Masked Up

The Cat

by JOE O'SHANSKY | Sarah Stecher Prize, student poetry contest

My workout is the stairs, floor to ceiling
Because no one should go outside anymore
Green carpet levels, six stories high
No wind, not horizontal
But I can see the city through the windows
Rising and falling
And that’s close enough

Been sitting for a year now, and we talked about that
The sedentary life killed my dad, and I need to get off my ass
Don’t take the elevator, you said
Sounded like a good idea at the time
I’ve outlived my father by two years now
Though I don’t think I’ve lived much differently
And ever since the first day after
I heard the clock ticking more urgently

In the basement hall I saw the cat, at the end of the cinder blocks
It saw me first, I waved, raised
My right arm, breath heaving, the unwelcome shock came
My right arm grabbed my left, my knees met concrete
The cat, still and considerate
Echoed meow


Born in Manhattan in 1971, Joe O’Shansky came out the same year as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Straw Dogs, and Shaft. Despite no visible means, and being six years old, his first movie in a theater was Star Wars. His second was Saturday Night Fever. After moving to Tulsa he discovered Siskel and Ebert. And that was it. Decades later he became a film and pop culture critic for Urban Tulsa Weekly and eventually The Tulsa Voice, as well as contributing to This Land Press and Root Tulsa. He currently drinks, cooks, and eats with his best friends.

Nancy Nguyen says: “Masked Up” was created at a time where Asian Hate crimes were rising in the media during COVID-19. This piece displays the battle of Asian Americans with pixels and masks as a struggle to maintain identity due to fear.

Memorial in the Rain

The System


Pulled over for an illegal U-Turn
into the Home Depot parking lot
on the south side of our county,
the pickup truck and day laborer
side, the busted taillight and duct
taped window side, I’m eight months
pregnant. The police, hunched
to my window, holstered gun and
duty rig, red lights whistling blood,
stares, waits. He's asked me why
he pulled me over. He wants me
to put it in my own words, to admit
guilt. Elegance comes to mind,
how this road and shopping center
lack it. How a body must negotiate
a series of patchwork connections
every time one’s approaching
from the wrong direction.
This intersection, designed by
a person who would never
navigate it. Can I say architecture?
I’m a construction zone seeking
safety in a world of sharp edges.
The U-Turn offered me a hug.
I was following the crow: no energy
to spare. On the bus that morning,
I’d stood for 45 minutes,
walked three blocks to work and
back. Time in my dented Toyota
a twilight luxury. I guess I got
carried away. This intersection can’t
afford elegance, and I’m not allowed
to construct it here. The child in me
kicks and punches. I ask: Was it the U-
Turn, officer?


Katie Kemple's poems have been recently published or are soon forthcoming in Atlanta Review, Little Patuxent Review, Lullwater Review, Paterson Literary Review, and The South Carolina Review.

Al Keltner comments: "Simple, quick and beautiful moments are all around us at any given moment. The trick is remembering to look."



by JAMIE CUNNINGHAM | 1st Place, student prose contest

Karen entered the principal’s office in a flurry. The call from school had been frustratingly vague and she’d spent the drive across town trying to govern her emotions. Her daughter wasn’t hurt; she knew that much at least. Still, it’s never a good thing when the school calls you in the middle of the day. Karen gave the secretary a harried look and the secretary pointed to an open door.

Principal Brown was at her desk gazing at some sheets of paper while chewing on the end of a ballpoint pen. Mrs. Brown was an aging free spirit in her late fifties with frizzy gray hair, married to a sculptor, and she too often paired thick woolen socks with sandals. Privately, Karen sometimes wondered how such a bohemian could ever become a school administrator. Mrs. Brown was so engrossed in her reading that she didn’t notice Karen’s entry.

Karen scanned the room and found her daughter seated at one corner of the desk, hunkered over a crossword puzzle. Thankfully, whatever prompted the call didn’t appear to be a gory tragedy and Karen felt the tension in her face diminish some. The girl noticed her mother.

“Oh, hey Mom. What’s a six-letter word for, ‘a type of computer’?

Though she had always been a bright precocious child, lately Hanna was becoming a real handful, full of her pretensions. Eleven going on forty. A transformation that had begun in earnest a couple years ago. Ever since, well, Karen just hoped Hanna did not follow in her older sister’s troubled footsteps.

“Hello, Mrs. Ferguson,” Principal Brown greeted brightly. “Please, have a seat.”

Karen eased into the chair next to her daughter. Hanna, her tongue protruding from her pale lips as she concentrated on her crossword, seemed wholly unconcerned about the proceedings. She pointed to her puzzle and said, “Begins with an L.

“Is everything okay?” Karen tentatively asked the principal. “Your secretary didn’t really say much over the phone. Just said I needed to come here.”

“Everyone is fine,” Mrs. Brown assured the nervous mother with a smile that showed far too much gum for Karen’s taste. “No one is in trouble. I just wanted to talk with you.”

“Don’t believe her, Mom,” Hanna said. “That’s the same line she used to get me in here.”

“Today was Career Day in Hanna’s class,” the principal continued. “Each student did a project about occupations. Some did reports about their parent’s jobs. Others gave presentations about what they want to do when they grow up. May I ask, what do you do for a living?”

“Me? I. . . I sell real estate part-time,” Karen answered while looking to Hanna for help. She couldn’t recall her daughter ever mentioning Career Day.

“Hm. Well it seems Hanna has decided to become a stand-up comedian when she grows up.”

Hanna suddenly seemed evermore focused on her crossword, putting her little face close to the paper.

“Comedian?” Karen remarked; puzzled. This was surprising news to her. “There must be some mistake.”

“See for yourself.” Mrs. Brown tossed the pages she’d been reading across the desk. “That’s the routine she tried on the class today.”

Flummoxed, Karen began to peruse Hanna’s report and felt her face growing warm with each subsequent punchline. Halfway down the first page she exclaimed, “Hanna!”

“So, what do you think?” the girl inquired, cautiously.

“I think you’re too young to tell vagina jokes!”

“Oh, but I’m not too young to have one? That hardly seems fair.”

“This goes on for THREE PAGES!”

Principal Brown went on to explain. “The teacher stepped out for a moment and Hanna made it about halfway through her bit before the teacher returned to the classroom. We had to buy off the kids with ice-cream sandwiches to ensure that their parents never hear about this.”

“Oh—laptop!” Hanna chirped and filled in her puzzle.

“Hanna, could you be a dear and wait outside while I talk to your mother?”

“Sure,” the girl said. She collected her things and then made her exit, dragging her backpack behind her. As she went out the door, she said over her shoulder, “Just yell if you need me, Mom.”

Principal Brown rose from her desk to shut the door and then sat down in the chair next to Karen. Karen noticed the principal’s woolen socks had individual toes poking through the sandal straps. She frowned at the peculiar sight.

“I’m sorry about this,” Karen apologized. “I don’t know where this is coming from.”

Mrs. Brown held up her palm. “It’s okay. I’m not going to punish her for doing her assignment. I mean, she obviously put a lot of effort into it.”

“But—but, this, it’s,” Karen lamented, shaking the offending sheets of paper.

“A little misguided? Yes.” Mrs. Brown was showing her gums again. “I’ve given Hanna the afternoon off—excused, of course—so that, perhaps, you could take this opportunity to explain to her about what is appropriate and what isn’t.”

“You don’t think I condoned this, do you?” Karen was mortified.

“No. But in my experience, when a child acts out in class, it’s often for a reason. I remember how it was for your older daughter. Are things okay at home?”

“At home? Of course,” Karen said, though her intonation seemed to question her own words. She didn’t like where this conversation seemed to be going.

Principal Brown returned to her desk. She sifted through the clutter until she found a business card and handed it to Karen.

“This is the child psychologist the school refers our at-risk kids to.”

“At risk?” Karen was shaken.

“Don’t worry. The state covers the cost.” More of Brown’s annoying gums were showing. “Since the pandemic, there’s been lots of funding for mental health.”

Karen stared at the card. At risk? A head-shrinker for Hanna? Just because she told some off-color jokes? Karen felt a constriction in her chest and frowned at the principal.

“You really think this is necessary?”

“Maybe not,” Mrs. Brown shrugged. “But Dr. Thomas is very good. She’ll know soon enough if Hanna could benefit from counseling. I’m only concerned because of how things went with Hanna’s sister.”

Karen was numb as she rose to her feet. Principal Brown walked her out to the reception area, where Hanna was busy delivering an animated monologue to the secretary.

“Last night I thought I grew a boob,” Hanna was saying. “Turns out it was just a popcorn kernel I dropped down my shirt. You can imagine my disappointment.”

The secretary was in tears from laughter.

The drive across town was silent. Hanna stared out the window while bopping her head to the music in her headphones. Karen fretted over today’s events and kneaded the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. Her first instinct was to be furious with her daughter, but the referral to a psychologist had mitigated her ire. Now she wasn’t sure how she was supposed to feel.

Hanna removed her headphones and said, “I’m hungry.”

Karen sighed. “Hanna, since when did you decide to become a comedian?”

“I don’t know,” the girl shrugged. “I say stuff, people laugh. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

“Well, why couldn’t you take up a normal hobby? Like skateboarding or playing chess?”

“Mom, chess?”

“What? Girls play chess.”

“Sure they do—in Romania.” Hanna looked out and scanned the streets and found them unfamiliar. “Hey, where are we going? I just wanna go home.”

“Your little stunt interrupted my day, missy,” Karen scolded her. “I had to cancel a house showing because of you.”


Karen sighed. “It’s okay. They were never going to buy from me, anyway. But we still have to stop at the butcher’s and pick up stuff for Daddy’s party this weekend.”

“Party?” Hanna sniffed. “He’s gone so much, now we throw him a party when he comes home?”

“It’s his birthday, wise guy.”

At the butcher’s shop the pair stood in line with the rest of the busy lunch crowd. Hanna crinkled her nose at the store’s peculiar meat smell while studying the loops of kielbasa strung about like Christmas tinsel.

“Boy, it’s a real sausage-fest in here,” she said. This elicited a few chuckles from those nearby.

“Hanna!” Karen screeched through clenched teeth. She felt her cheeks go hot again. “You don’t even know what that means.”

Hanna flicked her eyes to the muscly young bagboy in his tight, greasy t-shirt. “Oh, I think I do.”

The rest of the week was largely uneventful and Hanna’s first session with Dr. Robin Thomas was Saturday morning, the day of Dan’s birthday party. Karen dropped her daughter off at the doctor’s office and then sped off to finish her shopping for the festivities happening later that night. Left on her own, Hanna walked into an empty reception area and wondered if she was in the wrong place.

“Hello? Anybody here?”

Dr. Thomas emerged from another room. She was young—younger than Hanna’s mom anyways—and quite attractive, which caught Hanna off guard. She’d been expecting someone much closer to Sigmund Freud.

“You must be Hanna,” the doctor smiled. “I’m Dr. Thomas, but you can call me Robin if you like.”

Hanna looked around at the empty waiting room. “Where is everybody?”

“It’s just you and me. Saturdays are reserved for my new patients. Come on in.” She motioned for Hanna to follow her.

The next room was carpeted in primary colors, much like a kindergarten class. The furniture was child-sized, all except for a couple of overstuffed leather chairs. In one corner was a bin full of toys and on a short-legged table were some coloring books. Hanna paused to inspect the books.

“Would you like to color?” Robin asked as she picked up a spiral-bound notebook.

“I got coloring books at home,” Hanna replied dismissively, and climbed into one of the leather chairs.

The young doctor made a note in her notepad and then took a seat facing the girl.

“So, where is your mother? Parking the car?”

“She’s at the party store picking up balloons.”

“Oh? Balloons?”

“It’s my dad’s birthday.”

“I see.” Robin made some more notes.

“Does she lose points for not being here?” Hanna asked, gesturing to the notebook. “Thought I was the crazy one.”

“Hanna, no one thinks you’re crazy. And, no, I’m not keeping score of anything.”

“If I’m not crazy, why am I here?”

“You don’t know?”

Hanna turned her gaze to the window. “I told some dirty jokes at school.”

Robin had gotten the gist of the story from her initial conversation with Karen over the phone, who seemed to be even more confused about the situation than Hanna. A follow up chat with Principal Brown helped to fill in some of the blanks. Brown also mentioned the family’s previous experience with Hanna’s older sister, Katie. A young girl on the verge of adolescence acting up in class was hardly unusual, but Mrs. Brown thought Hanna might benefit from an evaluation and the doctor agreed. Robin trusted the principal; Mrs. Brown knew her students well. Robin also thought it was notable that the mother didn’t attend today’s meeting.

“Your jokes were. . .” Robin searched for the right word. “They weren’t exactly age appropriate.”

Hanna shrugged. “I can’t help it if they’re all a bunch of babies.”

“Do you see your classmates as babies?”

“I was talkin’ about the teachers.” Hanna studied her palms. “Loretta, the school secretary, thinks I’m hilarious.”

Robin made more notes.

“How does your mom treat you, Hanna? Does she allow you to do grown-up things?”

“She lets me shave my legs,” the girl admitted. “But only up to the knees. Not here on my thighs. I don’t know what that’s about.”

“How does it feel?”

Hanna furrowed her brow. “How do you think? Silky smooth.”

“No.” Robin managed to suppress a chuckle. “I meant, does it make you feel grown-up to shave your legs?”

Hanna looked up at the ceiling as she pondered the question.

“I guess the first time it did. Now it’s just a pain in the ass.”

“Welcome to womanhood,” Robin quipped.

“Can I say ass?”

“Do you say it at home?”

“Not without getting’ an earful from Mom.”

“Let’s keep it G-rated, then.” Robin scribbled some more, then flipped to a fresh page. “So, tell me a little about your father.”

“I thought we were keepin’ it G-rated.”

The party was slated to kick off around six p.m. It was Dan’s fortieth, and Karen was determined to make it a grand affair. The backyard was garnished with balloons and colored lights. Tables were erected and covered with food and drink. In the far corner of the lawn a local band sat up on a small plywood stage. By five-thirty, guests were already beginning to arrive.

As a consultant for a software company, Dan Ferguson spent nearly two-hundred days a year on the road, though he usually tried to be home for major holidays, most of the birthdays, and some anniversaries. A couple of weeks each summer he packed up the family for a vacation. Yet, beyond that, Dan’s handsome face was rarely seen around the house except inside of picture frames and the occasional video chat.

Dan’s plane landed early that afternoon, yet Karen never quite found the right time to tell him about their daughter’s peculiar aspiration to be a late-night comic. Secretly, she’d held out hope that the good Dr. Thomas would deduce that there was nothing at all to be concerned about regarding Hanna’s behavior. Unfortunately, without revealing much at all, a second session was scheduled for next week. Since Dan’s arrival, Karen had been busy tying up loose ends in anxious anticipation of tonight’s soiree. It wasn’t until the band kicked off their first set that she finally took a moment to breathe.

As guest of honor, Dan was charming as always, holding sway over the dozens of guests with entertaining tales of his many travels. As the booze flowed, his stories grew evermore outrageous. So too did his flirtations with the ladies in attendance. Despite the blatant affront, Karen did her best to play the good host, moving through the crowd to insure everyone was enjoying the celebration. She soon discovered, though, that Dan wasn’t the only one who could draw a crowd. In a dimly lit corner of the lawn, she found Hanna, mid-monologue, speaking to a handful of guests.

“So, I got some new silk underpants,” Hanna told her amused audience. “Let me tell ya, that is not how you want to discover an allergy to silk.”

The onlookers chuckled uncomfortably.

“Hanna!” Karen barked and snatched the girl by the collar before she could go into any of the itchy details. Exasperated, Karen sternly sent the girl to her room without any discussion and then marched off to find Dan. It was time he knew what his daughter had been up to.

When she finally found her husband, his own crowd seemed to have diminished down to one: Linda, the shapely divorced harlot from down the block. Whatever story Dan was sharing with the tramp, he was doing it up close—Jeezus!—leaning in with his nose virtually in her ear. The sight of the pair sitting so close, practically canoodling, instantly brought Karen’s blood to a full boil. It also brought up bitter images of the others that had come before. The dancer in Omaha, the waitress in Spokane, the flight attendant at thirty-thousand feet.

The ones Karen knew about.

Karen quickly finished off her vodka-tini in one hot gulp as she fought to rein in her fury. Sure, she’d been no angel herself, she thought. There was that one time, with the young bagboy from the butcher’s shop—but that was mostly in a desperate response to Dan’s many infidelities, so it hardly counted. Besides, the tussle didn’t make her feel any better. If anything, she just felt older—and greasy; it took three washings to get the smell of cold cuts out of the sheets. Still, despite the stab of guilt for her own indiscretion, she still blamed Dan. For everything. Including for their daughters. Especially for Katie. With the booze helping to center her thoughts, she determined it was time to finally stand up for herself; to stand up for her daughters. For her family. She fearlessly approached her philandering husband.

“Dan!” Karen announced boldly. “We need to talk.”

Startled, but hardly fazed, Dan offered his wife the lazy insouciant smile that had always melted the ladies’ hearts. “Oh, hey, Babe. I was just tellin’ Linda about your rose garden.”

Good lord—he thinks he’s Brad Pitt! Karen marveled. To this she snipped, “Sure you were. Look, this morning, I had to take Hanna—”

“Can’t this wait?” he interrupted. “This is supposed to be a party.”

“This is about your daughter, Dan,” Karen exploded. Linda-the-harlot took this as her cue to vanish into the night and she scurried away.

“Babe, you’re making a scene,” Dan said while smiling awkwardly at the onlookers. “Why don’t we go inside?”

I’m making a scene?” Karen took a deep breath. “Our Hanna’s seeing a shrink, Dan.”

“Wha—Since when?”

“Since she decided to go all ‘Eddie Murphy: Raw’ in front of her homeroom class.” Karen stabbed a delicately manicured finger into his chest. “I blame you. You’re the one who let her stay up late to watch those Richard Pryor concerts.”

Dan chuckled—a dangerous move. “Jokes? Is that what this is all about?”

“Dan! Our eleven-year-old talks like Sarah Silverman—in public!”

“Who? Wait, let’s just pump the brakes.”

“I frickin’ hate you when you pump the brakes,” she seethed. “This is what you always do. Avoid the problem.”

“Karen, I think that you’ve probably had enough to drink, tonight.”

“No! You don’t get to do that. Don’t turn this on me.”

Dan flashed his dreamy smile and Karen, to her chagrin, felt herself falter. Despite everything, he still had his powers and he knew it. He was unflappable. Defeated, Karen slumped into a nearby lawn chair.

“It’s just,” she started, her voice quivering now. “You’re never here and Hanna has become so…so independent. And with Katie gone—it’s like no one even needs me anymore.”

Dan regarded his distraught wife as her tears made their debut.

“Hon, of course we need you. I think you’re overreacting.”

“Am I Dan?” Karen pushed her head into her hands. “I can’t lose another daughter,” she whispered meekly.

Sensing things were growing more serious now, Dan knelt at her feet.

“Honey, Hanna is nothing like her sister.”

“How? How is this any different?”

“Well,” Dan pondered. “For one, Katie was never funny.”


“Karen, I’m serious. There was absolutely nothing funny about Katie. She was serious and tragic and melancholic and histrionic and just plain mean. But she was definitely not funny.” He put a finger under her chin and lifted her face so he could see her wet eyes. “Sweetie, Hanna is not Katie.”

“You’re gone all the time, how would you know?”

“What happened with Katie won’t happen with Hanna. I promise you.”

Karen searched his eyes. He looked scared. The past two years had been an unsettled time around the Ferguson home and he’d been gone for most of it. Since Katie’s estrangement from the family, Hanna had retreated into herself for a time and seemingly reemerged as a shock comic. And now—finally—Dan seemed to get it. She fell into his embrace, sobbing; weeping for the daughter she’d already lost—and for the daughter she was desperately struggling not to lose. Dan squeezed her and dammit, it felt good. Right now, she needed him. She needed him now more than ever.

But she did not trust him.

Frustrated, Karen pushed him away and stormed off, pushing her way through the crowd. Dan watched her disappear and then resignedly sighed. Welcome to forty, he thought. From across the yard came a sharp squeal of feedback from the band’s PA system, followed by an amplified hum. The sound caught Dan’s attention and he looked over his shoulder to see Hanna up on the stage. She was fussing with a microphone stand and finally managed to lower the mic to her level. He paused to take in the sight of his youngest daughter. During his frequent absence, she’d continued to grow up without his noticing, and he was suddenly aware of just how much she’d begun to resemble her older sister. Radiant under the stage lights, Dan thought his little girl looked like an angel.

Hanna looked out to the crowd and then leaned into the mic.

Tap, tap. “Is this thing on?”


Jamie Cunningham is a Cherokee tribal member (wolf clan) and the author of Collapse of Chaos and Broken Parachutes, a collection of his short stories.  His short fiction has appeared in such literary journals as Confrontation and The Iconoclast.  He is also an accomplished guitarist and musician, playing on stages across the Midwest and appearing on a dozen albums over the years, and is a skilled portrait artist and graphic designer, as well. Alicuius mens in scriptis spirat.


All My Loves Have Grown Old


When wrinkles appear on immortal faces, I realize
I too am older, and we are all poets of memory now

there being more time behind us than ahead,
and the future is not so frightening as we give

ourselves over to time or to an end—and worry not
and take comfort in memories, and lessons we have

finally learned, or futility we have finally accepted,
or wisdom we carry like scars on a slave’s back.

All the poets of my youth have grown old. When wrinkles
appear on their faces, voices soften. Their hush is sweet;

their syllables salt; their breath, my breath, and I sit at their
feet waiting still like one in meditation before the lotus.


Ellen June Wright was born in England of West Indian parents and immigrated to the United States as a child. She taught high-school language arts in New Jersey for three decades before retiring. She has consulted on guides for three PBS poetry series. She was a finalist in the Gulf Stream 2020 summer poetry contest. Her work was selected as The Missouri Review’s Poem of the Week in June 2021, and she received five 2021 Pushcart Prize nominations.


Manifest Destiny in the KCA (Kiowa Comanche Apache) Rez

by JOSHUA CODYNAH | 2nd Place, student prose contest

Having a life sentence in prison can break most men, especially when they sit in the cell and think about what they done, why they done it, and knowing they will be in prison for the rest of their lives. Not me. I know I have a path to follow that has been laid out before for me even if I wanted to walk it or not. I am a Kiowa tribal member of Oklahoma serving a life sentence. But this story is not about what happened that night or the lives that were changed forever that night. No, this story is about something bigger than our families and, to be honest, bigger than all of Oklahoma.

Growing up in rural Carnegie, Oklahoma, in Caddo County, means, no matter what color you are, you grow up Kiowa. Like my best friend who always claimed to be part Cherokee but is white as milk: my family and friends treated him like he was part of the tribe. Like my friends, some being white who would eat with my family and go to pow wows: my family always gave them a place to stay or help with whatever they needed. Teachers and parents used our Kiowa culture as a living tool. Even the head coach for the high school football team played at being Kiowa. He heard us kids talking Kiowa, so he used that to his advantage by calling plays in Kiowa, so the other teams wouldn’t know what we were doing. I mentioned that Carnegie, Oklahoma, is in Caddo County because I grew up in a couple of other towns in Caddo County too: Apache and Anadarko. Those towns were mostly the same as Carnegie, adopting tribal ways, but I did see the occasionally ignorant racist in those towns. Not in Carnegie. Everyone in Carnegie, everyone, even the pale faces, knew it was Kiowa country.

But to me, there are different ways to grow up Kiowa. A Kiowa can learn the slang and run around with other Kiowas, but a traditional Kiowa learns the music, dance, and ceremonies. And then there’s Kiowa like me. I am a traditional Kiowa and O-Ho-Mah Lodge Kiowa. The O-Ho-Mah Lodge is a clan of the Kiowa tribe that began as a secret warrior society when the U.S. government made laws here in Oklahoma that prohibited tribes from maintaining their heritage and performing their ceremonies. Back then, the Lodge members would go to secluded areas to practice what was passed down to them from their elders. But not every Kiowa can be part of this clan because members have to be tagged in; we have five or six new members—maybe—a year. I have been a part of this clan as far back as I can remember, and, when my son was born, I tagged him in, making another generation for the Kiowa O-Ho-Mah clan. Most southern Native American music derives from our society because our music is old, dating back to the 1800s. It's so beautiful when sung. The Lodge is not a secret now, but as a kid hearing those stories of a secret Kiowa society (that I was a part of) inspired me to keep going, just like my elders, even in the face of prosecution from the government.

I’m sad to say that I can’t start a Kiowa song, but I can still dance. I can fancy dance, hoop dance, eagle dance, and shield dance. Growing up, dancing was as natural as learning to use the restroom. And dancing took me all over this country: Louisiana, Washington state, California, New Mexico, Florida, and even Massachusetts. I was able to show people what I was taught growing up because what was natural to me was new to them. I never thought that learning to tie a bustle or making hackles was different. I just assumed growing up everyone learned these things, too. But they didn’t, so when I danced for others, they got to see what they only had read about in books or learned in a classroom.

I forgot to mention I can also two-step. Our two-step is not the same as the country-western two-step. Ours is a social dance: a guy asks a girl to dance, and if she says no, she has to pay him one dollar. I was always broke. One time, my grandpa Thuke (not my grandpa Kiowa-ways) asked my mom if he could take me to Gallup, New Mexico. She was a bit uneasy knowing her son would head out west without his mother or father, but I was excited. Before I left though, the family gave me all kinds of traveling advice, like, “Don’t shake a Navajo’s hand because he will take your steps away,” “Don’t buy any turquoise,” and “Stay away from them Navajo girls because they will make you eat goat.” So, I headed out west with all that. When the time came to perform, I noticed there were other tribes besides Kiowa. Later, when it was time to two-step, I saw the most beautiful Navajo girl I had ever seen. You know when a guy sees a girl in the movies and her hair is blowing back? Yeah, that was the moment I had with her, with her hair blowing in the wind, turning guys down left and right. I kept looking and my aunt (not my aunt Kiowa-ways) said, “Why don’t you ask her to dance? At the very least, get a dollar.” So I asked that girl if she would like to two-step, and, to my surprise, she said yes. "I wondered when you was going to ask,” she said. To this day, I don’t know if she was really into me or if she was just broke when I asked.

Dancing has not only taken me places but given me employment. When I was in high school, I had a part-time weekend job performing my heritage at Indian City USA in Anadarko, Oklahoma. The headquarters to the Apache tribe at Indian City was such a cool place, sitting up there on top of a big hill that looked over Anadarko. It was a tourist attraction with different villages and live dancing by fancy dancers. There was also a dance ground below where we used to have our O-Ho-Mah lodge dances. I mention this place because it is where the Tonkawa tribe was massacred, abolished from this earth in that same place known as Indian City.

It was at Indian City that I had a profound experience. I went to work one day at Indian City, but we didn’t have a tour group, so I found a place to wait and fell asleep. When I woke up I heard Native American music blasting loud, which I assumed was coming from the gift shop. There still wasn’t a tour group, so I went in to get a soda in the gift shop. I noticed there was no music playing. I went to hang out at the snack stand with another guy and said, “Man, you guys were blasting that music loud, I could hear it all the way outside.” He looked at me and said, “We was not playing music. You might have heard that dead tribe singing. They don’t sing much anymore. You’re lucky you got to hear them.” It is a rare thing to hear a ghost speak but to hear a whole tribe singing just to me is an amazing experience. Things like that happened around there, but people usually keep that stuff to themselves because, honestly, who is going to believe a guy who heard a whole dead tribe sing? I wouldn’t believe it if I did not experience it for myself.

I want to mention Apache, Oklahoma, the hometown of the Rattlesnake Festival, and my Comanche/Apache/Kiowa grandma. My grandma was a proud member of the Comanche nation tribe of Lawton, Oklahoma. When I say proud member, I mean proud to be Comanche. She made fun of me for being Kiowa like my mom. Apache sits right in the middle of all these other towns I’ve mentioned, on the border of a mountain called Mountain Scott, which separated three of the most feared tribes in U.S. history. There were the Kiowa who roamed these plains from Wyoming, and not only did they have the O-Ho-Mah clan but they also had some of the toughest warriors ever known: the Black Legging society. They were called Black Leggings because the black soot from the villages they burned down would get up their legs and looked like they had black leggings. Then there was the Comanche tribe, known as Numunuh, but also known as the Lords of Plains. I cannot deny my Comanche side. The Comanches did what their name said: they maintained borders from South Dakota in Lakota and Cheyenne territory to El Paso, Texas, in Spanish territory. The Comanche warriors were excellent horsemen who could fight just as well on horseback. I compare them to the Hun people of China who could cover vast lands on horseback, but the Comanches may have been deadlier than Hun warriors. Finally, there is the Apache tribe. I am Apache myself but not the same Apache as Geronimo. The Apache tribe that sits in Anadarko is a different clan of the Apache. They’re captured Apache. It is so awesome to grow up in the area of the last of the fighting Native American tribes, the Apache. The last of all of us to defy the government, and a tribe that could have waged war on the U.S. government for as long as they wanted but simply got tired of fighting, and instead started thinking about the future of their people. Imagine, three of the deadliest and most feared tribes in all the U.S. were put in one area, with the Town of Apache and the mountain that separated it all.

The government knew what they were doing when they put all three tribes in the same area. They knew what each tribe was capable of, so they put them together to fight it out. They were right. Well, not so much with the Apache, because their leader Geronimo put his arms down and was held at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, where he later died. So that left the Kiowa and Comanches to have it out like the old days. And they did. The Kiowa warriors were off on a war party when the Comanche and U.S. soldiers came into the Kiowa village to slaughter the old, the women, and the children. They even had the audacity to cut off the heads of the Kiowa dead and put them in frying pans and on spears. I remember going to a statue ceremony in memory of Kiowas who lost their lives at the hands of the Comanche and Fort Sill soldiers. The place with that statue is known as Cutthroat Gap. I don’t know if the Comanches had any part of the beheadings. I like to think not and believe instead that they were just taking the scalps. So this is why my Comanche grandma made fun of me for being Kiowa. A feud that dates to the 1800s is still strong today. I’m explaining this now, but I usually say it’s just an Indian thing.

Growing up as a Kiowa boy in Carnegie is like growing up in a village. The other Kiowa families there are just like mine. They welcomed me with open arms, called me nephew or son, and helped me when I was in trouble. When I was a young kid, we lived way out in the country, but later we moved closer to town, and then I could run or walk to hang out with my friends all day. Now, summers in southwest Oklahoma get hot, like cook-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot. And not just for a day or two, no; it carried on to September. So in the summer, after we moved closer to town, I would run early in the morning, not to hear the wind in the trees, feel the heat of the sun on me, and still smell nature, but to get to the town pool early and hang out with my friends. When the pool closed in the evening, we would dry off naturally because who carries extra clothes around. Sometimes we dried off by playing basketball at the courts. The courts were in the middle of town and were the meeting spot if you could not find your friends elsewhere. People were amazed we would play basketball in the heat, rain, or snow. But basketball in Carnegie is like church. Carnegie to this day has numerous district titles, six runner-up state championships, and three state titles in basketball. Seeing a Kiowa boy taking state in basketball inspired me to become just like the Kiowa boys before me. (I only made it to the semi-finals though.)

The next school year after we went to the semi-finals, I met a girl who would forever change my life for the good and the bad. Her name was Cheyenne. I met her at a school dance, and I had my best dance moves then. Dancing was the native in me. I was having a good time dancing with my friends when I saw this girl I had never seen before. She had the most beautiful smile, and her dancing wasn’t bad, either. So, it was the last dance of the night and it was a slow dance. I still remember the song: “YO” by Chris Brown. We danced and I tried to play it cool by not asking her name or saying goodbye to her. Turns out she already knew who I was. We talked, laughed, had a great time, and we fell in love. We started getting serious after that night. After high school, we started to see each other even more, even spending the night with each other. When I started staying the night with her, I began having dreams of dying. Vivid dreams to the point of me waking up gasping for air. I told my mom what was happening to me and that it had been happening for weeks. She was concerned, as any parent would be, so she took me to go see a medicine man. He said, “You are stepping into a new journey, and it could lead to your death.”  I didn’t know then that what I was seeing was not my death; I was seeing someone else’s death. People may or may not accept something like that, but we as Native Americans believe in such things. The dreams stopped after that. Not too long after, I had my first and only son, who we named Anthony. A dad always wants a boy, and I fell even more in love with this woman who gave me a son.  I knew I had to be a better person for my son and raise him the Kiowa way, as I was raised. Four years later we had a daughter named Laci. She was born during a snowstorm. Our car got stuck in the snow, so we had to call an ambulance. From the beginning, I knew I would have to show my daughter what a man should be. We had a big and beautiful family, but it seems good things do not last forever.

I will not tell what happened the night that changed everything for a lot of people. Just know that at the end of it, I was accused of murder. An appeal is in the works, but I ask for forgiveness every day. The first day of my new journey was in the city jail. I was so ashamed and hurt about what happened and what my family was going to go through because I was selfish, greedy, and just plain stupid. I decided to commit suicide and just be done with it. Why go through all the trouble of court and being labeled a monster? It’s not who I am, but it’s what they are going to call me. I did not want to deal with the hurt and pain. As I was saying my silent goodbyes to my family and asking forgiveness for what I was about to do, a guard told me I had a visitor. I assumed it was my aunt, mom, or—God rest her soul—my grandma. But it wasn’t any of them. My visitor was a preacher from Apache who was also a family friend. He did not ask me how I was doing or if I was okay. Instead, he told me not to do anything else to hurt myself or my family. How could he have known to say what he said, and to say it at that moment?  I was shocked then and still am when I think about it. But not in the ways some might think. See, I am Native American. I can see the signs, especially when dah kee (the creator) is speaking through somebody. I guess I was shocked because the dah kee was with me. I had not been abandoned and left for the wild hogs to tear apart.

I then moved to county jail. I was nervous but not scared because I knew I had dah kee at my side. I saw the other side, how criminals lived and embraced this new life. As I was adjusting to this new life, upstairs in the courtroom they were deciding my fate. I was assigned a lawyer provided by the state, hoping and praying she could help me out. I’d been in jail for about seventeen months when I finally had my day in court. I saw all the news cameras and people. The victim’s family and mine. I saw the big projector screen that was going to show the most gruesome angles of the victim’s death. I decided at that moment I would spare the victim’s family and mine the story of what happened that night. I entered a blind plea moments before court started. A couple of months later I was sentenced, and everything I tried to avoid,—the whole reason I took this blind plea—happened anyway, because I had to tell the story anyway. At least I did it without the gruesome pictures being projected on the big screen. I was sentenced to prison for life with the possibility of parole. Yes, I questioned dah kee: I thought you were going to help me. Why did you abandon me when I needed you more than ever, dah kee?

I was then sent to the worst prison in Oklahoma. The maximum-security prison, an Oklahoma state prison, the Walls. It reminded me of a Shawshank Redemption prison. A nineteen-year-old kid from Tulsa also accused of murder came in with me and when we were getting processed in he asked, “Can you feel that?”  I could. It was death, no hope, and misery. We eventually went our separate ways, but I will never forget that kid.

So, I was in prison and adjusting to it when I met a lawyer who wanted to take my case. She said, “Everything is going to be okay. Just stay out of trouble and we will get through this.” I believed her and she was right. People at the Walls told me I was not going to win my appeal because nobody wins their appeal here in Oklahoma. With all this negativity and misery I got from different prisoners, I started to believe them. Turns out I did win my first appeal for ineffective assistance counsel. My previous lawyer defended one of her non-actions by saying, “The reason I could not get the cell phone records was that would have cost the state too much money” and my new lawyer responded, “You know there are grants where the state gives you money to get the cell phone records.” My former lawyer said she knew about the grants. I felt so sick to think another person could treat someone in need so badly.

In my next appeal, I argued that the state did not have jurisdiction to prosecute me because the crime was on Native American land, and the victim and I are Native American. I argued that the land was still a reservation and the government argued it was not. Turns out I was making the same argument that the Cherokees had already made and won—a historic victory for our Native American people, that the land where the government put the tribes was still a reservation. During this time, I learned that this legal argument is about more than just who prosecutes who or who has jurisdiction. The real argument is about money. The state will lose a lot of money if they continue to lose these arguments about jurisdiction. Their conviction rates will drop and they will lose the money they receive for keeping the Native Americans prisoner. The state government wants to scream that losing jurisdiction will put monsters back out on the street. They want to scare the public into believing the boogeymen will be at their doorsteps if the Native Americans win this jurisdictional fight. But the truth is that if the Native Americans win, they will also win EPA, land, taxation, and mineral rights, worth a lot of money. That’s the real reason the State of Oklahoma is fighting so hard to say Native Americans do not have a reservation and must be prosecuted in U.S. courts. This fight is not about public safety.

I commend the Cherokee chairman for not bending or breaking to the State of Oklahoma. I hope he does not settle, as our ancestors did. I say to him, “Do not make the same mistake our ancestors did and sign something that would put us again at the mercy of Oklahoma.”

The KCA reservation is my home, but I understand now why I am here in prison. I am here to give something back to my tribe, to make right what was wrong, and to show people the true face of Oklahoma. As long as I have been locked up, from the city jail to the maximum-security prison, I have never gotten into a fight, been stabbed, or even received a write-up from the staff. The creator is still with me. I am at peace being in prison knowing this. And there are three things I told myself to do that would truly bring me peace: talk to a preacher about what happened that night, get cedared off with good medicine, and tell the victim’s family what happened, so they can have closure and hopefully peace. I have done the first two.

I was and I am Kiowa. I danced in the hot sun in July for my people. I climbed the Rainy and Longhorn Mountains to get my cedar. I still speak Kiowa and practice my heritage. I did not decide one day to be Kiowa because it will help me avoid prison. Other people can play at being Kiowa, but I was and am living it. Ah ho dah kee.


Joshua Codynah comments: "When I was free, I lived in Apache, Oklahoma, with my two incredible children, Anthony and Laci Marie. However, I am now incarcerated at the Dick Conner Correctional Center (DCCC). While I pay my debt to society, I attend Tulsa Community College (TCC) and work as Diet Chef for breakfast. I passionately love listening to music and playing basketball and PS4 once a week in the gym. Since I have a voice right now, I want to use it to thank DCCC and TCC for allowing me to further my education."


Back to the Start


My mother and I hurtle down I-95, heading farther away from our old life. I squeeze my eyes shut until moisture pools in the corners and try not to think about how badly I want to poke my index finger into my eye, just to kill what’s building in there. My father, gone; my childhood home, sold. A new life on Long Island awaits me, like clumps of dirt hitting a casket.

The Throgs Neck Bridge looms ahead, a final hurdle for my mother who has never crossed it while in command of the steering wheel. In sparing her this task all these years, my father left her ill-prepared. She exhales, and the vibration travels through me, shaking my insides. I press my eyelids closed with more force and try not to think about the fact that I am in the front passenger seat—the death seat.

She needn’t say a word. I hear it as clearly as if she has called out: Oh Anthony, I need you!

The movement of her hands scrapes against my ear. She grips and releases the steering wheel. She drags her palms, one at a time, down the fronts of her thighs. Her jeans register the movement with a swoosh.

“Jane? You awake?” Her voice is breathy, barely above a whisper, but there is no mistaking her plea. Wake up, please wake up.

Her voice cuts through my conscience. She needs me. I can’t lose myself in selfish, useless dwelling, not now.

“Mmmm,” I groan.

I keep my eyes shut but the sun’s clawing fingers poke at me until my left eye cracks open, and the light hits me like a split to my skull. Why something so beautiful should hurt me so much, I just can’t understand.

She slows as we approach the toll. We have an EZ Pass, but there is nothing easy about being shoved on your way faster than you would like. Coughed up at the mouth of the bridge, we have no choice, no time to second-guess where we are at; the start, again. Face frozen, eyes wide, she seems as terrified about this as I am.

“You’ve got this,” I say. “Keep your eye on the white line.”

She nibbles at her lips and nods. Even though I haven’t scheduled my road test, she listens. It’s something my father would have said, and that familiarity is enough to cause her to relax. He always had a comment, a tip, a direction that could save you some trouble or make life easier.

Stop fixating on the rearview mirror, unless you want to end up in the trunk in front of you.

It’s ironic that now, when we need it most, he isn’t here to direct us. We are kites cut loose in a windstorm. Who knows where we will end up? We still need his guidance.

Sunlight shimmers on the water, coloring it a burnt yellow-orange, like lava. There was a time when I would have snapped a quick picture of it only to revisit it later, with my sketch pad and oil crayons in hand. But since my father’s death, the urge to capture beauty feels like a worthless consolation prize. A million pretty pictures won’t drain the gray sludge that fills me.

We’re midway over the bridge when she calls out, “What lane am I supposed to be in? Jane! Can you read the sign?”

“Right,” I say, squinting into the sun. Being a passenger all these years hasn’t made her an expert in navigation.

“Crap!” She twists her head to view her blind spot, but there is a stream of cars there—people who knew they needed to get right before they even got on the bridge. “I can’t get over!”

The panic in her voice causes my breath to hitch, but then I see it. The sign shows the two far right lanes exit.

“This lane is fine, too.”

“Are you sure?” Her voice pitches higher.

“Stay here.” I raise a shaking finger and point straight ahead.

She blows out a breath and exits along the sharp, dizzying curve which deposits us into a sea of crawling cars and flashing brake lights.

“Hurry up and wait,” she mutters.

We inch along the parkway in the silence, but I know by the rapid pace of her blinks she is trying to find the words to make this impossible situation better.

“I really wanted this year to be special for you.”

Actually, living seems like too much of an effort, but I don’t tell her that; she would only worry. I’m not looking to off myself. It doesn’t matter where I spend my senior year of high school; misery will ride me piggyback wherever I go.

“It’s fine, Mom. I understand.”

I’m not totally lying. She wants to be near her sister, my Aunt Liz; she needs the support. I wonder what it’s like to have a sister who provides comfort. My sister, Jenny, makes my insides coil when she walks in the room. We’re always one second, one snide remark away from igniting. I’m glad she’s at college until Thanksgiving break.

“Brooke is excited that you’re coming. You two get along so nicely.” Even my mother realizes that my cousin is more like a sister to me. “Maybe you can join cheerleading with her.”

“I’ve never been interested in that before. I’m not changing because I’m in a new place, and my cousin is Homecoming Queen.”

She purses her lips and, from the set in her jaw, I know I will never find it in me to ask her to make this drive again. It should make me sad, but I fell away from my friends a long time ago, when my father’s illness consumed everything in its path. It was hard to relate to friends who had stupid worries about clothes, crushes, and grades. I couldn’t relax around them because I felt I should be doing something important, something to change the trajectory. They tried to help me by offering up “fun” activities to distract me, as if my worries could be easily derailed. Couldn’t they see that bowling wasn’t going to fix my world? Every idiotic suggestion reinforced that they could never understand; I was alone.

A familiar, gentle, circular scratching at the top corner of my shoulder causes me to jump. I reach back to grip the hand, expecting my father to be there—but I’m left hanging with nothing but embarrassment. You’re so stupid. He’s gone.

“What’s wrong?” she says.

“Muscle cramp. I’m fine. I just need to get out of this car already.”

“We’re almost there.”

And yet, arriving at my aunt’s house isn’t really where we are ultimately going. Even my stomach understands this; it rolls, drunk on acid as we exit off the parkway and drive through our new town. The flesh-colored water tower greets us like a middle finger.

Living on an island could be my idea of heaven—if it were tiny and deserted. Close to New York City and larger than the state of Rhode Island, Long Island is neither of these things. Lynbrook, with its abundance of cement, strip stores, and supermarkets, has some of the city’s dust on it minus all that “excitement.” The houses are packed together on the street, competing for attention and air. There’s nothing about it that feels like an island. A murky duck pond is the only body of water I’ve seen in this town.

Brooke sits rocking on the porch swing, like a kid waiting for Christmas morning. When she sees us pull up, she squeals and leaps off.

“They’re here!” she calls through the screen door, before bounding down the steps like a pup.

My mother kills the engine before seeking out my hand and squeezing it. It makes me think of a scene from an old movie I watched with my dad. In order to save their lives, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid link up and jump off a cliff. The drop doesn’t kill them.

Brooke throws open my door and yanks me out like I’m a rag doll. “You’re here! You’re here!” she chants.

Somehow everything turns into a cheer with her, but it’s not put on—that’s just how she is. I’m tempted to remind her that this isn’t a slumber party. After a few days of me, she might dial back on her excitement, especially when she realizes that her enthusiasm is no match for my colorless, flavorless world.

Her amber eyes shine at me, a little wetter than usual, and I blink to clear any tears from forming.

Aunt Liz walks down the steps; her smile turns down at the corners. A visit under other circumstances would be so much better than this. The last time we were here, my father was in remission. A fresh start would be ours, or so we thought. I shake my head to rid myself of the sting of my memory.

As Aunt Liz passes me, she brushes her hand against my cheek and kisses the top of my head before heading over to my mother. When they connect, it is a slow embrace that fascinates and perplexes me; I cannot imagine sharing an intimacy like that with Jenny.

Brooke doesn’t unhand me. She clamps on like jumper cables, hoping her energy can infuse me. She shakes my shoulders, as if that will suddenly change the picture and I’ll become my old self; smiling and easy to be around. Unfortunately for her, I’m not an Etch A Sketch.

“C’mon! You gotta see this!” Brooke releases my shoulders, but grabs on to my hand and pulls me up the steps, into her house, and drags me to her room.

“Ta-da!!!” She throws open her bedroom door to reveal her newly renovated space, to accommodate me.

Above one bed is a lofted one that allows me to enter her space without leaving a footprint. Matching pink, floral comforters and pillows, a mountain of pillows, are what catch my eye first. In the corner of the room are beanbag chairs, a TV, and a long desk with enough room for two chairs. It looks like a bedroom from a television sitcom. Everything is perfectly coordinated and cheerful—so freaking cheerful. But life won’t return to normal in thirty minutes, like it does on TV.

“Don’t you love it?”

“It’s really something,” I say. Everything comes out of me in a flat way, like I’m medicated.

“My dad thought to loft my bed above yours.” As soon as she says dad, her eyes start to dart about, and her hand flies up to her mouth.

“That was a great idea.” I force a smile and grab her hand and squeeze it. She looks like she needs the comforting more than I do. I don’t begrudge her having her father.

It doesn’t take long to get settled in her room because most of our things are in storage, for when we find our own place. Brooke smiles as we put the last of my clothes into her closet.

“So, later…” She rubs her hands together. “We’re going to a party!”

“Brooke…” I shake my head.

“Every year there’s this huge party to kick off the end of summer. Plus you’ll get to meet people before school starts.”

Her dark hair shines; her eyes glisten; her excitement crackles, filling the room. She is one of those rare creatures who is mesmerizingly beautiful with a pure heart.

I want to resist her, but one look at her face—all glowing and hopeful—and I figure one of us should get to experience that exhilaration. I’m beaten down, too exhausted to fight.

“Pretty please?” Her palms touch flat against one another like she’s praying.

“Okay,” I say. “But I don’t want you making a big deal; no parading me around.”

She lets out a victory squeal. “Let me braid your hair; turn around,” she commands. “You can take it out if you don’t like it.”

And for a sweet girl, she sure knows how to be pushy. The braid is just the start. Off my teary protests, she rips out my eyebrow hair, telling me I have to suffer to be beautiful. I almost tell her that emotional suffering must not count; otherwise, I’d look like her.

Next comes makeup and, of course, she doesn’t stop there. She pulls clothes out of her closet and settles on a baby-doll dress for me with cork wedge sandals. By the time she finishes, I look like an entirely different person—not bad, just not me.

If only I could become this girl who is looking back at me in the mirror, maybe I could get through this year. But the truth is I am an impostor. With or without this makeover, this isn’t me. I don’t even know who I am anymore. This chapter of “life after” seems to have wiped out all record of who I was before, and I can’t piece myself back together.

I want to tell Brooke this as she rushes off to shower.

I want to wash the makeup off my face. I want her to understand why I can’t go to the party. But everything is happening to someone else—to this girl in the mirror without any troubles.

I lay back on my bed, and that’s when I notice the collage Brooke attached to the underside of her bed. As I look at the pictures of our families together—summer barbeques, Thanksgiving feasts, vacations in New England—my eyes fill; three words come to mind. In happier times.

I spot a picture I never saw before—my father caught in mid-laugh, his eyebrows tilting toward one another. It’s been so long since I’ve seen him as I want to remember him, vibrant and strong before disease ravaged him. I take out my phone and snap a picture of it, but it’s a grainy copy of a copy.

I force down my shoulders that suddenly have risen up to my ears, but it does no good. The steely hand of grief presses on me, like an anchor. If I move, can I shake off this weight that bears down on me? Nothing is the same. Nothing will be the same, and looking back at it will always be a painful reminder of happier times.

I imagine my father, telling me about the dangers of fixating on the rearview mirror. I don’t want to end up in a trunk, but maybe I’m there anyway. Maybe there’s not much more to fear?

How many nights have I awoken in a sweat, desperate to save his life before reality punched me? He’s gone. It’s over. And through my tears of anguish, there is one truth. I have no choice. There is nothing I can do to change the outcome. Accept it and move on. But there’s relief too. He’s not suffering.

Brooke comes back from her shower, wrapped up in a towel. She stands still when she notices that I’m looking at her work.

“Thanks,” I say, pointing to the collage. “It’s beautiful.”

Her eyes well up. “Want to blow off this party?”

I nod. “You go.”

She shakes her head. “It’s okay.”

I don’t need her to sit with me, but she does. She even goes off and gets me paper and a pencil. And as I work to capture the picture of my father laughing, I make sure to add the details only I can—the faint shadow of his dimple and the gleam in his eye.

Brooke rests one hand on mine, the other against her chest. Then she pulls the pencil from between my fingers and draws a faint circle on his left cheekbone, his chicken pox scar.

“We’ll get through this.” There’s no “rah-rah sis-boom-bah” in her voice, just a crack of pain that vibrates in me. But as I allow her ache to settle into mine, there’s a strange comfort that washes over me. He may not have been her father, but she’s lost him too.

We sit, passing the pencil back and forth, taking turns embellishing his features. We capture all that has been taken from us; the life he brought into a room with his smile, his laughter. When we finish, there he remains with his essence intact. And for the first time in months, I feel my lungs expand like I’ve only just learned how to breathe. Even though I know grief will be mine, this loss will never leave me, Brooke’s eyes glisten with a promise. I won’t be on my own.


Dinamarie Isola uses poetry and prose to explore the isolation that comes from silently bearing internal struggles. She received her BA in English/Writing and Communications from Fairfield University. In addition to working as an investment advisor, Dinamarie writes a plain-English personal finance blog, “RealSmartica.”  She is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. Her work has been published in A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Apricity Magazine, Avalon Literary Review, borrowed solace, Courtship of Winds, Evening Street Review, Five on the Fifth, Penumbra Literary and Art Journal, Potato Soup Journal, Nixes Mate Review, and No Distance Between Us.

Moses Ojo is a young Nigerian artist who uses his mind as a vista for making captivating art. His brushes and watercolors thereby speak reality to viewers of his arts and crafts.


Paper Tygers

by JAMIE CUNNINGHAM | 2nd Place, student poetry contest


Once upon a time there was a paper girl
Who dreamed paper dreams and lived in a paper world.
The paper girl was beautiful, with hair like liquid gold;
Her lips a silk red ribbon twisted into a bow.
Her eyes were drops of ocean, still waters vast and deep;
As blue as polished sapphire; the secrets they must keep.
She lived in a paper castle and enjoyed her parents' favor,
For the girl was a princess—at least she was on paper!
One day a son of the Big House rose up to wage his claim.
He sought the paper title of King before his name.
He overthrew the royals and stole the paper crown,
Then torched the paper castle and burned it to the ground.
But the paper girl was clever and slipped out into the night
And she ran and ran and ran some more until the morning light.
She came upon a paper house and pondered what to do
When she saw there was a boy inside—and he was paper, too!
Perhaps he could assist, she thought. His help she did implore.
“I would,” said he. “But in this house, there is no paper door.”
She paced around in circles, her mind a crumpled blur.
No answers could she fathom, until a thought occurred.
She reached into her pocket and pulled a crayon from inside,

Then on the paper house she drew a doorway tall and wide.

The boy came from his prison, then crawled across the earth.

“No one has drawn my legs,” he cried. He’d been crippled since his birth.

The paper girl took pity and drew him legs of steel,

And told him of her troubles as her magic crayon healed.
He swore that he would help her find her way back home,

Defeat the evil son and regain the paper throne.

So she drew two paper tygers and they rode them through the night;

Two little paper warriors putting wrong back to right.
Now the evil son had drawn a new castle on the hill,

But the paper girl was fearless—and her tygers craved a meal!

They chased the son and trapped him down among the stones,

They tore him to confetti and feasted on his bones.
And then the paper princess became a paper Queen.

She kissed the paper boy and made him paper King.

The love they gave each other was drawn upon their hearts,

And their paper realm was happy as they made a brand new start.
Now their love was more than paper, for the legend tells it so,

But that is all I’ll tell you, because that is all I know.


Jamie Cunningham is a Cherokee tribal member (wolf clan) and the author of Collapse of Chaos and Broken Parachutes, a collection of his short stories. His short fiction has appeared in such literary journals as Confrontation and The Iconoclast. He is also an accomplished guitarist and musician, playing on stages across the Midwest and appearing on a dozen albums over the years, and is a skilled portrait artist and graphic designer, as well. Alicuius mens in scriptis spirat.

Born in Manhattan in 1971, Joe O’Shansky came out the same year as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Straw Dogs, and Shaft. Despite no visible means, and being six years old, his first movie in a theater was Star Wars. His second was Saturday Night Fever. After moving to Tulsa he discovered Siskel and Ebert. And that was it. Decades later he became a film and pop culture critic for Urban Tulsa Weekly and eventually The Tulsa Voice, as well as contributing to This Land Press and Root Tulsa. He currently drinks, cooks, and eats with his best friends.


The Devil's Promenade


“I’ve seen it,” the old woman said and flicked her cigarette. Ashes flew and scattered across her lap. Some fell to the floor; a few landed on my converse tennis shoe. I shook them free.

“What did you see?”

Her eyes left my face and wandered up as if she were staring at the blinking exit sign in the far-right corner of the room. A student of facial expressions and body language, I knew it was not the lit sign that she held in her vision but a visual construct of the past. Her still dark eyebrows pulled together, and I saw fear register in them. With narrowed eyes, she held her stare, and the moment ticked on.

“Grace,” I said with a gentle tone and reached to touch her knee, hoping to draw her back to look into my eyes, where I would work to keep her attention with my expressions of interest. “What did you see?”

As she turned back to me, her face changed from fear to anger in a flash, but then, she smiled again. “It was a long time ago,” she said, and her bony hand came down over mine. She squeezed and then patted, never leaving eye contact. “A long time ago.” The smile she bore fell into a pursed grip of lips, and I felt my window of opportunity shrinking in the repeated words and passing seconds. She removed her hand from mine, and then took a long drag on her cigarette. She studied me. Silence stretched between us, and the air grew thick under the weight her stare and because of my increasing awkwardness.

Needing words to fill the silence, I announced, “I’m going there,” and I sat up straighter in my seat, keeping careful contact with her eyes. A muscle in her cheek flexed, and with slowness, her right eyebrow arched. No other words came from either of us, only an exchange of facial muscles twitching, indicating the stand-off taking place in our minds. She broke the silence.

“I’ve seen it.”

“You have?” Hope filled me, and I leaned forward a bit to indicate interest in what she would say—I wanted her to feel comfortable with me. To trust me.

“Yes,” she said, and her chest lifted with a deep intake of breath, which she exhaled, then removed her eyes from mine. “It was a long time ago.”

She repeated herself. Again.

A grandfather clock chimed from the lobby, and it rang clear, reminding me of my grandparent’s home and spending the night as a young girl. It chimed the hour every hour, and I never tired of the sounds. They floated in and out of the rooms along the hallways, reaching where we sat in the music room of the assisting living facility, and I felt the chimes—my heart fell in tune, and its beat matched the tone. I pictured my grandfather sitting next to the clock at the dining table, motioning me to join him in a game of Scrabble. I felt a small smile curve on my lips and touched it, feeling for him in a way, trying to bring back any of those days where we sat at his table playing word games, stifling the emotional flood threatening beneath my finger-covered mouth. Those were treasured memories.

“Johnny, Frank, me, and Mabel. We saw it.”

Grace’s voice spoke the names slowly, with purpose, and my mind snapped back from my memory bank where Grandma’s cookies were about done in the oven, and I smelled their sugary concoction as I organized the letters on my Scrabble rack. M. O. Q. I. T. E. L. Mite? Lite? Motel?

“The four of you?” I asked, my attention back on Grace’s eyes, which sat deep in her once beautiful face. She was still beautiful but aged, and her eyes were much smaller than the photos I had seen in her room proclaimed. She had stood next to her husband in their wedding photo; her eyes were the most prominent feature of her face—once bright blue and alluring, but now were small, hardened – and green? Had they changed color? I blinked and looked again—no, they were blue.

“Johnny borrowed his dad’s car that night, told him that he and Frank had to study at the library, that he needed the car to pick Frank up. Said it would be a late night, because of final exams. Johnny’s dad never questioned him, just let him go. Mabel asked if she could go, and Johnny tried to say no, but his dad said he should take his siste—the library would be good for her.”

She paused, tilted her head down slightly, and looked up at me with sad, dark eyes. Green again, I thought and blinked again. No, still sad and a dark ocean blue with flecks of the sun. Perhaps, the flecks were mixing with the blue and confusing my vision.

“Mabel was fifteen; she thought she was twenty. Johnny always told Frank and me about the trouble she caused him. We were seventeen, the three of us: me, Frank, and Johnny. Thick as thieves we were—did everything together. Sometimes we had to take Mabel along; she always got on my last nerve. . ." Grace dwindled off, lost in thought.

“She was irritating?”

A small, sardonic laugh, which ended with a smirk, escaped from Grace along with a soft “Yes.” She took another drag of her cigarette and exhaled slowly; the smoke coiled upward in a mystical dance until it reached the ceiling and dissipated. We both watched it.

“Mabel was,” Grace said, “… well, she was Mabel. So, Johnny showed up at the library with Mabel in the back seat. Frank and I had been there waiting a while – see, Frank lived a couple of doors down from me on Wall Street, close to the library, so we walked there together. Funny that Johnny’s dad never knew where Frank or I lived.” Her eyes became soft, and I wondered if any romance ever sparked among the three best friends. It was my nature to look for romance everywhere – and a triangle of friends was surely fodder for romantic entanglement.

“Sounds like he was happy to get the kids out of the house,” I said, avoiding the love triangle for now.

“Yes, he was,” she said, and then leaning forward like a conspirator sharing a lurid secret, she whispered, “He had a drinking problem.” There was no one else in the room now, no one to hear the secret, and I smiled, knowing Johnny’s father had been gone for a good, decent amount of time—and the secret would not have mattered to anyone who might have heard her had they been in the room. He was long gone and forgotten. Grace, herself, was pushing ninety.

“Did they have a mother?”

“No,” she said and shook her head. “Poor man. He made me uncomfortable.” A shiver ran dramatically through her; it began in her shoulders and ran down to her feet. I had to bite my lip to keep from emitting a small laugh. I had to ask why.

“Why did he make you uncomfortable?”

“Always lookin’,” she said. “Looking at other girls and at me. I saw him and gave him no attention that he wanted. I stayed away, always telling Johnny to meet us at the library. His dad must have thought Johnny was going to be the Valedictorian because of how many trips he made to the library.” A deep laugh escaped Grace, and a twinkle lit her eyes—the golden flecks flashed—and then her eyes changed, a faraway look took them over. The dark, ocean blue returned to them, and she put her cigarette into the ashtray next to her, bobbing it a couple of times before releasing it. “At the library, we stood around in the parking lot trying to decide what to do. I wanted to see a picture show. Frank wanted to get sodas and dance. He nudged me when he said it.” She smiled—obviously remembering the moment. “Frank was always sweet on me.”

“And were you sweet on him?” My curiosity took over, and I had to ask.

Grace looked at me—I saw at first trust but then distrust in her eyes, and I wondered why. She chose not to answer my Frank question, but instead, she kept telling her story.

“Johnny said we could do both, but Mabel called us dull, saying we should do something exciting, like find the Spiva pool. I tried to sound sophisticated and said we had already done that. We hadn’t, but I had heard stories, and I was not going near the place. My cousin and her friend George almost fell off the ledge of a cliff there in the dark trying to find it. I am afraid of heights, always have been, so the Spiva pool was not an option. Mabel was undeterred. She said then we had to see it. She emphasized it, and I did not like how she said it.

“It? The Spooklight?”

She corrected me by saying, “The Devil’s Promenade,” with a deep breath, and her eyes clouded a second—almost milky and clear, but no, they were blue. After blinking, I watched her eyes, and while I waited for her to continue to speak, I pushed the record button on my cell phone, not wanting to miss a thing. Garnering eyewitness accounts of the Spooklight was the next step in my research. I had already spoken with some teenagers, a few middle-aged people, a gas station attendant, all who claimed to have seen the light that goes by several names: the Hornet Light, the Devil’s Promenade, and the Joplin Spooklight. There were multiple names and multiple theories about its existence. The most recent thing I’d read stated that a scientist said he’d determined that the Spooklight was simply a reflection of vehicle lights from nearby Route 66. What they were reflecting on to create what people have seen for years on that stretch of deserted road, he wasn’t clear on in the article. His theory on the phenomenon seemed questionable to me. The eyewitness testimonies did not seem to support what he purported to be happening on Spooklight Road, though I would be including his theory in my research project for school.

“Frank said that sounded like a good idea, and Mabel cheered, then tugged on Johnny’s arm, asking him, ‘Can we please?’” Grace’s voice brought me back to the story at hand—it never ceased to amaze me how quickly my mind wandered. She continued, “Johnny searched my face, and I shrugged, not knowing what to think. My cousin and George had been there too, but they had not seen anything. Some people say they saw something; others weren’t sure. We had four hours before any of us would be missed, so, Johnny said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and we piled into his car, me in the front next to Johnny and then, Frank and Mabel in the back.”

“Were you sweet on Johnny?” The question slipped out of my mouth before my brain told me not to ask it. Grace’s eyes narrowed, and I braced for what I could see would be a pointed, vague response.

“Now why do I need to have fancied one of those boys? Could we not just be friends?”

I felt myself duly scolded. “I’m sorry, Grace—it’s just who I am, I suppose. Always looking for romance in everything and everyone. I’m a romantic.”

“That’s fine, dear. We can’t all be clear-minded,” she said—and I was not sure if that had been an insult or not, but I chose to disregard it as I was quite comfortable with who I was. She continued, “It was twelve miles south of Joplin, and it took us about a half an hour to get there. We tried to sing the lines from songs in “Broadway Melody,” Fred Astaire’s newest movie—we had seen it the week before. Have you seen it?”

“No, I have not,” I said.

“That’s a shame,” she said, and then, she added, “We sang for a part of the drive, and we were horrible.” Smiling, she paused and reached for her pack of cigarettes on the sofa beside her, picking it up, and shaking it against the palm of her hand, she knocked one free from the pack. With unsteady fingers, she lifted the cigarette to her lips and placed it between her lips. The pack went back to its place, and she looked back toward the nurses’ station and nodded her head backward. Without saying a word, the orderly attended to her cigarette, lighting it for her. He smiled, and she looked back out of the window and took a long drag on the cigarette. Smoke circled around her face as she exhaled, and when I caught a glimpse of her eyes through the flog, they looked lost – as if she did not know what the topic was or that she was even having a conversation. She was outside somewhere, reliving something, so I spoke up to draw her back to the story. “You were singing in the car.”

“That only lasted so long,” she said and turned back to me with a smile, though this one was a forced smile—pain lay behind it, and I felt a creeping sensation of guilt, but I wanted information. I needed information. I said, “I have experienced that,” as I thought of a time a few friends and I had gone on a road trip to a funeral out of town—and halfway through the drive, each of us was lost in sorrowful thoughts – and the music ceased though no one noticed when it did.

She nodded slightly, acknowledging our commonality, and continued, “Frank told us what he had heard about the Hornet Light. It wasn’t always called the Spooklight. Did you know that?”

“Yes, I do,” I said.

“Good, good,” she said, and took another puff on her cigarette. “Frank said some people believed that the Hornet Light was the souls of two Quapaw Indians kept from loving each other by their families, and their souls, forever on that road, searched to be together. Johnny laughed at that idea. He said no way was it going to be a romantic story that he would believe; he said it wasn’t even clever. Frank said, ‘All right,’ and he told of how other people said that a miner in the area back in the early 1800s had a run-in with some Native Americans, and that a few days later, his children went missing. He never found them, and the light is him searching for his children—a girl and a boy, both teenagers, the boy older than the girl. Johnny said that sounded better. I said nothing—I was still nervous about going. Mabel squealed with delight, clapped her hands, and hung over the back of the seat with her face too near my own, and Johnny turned the car down a dark road. The road sign said E-50. I remember my heart started racing, and I gripped the door tight. The only light anywhere around us was the car’s headlights. I said to Johnny that I did not think it was a good idea. Frank laughed at me. I will never forget that he laughed at me.”

Her eyes went up to the ceiling, off to the right, and she winced, then stared as if she were watching something in the corner. I looked and saw nothing where her eyes were focused.


She shook her head and closed her eyes tight before she opened them and turned back to me, and then, she continued her story, “We crept into the darkness down the road, and I asked what we were supposed to do. Frank said, ‘Nothing.’ He said the light would find us. Mabel told Johnny to drive farther down the road and park, that she wanted to get out and sit on top of the roof of the car. He laughed, and I knew I would not be able to convince him to leave – he was enjoying his sister’s excitement. ‘Okay,’ he’d said to Mabel. And we moved slowly down the road into the darkness. Around us in the dark, I made out branches of trees; they closed in on us the farther down the road we moved. They came nearer the road, and my heart seized in my chest. I know the trees moved; they bent down to the road and then snapped back up – all together they did, and there was a light shining between them. Mabel said, ‘Stop the car!’ and when Johnny put the car into park, she opened the door and climbed on the roof of the car. Frank followed her. Johnny asked me if I was coming. I could only stare at the light and stay in the car.”

Grace’s eyes were wide—she looked off toward the wall and continued to recount her story as if she were narrating a documentary which played out on the wall where her gaze was riveted.

“It just hung there in the air suspended, dancing almost, just a ball of green light. At first, it was small, and whether my eyes adjusted, or it grew, then it was larger. It moved to the right and stopped, then moved back to the left, and then it disappeared, covering us in complete darkness. I could see nothing for a few seconds, just blackness. Mabel pounded her disapproval on the roof of the car, yelling for the light to return. I just stared, trying to see something, anything. Frank said, ‘Grace, come out here,’ and I saw it again, this time closer, larger, and it was blue. Johnny and Frank let out a whoop! Mable said she wanted to run to it, and before Johnny could stop her, she slid off the roof and ran down the road ahead of us. Through the car’s windshield, I could only make out her figure for a second, and then she disappeared into the overwhelming dark. The light went out, and there was nothing. An owl hooted off in the forest, and everything stood still. Johnny called out, ‘Mabel!’ and Frank said, ‘Get back here, Mabel!’ They stood outside the car and argued about who would go after her. ‘Mabel!’ Frank called out again, and Johnny cursed. He opened the car door and slid into his seat. Frank got in next to me. Johnny cursed again. We sat there, all in the front seat, without Mabel, scared. None of us knew what to do."

Grace’s words came faster—matching the rhythm of my racing heart.

“Johnny started the car, and the headlights bore a hole through the darkness down the road—no Mabel. We crept forward, nobody speaking. The trees bent in over us. Their fingers scratched the roof of the car, and I clung to Frank’s arm—he didn’t notice me, his eyes searched the forest. ‘Mabel,’ he shouted into the darkness just as brilliant light filled the car. White light, flashing blue, then green, radiated around my face, and it was hot. It moved inside me and through me. It knew me, and I felt myself lift into the air. All goodness and warmth were in the light, and I welcomed it, wanted it, and I lifted myself to it, rising there in the car, and I was flat against the ceiling of the car. Frank and Johnny held my arms, pulling me down, and I did not want them to. The light changed red and burned my skin; it was angry, and they pulled on me more, and both boys were shouting—I do not know what they said. I have no idea what they said. The light pulled me toward the window, changing from red to green to colors indescribable, and I wanted to go to the light. . .it was beautiful, and I wanted to dance in it, to revel in it, but Frank yelled, ‘No!’ The light pulled me harder, and I fell against the window, cracking the glass, and Frank’s strong arms went around me, and he yelled, ‘Johnny, move!’

“The car went backward. The tires squealed. I remember that, and the light left me, dropped me, it rejected me. . .It followed us down the road, hovering over the hood, taunting Johnny, playing at the window in front of his face. He shook his fist at it and kept yelling ‘No!’—and then it went up into the sky and disappeared. Johnny stopped the car. ‘Where’d it go?’ he said, and he put his face near the windshield to look into the sky. I felt myself crying, lying crumpled in Frank’s arms there in the darkness. My skin burned all over, my clothes stuck to my skin, and my hair dripped sweat on my face. Frank held me; his heart raced. I felt it, and I heard it until the car convulsed. I screamed! The light came down behind us, looming over the road, taunting, daring, and then it moved to Frank’s side, flickering there, holding still, whispering foreign words, but not words—it was haunting, alluring music as it danced by Frank, flashing from green to blue to purple to white. Johnny tightened his grip on the steering wheel and pushed on the accelerator just as Frank loosened his grip on me. His car door flew open as we moved down the road! Frank was there and then gone, just the light remained, and it glowed brighter still—and it split into two lights, hovering close together and there was music to their dance – they pulled at me, and I place a hand toward the open car door. Johnny tossed himself over me and pulled the car door closed, even with the car moving. I saw the whites of his eyes, wide and frightened, as he lay across me, holding onto the door handle for our lives. The moment hung, and the lights disappeared. We sat frozen in the car, no longer moving, just Johnny and me. He put the car into reverse, and the tires spun, sending pebbles into the air on all sides. I heard them, could not see them—it was full dark again.

“Flying backward down the road, Johnny kept his eyes behind us, and I stared forward into nothing. Nothing. The light was gone. Mable was gone. Frank was gone. There was only darkness. Only darker spots in the dark where trees stood darkly rooted in time. The car jolted and creaked, knocked out of joint by a pothole we had not hit earlier. Johnny cursed, and I turned to look back, taking my eyes from the road ahead just as a fierce glow surrounded the car, and we lifted into the air, suspended. A figure stood there—a man, missing teeth, in disheveled clothes; he held a lantern in one hand, and he held the car in the other as if it were nothing more than a cardboard box. Johnny gunned the engine, and the tires spun in the air – the man roared in laughter, and then her face filled the back window, but it wasn’t Mabel’s face anymore! Her hair was wild and undone, flying all about her face like Medusa’s snakes! Her eyes were white with no pupils; they glared wide and bright into the car at us, changing from green to blue to fiery red. ‘Father’s found us,’ she said, and her voice bit into my flesh—low, gravelly, not Mabel . . .Johnny revved the engine and kept his face locked on hers. ‘Wants you, too,’ she growled. ‘No!’ Johnny said, and we were on the ground again, moving backward. I felt her pass by me—she raked at my skin with claws, and then she was through the car, and we kept going, leaving the light … leaving Mabel. Leaving Frank. Leaving the Devil.”

Grace took a drag on her cigarette. Her eyes closed as smoke coiled up around her face, disfiguring her for a few seconds. A shiver ran through me before the smoke dissipated above her head. There was something unearthly in that moment that I could not ascertain, though I knew it to my core—something, and not just Grace’s story, hung in the air—something was there with us, and I was cold. The hair on my arms stood on end, and I watched Grace closely as she again lifted the cigarette to her lips. Her eyes gazed out the window, and the shiver hit me again as I saw the blue, narrow eyes turn green, then gold, then blue again. Am I seeing this? Grace stared, and I stared.

We sat in silence for a moment longer, and Grace continued to smoke. I had no words. I had heard stories about a young couple who went missing in 1940 but had not thought, had not considered their story to be Grace’s. This interview was supposed to be lighthearted - an addition to the piece about the Spooklight for my college’s newspaper— a collection of Joplin’s legends and tall tales from inhabitants of all ages. I didn’t know.

“I’m sorry, Grace,” I said. I had to say something. “I had no—”

“I’ve never spoken of it.” She gave another forced smile, and then, she unbuttoned the sleeve on her right arm, lifting her arm to reveal scarred scratch marks over burn scars on her forearm. “From that night.”

The shock I felt at her wounds stole any words I might utter.

“No more,” she said, and she looked away, out of the window, and she held a hand over her scars, caressing them with her crooked, bony fingers. I watched, knowing my time with Grace was about done. There would soon be no more interview, no more story before she sent me on my way. “No more,” she had said, but my curiosity kicked in—and I had to ask one more question—to satisfy my story. This was all far more than I had expected, and I had to carry the interview through, if even for myself.

“What of Johnny?” I asked, still recording, and not wanting to miss anything. More questions came to me, and emboldened, I sat forward, hoping to goad her to say more with my interested body language. She was unmoved. She stiffened, turned to look at me, and her eyes flashed in anger. The golden flecks sparked, and I knew not to press her. I dared not move the conversation to Johnny, but I wanted to know. What of Johnny. Were they questioned? What about his father? Frank's family? “Did they ever find anything?” I risked that question, and her eyes still held the anger. A muscle in her cheek flexed; her jaw squared tight. She looked me up and then down with steel, cold eyes, and my skin crawled, a burning sensation covered my face, and I sat up straight under the weight of her darkening eyes. For a moment, I thought she would not answer. Then, she closed her eyes and stayed that way while. I gulped from holding my breath, and I took what breath and courage I could from the smoky air surrounding us. But before I could utter another word, her eyes opened and flashed green, then blue, and no pupils were there. And then red.

“No,” came a voice from her lips that was not hers any longer followed by a young female laugh—and Grace shook.

Stumbling from my metal chair, I knocked it over when I stood, and it clattered closed onto the floor—I jumped at the clamor of metal on tile and did not bother to pick it up. Five orderlies dressed in white came to Grace’s side; one of them kicked away the chair, and I stepped backward through them as they swarmed her, bumping into other chairs, knocking them over, and falling to their knees around the woman – someone knocked the cigarette from her hand. It fell to the floor still emitting smoke which coiled into the surrounding air.

“She’s gone,” someone said, and he held her thin wrist in his hand—his fingers unable to locate an indication of lifeblood flowing through her veins. With a shake of his head, he announced there was no pulse. The cigarette lay on the floor near her chair—smoke wafted into the air, snaking up into the room. Someone’s shoe stomped it out. The swarm surrounded Grace, and none of them noticed me. None of them noticed the light hovering above their heads—at first green, then blue, and it danced. Beautiful. It danced for me inside the remaining trails of smoke from Grace’s dying cigarette, and the melody was gentle, and I held out my hand.


Born and raised in Southeastern Oklahoma, Dacia Lene’ Cunningham is an author, an amateur photographer (if Instagram counts), and an Assistant Professor of English at Tulsa Community College. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with her husband, who is the love of her life, her very best friend. Mother of seven, she is also the mother-in-love of two and grandmother of two. . .three if you count her grand-dog. She’s a cowboy boot-wearing, motorcycle-riding, Mexican food-loving, family-time hoarding, adventure-seeking kind of gal who loves tromping around in the woods and watching BBC detective shows. #alltrue

Jamie Cunningham is a Cherokee tribal member (wolf clan) and the author of Collapse of Chaos and Broken Parachutes, a collection of his short stories His short fiction has appeared in such literary journals as Confrontation and The Iconoclast.  He is also an accomplished guitarist and musician, playing on stages across the Midwest and appearing on a dozen albums over the years, and is a skilled portrait artist and graphic designer, as well. Alicuius mens in scriptis spirat.


Poem Written on a Spring Day (After Ou Yang Hsiu)


As apple blossoms fall
like grains of rice,
I see in the murky water
fish, swimming near
the surface. There’s purpose
in their meanderings,
but can’t say what it is.
Does spring stir the hearts
of fish and men alike?
Riddles without answers
are best forgotten.
I recall the fragrance
Of lilies and their color
and their color,
against a lowering sky,
like the purest cotton.
But I can’t tell you why.


George Freek's poetry has appeared in numerous journals and reviews. His poem "Written At Blue Lake" was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.


The Living Tree

by CARSON ROSE | 3rd Place, student prose contest

At the spattering edges of a town not necessary to name, lies a square white house with dusted over windows and a squeaky door that sits helplessly ajar. Behind that house lies an ancient, tired-looking orchard, and behind the orchard sist a garden. In the garden sits a tree.


Once, my feet plunged deep down into the earth, my roots circling and weaving and surrounding each other, as if they were trying in slow motion to reach to the ends of the very planet itself, but had nothing stable to hold on to, other than pure, dark soil. My arms quivered on windy nights and grew dark on rainy ones—they were an art exhibit in the snowy winter and a place of refuge in the hot, stifling summer. Out of the sides and ends of my many oddly shaped arms sprouted my leaves, shaking and murmuring quietly as if they were afraid to speak their minds but could only maintain a stage whisper.

I was a big tree. A strong and confident and sturdy tree, with branches that people saw for miles—even over the garden wall—and leaves that families raked into piles and spent hours throwing themselves repeatedly into, hollering and squealing and laughing until they couldn’t breathe, and sat up with shining eyes and roses flushed in their cheeks. My arms supported many rope swings and treehouses, tired glossy-eyed fathers saving their barefoot sons and bright eyed, muddy overalls-wearing little girls saving kittens. My leaves shaded picnics where people usually either choked on sandwiches or confessed their love over and over again, and my roots made comfortably worn in benches where they whispered secrets and laughed and cried and screamed and talked to themselves. Wildflowers grew at the base of my legs—little dots and lines of blue and purple and white painted all around me on the side of the hill and all throughout the rest of the garden that boys and girls picked for each other and ran, as fast as they could, up to each other and breathlessly exchanged handfuls of them, faces glowing and eyes alight with what I’d only heard of but never felt myself.

I was a wonderful, beautiful, tragic tree. And wonderful, beautiful ,tragic things happened all around me, all the time.

As seasons changed and wrote and rewrote themselves over and over again, people came and went, climbed and then eventually came down, picked flowers and then crushed them up underneath their heels in broken-hearted confusion, fell hard and fast in love and then out of it.

And as I watched, the cycle made me bitter. These people with insides, and minds, and hearts . . . they could walk and run and speak and think and feel—they were living. And I knew that my branches and my leaves and my roots made it impossible for me to really feel like they did.

But I felt left out.

Over the endless circle of time, my core’s bitterness grew and spread and began to reach all throughout me like giant, cold, hard, earthen hands, contaminating everything they touched and squeezed.

My branches began to ache. The bark that had rubbed off from the continuous friction of rope swings burned consistently like little fires on my arms. The parts of my trunk that had supported tree forts and climbing children began to tire, and when gusts of wind blew up against me, tremors ran up and down and through me. My roots were dark and sore, and now seemed to be a neighborhood development for a hundred colonies of fire ants. My leaves still fell in the autumn and grew back in the spring, but the ceaseless wheel of seasons only caused my bitterness to thicken, and after a while, I discovered a new “feeling.”


My unhappiness that stemmed from feeling absolutely nothing began to grow quickly into changing my world in a way that I felt absolutely everything—everything but happiness.

This potion of confusion and unhappiness simmered for a while, and I grew weaker every day. When it rained, I longed to cry too, and when my leaves fell, I no longer felt airy and beautiful like I had so many years ago. I felt exposed and stagnant. Dark and bare and lifeless. When my leaves grew back next season, I felt incredibly tired. To pretend that I was bright and green and fresh when I only felt the same, the same, the same, the same—

It exhausted me greatly, and caused my roots to ache and groan all the more.

As my unhappiness grew and my bitterness spread, the people stopped coming to see me. there were no more rope swings, and the children seemed to be able to tell how much it hurt me when they built their forts, and soon took them down. There were no more rescue missions, no more young misunderstood girls with fire in their eyes storming up my branches to hide from difficult life decisions and tired-eyed mothers, no more boy scouts marking my trunk with their pocket knives. Boys and girls who made each other light up no longer picked each other flowers or laughed on blankets at picnics under my leaves or ran as fast as they could down the side of the hill. I was unpleasant to be around.

By then, the garden wall itself was crumbling, and also had been ambushed by the endless armies of fire ants, and as the people stopped coming to see me, a new dark and unrelenting creation sprouted in me.

I was lonely.

Eventually, my loneliness morphed into hurt, and I longed more than anything to scream, louder than my branches turned and groaned uncomfortably, louder than any human could. But the garden was empty.

On one particularly bad day, the last day of winter, many years of pain and hurt later, I finally fell apart. My confusion and sadness and everything I didn’t know the name of inside me finally collapsed, and my whole trunk, all of my branches, sighed a long, wailing sigh.

And I sat there. Waiting to feel relief or to feel the weight come off or to feel something, something other than what I’d been feeling for so long—

But there was nothing.

Nothing, at first.

And then, some numb days or weeks or months later, I sensed a small movement at the base of my trunk. A whispering and a humming and a soft flickering.

A tiny, tall and skinny wildflower, the first of many, was opening its petals.

The delicate pink plates spread slowly, stretched, and seemed to take a long, deep breath.

Then it relaxed, and swayed, and, surprising me a little, a small spot of color took root inside me. And I felt it start to spread—slowly, hesitantly, of course—

But surely.


Carson Rose would describe herself as something like Eeyore with spunk and a mild dinosaur fascination. An avid reader of the classics, she can usually be found curled up in a hammock with a book or splayed on her bedroom floor watching TED talks or various other random media, often accompanied by her allergenic cat, Milk. Besides reading and writing, she also enjoys oranges, creating a good Spotify playlist, and living out her inner architect in Minecraft. Her current favorite book is Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keys. She also really likes hugs.