranced in unrestricted nudity down the hills. Some adorned their nakedness with a purple mud. Some kept the golden jewelry on their arms and ankles. Some simply sported antlers, tails, teeth. Cloaks and capes lined the forest like flags as the crowd grew. No witch need worry about her possessions, her enemies or alliances, her lineage. Tonight was Beltane.

The ash drifted over on the wind, the warm musk of dead branches casting a great cloud of heady perfume that settled on Ritsa’s wool skirt as she stood in a dense copse of pines upwind. She tugged at the neck of her dress, a dark pink shift coloured by the red berries that grew on the outskirts of town. She was nearly sweating, as if she could feel the growing heat of the fire beneath her. She swept her hair, a heavy curtain of wet straw, up into a bundle with a brown cloth ribbon she had tucked inside her bodice earlier that morning. She’d probably be in great trouble if Mam knew she’d left the Old Weaver’s house, and stolen ribbons at that. But she’d seen the specks in the sky—little black dots, hiding behind clouds in the distance like inverted stars. It was the Old Weaver’s fault, really. She’d spun enough tales, and now Ritsa believed them.

The incoming flurry of women dwindled, the surrounding forest left a spiderweb of abandoned clothing that seemed to make the bonfire brighter. Even naked, it was obvious who were sisters. Though dispersed, a taller bunch all had wild raven hair, decorated with sprigs of crimson berries that looked alarmingly familiar. They seemed strong as tree trunks, wise as old willows, regal and flexible as they stood unabashed. Ritsa felt she could see the glint of their luminous onyx eyes, searching for her. The older ones who stoked the fire were a merry, sinister bunch, a microcosm of mischievery composed of the oldest hags from each clan. Their skin hung like carpets of rotting leaves from frail branches, and yet they hefted logs from various piles in some chaotic dance, occasionally stopping for a brief bout of bickering over whether the next sacrifice should be Oak, Birch, or Holly. Another few were bulbous; all soft, spilling bellies and swinging breasts. Ritsa could almost hear them despite the distance, their words popping like sonorous croaks, laughter like muffled brooks bubbling over smooth boulders. These ones all wore streaks of brown dirt—the one closest to the fire had two long trails of mud, a sister’s palms dragged down her back, and close to Ritsa garbled one with brown hand prints pressed onto her chest, as if some sooty moth hand perched in her grand cleavage.

Ritsa watched the witches make rounds, a great circle of fire-tinted flesh joining and pulling apart. They had a peculiar way of greeting; one would take the palm of the other, face up, and the other would respond similarly, until both had one arm stretched out, one hand cradling the other’s palm, and with perfect synchronicity they bent to press their lips into them as a brief kiss. Ritsa’s skin grew flushed with jealous admiration from watching the women move around each other so fluidly, imbued with such enviable elegance. The sun had begun to drift below the line of trees behind her, soon to dip all the way under the ridge of hills where her village lay just outside the forest’s western edge—and still she felt smoldering, as if a million little embers had lit under her skin until her neck and cheeks and thighs felt aflame. It must be the magic, she thought, blinking hard, stumbling in a moment of dizziness. She couldn’t think, not when she was inhaling all the heat of their Beltane fire, letting the smoky sweet yew fill her lungs and flood her brain. She’d already rolled up her sleeves, feeling sweat collect in the creases of her elbows. The witches began the ceremony. The crones, each with a different branch, exotic boughs from their home forests, held them aflame in front of them and gave a yip, shriek, chatter, as the witches began to surge forward. Each stopped in front of their older sister, cupped her hands, took a bit of the Witch’s flame, which seemed to alight in her hands like a flickering sparrow, and douse herself, letting the fire roll like water over her neck, shoulders, breasts and bottom, until it slipped over the tips of her feet and disappeared into the brown soil, leaving her glowing.

At this, Ritsa was scorched. The wool was determined to suffocate her until she was gray, her bodice scratching heavily against the delicate skin of her shoulders. With a startled cry, she lifted the dampened cloth up over her knees, hips, back, until it was merely a dusky rose flag, caught on a branch, blending into the night.

Elva Bonsall, BFR Staff

woods

While it’s easy to forget stories, their details, characters, and perhaps even the imagery so painstakingly created for the page, it’s unnervingly difficult to forget the impression it leaves upon you. Cold, slippery, and often creeping into your thoughts long after the story itself has been filed away and stored in memory, old emotions from stories often appear to the reader in different forms.

Miserable, lost, and fed up with underpowered technology, I once happened upon this little house, deep in the woods somewhere in a countryside far away. There’s no joy in being lost. Nothing wonderful about being late and out of place, either. And while consumed with hunger, disorientation, and a general aura of grumpiness I stumbled halfway up a muddy hill and found this tiny, tiny home.

While it’s easy to forget stories, it’s hard to forget the emotions behind them; what first connects someone to a page. Seeing this tiny house, I was no longer miserably lost but in one of the fairytales that was read to me as a kid. A sense of place from a small piece of literature I had read long ago made finding a random shack, far away from my intended destination, a magical and special happening. My emotional connection to this sense of place from a story meant I was no longer lost, and instead needed a picture to remember it by.

Megan Lee, BFR Staff

He fell in love with her sitting on a park bench. Her skirt, decorated with small pink flowers, rustled and flowed softly in the wind as she sat alone, absorbing the chirps of the birds and the ripples in the pond. It seemed to him as if she belonged there, as if she were born to exist exactly in that moment. Her long, blonde hair shined in the fading daylight, flowing with the wind in wispy tendrils. Her soft red sweater blended into the burnt fall landscape. She was supposed to be there. Perfect.

Then a man arrived, and the beauty was broken. She rose from her seat to greet him, this man, this black mar on an otherwise unblemished painting. They walked away together, holding hands. He held her hand carelessly, as if not aware of the graceful creature in his presence! As if she were nothing.

He walked away, angry, inconsolable. Nothing ever stayed perfect forever.

He watched her again as she worked at the diner, the dirty, disgusting diner. She was clearing away grimy dishes, still filled with other people’s half chewed food and spit. She carried away the soiled cups and plates as their eyes followed her legs, extending from underneath her waitress uniform, as they debased her to something animal, something impure. He stayed for exactly two cups of coffee, then violently crumpled up his newspaper and left the diner, the two memories of her warring in his mind. One was perfect and beautiful, the other tainted with disgusting reality.

He needed to keep her in the park forever, where she belonged.

He couldn’t sleep at night. He could only think about her in the park. Her sitting, poised perfectly as the days turned to nights. Her sitting, as the moon shined on her skin, illuminating its whiteness. Her sitting, as the stars illuminated her eyes as they stared, unblinking. He imagined her sitting as fall turned to winter and then to spring, the dandelions blooming and fluttering in the wind around her perfect immobile figure.

He would take her away, he decided, to where she was supposed to be. It had to be quick and clean, he decided, or else she would be damaged, and it would not be perfect anymore.

She walked up to her front door, jingling her keys as her weary heels clicked up the steps. Just as the lock clicked, her mouth was covered with his hand, and a quick, straight incision was made across her neck. As she fell, he caught her in his arms, nudged the door open, and carried her limp body across the threshold.

The next morning, she was sitting on the park bench. In the same red sweater, in the same floral skirt, in the same heels, she sat unmoving. The sun shined on her hair as it twirled and danced in the wind again. Even from behind the caution tape, he thought she looked beautiful. The blood had all been cleaned, except for just a little that had soaked into her hair. The stitches around her neck were barely noticeable, and although her head drooped to one side, he could still see her eyes shining in the light. Perfect.

Robert Tooke, BFR Staff

Driving town to town, I see little beauties and tiny facets that make and break the area: people, attractions, personality. It’s a nebulous idea and an easy ability being able to characterize an entire populace with a brief generalization in good accuracy, especially since road trips don’t offer much time and experience in three or four days, if that.

Social media, namely every youthful adventurer and their blog, helped breed this absolutely gorgeous idea for me that the Pacific Northwest is a lucid daydream where Evergreens, abandoned railroads, and delicate espresso shops lay along the coast, hidden in the fog as discoverable gems, waiting for wanderlust couples to find them.

Trekking up north from Berkeley during spring break, I realized it’s true. Actually, kind of. I spend some time scribbling down every detail and idea that wanders through my head about what I see, or what I wanted to see, because after scrolling through Instagram or reading way too many Gary Paulsen novels as a kid, I created this little monster inside of me that yearns to see everything that would make up the aesthetically pleasing Pacific Northwest.

It’s funny though because you also discover things you wish you hadn’t.

After a while, it became a routine to notice practically everyone staring at your racially mixed family walk into a hotel, restaurant, or gas station, and even worse, endure the occasional drive-by heckling, “Hey, boy! Look-y here…” It was frightening, disappointing, and wholly confusing. It was reminiscent of the antagonism in Deliverance and severely distorted my view of what I thought I could call an escape from school, ironically giving me more social anxiety than ever before. Before I make another generalization about what it’s truly like as an Asian-American spending his spring break in seemingly smaller, impoverished, and occasional racially driven towns, I guess I came to a conclusion the morning after I left Josephine County in Oregon that there exists a minute façade in front of every pretty idea. This time, it was that there was this heaven north of SoCal. I really don’t know how to accurately generalize the experience—I guess it wasn’t picture-perfect and I couldn’t exactly put it on a postcard.

The beauty of it is that I can always dream about the spectacular fantasies of driving by elk in Ecola State Park and meandering through the fog from Mendocino to Cascade Locks in my writing, but can never escape the reality of actually experiencing the living partition of racism up there in the paradise I used to speculate about.

Caeli Benson, BFR Staff

The sun scoured the football field for his next victim. He had a decent amount of fun with the asthmatic girl, even more with the boy who blew pineapple chunks. He noticed them sitting on the bleachers in their regular clothes, defeated. Which one will it be today? He perused all 52 options. None suited his fancy until the 325 pound boy waddled onto the field.

Justin lowered himself onto the turf, his joints creaking under each pound. He looked down at his Jordan’s, one of the laces coming undone. He struggled to get ahold of them, the ends slipping from the stubs he called fingers. The PE teacher hovered over him, providing him with temporary shade. He checked his name off the roll call, “So Mr. Blanchard, are you going to trot the mile today?”

“Don’t worry about it.” Justin kept his gaze on his shoe, not wanting to give his teacher any satisfaction. When his teacher walked back down the aisle, he muttered, “Asshole.” He looked up at the cloudless sky. Why did I fuck up so badly?

Justin Blanchard had sported an F+ since the third week of the first quarter. The occasions he and his friends decided to bless the teacher with their presence, they refused to finish the run. He enjoyed catcalling at the girls and badmouthing everyone. When he was with his friends, he felt untouchable. He could care less about what people thought of him, especially his PE teacher who got paid to sit on his ass all day.

But then his friends left. Well, “left” put it softly. Expelled is more accurate. What could José have expected when he lit the new girl’s hair on fire? Mid-April, and he had no one. His friends weren’t there to fail with him. His counsellor called him up to her office. All you need is a D, she iterated, then you’ll never have to take P.E. again.

They lined up at the 50-yard line. Five words ran through his mind faster than he could ever dream to: One mile. Four laps. Done.


The snickers passing Justin in the mile couldn’t amount to a tenth of the heat running through his body. He blinked the sweat dripping off his forehead out of his eyes, the salt irritating them. When he blotted at the sweat on his cheeks with his sleeve, he cursed under his breath at the recurring sunburn. He looked down at the ground beneath him, praying his sore legs would keep moving forward. He felt his head pulsing with his elevated heart rate. He rounded the corner, relieved.

Then it hit his lungs.

His breaths shortened, wheezing with each successive step. His lungs searched the air for relief, but every breath they could muster fell short. He collapsed onto the football field, the turf sticking to his face.

The Sun laughed at him from above, enjoying the performance the marshmallow gave him. The teacher kneeled beside Justin. Checking his stopwatch and his clipboard, he whispered into his ear, “Three down. One more to go.”

Serge Balassian, BFR Staff

Fuck. Did you fall asleep? You did, you fell asleep. What an idiot. You told yourself you wouldn’t do it. A few hours ago, mom said everything would be fine; there was nothing to worry about. Surely she wouldn’t lie. You crawl out of bed. Just past 2am, Christmas is less than a day away, a time of happiness for a 10-year-old.

Something is odd. An unnatural silence lurks in the air. Yeah, everything seems quiet, but you know better than that. This is the silence you get when the entire world stops and sits on the edge of chaos, waiting for one domino to topple over and set ablaze a chain reaction of terror.

Time to investigate. To the living room you go. Your sister is sitting on the floor, eating Lucky Charms—an image forever engraved into your mind. Why on earth is a 5-year-old awake at this time of night, eating in the dead of darkness? More importantly, what’s all the commotion outside? Before you can even think about these questions, you notice that the windows facing the street are being illuminated by a strong source of light. You hear heavy footsteps and radios, lots of them.

If you take a peek, someone will surely see you. So you run off to your parents’ bedroom and take a glance from there. Squinting through the blinds, the first domino falls over; a long night is set to begin. Outside are more police cars than you can count. A big black van is parked nearby. The fucking SWAT team is here. Mom lied.

Did he pull out his gun? Your dad always had issues with alcohol and anger, but there was no way he was stupid enough to shoot at the neighbor that night, was there? It seemed like nothing more than a simple argument. You tried to stick your nose into the business, but your mom put you to bed before you could get in on the action.

Sprinting back into the living room, you hear voices near the front door. There are people inside the apartment complex. Are those your parents? Only one way to find out. Taking your sister into your left hand and turning the knob with your right, you pull the door and give yourself just enough room to wiggle your head through and glance outside.

As you scan your surroundings, the second domino quickly falls; you realize that Christmas won’t be the same for a while. Much too young, you’re forced into adulthood in this moment, the proverbial cherry on top to an overwhelmingly lousy childhood. You look down at your chest to see a scattering of red dots. Looking back up, you’re greeted by the SWAT team, and you loft your hands into the air, quietly mumbling, “Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot.”