Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 4.05.09 PM

The staff of the Berkeley Fiction Review is pleased to announce the winners of our 20th Annual Sudden Fiction Contest!

Their work is featured in the current issue of the Berkeley Fiction Review.

Visit our Current Issue page to see a glimpse of Issue 36, attend our Release Party on Tuesday May 3rd at Caffe Mediterraneum (2475 Telegraph Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704), or visit our Order page to purchase your own copy today!


First Place:

“A Glass Half (Full)” by Athena Scott

Second Place:

“Green Onions” by S.C. Lewis

Third Place:

“DIY Novel” by JD Mader

Honorable Mention:

“Cherry” by Dylan Gallagher

Ashley Lin Wong, BFR Staff

Let me tell you something about the Horsehead Nebula.

It’s what scientists call an interstellar absorption, a configuration of dust, clouds of effervescent smoke holding crystals in the air. It just so happens that those gas clouds managed to fold themselves over into something that, from 1,500 light years away, looks like a horse’s head facing right.

The Horsehead Nebula is what scientists would call a miracle. What shouldn’t be there is there. Billows of stars and light angled just so, 1,500 light years ago, that they managed, at one point in time, to resemble a horse. It probably doesn’t even look that way anymore, they say, because what we’re seeing now has been over 1,500 light years coming. Could be a penguin or a tree, but that’s for the next generation to discover.

The first time I went to see the Horsehead Nebula with my dad, I was seven years old and skinny, shivering in the wet grass and damp of the night from Dead Man’s Hill in Hines. My dad was two beers in, whistling softly as he set up the telescope.

“What’re we looking for, Dad?” I said.

He just kept whistling to himself, twisting the stand into the base.

“You want a beer?” he said, pulling a Bud from the cooler.

“Dad, I’m seven.”

“So?”

He stared at me and my silence, his eyes glistening, luminescent as the sky above our heads.

“You wanna see something amazing, Mikey?” he whispered, coming in very close. I could smell the beer and his 9 o’clock cheese sandwich on his breath. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him this excited.

“Mikey, come look at this,” he said, his eye pressed fervently to the viewfinder, his outstretched hand beckoning for me. I pulled the viewfinder down gingerly until it met my eye level, and looked in.

He wrapped his arms around me like a python and guided the telescope in my arms until the stars went from pinpoints of light to flaming orbs of energy, whole other worlds screwed into the black canvas of the sky.

It was my first glimpse of the Horsehead Nebula, and it felt like all the air had whooshed out of me, like I’d hit the ground falling.

“One day, Mikey,” my dad whispered, his hand holding the telescope steady, “one day, we’re going to find a way to get there – humans are gonna find a way to get there – and then we’re going to be first in line to see. Just you and me, away from here, in space, and we’ll never have to come back.”

“But what about Mom? And Nick? Won’t we need them too?” I said, my voice high and reedy.

My father said nothing, the pupils of his eyes swimming in the starlight.

*          *          *

When I was twelve the teacher put a picture of the Horsehead Nebula up on the overhead.

“Does anyone know what this is?” she said.

I raised my hand and said yes, said that I had seen it before.

“Really? When did you go see it?” she exclaimed, her wide rubbery love-me smile painted firmly over gleaming teeth.

I said that I had seen it with my father, when we had gone stargazing a while back.

“How lovely,” the teacher cooed, raising her voice over the class’s rising snickers. “Has anyone else ever gone stargazing?”

“You fucking pussy,” Larry DeSoto snarled at me during recess, flanked by two of his rats. “Going stargazing with your daddy? You and daddy go stargazing a lot, drink tea, and play with little teddies and pony balls?”

They all hovered over me menacingly, only scattering when Nick came out.

“See you later, dipshit,” they laughed, grabbing my nipples and twisting hard.

“You okay?” Nick asked when he saw my watery eyes. I said I was fine, that DeSoto and his gang had just roughed me up a bit. I didn’t tell him how my dad had been out of a job for weeks, had been gone for days then returned like nothing happened and that now I could hear him yelling through the walls, both my mom and dad crying every night. They always began in whispers, harsh words passed back and forth under their breath, but inevitably one of them would snap and the argument would ignite until they were practically burning the house down with their charged insults. My father started sleeping in the basement.

I never asked why, never wanted to. I started seeing him every day in the parking lot of the Polish bar on the bus ride home from school. I knew how far gone he was, but I thought life could blot out reality as long as he didn’t say it.

*          *          *

The night before he left, my dad got drunk and spread himself out like a bear on my bed.

“Dad? What the hell?” I asked when I found him there around 1 am, still clinging to the sheets.

“Don’t complain, Mikey, I’ve had a long day.”

“Right, because every day’s a struggle when you’re unemployed.”

“Shut up.” My dad rolled himself onto his side so he could look at me directly. His eyes were so red and puffy that, for a moment, I wondered if he’d been crying into my pillows.

“You know what adulthood is, Mikey. It’s not getting wiser, or more mature, or any of that shit. It’s waking up in the morning and it’s twenty years later. And you’re married to your first girlfriend with two kids, and the job at the Ford plant you got junior year of high school is the only job you’ve ever had.”

I pulled off my shoes and socks, half-attentive, waiting for him to pass out so I could sleep.

“Remember what I said, Mikey? About the moon?”

“Sure, Dad.”

“We’re going to be first in line, you and me. First in line to leave.”

I guess some seven-year-old part of me was dumb enough to think he’d actually take me with him. Wherever he ended up going, whatever would happen between him and Mom, I never believed that he would leave without me.

*          *          *

When I was sixteen, my dad pulled his truck out of our driveway and never came back.

*          *          *

The Horsehead Nebula is what some people refer to as a miracle.

I say it’s just fucking clouds of gas, people, get over it. You can make that stuff at home.

*          *          *

Let me tell you something about miracles: they don’t exist.

Emily Conway, BFR Staff

I think getting hit by a suburban and a cement truck in the same day should tell you something about the kind of day I’ve had. A family carryover, you could say; the best worst luck. I mean, I’m not dead. … Sort of.

Getting hit like that does a number on the body, but if the trajectories line up just so … it’s not quite “lights out,” as they say. Just puts everything on hold — like brakes at a yellow light, but I’m not driving. That’s where I’m at right now, I think. It’s hard to know for sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say I’m in a coma.

It makes sense, when I have the sense to think about it. Normally, I’m somewhere in the black. I guess you’d call it the mind’s expanse, or something else pretentious (my liberal art friends would like that; have they visited?). But I’m aware and I’m also not…? Not that it matters all that much; this is just an audience of one.

But I wish I could talk. I’m aware, more than I think the monitors can tell (I’ve watched television; I know how they treat the coma patients). More than any of my friends can, either. I can see through the slits of my eyelids, even though they don’t quite move the way I’d like to. I’ve seen you, looking at me. … If you’ve held my hand, I’d tell you that I felt it.

… If I could talk.

I had a pet die when I was a kid — the kind of impressionable loss that a seven year-old doesn’t quite yet have the mental capacity to handle. Or I didn’t, anyway. But my dad told me, at the time, that Sunny died when I wasn’t around because he didn’t want me to see him go — didn’t want to see me sad.

I should’ve been consoled, I guess, but all I took from that was that death had a certain amount of autonomy. If I was just stubborn enough, maybe I could wait it out, or at least have some say in making my exit.

That’s probably why I’m still here. It’s been a little while, at least. I can’t see much, or even for that long, but I know your outfit’s changed. I’ve seen your face change. From tears to something determined, hopeful, and now … I feel like the gaps between my seeing and not are growing longer, but I’m not sure.

It seems unfair to focus on just you; others visit, too. I’ve seen friends and coworkers in the periphery (what little I have) because you take the prime seat unless it’s family visiting. Though you’ve given up (practical; you always knew a lost cause), they never have. It’s the kind of luck we have. Family vacations, life events, dates … anything and everything, from momentous to mundane, could go catastrophically wrong — but we’d be okay. At its most extreme, if it went wrong just a moment too soon or a moment too late, someone would’ve died. But that never happened.

I guess they think I hit that sweet spot. I guess they’re banking on “never.”

… I hate to think of Sunny dying alone. Of curling up under the stairs because he, in his dog-brain, thought it was for the best.

I’m not dying alone. Selfish, yeah, but the next time they’re here, all of them, that’s when I’ll do it. Take my foot off the proverbial brakes and go on down that road, wherever it leads, because I’m not doing anyone any favors here anymore. I can’t see them. If I want to make this call, I better do it soon. Hell, they might unplug me if I’m not careful. No more waiting.

I choose —

Eric Zhang, BFR Staff

Kellen stood back and admired his work. He had decided that The Lion in the Glass would be his last painting.

In the kitchen, his wife Shela was scrambling some eggs in a pan. Her focus was dreamlike, and he snuck up behind her in his bare feet. She jumped just a little, and a squeak came from behind her closed lips when he placed both of his hands on her shoulders.

“I have something to tell you,” he said. Kellen reached around her and shut off the stove, not caring if the eggs would be undercooked. His wife turned in his arms, locking him in an embrace. He looked in her eyes and sighed.

“I heard back from the testing place a couple days ago, but I didn’t know how to break it to you then. They’re pretty sure I have cancer. Went for some more tests yesterday to see how bad it really is. I’ll be going back tomorrow to find out the results.” There was a pause as this revelation sank in.

“…Dr. Zhivan’s office?” was all she could muster. He had been their primary physician since they had moved here when Kellen grew tired of New York.

Shela was going limp in his arms, trembling. For the last fifteen years, they had lived solely for each other. With no children, they were two souls bound and alone in the world, and she closed and opened her eyes, reeling from the possibility that it could ever not be so.

“But…but you feel alright don’t you? I’m sure it’s not too serious. You’ll go bald in treatment,” she said, running her hands through his hair, “but it’ll be ok.”

“I hope so.” Kellen released her from his arms, and she sat at the kitchen table without looking at him. He scooted a chair beside her, and they shared a moment of serious, intimate silence.

Then Kellen’s phone started to ring, and he walked back to the studio room to answer it. Marcus, his art dealer was calling him.

“Hello, Marcus?”

“Hey! Kellen! I’ve got some really exciting news for you. Normally I wouldn’t talk to clients about pending deals, but we’ve known each other for a long time. You won’t believe the deal that I’m working on for you. There’s this guy that wants to buy your entire collection!”

“What? The whole thing? How much?”

“Five million! He says he wants the deal done sometime in the next two months.”

“Are you sure this guy is serious?”

“Yeah. Some big shot doctor named Diego Zhivan.”

Kellen didn’t know how to respond at first, but several moments later, while Marcus was still talking excitedly, a sense of dread consumed his entire being.

“Hello? Kellen? Are you still there?”

“Yeah Marcus. Look, I’ll call you back.”

Kellen dropped his phone without waiting for a response and lay down on the cool, wooden floor. The throbbing nausea of the past few months was coming on again.

Edie Sussman, BFR Staff

The small bell above the door rang sharply as Dr. Magellan and an accompanying frozen breeze swept into the waiting room.

“Sorry I’m late, traffic was hell this morning.”

Her receptionist nodded knowingly. “Have they still not put out that fire out over on the 101?”

“Nope. The pyromancy department has its hands full dealing with it.” She hung up her jacket and scarf and took down a white coat. “Any messages?”

“Nancy Roswell. She wants to talk to you about seeing a specialist for her skin.”

“Who’s my first appointment?”

“Tommy Winters, routine checkup. Trish is in room 7 with him now.”

Dr. Magellan gave a thumbs-up and a thank you, poured herself a cup of coffee, and stepped into her office to pick up her patient’s file.

She sat at her desk, flipping through the reports from his last checkups. Nine years old, third grade, in general good health. He’d first come to her about five years ago, when the cats had started following him home from preschool. She’d diagnosed him with tendencies towards witchcraft and recommended adopting a familiar from a service animal agency.

“Dr. Magellan?” A nurse poked her head into the office, clipboard in hand. “Tommy’s all set to see you.”

“Thanks, Trish.” As she left the room, Dr. Magellan took Trish’s clipboard and started reading through the report.

When she reached room 7, a small sphinx cat was standing in front of the door, blocking her way. It gazed up at her piercingly, and she took a step back despite herself. Familiars were known to acquire magical powers of their own, and she still wasn’t sure what this one was capable of.

“Tommy?” she called out. “It’s Dr. Magellan. Can you tell Svetka to let me in?”

A faint voice responded from inside. “You’re not going to give me a shot, are you?”

Oh no. This again.

“Tommy, you’re due for a flu shot. If you don’t get it, you might get sick. You don’t want to get sick, do you?”

“I’d rather get sick than get a shot!” Tommy shouted back as Svetka hissed.

“Do you remember the last time you got sick, Tommy? You couldn’t play with your friends for a whole week. That was no fun, right?”

No sound came from inside the room.

“It’ll only be a second,” Dr. Magellan continued. “And you can hold Svetka if it helps you. You’ll barely feel a thing.”

Still, Tommy was silent.

Dr. Magellan sighed in frustration. “If you don’t get a shot, I can’t give you candy?”

Tommy didn’t respond immediately, but Svetka stepped to the side of the doorway and began licking a paw, which Dr. Magellan knew meant she was free to come into the room. She knelt to meet the cat’s eyes and whispered, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a treat for you too.”

Fifteen minutes later, Tommy was sucking happily on a lollipop as his father drove him away, and Dr. Magellan was in room 10 finishing her yearly check-up with the Nguyen family.

“So Pamela, how are you enjoying middle school?” she asked as she finished filling in the state immunization records.

Pamela sulked in her wheelchair and refused to answer.

“Are you still on the swim team?”

This time her mother answered for her. “They wouldn’t let her compete anymore because of her… advantage.”

Dr. Magellan shook her head in disbelief. “You should take that up with the school board. They can’t discriminate against merpeople like that. In the meantime, are you still swimming for fun?”

Pamela mumbled inaudibly.

“What was that?” Dr. Magellan asked.

“I said I want to do ballet.”

“Honey,” her mother interrupted, “we already talked about this. The ballet studio just isn’t ready for someone with your condition.”

Dr. Magellan frowned. “I don’t know about that, Amy. You know there’s a wheelchair ballet studio just a few blocks down from here? I could give you their contact info?”

“Well –“

“Yes! Oh please oh please oh please Mom, can I?” Pamela shouted, her face lighting up and her gills flapping excitedly.

“You mean instead of swimming? But is that healthy?”

“As long as she’s still taking a bath once a day and drinking plenty of saltwater, I don’t see why not,” Dr. Magellan reassured them.

Pamela looked up at her with gratitude in her eyes. “Thank you, Dr. Magellan.”

 

It was around 2:00 in the afternoon when a nurse rushed into Dr. Magellan’s office, wide eyed and out of breath.

“You need to come into the waiting room. Right now.”

Dr. Magellan shot out of her chair and raced to the waiting room, wondering what could possibly have been so urgent. What she saw stopped her in her tracks.

“Frankie? Honey, what are you doing here?”

Her daughter looked up at her from where she lay on the floor, curled up tightly into a ball. There were tears in her eyes.

“I… I don’t know, I was just in gym class and then suddenly it was so loud and bright and now I’m here and I don’t know why!” She began to cry again.

Dr. Magellan knelt to her daughter’s side and held her in her arms. “No, sweetie, you’re going to be ok. I’ve got you.”

“Is—is something… wrong with me?”

“Nothing is wrong with you, sweetie,” she said softly. “Teleportation abilities run in our family, you know that. Remember Aunt Susan? How she would always appear at your birthday parties with all those balloons?”

“I can…teleport?” Frankie choked out between sobs.

“That’s what it looks like,” Dr. Magellan said. She could see her daughter thinking over this new information, realization of a world of new possibilities dawning on her. She smiled. It would take some work for her daughter to be able to control her new powers, but that moment of realization—the sudden understanding that a child had been given a blessing and not a curse—that was why she was a pediatrician.

Jenna Mohl, BFR Staff

 

Steve Flinton sat in an armchair and watched the morning news. He tried to hold his tongue as he checked his watch. Again. Nine-thirty.

He had wanted to leave the hotel by eight forty-five for the museum, and the hotel stopped serving breakfast at ten. But in a family with three women—his wife and two daughters—Steve had long ago accepted waiting as an inevitable part of marriage and fatherhood.

However, in this particular instance, the waiting was longer than usual. In spite of all his meticulous planning before the trip, Steve had failed to account for one very important factor: the hotel room they were staying in for the duration of their vacation had only one bathroom.

Steve, with a growing impatience proportional to his growing hunger, listened to the ensuing struggle that was the result of this most unfortunate of circumstances.

“Kat, can you move? I need to do my makeup,” said Anna, his youngest daughter, as she tried to squeeze in between Kat, his oldest, and Lily, his wife, for a spot in front of the mirror.

Kat, who was in the process of brushing her hair, refused to budge. “I’m not done yet. I still have to use the flat iron.”

“Why? Your hair is perfectly straight already! Mom!”

Lily painstakingly separated each eyelash, never looking away from the task at hand. “Anna why don’t you use the mirror in the hall?”

Anna scrunched her nose and whined in the way that all younger siblings do when injustice arises. “Because the light is better in the bathroom. Why can’t Kat use a different outlet?”

Lily pursed her lips and rummaged through one of her many cosmetic bags until she found the right lip liner. “Fine. Kat. Use a different outlet. Your dad wants to leave, so you both better be ready in ten minutes or we’re going without you.”

“Breakfast ends in twenty five minutes,” Steve interjected. He knew his wife. When she said ten minutes, she really meant fifteen or twenty. He wisely didn’t point out the hypocrisy of Lily threatening the girls when she wasn’t ready herself.

Such prudence, however, did not extend to his oldest daughter. “Seriously, Mom? You’re still doing your makeup.”

Lily’s eyes narrowed and Steve saw the flashing sign of ‘Danger Danger Danger.’ His survival instincts kicked in and he turned the volume of the T.V. up.

Kat, however, was saved by the interruption of Anna, who once again tried to push in, whining “movveeee”.  Kat picked up the flat iron and elbowed her out of the way. “It’ll take me two minutes! Just wait, Anna!”

Seeing that she was not going to get her way and that her mother was in no mood to arbitrate, Anna took up a new tactic. “Well hurry up! Dad wants to leave.”

Yes, thought Steve. Dad does want to leave.

“You’re not even dressed yet!” Kat pointed out.

Anna stomped over to the suitcase she shared with her sister and dug through the carefully folded clothes. Returning to the bathroom, she asked, “Can I borrow your scarf?”

Kat, running the flat iron through her bangs for the last time, answered, “Yes. But remember this the next time you get mad.”

Anna rolled her eyes and looped it around her neck. “Thank you. Out of all the sisters in all the world, you’re the very, very best.”

Kat fluffed her hair one last time. “You’re being sarcastic, but it’s true. Mom.” She turned to Lily, who was putting the finishing touches on her lipstick. “Can I wear your peace sign necklace? Please?”

“I don’t know where it is in the suitcase and I don’t want you tearing through everything.” Lily glanced over at Steve, whose jaw was clenched in his effort to stay calm. “We better go before your dad has a heart attack.”

“But I haven’t done my makeup!” cried Anna.

Seeing that his wife was ready, Steve felt as though he could now impose discipline without fear. “Too bad. We’re leaving. Now.”

Anna glared at Kat. “Thanks a lot.”

“It’s not my fault. Get up earlier next time. And wear your own stuff if you’re going to be such a—”

“That’s ENOUGH!” shouted Steve.

“Honey,” said Lily, putting her hand on his arm. “Calm down. We’re going to have a good breakfast and we’re going to be pleasant. Right, girls?” she said, with a pointed look at Kat and Anna.

“Yes mama,” said Anna with affected sweetness.

“Katrina?”

“Yes” she answered begrudgingly. And so, they shuffled out of the hotel room, down to breakfast, with Steve leading the way.

 

 

Moira Peckham, BFR Editorial Staff

It started in her fingers. Marie could feel the joints constricting and solidifying under her skin. With each new day and each new client, they grew tighter, unbearably restrictive. Marie was certain that they would stop working all together. But they didn’t, and when every client inevitably said, “Press a little harder please,” Marie would comply, leeching the tension from their oiled, shimmering pores like soap from a sponge.

From her fingers it moved through her hands, wriggling into the tendons and bones like inchworms through an apple. But her hands still kneaded the backs of strangers until they became as soft and malleable as butter on a warm day. Marie’s joints cracked and rebelled, but still she pressed harder.

The tension moved up her arms, into her elbows, biceps, and shoulders. She hunched. She flexed. She even tried self-massage, but nothing released the ever-growing knots under her skin. Her neck grew so tight that she couldn’t rest comfortably on her bed, every movement of her head, no matter how slight, pulling on the rigid muscles. Every little thing that touched her exacerbated the tightness. Marie tried twisting. She tried writhing. She tried lying very, very still.  But nothing soothed the perpetual aching in her body.

Her back felt like a slab of concrete punctuated with tennis balls but still she had to press harder. Each and every client it seemed needed to be elbowed, crushed and bullied into relaxation, their muscles like eggs waiting to be cracked. And so Marie pressed harder. With every passing day, she bore down with greater ferocity on the backs, arms, legs, and necks of strangers, trying to draw any small semblance of calm out of their taught, abused bodies. But it was never enough. “Harder” they would say, and harder she would coerce them into slackening themselves out on the table.

There was nothing to be done. This was her livelihood. There was no solace in her hours of loneliness for even then she had crush out her own constricting body parts. She was a block of ice. A gnarled old tree. An over-full balloon just waiting for the moment it could pop.

“And I just can’t take it anymore!” Marie cried out, looking to Dr. Meyers for guidance.

The doctor looked up from his notes, nodding, brain on fire, wishing that there was someone there more qualified to handle this situation.

“Marie,” the doctor said, “I know exactly what you mean.”

Caeli Benson, BFR Staff

I have a talent for recognizing faces in the crowd while remaining a face in the crowd. They stand out more than I do in my tie-dye and Hawaiian shirts or my Frida Kahlo socks. I see the flags flying over their heads; the staff marks where our paths have crossed, and the colors mark our memories. There’s Marge from Beverly Cleary, the girl who defends R-Kelly when she’s drunk. And there’s Nick from Latin American Studies, the lacrosse player who pronounces Chile like “chili.”

I relive these experiences constantly with different people all the time. I’m the only one who recognizes the other person, but it’s not like I do anything about it. I don’t say hello or wave frantically to get their attention. But with her, I did.

 

Dorothy sits with her feet crisscrossed, her fingers interlaced in her lap, and her head bowed low. Before I approach the green bench she rests on, I see how much age has withered her. The clothes she wears—her light pink plaid shoes, dark grey slacks, white dress shirt, and the black North Face jacket—hang loosely on her. Her hair is completely white, whiter than the dress shirt she wears on a daily basis. It seemed like only a few years ago that she was the woman who protested eating hamburger after the Mad Cow epidemic hit the US, who told me when I was eight years old that I’d never be a better writer than her, and who drove both of her Volvos into two different telephone poles.

I walk slowly to the bench, the dry grass and wood chips crunching under my feet. She looks up and the sun hat shifts on her head, “Well hiya, kid!”

“Hey, Grandma. How are you?”

“I’m good. Just resting.”

“That’s good. Can I sit here?” I point to the seat next to her.

“Oh, sure.” She grabs the small purse sitting next to her and sits it on her lap. It’s a new purse that she’s used the past two years. She never opens it, but she always fidgets with its zipper.

I sit next to her and we watch the families flooding out of the dining hall. I watch their every move, hoping that one of them will help spark a conversation between us. We used to talk a lot more than we do now, but it’s been six or seven years since it happened.

“What’s… that thing over there?”

I look in the direction she’s pointing. I tell her that it’s some sort of pipeline that firefighters can use in case of an emergency. I don’t know if it’s entirely true, but she gives me a small shrug saying, I’ll take your word for it. She looks up at the sky, staring at the tops of the trees. I follow her gaze, trying to see what she’s seeing.

I flip my phone open to check the time. “My dad wants me to take you up the hill to take your meds. You almost ready to go?” I ask, predicting the answer she’s given me every time I’ve asked.

“You know, I think I’m going to sit here for a little while longer.” I nod, and we return to our silence.

For the next hour and a half, I ask her icebreaker questions that I already know the answer to. How has the weather been in Berkeley? Really… cold. Have you been going to the Happy Hours at Amy’s cabin? Yeah… Lars brings me some wine and crackers. Have you written anything new recently? Well, no. I haven’t had time. I’ve been… busy lately. (I call my Uncle Lars every night who responds, “Oh, we just watched TV.”)

She swatted an ant that was crawling up her leg. She let out a laugh, “That was huge!”

“I never knew ants could be that big!” I joke.

I was thinking of another question when she asked, “Have you seen my mom?”

I don’t let the sigh leave my chest. I know that I should tell her the truth, but what’s the point? I remember the lesson I learned at Miller’s Place, when the patients would ask the head nurse where their husbands and wives were. “I haven’t seen her around in a while. What does she look like? I’ll keep an eye out for her.”

“Oh, yeah okay.” She chooses her words painstakingly, fitting each into her narrative. She tells me how her father, a Portuguese butcher, left my great-grandmother when he found out she was older than him, how they sold produce on the side of the road, and how her mother would only smoke two cigarettes a day—once after breakfast and the other after dinner. The more she talks, the longer it takes for her to form her story. I let her struggle through it because I’ve never known much about her or her family. She never liked talking about her life, but she showed me the diaries and bundles of old envelopes she wrote in for most of her life.

I hardly recognized my dad walking down the hill. “Hey Mom.” He said, waving at her.

“Well, hi…” She nodded, trying to remember the name she gave him.

“Let’s go take your meds.”

“Oh, okay.” She struggled to get up from the bench, so I gave her my hand. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” I whisper.

We begin the trek up the hill, stopping every five or six steps to let her catch her breath. As soon as we get to her cabin, my dad asks, “Do you know who this is?”

She looks up at me, “Well, no.”

“She’s your granddaughter.”

She looks up for the second time, “Oh!” She shines a smile up at me, and I smile down, trying to hold back my tears.

Elise Cox, BFR Staff

The world was churning, churning, churning. Not the real world, but the world in my mind. The world where things appeared a thousand times more grotesque than they really were, the world where every thought latched itself onto the previous one, until my every thought became one more bar in nightmarish prison of my mind.

My rapid inhalations made my teeth tingle and I wanted so badly to shut my eyes—tightly, tightly, tightly—but that would only accelerate the construction of the iron bars of my mental prison.

So many things to do, do, do. So many people to see, see, see. Places to go. Go, go, go. That’s what the blinking cursor on my blank Word document was cackling at me.

What did I have to say about the Mayans, when I hadn’t done the readings for this class for weeks, because I couldn’t keep my eyes open; when I hadn’t been to a lecture since the first week of classes because most days I couldn’t bear to get out of bed. Even if I had been a proper student, how could I possibly focus on the significance of Mayan culture in modern Mexican society if I had to do the dishes, walk the dog, polish my résumé, call my mother to ask how her chemo was going, going, going.

With every blink of the cursor, my thoughts churned faster, more powerfully, until they were a whirlpool of panic. I sighed shortly and slammed my laptop shut, holding my face in my hands. I was too exhausted to cry, so my shoulders shook and my throat rasped dry exhalations.

My roommate, Candace, looked up from her bed, where she was watching Netflix on her laptop. She pulled an earbud out, asking me what was up. I began to tell her about the churning, the prison, the Mayans, the dishes, the chemo.

“I’ll do the dishes,” she said placidly.

“It’s my day to do them.”

“So? I’ll do them.”

“You’ll do them.” Do them, do them. I bit my tongue to hold back the echoing utterances. So hard that I drew blood, blood, blood.

“Hey, um, John and me are going on the roof tonight. He’s supposed to be here in just a couple minutes, actually. Come with us.”

I protested—I couldn’t bear to third-wheel. I felt lonely enough, just being inside my own skin.

But John did come over just a couple minutes later, and he and Candace literally dragged me out onto the walkway outside our apartment. The crisp autumn air embrittled the iron bars of my mind and the whirlpool slowed a little. I was able to climb onto the roof by myself, tightly gripping the cool metal railings. The gravelly rooftop crunched satisfyingly under my Chuck Taylors. The faint, syrupy scent of weed mingled with the underwhelming dusty smell of autumn air. The night was quiet, save a siren wailing somewhere in the distance.

But the crunching, the smells, the quiet of the night—none of that stilled the ceaseless churning of my mind. It was the twinkling, twinkling, twinkling. Not of the stars above, but of the little amber dots as they blinked across the Bay Bridge. The cars were all kinds, I imagined—little Coopers, big semis. But from that rooftop, they all seemed so small and slow.
Small and slow. Small and slow. Small and slow.