by Darcie Little Badger
Sometimes, the world was too mysterious for her liking; Ellie intended to change that someday.
In the kitchen, her father nursed a mug of coffee. “You’re awake before noon?” he asked. “Did summer end while I was sleeping?” He smiled with his mouth, but his brown eyes seemed sad.
“Feels like it,” Ellie said. “Where’s Mom?”
“She took a dawn flight to McAllen.”
“Is that because …” Ellie trailed off. Every word about the tragedy felt like a psychic paper cut, and too many stings would make her cry. There was nothing shameful about tears, but Ellie hated the way her face ached when she wept. The pain felt like a head cold. “When did it happen?”
“Last night,” her father said. “Around two-thirty. He peacefully walked to the underworld. No struggle, no pain.”
“No pain? You can’t know that, Dad.” Although Ellie spoke softly, he heard her. Must have. He no longer pretended to smile.
“Lenore needs help with Baby Gregory. That’s why your mother left suddenly.” He put his coffee on the counter and hugged Ellie. His wool vest tickled her chin. Ellie’s father had to wear blue scrubs and a physician’s lab coat at work, but during off-days, he broke out the cable knit sweaters, tweed pants, and scratchy wool vests. “She has other duties. Your aunt and uncle are crushed with grief. They can’t handle the burial preparations alone.”
Oddly, thinking about Trevor’s widow, infant son, and parents helped Ellie push through her own sense of loss. She had a job to do: protect them from Abe Allerton. “Are the police investigating the crash?” she asked.
“I believe so.”
“Let me make it easier. Abe Allerton killed him. Abe Allerton from a town called Willowbee.”
Her father stepped back, perturbed. “Why do you believe that?”
“Cuz spoke to me in a dream. Told me who killed him. Same way that drowned boy told Six-Great-Grandmother about the river monster.”
“I see.” Judging by his furrowed brow, that was an exaggeration, at best. “Wait. What river monster are you referring to? Didn’t she fight a few?”
“The one with a human face and poison scales. That’s not important. Dad, I think Cuz reached out to me in-between phases, after his last exhale but before his spirit went Below.”
“It’s possible. You and Six-Great are so much alike.”
“You think so?” she asked.
“Sure. I never met the woman, obviously, but you’re both remarkable ghost trainers. Intelligent and brave, too.”
Ellie smiled faintly. “Thanks,” she said, taking a glass from the cupboard and pouring herself a cup of orange juice. She had no appetite for solid breakfast. “You know what this all means, though, right? Abe Allerton from Willowbee is a murderer, and he cannot hurt anybody else.”
“Should I doubt myself? Can we really take that risk? Six-Great trusted her dream, and the decision probably saved lives.”
“No. But …” Her father took a long sip of coffee. “As you slept, did Tre … I mean … did your cousin describe the murder?”
She shook her head. “We had so little time. Dad, he looked terrible. Bleeding and broken. It must have been torture. Can we call somebody? What about a sheriff?”
“Give the police a few days,” her father said. “Let them investigate.”
“Will they, though?” She thumped her glass on the counter. Pulpy juice spilled over its rim and pooled between tiles. “Everyone thinks it was a car crash, right? Even Lenore!”
“Ah. Well. Not really. Nobody understands what happened.” Her father adopted a dry tone, the kind he used to talk about clinical details from work. “Your cousin’s injuries are consistent with trauma from a high-speed collision, but his car was undamaged. Not a dent.”
“Uh? What? Was he in it?”
“Yes. A farmer found him parked along a wooded road. It was isolated. Not your cousin’s usual route home. Another puzzling detail.”
“Obviously, Cuz was injured in a different car, and Abe Allerton moved him.” Yet that wasn’t the obvious answer at all. Why would Trevor park in the forest and enter a stranger’s vehicle? If there was a terrible crash, where did it happen? Didn’t Trevor say that Abe murdered him? That required intent. What was the motive?
“Right now,” Ellie’s father said, “everybody is still wondering what happened, not who did it.”
“The what and who are linked! So, let’s use the who to find the what!”
“You aren’t wrong.” Ellie’s father moved to the dining nook, a table and three wicker chairs. He unfolded a paper map of Texas and spread it over the crumb-freckled hardwood tabletop. The map resembled a wrinkled tablecloth, its surface webbed by roads, rivers, and county lines.
“What’s that for?” Ellie asked.
“Your mother needs a car, so we’ll drive to the burial. I can leave the van with her and take a plane home.”
“Will Mom be gone a long time?” Ellie’s mother, Vivian (Ms. Bride to her students), taught high school math. The job might not be easy, but it came with one major perk: she had two months of summer vacation. “I can help her!”
“Are you sure? She wants to live with Lenore until things are settled. Might take weeks.”
“I’m sure.” She couldn’t protect Trevor’s family with an 800-mile gulf between them.
“Thank you.” Her father traced a path from north to South Texas. “This is our route.”
“When do we leave?” Ellie asked.
“Two days.” He leaned closer to the map, squinting, and pointed to a spot near the bottom of Texas. “What’s that town name, Ellie? I’m not wearing glasses.”
Ellie peered at the word above his fingertip. It was faint, as if printed incorrectly. “It says Willowbee. Dad…”
“I thought the name sounded familiar.” He checked the map scale. “Willowbee is about thirty miles away from the elementary school, and ten miles away from the road.”
“The road?” she asked.
“Where your cousin was found.” He looked up. “I believe you, Ellie.”
By Ruth Joffre
Our anniversary is coming up. Seven years this November. We like to count from our first date rather than our wedding day, because when I proposed gay marriage wasn’t yet legal in New York State. Aimee and I were one of the first lesbian couples to get married at city hall in July of 2011. Thanks to the reporters present that morning, some of our wedding photos are still floating around online. If you happen to find a picture of us, I’m the one in the white tuxedo beaming up at Aimee while she throws the bouquet at one of the photographers. It’s a gentle toss — one she warned him about and prepared him for. Her face is bright with happiness as she lets go, releasing the flowers like a magician freeing a dove. I haven’t seen that expression in a long time.
About a year ago, Aimee and I started talking about having children. “I just feel like we put it off for all the wrong reasons,” she said, citing our long wait to marry and our inability to get pregnant on our own. It was time, we decided. We consulted a doctor and a lawyer, readied the papers we would need so I could adopt our child after it was born. Aimee wanted to carry it to term. She was twenty-eight then, two years younger than I was, and in better shape. I had been a smoker in my youth, and my family had a history of heart disease. Aimee’s genes were perfect, as were the sperm donor’s. His file said he graduated summa cum laude and played rugby in his spare time, but that mattered less than the fact that he looked like me: brown hair, brown eyes, a round face that would have been plain if not for the curve of his cheekbones and the shapeliness of his mouth. Aimee called them that: shapely. His sperm arrived in an insulated container so we could handle the insemination ourselves, at home, where Aimee would be comfortable. We lit candles, played some relaxing music. Somehow, it never occurred to us to be afraid of a miscarriage.
It has been ten weeks. She doesn’t talk about it.
Our life has continued much as it did before, with the pleasant weeks of June giving way to a predictably hot and stifling August. Heat always exacerbates Aimee’s insomnia. For a month now she has been slipping out of bed in the middle of the night and sitting in the darkened living room, listening to jazz radio at such a low volume that I can barely hear it. Sometimes, when I find her there at one or two in the morning, she turns to me with an expression I can’t bear to see, because I know she’s trying to find the right words for something unspeakable.
Desperate to cheer her up, I surprised her with tickets to the Village Vanguard last night. “Think of it as an early anniversary present.”
Aimee pulled her face into something like a smile.
“Or we could just stay in,” I said. “Order Thai food.” Quickly, I rattled off half a dozen movies in our queue, knowing, all the while, that I was too late. Aimee had already clicked into autopilot. I watched, disappointed, as she went through the motions of getting ready.
“We can take our time. Our dinner reservations aren’t until seven thirty.”
She nodded. She’d just finished applying lipstick and was staring miserably at her mouth.
I hailed the taxi for us.
Our waiter was a young white man with pierced ears and an asymmetrical haircut. He smiled unpleasantly when Aimee said, “I’d like a bottle of Riesling, please,” before we even properly sat down.
Once he left, I said, “Aimee.”
“What? I’m pretty happy with the decision.”
“There’s a one-drink minimum at the Vanguard. You’re not going to make it.”
At this she merely raised her eyebrows and took a sip of water.
I waited until her second glass of wine to ask, “Did something happen at work?”
“Did something happen,” Aimee repeated ruefully. Then it was just a matter of sitting there and trying not to interrupt as she told me how one of her coworkers had just returned from maternity leave and was so excited about the baby and the pictures. She asked Aimee, “So when are you due?” And then she immediately got this look on her face, because she realized it had been four months already and Aimee wasn’t showing.
“She just caught me off guard — I thought I was done with all that.” The having to tell people, she meant, and seeing the pity in their faces. We’d made the mistake of telling everyone we got pregnant — everyone, including our bosses and coworkers. But, unlike pregnancy, a miscarriage is a private thing, and in its immediate aftermath it never occurred to us that there would be people we left behind, people we didn’t see that often, who would go on with their lives, assuming that it was okay, that we were five weeks, ten weeks, sixteen weeks pregnant. Smile! You’re having a baby! That was our story.
She’d given up on dinner by then. Instead of eating, she flaked the sole apart, easing the tines of her fork between the individual layers of flesh, separating them. Soon the fish was like a chain of uninhabited islands in a shimmering, translucent sea. I stopped trying to talk to her and instead ate in silence, sitting vigil as one hoped-for narrative ended and another more painful one began. Once or twice, her head dipped dramatically, and I feared she’d slipped of consciousness, but she always came back.
The waiter knew nothing of our troubles. He checked on us toward the end of the meal and asked if Aimee would like another bottle of wine, and because he said this in an ugly way, seeing the glass in her hand and the dull hollow of the bottle nearly spent, she hissed at him that the fish was dry. He scurried into the kitchen and returned with apologies from the chef and the house’s dessert special: a bourbon caramel custard with almond shortbread and lavender whipped cream. He also brought a pair of candles wrapped in glass so sinuous and thick that when the wax melted it made the light float over the table. Our wineglasses shimmered. Our unused cutlery collapsed into puddles, and outside the orange line of the sunset bled down behind the city, then disappeared.
I wondered aloud where the evening had gone.
Idly, I asked myself, “What if there were a place where the sun was always setting?”
Aimee managed to hear this. “What do you mean, always?”
“Always. That it would just keep setting. It’d never reach the horizon.”
“That’s impossible. It doesn’t make sense,” she said, her hand flopping severely in her lap.
I wished then that I’d never taken her to that restaurant, that we’d spent the night cuddling under a blanket, where I could stroke her face until she was close enough for me to whisper, “Let’s pretend, okay? We’re on an island in the sky.”
Let that be the story: us waking up early, taking a plane, landing in an impossible place where the sun never stops setting. It would have to be flying. How else could the island keep up with Earth’s rotation? How else can you figure it but as a fantastic dome supported by some impossible physics, costing some obscene amount of money, so that only the very rich can afford the trip? If it hadn’t been my idea, Aimee and I wouldn’t be able to swing it, but, since it was, we’re treated like VIPs and given a luxury suite at the Twilight Hotel, where staff greets us in shiny shoes and designer sunglasses.
“It’s best not to stare,” the manager says when he sees me looking at the sunset, that red glare bleeding across the horizon. “It could disturb your circadian rhythms if you expose yourself before lunch.”
By Imani Sims
1. She stains her lips
Diva red and daydreams
About kissing ochre skin,
A lip ring swings,
Tempts the body lean
Forward, pucker up; mouth
Taking mouth, what softness
Can be found, when
Shy eyes meet low
Blink, flood body. “I
Want you. Take me
2. There’s a poem her body
Wants to write across
His ribcage. Say thank
You with lips so
Full body’s organs almost
Burst with brick red
Grip chin, let teal
Blue nail part lips,
Slide a finger in,
Mouth housed tongue tasting.
A moan. Soft enough
To send shiver. Splinter
Let strapped leather stiff
Pink penetrate wet walled
Worship his temple pulse,
Arched back sweat, hips
Giving in. She winds
Into him, “call me
She says, as his
Body yields slick gold.
For Audre Lorde
By Jewelle Gomez
I think of you as a diamond
emerging from the compression of carbon,
shining and sharp
both dark and light.
It’s a stone that has come to mean
both delight and death
making it difficult to enjoy
the gift from the earth.
It’s not possible to see the
gleam adorning soft skin
without thinking of sweat
glistening on black backs
scarred for someone else’s pleasure.
Apartheid and murder cling
to the stones tightly as a necklace.
Yet it is a transubstantiation,
more important than that of myth.
Earth’s fiber wrapped tightly
around itself — friction and time
until it shines
like the sun.
So too are words — simply letters
and sounds draped and packaged
around each other to unexpectedly
emerge with meaning
often far beyond their size
or taste in the mouth.
Your words are those diamonds
from the earth, but you are the
one who toiled, sweat and shaped;
gifting them, wrapped in a prayer —
a plea that you’ll be heard.
You aim each like a scented spear
meant to pry me open;
make my earth fertile enough
to grow more words
Sweat drenched light
through a desperate time.
Jewelle Gomez is based in California. Follow on Instagram and Twitter at @VampyreVamp.
Excerpt from Blue Talk and Love
By Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time, the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.” –Virginia Woolf
Women curve themselves around the television screen, whipping their hair against their backs, smacking it over bare shoulders, bending low and shaking it at their knees. The beat is steady and they seem steady too, always the same, always the same, like identical parts in a moving machine. But there is always one who catches my eye, throws the beat off, just a little. Today her hair is yellow. Not blonde, or gold. Not a color I’ve seen on heads before. It is crayon-yellow, the color of the sun in the pictures on the social workers’ offices, drawn by the younger foster children, taped to the walls you sit under while you wait to go from one life to the next.
These same women are on every television screen — not just at the social workers’ offices, but at the homes, too, even the new one where I am now. This home is different from all the others. I have been to four by now, two per year since I turned ten the year before last. Most of the houses are loud with children and always smell like food, but here there are no children here besides me. The woman here, my newest mother, has never brought children in before. “I’m surprised we got you,” she tells me. “They never would’ve given you to me alone. Must be because of Obette.”
While the crayon woman dances on TV, the mother, Cheryl, talks about Obette. She says Obette is the responsible one, the clear-headed one, the one with the good job and the plans. She says Obette has taken care of her, and soon she will take care of us both. Cheryl stirs grits at the stove and says that Obette will come back soon. She says Obette will love me, that she’ll be so glad I’m here, and the three of us will be a pack.
Cheryl tells me about the dreams she has, and I’m not sure what kind she means at first — nighttime dreams or day. After a while, though, I know she means the better kind, the kind you can hold in your hand as long as you stay asleep. The other dreams — the day kind — are far away, like planets or imaginary friends. To me, sleeping dreams are better; they are all the way real, right up until they’re not.
Cheryl tells me that, when she wakes up in the mornings, she does not know where she is, how things work. She thinks people can move without touching the ground, or that her mother is holding her hand. She tells me she does not know what world is real until she sees Obette beside her. Then she settles into herself like bubbles into a pan of dishwater, and they can begin the day.
I listen and do not say anything. I catch words here and there and mix them in my juice glass. Pack, hand, ground, mother. I wonder about the crayon woman, if she speaks, what she does when she is not dancing behind a screen. I wonder if she has someone like this Obette, someone who helps her settle into herself. Sometimes, I imagine myself dancing like her, a little out of step, my hair a neon shock on top of my head. But then I think about what other people would say about me — the social workers, the kids at the school, my next mother, whenever my next life comes. So I sit by the screen, I watch and I listen.
It never smells like food here, even though we eat fine every day. Mostly it smells like a woman working hard to build things — smells like paint and metal and wood and cinnamon tea. Every day, Cheryl talks and works on the house, sawing things, bringing in pretty lighting fixtures that she says Obette will like. She tells me her plans for the house, how the two of them will sleep in the big room upstairs and my room will be the one right next door. I don’t wonder why they would share a room until Cheryl asks if I’m wondering. I shake my head and say, “No, it makes sense to me.” I think for a second what my past mothers would say about it, but then I think, How much can they matter, if they aren’t here?
Cheryl tells me we’ll all play games and dance together in the back room, but the front room will be just for Obette. “She’s like a man, but better,” Cheryl says. “Time alone is how she keeps her magic.”
I listen and watch the television, and then I go to the new school and I wait. Sometimes I’m waiting for someone to come — a police officer, a social worker — and take me to my next life. Sometimes I’m just waiting for the day to end. One time I try to wait for Obette, like Cheryl has been doing since I came here, but I don’t know how. A new life usually comes, the day always ends, but people are harder to wait for.
Soon I figure out that Cheryl is nice, and sad. I don’t know how she takes my silence. Sometimes I think that she likes how I listen. The dead space between her talking gets shorter and shorter, and I think that if I wanted to I could leave the house and go dance on the corner while she talks, do all the dances the video women do, and then come back to find her right there, still talking, just fine. But in the end, I wouldn’t want to go outside. I wouldn’t know anyone, and no one wants to know a girl who dances by herself.
Soon, I start to like Cheryl. I like the stories she tells me about all the places she and Obette have been, all the things they have done together, and the things we will do, the pack of us, when Obette comes back. Soon, I stop waiting to leave. I stay and make Obette up in my mind, mix her in with the video women, only the strange ones, the ones with sad faces or candy hair.
“She’ll be here tomorrow,” Cheryl says one day after she picks me up from the school. I am watching a video, but I turn to her and listen. “Or maybe sometime next week. Obette is afraid,” she says. “And fear slows people down. Do you understand?” But she doesn’t wait for my answer.
One day, in the summer, Cheryl’s dream is about ducks. They are half real and half fake, she tells me, with dirty feathers and ugly voices, but perfect orange feet. She tells me about their yellow color, how it’s bright but tinged with gray. She thinks they could fly, she says, because one of them, the biggest one, said something like that to her in the dream. “There were three of them, but then there were six,” she says, “and sometimes they were all just one. And when they were one they were Obette. They smelled like soup, the way she smells when her body is working hard.” And this makes Cheryl feel she should never wake up from the dream.
While she tells me this, she is frying sausages in a pan. She waves the spatula around, and I wonder if it will drip grease into the fire. Then I notice that I am afraid, and Cheryl is not. She presses the sausages into the pan and smoke puffs up, thick and almost blue. The grease makes a smear on the white wall that Cheryl has just painted. I worry that the house will burn down, that me and Cheryl and all the dreams will float away into ash. The smoke alarm goes off, but Cheryl just looks at me. I decide that I will cook from now on.
Later in the summer it gets hot and there is too much time to spend it all just waiting. Most summers, there is something new — a new mother or another child in the house, or some kind of problem. But this summer there is just me and Cheryl, going grocery shopping and making trips to the hardware store. Cheryl does all kinds of things to the house. She makes new banisters with ends that curl like thick wooden snakes and stains them in what she says is the color of Obette’s palms. She buys putty and scrapes it along the bottoms of the walls, then presses long cylinders of wood into it so the cracks between the wall and the floor disappear. “Obette likes things to be seamless,” she says, and I don’t think I know what she means, but I nod.
On the day she paints the front room — Obette’s room — Cheryl spends an hour standing in the middle of the floor, frowning. “It’s not right,” she says. “The walls are too flat for her.” Again, I’m not sure I know what she means.
While she works I watch the video women dance behind the glass, and I make a game of counting the ones I will like. I follow the rhythm while I wait for Kool-Aid hair, a set of green fingernails, or a pair of talking eyes to flash across the screen. There is always noise outside the house. Children from the school are listening to music, doing all the dances, rapping and singing and tagging the stoops. I would not say this to anyone, but sometimes I do imagine myself with them. Sometimes, when Cheryl talks about Obette — all the thing she has done and the things we will do, the three of us — I get a feeling that I could dance with the kids, that they might not bother me for not talking, that I might not have to fight girls to tell them who I am, to prove I belong here, in this life. Other times, when Cheryl talks, I am afraid I am like her, and then I want to run hard and fast, through the plaster and the brick, to get out. But I don’t want to leave Cheryl talking alone to the walls. And, also, I like her dreams. If I left, I would be alone, too, and I would miss them.
by Carlito Espudo
genderless void is only
a part-time gig:
always hungry since
“man cannot survive on bread alone”
pero like—– I’m not even a man,
and all i have are freezer-burned hot pockets.
genderless void is a kickass name
for a band but
more appropriate for the “o” of your lips,
the air between my legs,
or any place on this body
where you touched me, see
that’s the problem with
girls like you, Maria, you
will colonize a body, will
burn down all the crops to
keep yourself warm and then
refuse to love the ashes.
I don’t think you ever learned
how to be sorry, Maria, ah güey,
Maria! our problems will not wash out
if you clean my dusty chanclas
with Chanel No. 5 and
your processed hair extensions
Maria, how many more bodies will burn
before you finally get licked by the flames?
this is the last time i let you burn me.
and yet this is not the last time you will burn me–
Carlito Espudo is a poet based in California. Follow on Twitter at @ALittleManly.
By Dena Rod
My six-year-old body was consumed with desires I didn’t have language for yet. I was obsessed with mirrors, which I viewed as portals to another world. You see, there was always a huge chasm from how I saw myself to the truth reflected back at me in the cool silver panes that always beckoned. However, it wasn’t just mirrored closet doors I sought or the bathroom cabinet; any reflective surface would catch my eye.
I swiftly learned how bodies of water could serve me; puddles after the rain, the short-lived Jacuzzi that was in our backyard, the baby blue chlorinated water of the swimming pools where I took my swim lessons. I would examine the way my eyebrows curved and connected in the middle, the soft creased lines under my eyes, push my nose up so I could see the distinct hairs clustered inside. There was a foreignness to my body and appearance that I was seeking to understand. By foreign, I mean that inhabiting my body, this vessel of flesh, felt ill-fitting, untailored like I had unhemmed edges and broken zippers.
I didn’t look like how I saw myself. We were the first immigrant family in our white suburban neighborhood. I didn’t look like most of our neighbors. At six years old, the way I posed in the mirror was inspired by Kelly Bundy from Married with Children and I viewed her as the peak example of a woman and femininity. I felt so far away from her bright red lipstick, tight short skirt wearing self. I remember rolling up my denim skirt higher so that it would be shorter and tucking in the bottom third of my t-shirt inward to reveal my midriff. Later in life, I would note this experience as gender dysphoria, dressing in a feminity that didn’t feel earned or that belonged to me. My budding self only liked my appearance when I would have free reign to dress myself, with oversized flannel t-shirts pulled from the men’s section at Costco with large overalls that engulfed my body.
Windows especially enticed me. If the sunlight hit the white-hot concrete of our backyard just right, you could see yourself reflected back in the window outside. After the sun had set, our indoor lights provided enough illumination for me to stare at myself in our sliding glass doors.
The clamshell compacts in my Maman’s vanity felt even more magical, gilded halves that would satisfyingly click together between my hands after I would attempt to fine-tune my cheeks with blusher.
What perturbed me about my appearance was how everyone other than yourself could see you, how you looked, if there were stray hairs out of place, if your tongue turned red after a savored lollipop. The fact that you couldn’t look at your own visage if you didn’t have one of these magical objects seemed unfair. Why would humanity be cursed like this, where everyone can see you clearly but yourself? I tried to correct this by always staring at my reflection whenever I saw it, no matter what, a child Narcissus forever leaning towards themselves. Whenever I would come home from school, the first thing I would do is run to the mirror in my bedroom and see how I looked. My unkempt hair would puff up, made frizzy as I carelessly wound my fingers through it as the day passed. After all, Peter Pan lost his shadow and needed Wendy to sew it back to his feet to leave for Neverland. Who was I if I lost my reflection?
Ultimately, this obsession with my reflection was stamped out by my Baba who vehemently despised the way I would be distracted with myself. By dinner, I would pose in a presumably attractive manner, attempting to eat that evening’s meal in the ways I would see models and actresses eat in commercials. Of course, I understood this wasn’t practical but I was willing to make sacrifices to imitate the femininity presented to me. By age six, I knew how important it was to the world that I looked good. Otherwise, I would be relegated to a punchline, a joke that would cue the laugh track at my mishaps. Looking back, I realize this was one of my first attempts at assimilation, to blend in inconspicuously as to not attract any more undue attention to myself that my already hairy, brown body attracted in our white suburb. Yet, my Baba only saw his child growing up to be vain. My Baba thought that vanity was unvirtuous as evidenced by the way he would exalt my Maman who didn’t wear a lick of make-up on their wedding day. Clearly he didn’t see my Maman on her days off, furiously plucking the black hairs sprouting from her face in her magnified mirror. Vanity only existed if it was witnessed.
As I would sway and flip my hair in the reflection of the sliding glass doors in front of our dining table, my Baba would command me to stop. Harshly. His own eyebrows arched and connected in the middle like mine but not in an experiment of expression, but disconcerting discipline. But each and every time I dared to look above the rim of my dinner plate, I would see my fork sparkle, twinkling at me shifting under the light of the chandelier. I was happy to lose this battle of wills to my reflection and honestly, I would feel relief in the way that my reflection would dance to match the shimmy of my own shoulders. I was real because I could see myself.
My Baba had seen enough and was completely fed up with me and my defiance. Good little Persian girls didn’t disobey their fathers. If only he knew I wasn’t a girl this whole time, how I was trying to reconcile the image of what I saw of myself and how I felt inside. If only he knew that what I really was trying to do is find some trace of femininity that felt right and good and not like a costume that was bought for me off the rack. He commanded my Maman to pull the blinds over the sliding glass doors and the dull plastic didn’t reflect any light back at me, much less myself. Deflated and wounded, a tear snuck its way out of my eyes. As an only child, my reflection was the only constant companion I had, not including stuffed animals or dolls.
My relationships with mirrors evolved to be something more parasitic as I grew older. The mirror could be a friend, a confidant who would never lie to your face. But I soon learned how the mirror could also worm its way into my psyche and whisper all the ways in which I wasn’t enough of a woman. My shoulders were too broad to be a woman’s, as the delicate shoulders that a bra strap would slip down in an Oil of Olay commercial showed me. My shoulders sprouted the same black hairs that appeared under my arms and dusted the top of my thighs. These hairs made their way in between my upper lip and nose, crawled up to my navel from the waistband of my shorts. I didn’t want to bare my midriff any longer or roll those skirts up short like Kelly Bundy. The shame crawled in and I wanted to hide from mirrors, so I couldn’t see what I was turning into with these lumps on my chest and blood running in between my legs. I wasn’t enough woman and too much woman at the same time. Who did I think I was, playing at this game when I had barely figured out the rules?
I know who I am now, not man or woman, but a blend of both and neither at the same time. My relationship is fraught with mirrors as they don’t reflect who I am, but instead what the world sees when they see the expertly applied eyeliner and lipstick that I’ve mastered for camouflage. There’s safety in blending in but also danger in being in a body that is perceived to be woman. As I’ve grown rounder, the attention is lessened and tempered by the wedding ring on my finger but it only takes one full face of make-up to attract the heat of predatory eyes again. If only they knew that I was an imitation.
A Collection of Poems written During The Pandemic
By Regie Cabico
How Has The Pandemic Affected You Personally?
I dream in smoke. I dream in paisley. I dream in camouflage.
I dream I am the sidekick boyfriend of Will from Land of the Lost.
In a virus-infested world, squids have mutated into a proprietary alien intelligence.
We destroy them with sanitizers of vodka and coconut milk.
I move as if an invisible harpoon is lodged inside my lungs.
I talk to avocado pits as if they were potential Tinder dates.
I regrow scallions in egg drop soup containers.
Every seed is a jewel.
I label toilet paper. I can wipe my butt thru July.
My recyclables are used to build an alternative power source:
a hypersexed cage to store my pent up libido.
I worship the sun.
I use a sundial that breaks. I can’t get technical support.
I am The Little Prince in a mid-life crisis.
I open my mouth and doves cry.
My trip to Paris is canceled..
I astral project to ancient Rome
and find myself naked in a 3 way
with Time & Time.
This Is Beyond Cabin Fever
I raise a glass to the pessimistic foosball table
to the jaded comedian, the sexy janitor
& the owl who dropped out of high school.
A toast to Trader Joe’s employees sporting unicorn masks
at the chili mango, freeze-dried hibiscus chip, cilantro ube smoothie aisle.
Cheers to the ones who place blue tape 6 feet apart on the sidewalks
& one way signs in the narrow aisles of whole wheat buns and bran cereal.
Let’s pop a cork & splash champagne on our crotches
for the very specific words I have yet to learn
& to the socially distancing practices of Wakanda greetings
& high 5s that are 9 time zones away.
Let’s toast pitchers to the warrior hedgehogs training for Iron Hog on Facebook live.
Let’s snort several perpendicular lines of coke for the sloping hill that I am
lying naked as a glacier on a black leather sofa staying in one place
for hours, months, centuries, without moving.
I am a pastoral sunset of bushes that blossom and burning bunnies.
I am the lusty destination of your confetti funeral or ash wedding.
Toast me now with gummy bear shots & girl scout cookies dunked in tequila.
Let us orgy ourselves into the next species of human evolution, the cabinet of life!
forgive me for those I have scorned
from whom I ran away like a banshee
through the stormy marshes of commitment
for I know now in isolation that my heart
would stop churning dreams
without the human machinery of a hug.
I’ll swoon the moon for you
to get us through this mist.
I’ll wait for you season upon season
as the sepia bed sheets toss like ocean waves
in my sleep and when I find the sun
I’ll sit there solstice after solstice on a hill
composing you lyrics of cotton birds
perched on starry dippers
till you stealthily pluck the crisp orange leaves
from my hair but until then I’ll sit silently still
among a fortress of pine trees,
translating the chatter of stars.
An excerpt from When We’re Done Here: Stories at the Edge of the World
By Paula Molina Acosta
They lay in bed, tangled together. Outside, the clouds rolled over and into one another. The sun had long since faded behind the horizon, but the gray of the sky still shone through the window. The lock on the door was broken, so they had wedged the set of drawers against it, sealing them in for the evening. It had been months since anyone had tried to force their way in, but neither of them were taking chances tonight.
The world was a rare quiet. Beyond the comfort of the blankets and each other’s body heat, the room was cold. May played with Billie’s hair, her fingers warm and gentle.
“I want to give you something,” May said.
“Oh?” asked Billie.
May reached into her pocket and pulled out a small box. Though a little battered, and plainly reused, it opened easily. Inside rested a fine silver chain.
“For your ring,” May explained. Her chest rose and fell with each breath, and Billie, laying against her stomach, rose and fell in tandem.
“I thought you wanted it back,” Billie said, looking up at her. It was almost a question.
May shrugged. “I changed my mind.”
Billie raised her eyebrows. “I thought you said I was leaving you for a man.”
“That’s impossible,” May teased, running her fingers through Billie’s hair. Her hands were soft and sure, her touch gentle. “What man would take you?”
“This one, apparently,” Billie chuckled. May bit her lip.
“Well, women are in short supply on the moon,” she suggested.
Billie peered at the chain, tilting the boxt to see how it caught the light. It was delicate and fine, the kind of well-made chain that would drape like fabric across her collarbones. For a moment she dreamed of wearing it with a gown, entering a ballroom on May’s arm — May’s hair slicked back, Billie’s hanging loose around her shoulders, the two of them laughing somewhere clean and elegant with a glass of something sweet in hand. Someday, she told herself. One day. “Are you sure you don’t want it back?” She craned her neck back to look at the other woman. “I wouldn’t be upset if you did.”
“Yes you would,” May said. She shook her head “But it’s yours. Forever.” She drew the chain out of its box and reached for Billie’s hand. Their skin was warm where their hands met, holding each other a little too tight. May slipped the ring off Billie’s finger and strung the chain through it. It slipped, with a musical clinging, to rest in the center of the chain. May fastened it around Billie’s neck. It glistened, as if murmuring to them. Outside, the night sky was darkening, and the stars were appearing one by one, beckoning Billie out.
* * *
She was stumbling blind through the street. The blackened clouds had blocked out the sky and plunged the world into night. The smoke settled into her eyes, poisoning them with tears, until she could hardly even see the great leaping flames that danced across the city ahead. People ran past her, hazy figures screaming. She heard a crash, a surge of heat sending her reeling as a house collapsed into itself. Someone cried out for their mother. Her feet moved without being told to run; her arms outstretched flailed this way and that, seeking answers. A child nearby was crying. Someone shoved past her, throwing her to the ground. The world spun. The pavement burned through her pants, sliced up her knees and the palms of her hands. Welts on her skin crinkled and hissed like a steak on a grill. She cried out. The road was cooking her alive. She scrambled back to her feet. Somewhere, May was screaming her name. She couldn’t answer. May’s voice rattled. She heard fists meeting flesh.
Billie woke, drenched in sweat, and the bed was empty beside her. Her hands flew out, seeking May. On the nightstand, the little clock told her it was still early morning. The light outside the window was the same as it had been all day and night — the black-and-blue of space, the gray moonscape lit up with the unwavering light of a movie set. She shut her eyes, and willed her heart — buzzing in her throat — to calm. She laid in bed for a few moments. The generator hummed in the other room. Officers’ boots clunked distantly in the corridor outside the pod. Beside her on the bed, crooked and faded in the way that all handmade things were, was the quilt her husband liked to wrap around his shoulders while he read before bed — she could see where it had been mended several times over in blue thread. Always in the same stitch, the same hand.
Hugo was waiting for her in the kitchen, dressed in his miner’s uniform — a standard-issue jumpsuit in undyed white. Over his heart, a printed label detailed his name and identification number in crisp letters beneath the American flag and the crest of the corporation tasked with the helium mining in this sector. The jumpsuit always made him look taller than he was. He sat at the table, staring across the room at the television, which was lit up with the news from Earth. The time in the corner of the screen was a minute behind. Hugo had made himself an oatmeal breakfast with dried fruit, and left the materials scattered on the counter.
“I’m heading out with Marcos tonight,” he said when she came in. “Don’t wait up.”
“Say hi for me,” she said, and checked the coffee pot. Hugo had only made enough for himself. She would have to make more. “You two going drinking?”
“Does it matter?” Hugo mumbled. “Can you do laundry today?” he asked through a full mouth. “I’m running out of clothes.”
“I was planning to,” she said, making coffee. “And I’m going grocery shopping.”
Hugo nodded. He examined the dried fruits, dousing the oatmeal with sugar. “I got the messaging bill yesterday,” he announced.
“I’m guessing you’re the one messaging Earth all day?” he said. He slurped his coffee.
Billie turned away from him to the counter, preparing her breakfast. “It’s my best friend,” she said. “May. Is that okay?”
“Just warn me,” he said. “That shit costs money. And money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.”
“If I can finish getting my license,” she ventured. “I can pay for it myself.”
Hugo looked at the clock on the wall and shoved the rest of his oatmeal into his mouth.
“We can talk about it later,” he said, sliding the empty bowl into the sink. “Maybe when you’re more settled we can figure out the time.” He grabbed his phone and made for the door.
“Have a good day,” she called after him. He waved in agreement, the door flying open. For a second she caught a glimpse of the hallway, where a tall, curly-haired man was waiting for him. She caught the man’s dark eyes and he caught hers. Then the door closed and he, and her husband, were gone. It was the third time this week Hugo had gone out all evening with Marcos and left her home alone. She grabbed her oatmeal and coffee and took a seat at the kitchen table, half missing the rush of scarfing down breakfast before work.
He’s probably just telling the guys all about you, May’s messages promised when Billie had told her all about it. It must be exciting to have a wife.
“Don’t be jealous,” Billie murmured back, though what she typed out and sent was that May should get some sleep. She worked at one of the manufacturing plants outside of Chicago. Billie always worried about her around all that machinery.
I’ll be fine, May promised. I wanna talk. What are you up to now?
Missing you, Billie said. And laundry.
Paula Molina Acosta is based in Maryland. Follow on Twitter @paumolaco.
By Charles Jensen
Students gawked at the pedestrian bridge that crossed the Mississippi River between the East Bank and West Bank campuses of the university. In the night, a group of students wheatpasted 18″ x 24″ sheets of paper to the bridge, each one featuring the photo of a notable figure from history with three words describing their legacy:
Straight students were outraged by the displays. Some stuck their chewed gum to the faces of the writers, actors, politicians. Some just blacked out the word “queer.” I walked and looked at each one, taking it in, each Xeroxed page washed gold in sunrise. Though I had to keep my queerness a secret from most of the people around me, I felt in that moment like I was plugged into something bigger — something unseen that was tired of living in shadows.
In the moments leading up to the climax, Billy and Stu have revealed to Sydney they are the killers. They explain to Sydney that they’re going to ask her a series of questions and, no matter their answers, she’s going to die. Stu sidles up behind Billy and places his head on Billy’s shoulder. It’s intimate, capturing them in a two-shot in this tender pose, even as they are covered in blood.
They look like they could be in love.
My friend Lori encouraged me to join a group called SHADE sophomore year. Sexual Health Awareness and Disease Education was housed in the School of Public Health and led by Dave, a tall guy with wild graying hair who radiated positivity and support. There were about 15 of us in the cohort. I was offered special permission to join the group in the second quarter even though I had not taken the required public health course on STDs, and I instead learned the scripts for various presentations we gave on campus and in the community, teaching consent, good sexual health practices, and providing the most up to date information to other students.
The AIDS epidemic continued to ravage the gay community in the mid-90s. My high school health class had mentioned AIDS exactly once when my teacher told us, “If you have gay sex, you will get AIDS and die.” Though I knew intellectually how to protect myself — condoms were then the most reliable method of prevention and also freely available almost everywhere, especially on a college campus — the lack of research and public information made it a challenge to believe in any idea of safety.
It was rare in those years for someone to disclose their HIV status; the stigma was too strong, and there was too much at stake. They could be fired, they could lose their housing — any number of devastating actions could be taken against them, but it also meant facing stigma from within the queer community as well. As a public health crisis, those fighting to stop the spread of AIDS took drastic measures to change sexual behavior, sometimes seeming to echo the words of my health teacher. The Red Cross banned sexually active gay men from giving blood, a prohibition that continues to this day, even when we have much more reliable information about transmission, detectability, treatment, and prevention.
For me, and for some members of my microgeneration of gay men who came out after the crisis began but before good information was widely available, AIDS was terrifying. We knew of thousands of men died slow, difficult deaths in the 80s and 90s. We did not want to be among them. When I came out to my parents, they told me they were afraid I would die of the disease. SHADE marched in the Homecoming Parade the next year, and I wore the comical full-body condom costume for the event: a long, gauzy tube with a cut out for my face and a rubber hat shaped like a receptacle tip. I handed out condoms along the parade route as other members of the group marched with our banner and handed out handbills about our work.
SHADE undid a lot of the shame and discomfort I felt around sexuality. I was forced to talk about it, publicly, and to help people make safer choices. By extension, I made safer choices.
Billy spends most of the first act of the film trying to have sex with Sydney. He’s perfected the toxically male performance of acting like he doesn’t want it too much, but making it clear that he does, in fact, really want it, but only if she’s ready — and if that turned out to be now, that would be great.
Billy pops up through her second-story window, like if Romeo were played by James Dean. In the end, Sydney flashes her breasts at him as if to show him she’s trying.
After they’ve had sex and Billy steps out as one of the two Ghostfaces, he tells Sydney she was bad in bed.
What he means is, You didn’t please me.
What he suggests is, I couldn’t be pleased by you.
What he reveals is, I want something else.
I stood against the wall in the basement of the campus’s gay fraternity, near the bar, nursing my cup of party punch and trying not to make eye contact with anyone even as I gazed longingly at any number of men who passed by me. What did I want? To be touched, loved. But not seen, acknowledged, known.
The fraternity was an anchor of the queer social scene. Though I wasn’t a member, I was a fan of their parties. Their house stood at the end of fraternity row, tucked around a corner as if seeking just a bit more privacy than the other houses, as if they were more modest, more conservative. Inside the house, where the couches and side tables crouched along the walls and the spinning strobes and colored lights flashed while insistent beats played, the opposite was true. Everyone was more themselves there, as though passing through the threshold meant taking off or putting on one’s public costume. I loved these parties in part because it was easy to get booze, and booze quieted my anxieties and insecurities.
My queerness felt like a train passing me in the night, cars I could look into as the windows flashed by, but something I didn’t occupy, something that wasn’t carrying me. I was afraid of having sex and I was afraid of never having sex. Afraid of being left alone and of being fully myself. My good friend Karen walked up and introduced me to a man whose name I can no longer remember. He had short dark hair with bangs swept away from his face, five o’clock shadow working overtime. He had a kind face. He wasn’t in school; he was older, midtwenties maybe. Karen hovered for a few minutes but then excused herself to let us talk.
I don’t remember what the man and I talked about, but I know he asked me if I wanted to go home with him. I was outside my body talking to him. I heard myself say, Sure. I was drunk, or at least drunk enough, which was my goal. In the car to his place, it took five minutes for me to lose our location. I vanished into the city with him. I was nineteen.
I fumbled out of my clothes at his apartment. I kissed him. I felt his body over me. He asked if he could fuck me but I demurred. Then he fell asleep.
In the morning, he offered me breakfast. I said no, I wanted to go home. Was I sure? He could whip something up, or we could go out. No, I said. I pulled myself into my coat to armor me. He tried to make conversation on the way home, but I couldn’t. I must have seemed like a miserable person. He dropped me at the door of my dorm and I never saw him again.
“Good thing he didn’t murder you,” my friend said at breakfast when I told her what happened. She was half-joking. I hadn’t considered my safety in all of this — a privilege of being born white and male. The next summer, a young gay man launched a killing spree from Minneapolis, traveling down the continent to Miami where he shot Versace on the front steps of his mansion. I watched it unfold on the news. I considered myself, somehow, lucky.
By Christopher Gonzalez
I’ve been trying to feel more comfortable in my skin. Let go, man. Don’t think it, do it. That’s what everyone’s been telling me. Not you, but everyone else.
The club is thumping with Britney, Carly Rae, and Sia, and they all got my body loose. To feel this good on the dance floor requires space in my stomach. The last meal I ate: a bowl of Raisin Bran, a cup of oat milk. Lapped up every drop so I’d have enough to hold onto without feeling weighed down. I’m starving, but this way I can keep up with you. Except — you’re doing the Straight Guy thing. Again. You’re bumping against any woman who gives you an opening, and some who don’t. I’m not intervening; I watched you take several large pulls from a vodka Gatorade on the train into Manhattan, on an empty stomach, and the last time I got involved my nose made friends with the back of your hand.
A guy approaches me to dance when Whitney comes on and I will myself to stay cool about it. When he leads me to the dance floor, I spot a touch of gel on his eyebrows. I’m guessing it’s meant to keep them in place, which I get on a practical level: we’re all trying to tame the untamable. I smile, which elicits one from him that makes his face look like sculpted wax when we step into the wrong lighting. And tonight there’s a lot of wrong lighting.
There’s a good chance you’re hooking up somewhere. I assumed before leaving the apartment that I’d end my night abandoned, cooling off in the backseat of a Lyft, that I’d fantasize about taking your clippers and shaving a clean stripe down the center of your head while you’re sleeping. We’ve joked in the past about you hating my guts and my wanting you dead. Some nights this cuts closer to the truth.
I dance a few songs with Gelled Eyebrows until La Roux starts up, then he asks if I’d like a drink, which I do, but you’re disappearing through the side door and I know I should check on you.
In the alley, you’re kicking a dumpster, really laying into it. And now tonight is more like that time in college when I found you on the floor of our common room, in your boxers, hours after ditching me at a house party. You were eating cheesy bread from Domino’s, which you had told me I should stop eating because of the cholesterol, but when I knelt down to touch your shoulder and connected with your eyes, pink and glazed over from Everclear, you offered me a warm piece, the white cheese stretching away from the box like taffy. Tonight, I’m dealing with that version of you.
You start going on about how women don’t like shorter dudes, as if it’s a fact, how it’s all about your height, how your dance partner took off with a six-foot tall guy, maybe taller, with good hair and nice jeans, and how could you ever expect to compete with someone like that? I’ve been hearing the same tale since we were both nineteen and held toxic beliefs about what we thought women owed us.
Anyway, you say, wanna get some food?
Gelled Eyebrows is behind me, waiting to be introduced. Before I can ask him his name, you kick the dumpster one more time and say, Fuck it, there’s a bodega a few blocks away from here. Gelled Eyebrows and I exchange a glance, his eyebrows in full slants of confusion. I clear my throat and think maybe I should take pity and let him go, but then I nod your way, and soon he’s following me following you.
We stand in line at the bodega, our faces lobster red, hair soaked, our shirts damp and yellowed under the low-wattage fluorescent lights. Gloria Estefan’s voice hovers around us. And I think maybe the rhythm is going to get us.
We approach the front of the line and I can almost taste the grease hissing on the griddle. I’m drooling, starved. I got my mind on bacon and globs of cream cheese doused in hot sauce.
Gelled Eyebrows is squinting at the menu. I guess this is a bad time to tell you I’m vegan, he says, and you roll your eyes.
I’m thinking about a salad, you say. Doesn’t that sound nice? Your eyes are bloodshot now and you’re wavering with the rest of the crowd. I think about shoving your face down onto the hot griddle, create a beautiful sizzle. But no dressing, you add, though we didn’t ask. I stopped messing with that shit like a month ago.
More people pack in and our noses almost touch the deli case. I’m keeping centered with my palm on the glass; its grimy surface feels like our entire world.
We pay for our food and step back outside. The air is cooler. Gelled Eyebrows slows behind us. He says, This has been, well, something, but I’m heading home.
Are you sure? I ask, though I lose interest before he answers. He shoves both hands in his pockets and the two of us are caught in a stalemate, which you break by holding out your salad container, saying, Actually do you want this? There’s no cheese or anything and I’m not hungry anymore.
No, not really, Gelled Eyebrows says. He pulls out his phone to request an Uber. I’m OK. Get home safe, he says, then he leans in for a hug, and I’m so surprised by his kindness I don’t wrap my arms around him. He pulls away, offers a pathetic wave as he crosses the street. I feel a pang in my chest watching him go. I had derailed his entire night, dragged him out to this bodega all so I could put off the inevitable: when the night loops back to you and me.
When it’s just you and me, I don’t think about our differences. We’re two short kings. And that scares the shit out of me. How easily I can fall in step with you. How safe this friendship feels when it’s just us, until we’re in a room with other people, surrounded by more interesting narratives, and I begin to pick myself apart. I get too caught up on everything about me that doesn’t match up with you that I can’t fully be.
The street is emptying out. I consider my sandwich. I rip open the aluminum and stare at two beautiful halves, the layers so delicate and perfect: white cream cheese, chewy bacon, a ripple of red hot sauce. Life is rarely this beautiful. The steam rolls up, tickles the inside of my nose and I drink it in, let it work like sage on my spirits.
You gonna eat it or make out with it, you say. You’re standing closer now. I imagine smashing the sandwich into your face, can taste the satisfaction of smearing cream cheese into your hair and burning your nose with hot bacon. But I offer you one half of the sandwich instead. And without another word you receive the offering, raise it to your mouth, and bite.
Christopher Gonzalez is based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow on Twitter at @livesinpages.
From the collection WHO’S YOUR DADDY
By Arisa White
Friends never really ask about fathers. To ask is to sometimes signal a personal failure. But when we feel triumphant from figuring out how to play handball with all three of us, it comes up.
Nicole with her round cheeks, dimples dipping into them, undoes and then meticulously fastens the Velcro straps on her Reebok classics,
“I often wonder
I wonder but
I wonder most
I become a homing signal,
an umbilical cord
My father, a rum zero,
will never add
my expectations my deepest needs
and the years divide us”
She pauses and turns and looks at me and Safiya, our backs against the handball wall. I am watching for that ultramarine sky that marks when I need to be home. Nicole’s eyes are asking,
“Is my father some kind of dream
reeking of crazy and Old Spice–
simply a distance in everything?”
Maybe we nod. We nod soft so she knows it’s not her fault he never came back home from the liquor store.
Safiya, whose father lives with his other family in Harlem, rolls her eyes, neck, sucks her teeth, inspects her hot-pink polish, bites off a hangnail, then spits,
“He’s nothing but
a warm brown set of limbs
the appropriate measuring tool
to sift his love from them to me”
They clock me for my story, with a silent impatience of thirteen-year-olds feeling fresh from sharing, and the sky is telling me to go. I rise up, dust the street off me, and the blood flows to the pin-and-needles,
I never had a father
I figured you might know”
We laugh something purple from our throats:
it rushes forward with many rivers, freely and deep,
muddy, and ready for the open.
by Eboni Dunbar
Aaliyah’s army stood on the precipice of home. Soldiers and mages in nearly equal numbers, all of them trained to bring glory to the kingdom of Titus. To Odessa. They were tired, they were hungry, and many of them were injured. They had gathered just around the mountain bend, before they could glimpse the capital city. While they awaited, the river captivated them, the bright blue of the blessed waters amid the forest of green trees, like thousands of emerald clad warriors themselves, as they waited for their general to tell them they could finally go home.
When the ground shifted beneath their feet, making some of the horses jump nervously, General Aaliyah knew that her runner had reached the city. Aaliyah closed her eyes, imagining the way the wall of rock would disappear into the ground, the power it would take to do it. It took great magical strength, tens of her stone mages, but still they made it look so easy. And it was the sign that General Aaliyah had been waiting for.
“Let’s get this shit over with,” Aaliyah muttered to herself, stretching. Her body still ached from the final battle in the southern isles, and three weeks of riding hadn’t helped. She shouldered her spear and prayed for a moment of peace so she could rest her weary body. “Let’s get moving, people.”
The air mage at her side nodded, lifting her hands and sending the message down the line. The golden symbol for air, three straight lines across her chest, glistened in the evening light as the white arms of her tunic ruffled in the wind.
Aaliyah could hear the crowd even before they passed the sheared stone mountain that led into the capital. With the walls down, all of Titus waited for them, thousands of people, hundreds of thousands if she was honest with herself. Cheering. For her. Her stomach roiled even as she sat up straighter on Hassim, her beautiful horse. She pulled her spear tight to her chest and wished that they had taken more time on the road, enjoyed the slow journey back.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be home. She wanted her warm bed and her warmer woman. She wanted her people, and the people of the army she led, to have whatever or whoever they wanted as well. But she hated the fanfare her sister insisted upon — Odessa was all drama.
They took the curve and the smiling, yelling faces of the capital came into view. Despite the masses, she was grateful to finally glimpse the domes and obsidian spires of the palace Lockheart. As children, she and Odessa had always thought of it as their temple and now she called it home. She still couldn’t stop the butterflies from dancing in her chest at the sight of it.
To Aaliyah’s left, Sherrod, her third, was already smiling. He loved this part, and she was grateful that he did because someone should. Sherrod had spent much of their last down time re-pressing his hair, trying to tame his naturally soft curls to something even softer. He’d let one of his lovers dye it red a few days earlier, and Aaliyah had to admit the color suited his light brown skin. He ran a hand through his hair once more and Aaliyah rolled her eyes.
She looked to her right and caught Helima’s eye. The other woman rolled her eyes but the rest of her face remained blank. Aaliyah could count on her second to agree that all this parading around was stupid. Helima’s locs needed some attention but it would never have occurred to her to make sure they were done for this parade. Aaliyah cleared her throat and mimed a smile. The younger woman let her face relax into something just passable enough to be a smile.
Aaliyah sighed and returned her gaze to the people. She might not be happy to be on display but she was certainly happy to see them. The black and brown faces of the people of Titus blurred together for her as she did her best to smile and wave at them. The sound of her name on their lips was deafening. She tried to make eye contact with a few people as they went but found that nearly everyone lowered their gaze. It hadn’t been that way two years ago, when she’d left to conquer the last of the southern realms for Odessa. She had seen their confidence in her, in the pledge that Odessa had made, and which Aaliyah had carried out. It troubled her, but maybe she wasn’t the only one who didn’t like the fanfare.
“Mistress Aaliyah! Mistress Aaliyah!” A chorus of tiny voices made Aaliyah stop her horse in front of four children along the edge of the crowd. Hassim went still as she balanced her spear and climbed down.
“General,” Helima called out, but Aaliyah waved her away. “Don’t come talking to me when your sister has you by the balls for being late.”
The children’s awed expressions made her smile. They stared at her black ceremonial armor, made of finely woven leather and coated in obsidian for strength and beauty. It shone in the afternoon light. Aaliyah could remember being their age and seeing the old king’s guard wearing it, thinking how beautiful it was. How wonderful it would be to wear it.
Odessa had always been more interested in the crown.
“Wassup?” Aaliyah said, dropping down to her knees.
“You got food?” The littlest one asked, a boy no one more than four. His nappy curls looked uncombed and unwashed enough that Aaliyah surveyed the other three. Too thin. Their clothes threadbare.
She remembered that too.
Aaliyah stood up and turned back to Hassim. She gathered what remained of her rations from her case, then went to Sherrod and took his. Helima had already climbed down and carried hers over to the children. Together, they handed off the food, the kids’ faces lit up like fire in the night. The littlest one hugged Aaliyah round the knees. She closed her eyes but she couldn’t stop the tears from welling. She’d been a child who was this hungry, praying for someone to be kind.
Odessa had promised to be kind to the people of Titus when she became Queen.
Aaliyah mounted Hassim and waited patiently for Helima to climb back on her own mount. It took all of her strength to remain calm while she was seething. Odessa had better have answers for why there were hungry children on their streets.
Eboni Dunbar is based in California. Follow on Twitter at @sugoionna.
By Lannie Stabile
When temper swims through a man’s hands, he
becomes a contaminated stream, growing scales thick
as convenience store bricks. When I was 12, the
most dangerous fish was a bottle of cheap wallop. Two
bucks for 40 ounces of menace. We young minnows
thrash our tails against the current, feeling for the dry
bank in our mothers’ river. With gaping lips, we ask,
Why must we remain belly up? And our mothers answer,
Because we are hooked on weakness. It’s true
what they say: The last thing a fish notices is water.
Lannie Stabile is based in Michigan. Follow on Twitter at @LannieStabile.
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