Human eye

The Experiment

by ANDY MORRIGAN | 3rd Place tie, student poetry contest

We built in a safeguard: of course, we did.
In The Beginning—back then, the darkness was hopeful.

The pixels of nonmatter pulsed with potential,

The clouds hovered in waiting before they existed.

Evolution molded everything into something different
Birds and grasses and

Those damn people.

It reshaped everything, corrupted everything, the hopeless, blind reach for the new
Which touched the back of their minds eventually


Decimated the reason between can and will and should.

It was never perfect—never even good
but the birth of human was the birth of pride
the birth of consciousness

the death of innocence

the start of the search

and now the oceans burn,
the sky melts

the New and the Bright caves in on itself according to its nature

Because we built in a safeguard.
Of course, we did.



Things I'll Send


I keep a list for later: things I’ll send.
Just normal things—a recipe I found
with aubergine, which looked your sort of thing;
that awful photo from your wedding day,
in which I blinked and look like I’m asleep;
a sudden thought: Remember when you got
inside a duvet cover, shouted BOO?
The world’s most stupid ghost—I laughed for hours.
On normal days these things keep up the tune
of twenty years of friendship, me and you,
and yet to send them now would be absurd:
a requiem on keytar and kazoo.

Your grief has muted joy, so I send flowers:
they don’t know us and have no song to sing.


Hattie Crisell is a British journalist based in London. She has written for The New York Times, New York magazine, Vogue, The Times of London and others. She hosts the podcast In Writing with Hattie Crisell, a series of interviews about the writing process, and is currently on the creative writing MA program at Birkbeck University.

Lady with a White Scarf

For Those Who Have Known & Those Who Will Know Me

by BAILEY HUERTA | 3rd Place tie, student poetry contest

When I was a dream,
I was the Sky;
And the light and the stars all knew me.

When I was a small baby,
I was a bee;
And the bugs & the frogs all knew me.

When I was a girl,
I was rain;
And the puddles and the mud all knew me.

When I was a Woman,
I was the thunder;
And the earthquakes & the depths of the Seas all knew me.

When I was a mother,
I was creator
And the Earth and trees all knew me.

When I am no more,
I will be everything.
And I will know you,
Just as you once knew me.


Chidera Nwachukwu picked up the pencil when she was little and has refused to put it down since. She is an avid sketch artist, painter, and illustrator; she dabbles in every medium and lets nothing hold her back. As a self-taught artist, she finds inspiration in anything since she feels there is beauty in everything. She took part in an art show in 2015 and has since continued to work on improving her artistic ability. She relishes any opportunity to display her work because she aims to inspire and uplift people through it.


The Cat Considers Her Poetic Companion


For Kendra and Blue

She seems obsessed with writing down her thoughts,
herding them into lettered lines instead
of letting them loose to frolic, fly aloft,
believing they aren’t real until they’re read.

Human thoughts apparently are tame
enough to keep inside of word-walled boxes,
unlike feline thoughts too wild to name
that we stalk or sleep on or chase like foxes.

I can’t understand this human need
for art created at freedom’s expense,
reducing the magic to rabbit-hats, creeds
zipping belief into plastic bags—nonsense!

Yet I tolerate her writing, however misguided,
because when she does it, she sits still and strokes me idly.


T. Allen Culpepper is a faculty member in the English Department at TCC.

Can't You See I'm Working?



Terry had walked the same way to school every day this year. Off the porch, across the street, through the neighbor’s yard, silently of course and on to the street a block from the bus stop. Every day it was the same. At nine years old it was too early in life to determine if this was a routine, if this was boring, the same, the caught in the mindless rut of every-day-ness. It was as his mother, Laura and father, Daniel had pointed out on several occasions necessary. “It is necessary that you get to the bus stop before the bus,” was the exact instruction.

By Halloween, Terry had figured out when to leave, when to have used the bathroom one last time. It was weather, when the weather guy came on, the goofy one who pretended he was cool, who wore shorts outside all year round and screamed at piñatas made in the shape of his fellow early morning newscasters it was time. When he came on to give the weather report it was time to walk out the door, grab his backpack, his retro Batman lunch cooler, a jacket if needed and take off.

His parents had given him the opportunity to act like a grown up at the beginning of the year. To entice him, to get him to take responsibility they had promised Terry a possible trip that next summer to a mega amusement park where he would now be tall enough to ride the rides. Only and they stressed only if he never missed the bus in the morning. Summer, in Terry’s estimation was going to be excellent.

Just after Christmas, during the January frost days, those days with late delayed school starts because the air was too cold for young people to hang out waiting for a school bus Charlotte showed up. Terry’s early morning commute was now invaded by a girl, new to the school, his age, and in his class. There was nothing special about Charlotte other than she was smart, quiet and stayed to herself reading at recess in the cold months and in the spring, she stood in the corner of the school yard examining an ancient tree waiting, she told anyone who would listen, for the running of the sap.

Half of Terry’s walk to the bus top was now accompanied by Charlotte and rather than fight the urge to be solitary wanderers on opposite sides of the street it turned out to be more fun to talk with one another. In the morning. In the afternoon. It was mutual. They are nine. Sometimes they switched lunches, sometimes they complained about homework, and sometimes they just walked and along acknowledging the other with a head nod. Friends, sometimes the best friends are the ones that show up unexpectedly.

Terry loved explaining the neighborhood to Charlotte. He told her all about the Singun’s and that he was allowed to cut through their yard to get home. Otherwise, he would have to go about a block in the other direction or down to the end of the street and cut over through the parking lot of the old church. It was scary down by the parking lot as that took him by Mrs. Franken’s house. Everyone knew that she was a witch and had been known to kidnap stray animals and bake them into pies.

Charlotte challenged him about the old woman baking pets into pies. “I’m sorry, I just don’t believe in that kind of stuff.”

“The story goes,” Terry went on, “that there was a stray beagle puppy running about the block. A cute little guy with big ears and sad eyes. Then one day Mrs. Franken was seen tempting that poor little stray dog into her yard with a steak and after that afternoon no one ever saw that poor lost beagle again. What do you make of that?”

“Lucky dog to get steak.”

“You hardly ever see the Singun’s unless he’s shoveling snow or cutting the grass. Sometimes Mrs. Singun hangs out laundry in the back yard. My dad think she doesn’t have a dryer. Mom thinks she does laundry for other people, because there is no way that Mrs. Singun could fit in some of the clothes that she hangs out. I like when it snows, because he only shovels the sidewalk along the side of the house and stops. Then I get to walk through the snow in his yard to get home. Walking in snow makes my toes get all red and tingly.”

That morning in late spring on their walking commute to the school bus Terry and Charlotte stumbled upon a dead bird. With both of them possessing inquisitive young minds they stopped and examined the carcass. With a stick he poked the bird's chest, it caved in under the pressure from the stick and let out a bird sigh. Terry jumped back and said that the bird may be still alive playing possum. Charlotte pointed out that matted crushed feathers and the faded colors were proof that it was dead. She squatted next to him smiled, he smiled back and handed her the stick. Charlotte began her own examination, two scientists, two coroners, two detectives trying to determine the cause of death on a street on their way to school.

It was this stalling of the two children on the street that brought out Mr. Singun, a very large stout man that Terry had nick named “the wall”. Mr. Singun came out to see what had caught the interest of the two children. He quizzed Terry, who having been taught manners by his parents, reinforced by his teachers and pastor answered the man’s questions while Charlotte, although considered polite was very shy and liked to hide behind anything for protection, in this case Terry.

Mr. Singun explained to both of them that things die and asked if they knew about death, real death not the goofy deaths from TV, the movies or video games. Both children nodded and Charlotte, feeling adventurous calmly explained, “that the bird may have had a heart attack like her grandfather and there is nothing the fucking goddamn hospital can do.”

Mr. Singun stifled a laugh and nodded in agreement, explaining to Charlotte that she may want to keep her ideas about hospitals a secret, but that death whether it was her grandfather or the poor bird was the same. Terry added that his grandmother had died last summer and that his mom went crying crazy for a couple of weeks and his Uncle Randy hung out at their house until his dad kicked him out. Terry laughed. “Uncle Randy was always drunk and used to puke right off the front porch.”

“Eww.” Charlotte added.

There was a sale at the mini mart that afternoon two gallon jugs of iced tea the good kind the hard to get flavor half lemonade half iced tea sour sweet bitter. It was a two for five sale, one that they don’t advertise unless you are at the pump getting gas with your courtesy card and the digital display comes up as you finish filling your tank announcing the special. Laura had called Daniel at work to stop by and buy what he could. It was her favorite and would he please do this one little favor this one little thing just for her, if he loved her, he would.

It was Charlotte that noticed that Mr. Singun had tears in his eyes and feeling especially bold that morning asked if he was oaky. Not waiting for an answer, she went on and on that it was only a bird and promised to have it taken care of if Mr. Singun wanted her too. She would gladly come by after school and remove the bird if Mr. Singun didn’t have the stomach to.

Again, Mr. Singun laughed. He teased Charlotte about not being afraid of dead things. “I have Terry he will help.”

Terry then went on about how they had studied dead things in school and remarked that if he let them cleanup, they would be doing community service. Mr. Singun would just have to sign a paper for school. The man shuffled the two along reminding them both that the school bus waits for no one. When they looked back, he was using the hose to wash down the sidewalk. Throughout the day they worried about Mr. Singun and at recess the two of them sat and planned how they could help cheer the man up.

Terry’s father had what Terry felt was the best job in the world. He guarded the money in those big tank-like trucks, delivering hundreds if not millions of dollar bills to banks, stores, and the Freezy Wheezy home of the Freezy Monster a huge cone of soft serve swirled ice cream in three flavors of your choosing.

There were several things that Terry and Charlotte had decided that they loved about spring. First was no more school. Although they both did enjoy being in school, there was nothing like summer vacation. Terry voted that baseball was his second and promised, crossing his heart that whatever she picked as her second favorite thing would be tied with baseball.

Charlotte wasn’t a big baseball fan but agreed. “I find the sport boring,” was all she said. Her second favorite was gardens. She and her mom always planted a garden. “Flowers, vegetables, ten foot tall tomato plants.”

Terry wasn’t a big fan of gardens. “Flowers bring bees. I don’t like bees.”

Summer also meant ice cream and this summer Terry would introduce her to the best ice cream. “The best ice cream in the world was at the Freezy Wheezy.”

Charlotte questioned his claim about the best in the world. “How could you know, having not traveled around the world?”

“Easy, it says so on their sign.” That made both of them laugh.

The doorbell rang two times in quick succession. Mrs. Singun was surprised to find Terry and Charlotte at the door. “My my,” she said over and over. “What can I do for you two?” They explained about the bird. Charlotte let Terry do the talking how they both felt that maybe Mr. Singun needed some cheering up.

“Hmmm,” she said in a long drawn out breath. “Mr. Singun seems okay to me.” She closed the door and locked herself up back inside. Behind closed doors Mrs. Singun sat on a chair and began to cry. She cried and then using a dish towel for a tissue wiped her eyes as she watched the two children through the front window walking away. Catching her breath and standing she told herself he would be okay, everything would be okay. He would find another job. He had never let them down before.

The two drifted about in the Singun’s back yard on their way to Terry’s house for after school snacks, picking dandelions, talking and laughing. Charlotte wanted to make a garland of the flowers, a wreath of yellow flowers that you could put around your neck. It was something her mom had taught her, how to weave the flowers together to make a string of green leaves and flowers. “Bees,” she told Terry, “love dandelions.”

“Bees, yuck.” was all he could say. “Bees hurt,” he warned.

“Bees make honey, “she reminded him, “and everyone loves honey.”

Terry wanted to collect a large bundle of the flowers to give to his mom. “Mom loves flowers, she has a special jar to put them in.”

“Vase.” Boys can be stupid. Charlotte’s mom had been adamant about that. Boys can be stupid, boys can be smart too, but sometimes they tend to not think things through.

Charlotte’s mom, Holly liked Terry and insisted that he was one of the smart ones. “He’s smart and he’s your friend. You are so lucky to have such a good friend. That is one of the best things that can happen in your life, Cherry.” Her mom called her Cherry, it was her nickname her secret special mom daughter name. When Holly called out Cherry it meant one of two things, that she was in trouble or that Holly was proud of something Charlotte had done. Charlotte was hardly ever in trouble.

Holly and Charlotte had come to the neighborhood in January after her job had moved them from their old home of six years. “Relocation. You have to go where the money is.” Holly was a programmer, loved games, and was proud of her daughter who was smarter, she told Charlotte, than anyone else she knew at that age. The two of them loved to play board games together and gladly welcomed Terry whenever he was around to join in. Terry would spend a Saturday afternoon with them playing games and talking about the spring and baseball and how his dad was excited about him finally being old enough to be on a real team.

Things happened in a rush. Sometimes that is just the way it goes. Terry’s father, Daniel, had come home, had failed to stop for the iced tea and was taking off his work gear when his cell phone buzzed with the simple message from his wife, Laura that just said “thanks”. “Shit.” Daniel grabbed his keys and headed out the door. He had backed out the drive and was down the street when Terry and Charlotte made it to the porch armed with bunches of dandelions and backpacks.

Sitting on the counter under a vest and some webbing it sat. Black, flat black, dead black, beckoning. It was heavy and Charlotte did all she could to hold onto it while Terry explained his dad’s rules, but it was too heavy. Slowly it slipped from her hands, her moist little hands, it fell slid down the front of her dress and landed with a bang on the floor.

“It sounded like a firecracker, but not as loud.” That is what Mrs. Franken said. “Fireworks in the middle of the afternoon. Tsk. Tsk. What is the neighborhood coming too?” A phrase she used often and repeated at least once more as she hid behind the partially opened door. Her eyeglasses reflected the spring sun and the activity in the street outside. Behind her, her rooms were dark like a sunless basement. Glowing faintly against the far wall was the multicolored screen of her television filled with a gameshow of over animated contestants jumping up and down. On the couch lounging in the glow of that television on an old afghan sat a plump beagle unenthusiastic about the company at the door. The officer thanked her and walked back out to the street.

Mr. and Mrs. Singun had heard nothing seen nothing. The children often cut through their yard and they hoped that the police would take notice that this was a form of trespass which should be attended to. Under the circumstances the officer replied that their specific complaint would be best taken up at a different time. In response the Singun’s closed their door and locked the world outside.

Elisa, a young mother to be watched the commotion from the sidewalk. Occasionally rubbing her hands over and along her swollen belly, her eyes filled with unwept tears. Manolito, her husband came home from work and became nervous when she was not in the house. He started to sweat and his stomach grew tight as he ran out to the street calling her name. There was no note, nothing telling him where she might be. As he searched, he prayed that she had not been rushed to the hospital and the baby had not come early.

He discovered her down the block. Coming up behind her he put his arm around her. At first, she was startled and jumped away. Realizing it was him she smiled and allowed him to pull her close and with his arm around her waist, she rested her head on his chest. It was warmer today than it had been and she was hot, standing there struggling in the sun to stand. He whispered something in Spanish and she shook her head no, adding that she wanted to stay wanted to be here needed to feel part of the neighborhood.

Daniel sitting on his front porch at first oblivious to the commotion and neighbors congregated across the street held his face in his hands, breathed, sighed and then rubbed his fingers over his late afternoon stubble. He shook his head as if that simple motion would clear his mind, refresh restart. He sighed again looked up across the street and realized nothing had changed.

Manny hadn’t noticed the police cars when he came down the street searching for his wife. The unattended vehicles stood motionless and without their lights flashing looked like everyday occupants parked along the street. Many from the neighborhood had gathered along the street in a reverent silence. Hushed it seemed out of some respect for some unknown but valid tragedy. Many silently wept. Elisa explained that the ambulance had left earlier. A priest came and was allowed in. In the house there was crying, the saddest crying for the longest time and now there was silence. The silence came she told him when they shut off the lights to the ambulance before it went away.

Manolito caught someone in the Singun’s house peering from a second floor window. The curtain pushed aside enough to spy on the outside world. For the first time since moving here he felt uncomfortable. The thought of them hiding away while neighbors collected to show support made him feel angry. He stared back until the curtain fell into place, the trespasser on the sorrows of others had moved on.

While they stood there gathered with others from the neighborhood, Holly walked by. Her head hung low her shoulders straining over its weight. No one said a word to her as she left the house and cut through the Singun’s yard. All of a sudden, she stopped stooped down, picked some dandelions tore them apart tossing them into the breeze whispering, “Goodbye my sweet Cherry.”

“Esto es desgarrador. This is heart breaking. It was supposed to be safe. Peaceful. Family.”

Manny laughed nervously.

“Don’t laugh at me. That is why we moved here, this family, that family, the trees, the quiet, the kids playing in the street. This is where we wanted to raise up our kids. No, you don’t understand. I see the two of them walk to school in the morning and then walk home in the afternoon. That is done. The place is different now. Scarred.”

A bee buzzed around her head she stepped away, waving her arms.

“Odias las abejas. You look funny swatting at the bee. Te amo.” Again, he pulled her close, wanted to reassure her, let her know that he was watching out for her, protecting her. He gently tightened his grip around her waist, patted her belly, his way of letting her know he was there, and would always be there for them.


Duane Engelhardt is a new writer who has recently self-published a novella, Code of Silence. Drawing from career experiences ranging from Chief Financial Officer of a branch of an international corporation, to managing an art gallery, stage acting, and working on sailboats, Engelhardt now puts his unique vision of life into photography and writing. When not traveling, he and his wife Kit live outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with Ziva, a conspicuous and vocal German Shepherd, and Layla, an overstuffed house cat, while working on his novel The Forest Hill Crow Society.

Ethan Caughern, 18 years old, is a dual credit student at TCC. He took an interest in photography as a hobby when his father introduced him to it. Ethan also thoroughly enjoys playing piano, which is his primary hobby. TCC BCM is another activity that he participates in. Music is also a big part of Ethan's life, as he is involved in the worship team in his church's youth group.


An Acrostic for Kurt Vonnegut

by ZHENYA YEVTUSHENKO | Honorable Mention, student poetry contest


“Well, here we are Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five


Kilgore Trout sits in his basement,

talks to his decrepit parrot and writes.

Unaware of our eyes,
Trout crafts messy storylines, he disdains his audience.

Readers are nothing and everything to Trout—or is
that simply you laughing at yourself, Mr. Vonnegut?
Trout dreams dystopian dreams
in his dark fiction deep inside our darker fiction.

Victims of a series of accidents—that’s humanity,
marvelous moments aimlessly ruined into marble.

Order is not time, but rusty clockwork gears
they bite like beartraps, and breaks manifest

a zigzag in the poetry of time, this

—whatever it is—

is the amber teardrop of a moment

there is no why.
Never knew many unharmful truths but
here I live in the results of harmful untruths.

Nights in Dresden, firestorms
flooding streets, melting humans into soup, so it goes.

Evil nights faced by you—or was
that Billy Pilgrim?
Gravely with a gentleness, I now see the Cat’s Cradle looping
truths and lies.

Underneath the social satire, past stop-starts, a blood-soaked
Slaughterhouse, was hope.

There was music, and everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.



Time Heals No Wounds

The Time I Lost Myself

by MELYSSA LIRA | Honorable Mention, student prose contest

I walk into the cold sterile building, my mind going in a million directions. I’m the youngest patient here, where the air is heavy with sorrow, trepidation, and differing levels of infirmity. I’m ushered to the right and through a set of doors to the room where radiation will be blasted through my lower torso by a large, mechanical beast that orbits my body as I lay on a frigid table five feet in the air. Thanks to Covid, I’m starting treatment alone for the cancer that is growing faster than my children did inside my body. My husband, Giovani, sits in the car praying I will be alright. He’s putting on a brave face like a Mayan warrior about to go into battle, but I feel his nervousness and fear that is matching my own. We have asked all the right questions that you’re supposed to ask but have gotten half answers. The doctors say things like “should,” “hopefully,” and “if.” We have a plan: Monday through Friday is radiation at nine a.m. for thirty minutes with chemo every Friday for six hours after radiation. Eight weeks. It doesn’t seem like an insane amount of time.

At the end of week one I walk into the building and turn right then continue through to radiation; after that I go up the elevator to the left where I will sit, uncomfortably, for the next six hours for chemo. I am alone surrounded by a field of reclining chairs filled with the shells of humans hooked up to an icy IV; the taste of chemicals invading my mouth. My body is starting to feel as if I have sat in the sun, with navel to thigh bare, long enough to have developed a sunburn. I remembered to ask all the questions that I could think of; again because of Covid I wasn’t able to have the “teaching class” where they explain everything to you before you start treatment. When I get home, I feel ok, I guess. I feel a slight tingling all over my body, like static electricity running through my veins. Then the nausea hits me with the force of a Mac truck. The doctors have prescribed me what I can only describe as the Rolls Royce of pain and anti-nausea medications, and like an idiot I didn’t listen when they told me to start taking them before treatment today. (I hate taking medication.) As I lay there praying for the pills to kick in, I start to feel my mind becoming murky and distorted. I’m slipping deep into an ocean of blackness that is pain and nausea, where little bursts of pictures flash by me. I see Giovani’s face hiding a grimace with a smile as he hands me something and then it fades. I see the nurses and technicians talking to me. I can’t make out exactly what they are saying, and then it fades.

I can’t think, and my memory doesn’t seem to be working very well either. I don’t know what day it is or when the last time I saw my children was. My son, Noah’s, face swims in front of me set in a constant state of panic and fear; my daughter, Caleigh, cries because she doesn’t understand why mommy can’t cuddle and play with her like she used to. I cannot remember when the last time I told them I loved them was. At this point I have no clue what week it is or how many treatments I have had. I’m beginning to feel like everything is happening to me and not with me; I am so powerless, and I hate it. There is a constant struggle inside my body between red hot searing pain from the radiation burns that have transformed my skin into bubbling, seeping patches of flesh and nausea so horrible and intense that all I can do is curl into a tight ball. All that the medication seems to be doing is slightly dulling my senses. I am granted minute respites from being thrown about in this black sea of Oxycodone, Morphine, and Zofran: in the mornings right before radiation treatments, and on chemo days when they pump me full of steroids to try to get me to eat. I quickly come to realize that these times are my lifelines, and I grasp at them like a sailor grasping at a life preserver after he has been flung overboard into one-hundred-foot waves.

I am now about fifteen radiation and three chemo treatments into the plan given to me by the doctors. Giovani has started to keep a running list in his phone of things that he thinks should be mentioned to or asked of the doctors, and he suggests that I do the same. He knows how much I’m struggling to remember even the big details amid everything I have been experiencing. So, I make lists and write everything down (or rather type everything out). I make lists of the things I want to say. Tell Giovani I appreciate everything he’s doing, that he’s doing great with distanced learning, and I love him. Tell Noah it’s going to be ok, that I will be alright, and I love him. Tell Caleigh I miss cuddling, too, that I’m sorry I don’t know how to explain all this to her, and I love her. I make lists of questions and side effects I need to mention and discuss with my care team. Why aren’t the handfuls of pain and anti-nausea pills plus the topical creams that I have been taking every couple of hours really working? Why do the medications only scratch the surface? Why do I need another blood transfusion? I am a knight battling a ferocious dragon, and my lists are my sword and shield. When talking to anyone and everyone, I furiously type to make sure that even the smallest detail is accounted for. Little by little, piece by tiny piece, I am slowly able to take back fractions of myself. The pain and anguish are a constant bombardment, but I am not as lost, not as unaware of the things around me, and not as unavailable to my family.

The next few weeks seem to pass by in a whirlwind of treatments, transfusions, and doctors’ visits; I’m sure it’s partially because of the amount of sleep I am getting, thanks to all the medications and how broken my body has become. The routine is for the most part the same, with the only difference being the switch from external to internal radiation (two words: reverse childbirth). I am constantly armed with my lists to make sure I am being heard by those around me. “Write that down,” is now a lighthearted joke directed at me by nurses, doctors, and my family alike. I am just glad to be able to have something to joke about again. The pain and nausea are repeatedly getting worse, so I have been given more medications. At least now I feel like I have a compass to navigate through these rough waters.

I hobble into the building that has become my second home. I still feel the fear and sadness pressing in on me; however, I notice something more—hope. My mind is clear except for one thought: hopefully it’s over. I finish my routine of taking a right down the hallway then through the doors that lead through to the radiation room. Four blood transfusions, six weeks of chemo, thirty external, and five internal radiation treatments has left my body fatigued, seared, feeble, and gaunt. As I come out from my last treatment, I see my husband and children standing outside the windows, with sunny flowers and a bright rainbow of balloons in hand. My husband’s face shines with a smile only great hardship can produce. He’s battered and bruised as I am, but his wounds are mental. My son is smiling but it’s guarded. He’s not sure if it is ok to stop being afraid for me. My daughter is just excited to see balloons, not fully aware of what’s been happening, only knowing that mommy has been sick. I step forward, running my hand reverently along the multicolored ribbons with messages of strength, hope, and love scrawled upon them by other survivors. How had I not seen these before? I reach out and clasp the string attached to the large bell on the wall, next to the ribbons, and pull hard. The sound that rings out and the cheers from the staff fill me with so much emotion that I am almost crushed by the weight of it. As I turn to look at my husband through the window, I feel his hope that matches mine;,and we just smile at each other. I’ve been told that there will be some lasting side effects, some could affect my short-term memory, but I will not lose myself again—not ever.


Melyssa Lira grew up in California, where her high school English teacher, Mr. Medders, encouraged and eventually instilled in her a love of writing. That love helped her through difficult times in her life by giving her a creative outlet to express what she was going through. In 2010 Melyssa moved to Oklahoma, where she married her best friend, Giovani. The pair have two children together, Noah (14) and Caleigh (7). In 2020 she was diagnosed with cancer but is, thankfully, in remission.


Famous in My Mind


Jean Carpentier: the boy who helped us translate our difficulties with the car to the mechanic near Carcassonne on a Sunday afternoon. That sentence appeared in one of my mother’s letters to her mother, written during my mother’s seven-month trip through Europe after college in 1951 with her friend, Liz. Romantic musings percolated in my mind. This was a real-life “meet-cute,” proof that my mother lived a charmed Hollywood life. Maybe “Docteur Carpentier” resembled Cary Grant or Gene Kelly?

Perhaps Jean was included in my mother’s general comment that the car “broke down a lot.” Men often came to my mother and Liz’s aid regarding their dark brown Morris Minor car, which resembled a chunky Volkswagen Beetle. How did she come to pen his Carcassonne address on the edge of a page in her notebook, which I found in 2014, a year after her sudden death at age eighty-six?

The Morris Minor broke down in Limoux, not far from Carcassonne, in the south of France. The car stopped—pushed it across the bridge. Jean Carpentier [or spelled the French way, “Charpentier”] (twenty-three-years old, dentist) came across the street, spoke good [sic] English. After trying to fix it, we took it back to Limoux, and Jean went with us; had beer afterward. How does one decide to have beers with a Good Samaritan while waiting for the car to be repaired? And not only beers. We stopped to let Jean off and had champagne with his father and several other Frenchmen. Best I ever tasted—Guinot Blanquette de Limoux. Made in that town! Left at 5:30 p.m. What a Sunday afternoon!

I had to see the place for myself. During one of my trips retracing my mother’s journey, I visited Limoux hoping to find a handsome man, a film-worthy romance, and champagne. The guidebook said Limoux’s main “cultural pastime” was the café scene, and the main square seemed like the spot for connection. I sat down at one of the cafés and ordered lunch. An advertisement for Coca-Cola was in a café window—the sign was of a smiling woman in a sailor’s cap with the words Coca-Cola on the brim, a bottle of the fizzy drink held between bright red lips and red fingernails. I remembered when my brother and I traveled with our parents as young children, Coca-Cola was our touchstone of home. That beverage was a relief from long, hot sightseeing walks and was supposed to help settle nervous tummies. Introduced to France in 1950, barely a year before my mother’s trip, the soda had mixed results. Frenchmen spit it out, sometimes directly at a camera, in showy defiance of Americanization and “Coca-Cola diplomacy.”

I stopped in a wine store on the main square to ask the location of the Guinot Blanquette de Limoux winery. After a few blank stares at my awkward grade-school French, I walked out with an address on a piece of paper. The Limoux libation was properly called “sparkling wine” since it wasn’t from the Champagne region of France. Back in my car, the GPS on my phone led me to an empty winery outside of town, which had a walled courtyard between two of the winery’s processing buildings.

A dusty sign of a man wearing a ribboned beret and a medallion necklace holding a bottle, standing between two bunches of grapes framed with the words Maistre Blanquetier, was affixed to one wall of the winery’s courtyard above a greenhouse; inside, an orange rose bush bloomed. My grandmother was the only person I knew who had a greenhouse attached to her home—my mother would have loved that bit of horticulture. Hip-high, glass bottles encased in wicker and wide as the circle of one’s arms leaned next to trees and pink flowering vines.

I spotted a wood structure with holes for the necks of 120 dark green, empty glass bottles, ten rows vertical by twelve rows horizontal. This was used in the “riddling” process (tilting and turning sparkling wine bottles so sediment or dead yeast collected in the neck could be easily removed) described in The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It. I gave that book to my mother on a prior Christmas. If the book brought back memories of Jean and the “best champagne,” she never let it slip.

Sitting alone at one of the courtyard tables, next to the wood casks, I imagined my mother, Liz, Jean, and his father next to me, shaded by trees and a trellis of vines; cigarettes in ashtrays next to their glasses, all of them laughing and toasting to a convivial Sunday afternoon.

I purchased several Limoux bottles from the sales office across the street and carried them, protected with cardboard and wrapped in a double paper bag, for weeks before I found a post office that had packing materials to ship them to my cousins in Pennsylvania. My hope was that we’d open the bubbly at Thanksgiving when I returned to the USA. However, I’ve never been an alcohol drinker and had low expectations of enjoying “the best champagne.” I preferred the flat Coca-Cola from my childhood.

Since childhood, some part of me harbored the fantasy that my mother and I would embark on a grand tour retracing her travels. I wanted less of the mother concerned with social mores and more one-on-one of the playful spirit that appeared on our picnic lunches during family trips to Europe in the 1970s. Lunches were bought-in-the-market-that-morning bread and cheese, with wine for the grown-ups (water for my brother and me) and fruit. If the fruit of the day was cherries, my mother began a family spitting contest with the words, “Have you ever been to Pittsburgh?” She often won. Had she played this game with Jean and his father at the garden of the Limoux winery?

During our 1971 family trip to the medieval walled city of Carcassonne in France, my mother spilled no details about her 1951 car mishap. Neither my mother nor grandmother (who traveled with us and was my roommate on our family vacations) mentioned their letter exchange about Jean Carpentier twenty years earlier. Were they complicit in forgetfulness? Perhaps my mother chose not to speak of beer and champagne in front of my father or risk raised eyebrows from her mother? Jean continued to send my mother letters during her European trip and a Christmas card that year. Maybe his epistolary attention stopped when my mother wrote something to the effect of, Big news. I’m engaged. My grandfather once told my mother, “Sarah, you have one man coming in the front door while another exits through the back.” I didn’t have a man coming or going.

I was determined to find Jean Carpentier’s Carcassonne address in a part of the city modern enough to be outside the medieval walls but old enough to be a walking street with no cars allowed. The cosmetics/perfume shop next door confirmed a dentist had been their neighbor at some point, but they didn’t know where he was now. At least, that was what my limited French understood—a brass plaque at Jean’s address said a foot reflexologist/podiatrist and another doctor had moved to a different location.

More disappointing, instead of being discovered by a present-day hottie like George Clooney, a suspicious man gave me unwanted attention. Was I too much of a spectacle or an easy target, snapping pictures of street plaques with a telephoto lens? To lose him, I ducked into a larger department store and waited ten minutes before walking back to my car. My mother was feted with the “the best champagne” and Christmas cards, whereas I found an empty winery and a creepy stalker.

Perhaps I’d have better luck feeling my mother’s spirit at Rocamadour, a pilgrimage site as old as the Crusades. Rocamadour was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site of the “Way of Saint James” (a path to Santiago de Compostela) and also “the favorite village of the French 2016” by viewers of a French television channel. I met two friends there, who were in search of the spirit of Madonna, a Black Madonna. The Black Madonna was associated with inner transformation (her blackness was said to represent either smoke from votive candles or the African origins of humanity). I wanted to see Rocamadour because my mother mentioned it: Up and down many hills to get there. Had tea and cola overlooking town which is built on the side of a mountain.

My friends and I began our climb at the bottom of the rock face just as rain started to fall. A lane of cobblestones bordered by medieval houses was the sole road through the village. When the serpentine road ended, there were 216 steps up the Grand Escalier (staircase), which the most devout Catholic pilgrims ascended on their knees. My experience as a “mainline” Presbyterian involved wearing our Sunday best—white cotton gloves with never more self-deprivation than patent-leather shoes that pinched. At the entrance of the Chapelle Notre Dame, the sanctuary with the Black Madonna, the rock face was streaked with gray stone, almost as if it was streaming tears.

Inside the chapel, I felt dampness but no spirit. I sat silent and heard the occasional scrapes of feet or creaks of the wooden pews. Arches disappeared into the rock face. Some of the angels around the altar had wings that pointed skyward, three feet above the angels’ heads, a type of wing that seemed scary and overpowering to me. I preferred the round cherubic angels. The miracle of the chapel was that a bell was reputed to have rung in landlocked Rocamadour when a ship or sailors were saved in the Mediterranean, four hours away. This sounded like a sea-shanty tale met a Catholic crusade. The nautical theme was evident—suspended from the ceiling as mobiles were replicas of wooden sailboats.

Set back from the angels and boats, the Black Madonna was high above us in a glass box with red-velvet panels, the centerpiece of the altar. Her tilted face and clasped

hands were barely visible, cloaked in a crown and white gown with gold brocade and a white veil, both three sizes too big for her small frame. She seemed choked by veneration.

I hoped for a feeling, any feeling. It didn’t have to be a miracle. A year prior, I felt my mother in front of the Black Madonna in the French seaside town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue. Maybe my experience was different because the Camargue sanctuary was named Sara, the same name as my mother but without the final H. That Black Madonna wasn’t the main show. Not even the most important artifact, as the statue was kept in the crypt until it was floated in from the sea during All Saint’s Day as part of a Romani celebration. But clearly, covered in beads as colorful as Mardi Gras, the Camargue Black Madonna was beloved by those seeking spiritual help. Nose-to-nose with her, I wanted to wrap my arms around the figure’s shoulders, just as I might have done with my mother. I had that Black Madonna all to myself, surrounded by pictures of others’ loved ones, their hopes written on scraps of paper, their prayers and mine suspended in the air.

Was I not the right kind of pilgrim? Were my intentions not clear enough, not spoken from the heart? Presbyterians often used call-and-response in their worship services, so if I called my mother now, would she respond? I yearned for a sign of her, like the errant leaf that landed with a loud “thwat” on my purse, sailing in through the open car window a few weeks after her death. I waited for an answer. Have I not called her with sufficient fervor? Decades after I read about the theory of evolution in National Geographic magazines, my mother said she thought humans were too complex to have evolved from monkeys, too late for me to reform my perception of the origin story. Who was the inadequate believer, my mother or me?

Maybe I couldn’t connect to my mother here because her Presbyterian upbringing didn’t appreciate a tiny Madonna or a bell that rang when sailors were saved hours away. We weren’t a family who believed in miracles. My mother had a tolerance level for churches; above it, she’d rather go shopping. She made sure I had a doll from every country we visited—maybe that was our connection. Maybe, in 1951, she was too busy drinking cola and taking in the vista instead of the religious significance of Rocamadour.

The sanctuary’s motto, “Hope as firm as rock” (“L’espérance ferme comme le roc”), didn’t hold true for me. A sign outside the chapel presented a guarantee: Here, the pilgrim truly experiences that “nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1, verse 37). As I read those words, bells began to ring. Bells upon bells, as if peace were declared, a king and queen married, a baby announced. I walked down the empty courtyard steps, shooting pictures of my friends who were ahead of me, trying to capture the moment of their faces uplifted in delight and reverence. Was this the miracle? All the photos ended up being blurry, with wisps of spirit in front of and behind my friends.

Leaving Rocamadour behind, I traveled back to Carcassonne for the night. I particularly wanted to stay at the Hôtel de la Cité, inside the walled city. My mother wrote it was darling with all leaded glass windows, ivy growing on the stone. Perhaps her love of the place was boosted because it was their first really sunny day—even shed my snuggies [long underwear].

My goal was to check the hotel’s registers to see if I could find my mother’s signature. But first, because the hotel was inside the walls where cars aren’t allowed, I had to find the hotel’s parking area (was it just inside or outside the walls?) where a valet would come and take me to the hotel—such a strange procedure. I had the directions and my phone’s GPS, but unfortunately, I got stuck on a street that was barely width-wise larger than the car.

I twisted and turned until the end of the street came to a metal gate worthy of the Pentagon. I waited. My car hadn’t triggered the gate to open automatically. No one came to open it. I got out and saw there was a key lock. I backed up past a few curves in the road, but didn’t trust that I could do it for ten or fifteen minutes to retrace my entire route. I drove forward again to the gate. An elderly man came out of his house, looked at me, and laughed. He went back into his house with me trailing behind him saying, S’il vous plait, la clé, la clé (please, the key, the key). Was there a policeman, a firefighter, or even a school crossing guard to help? I had to back up the entire way, sweating and swearing at myself, until I returned to a place where I could turn around. Someone would have opened the gate for my mother! Defeated, I called the hotel to have them talk me through how to get to the parking lot.

At the hotel, the bread crumbs left by my mother’s journal finally had a satisfying crunch. The place had spirits everywhere. Lead glass windows near the reception desk were peaked at the top like in a church and filtered the afternoon light onto the rug and red-velvet cushioned pew below it. The living room had cobalt, gold, and clear stained-glass windows in the ceiling. The walls were covered with huge oil paintings of the countryside with Carcassonne’s walled city on the top of the hill. Wood-paneled doors showcased green and moss stained-glass insets.

My mother described eating on the veranda. Met Bill and Tom (boys we saw at Albi) [a town in southern France with a cathedral built out of brick, not stone]—they are writers for theater, TV, etc. We had breakfast together on the terrace overlooking the countryside. On the veranda, semicircular red roof tiles met the blue sky and white clouds, next to towers from the medieval buildings beside the hotel. An art exhibit of life-size gargoyles of pigs dressed as burghers holding their heads in their hands was placed between white umbrellas, metal chairs, and square wood tables. Ivy on the walls turned red in the autumn air, a counterpoint to the town’s newer apartment buildings that stretched nearly to the horizon.

Was my knight in shining armor going to ride through the restaurant’s massive wood panels and ceiling, iron chandeliers, and lead-glass windows showing the pink and blue of the coming night sky? After dinner, I retired to the Bar Bibliothèque, truly a library bar, to look at the guest registers, which dated from the 1930s. The “stirrer of drinks,” a lively man named Gaétan, pointed me to the registers and said, “We don’t have all the years here…some are in storage, and we lost some over the years to floods and fires.”

I nestled into one of the well-worn, brownish-red club chairs in the Bar Bibliothèque to review each one of the black, bound-leather, two-foot-high guest registers. Perhaps I embarked on retracing my mother’s trip to reconnect physically or spiritually. Emotionally, my mother and I didn’t bare ourselves to each other. Was it because of our Presbyterian propriety and reserve? Or that I was adopted? Or I wanted to be accepted by her without judgment? No matter the reason, I relished the times my mother and I connected physically—for example, when, as an elder, she held my hand to help steady herself as we walked across a country club golf course to the ladies’ room before the Fourth of July fireworks. Maybe those physical links would precipitate an emotional opening. Maybe retracing her journey would inspire a spiritual relatedness.

Alas, May 1951 wasn’t one of the dates in the registers. But I still believed my own mythic version of my mother as an adventurer who charmed everyone who crossed her path. I was sure my mother had stayed in the same room. As I fell asleep tucked into bed, I heard my mother speak each line of my nightly prayers, and I repeated them, just as we did when I was a child.

The next morning, the registration clerk asked me, “Was your mother famous?”

“Yes,” I replied, “even if only in my mind.”


Margaret Wagner is a writer, dancer, and artist. Her work has been published in Cacti Fur, Coachella Review, I-70 Review, Perceptions Magazine, and Steam Ticket.

Miles to Go

Ode to Houseguests



The person she was yesterday
may be as removed

tomorrow or ten years from now

as the photo in a high school yearbook
that marks a square inch
on the growth chart of her life.

Her facial features remain consistent
as landmarks on terrain that shifts
its rocks and vegetation but holds firm
its patch of desert or plains.

Far greater are differences in messages
she’d write today compared to notes she wrote
in margins next to likenesses of friends;
the frothy optimism in her small cup of words—
sipped then as casually as morning tea stirred
sweet with cream and sugar—could not be brewed
in the kettle of old age boiled dry by disappointment.


At seventy her body has housed
ten thousand different guests—
rowdy callers and complacent ones,
debaters, gardeners, teachers and priests—
some who chose to step into their own coffins
and others who were shoved.

And yet without the duels and disputes and
disappointments that diverse houseguests
produce, the great amalgamation of the soul
could not create the single pencil stroke
that scores the circumference of a life
and renders it complete.

The saddest part of all would be
if even a single guest should leave
without a mark left firmly on the soul—
like her writings in the yearbook,
an epitaph to she who was:
she who swore and carried grudges
in her purse, she who bruised the hearts
of others while bloodying her own,
and she who shone, at times, like fireworks
in a celebratory sky.

When her circle is finished
and mourners gather memories
in the church collection plate,
let no righteousness be proclaimed
or judgment cast on any of the occupants
who roomed within:

whether lodger left
a smudge of shadow
or arrow of light—
there is no difference.


Sarah Stecher is a retired Associate Professor of English at Tulsa Community College, where she taught and led annual writing workshops for nearly twenty years. From 2006 to 2013, she co-edited TCC's previous journal for creative writing, Outside the Lines. Her poetry has appeared in Nimrod International Journal and other publications, and she has won first and/or second place in local and regional writing contests, including the Tulsa City-County Library's Adult Creative Writing Contest, for her poetry, short fiction, and informal essays. In 2018, Stecher performed a poetry reading at the Tulsa Botanic Garden fundraiser. She resides in Tulsa and continues to write as a hobby.

Dr. Greg Stone is Associate Vice President for Academic & Campus Operations at Tulsa Community College. He is also a landscape painter whose work has been exhibited across the U.S. He’s a member of the American Impressionist Society, the Pastel Society of America, and the Oklahoma Pastel Society.



by AARON OXFORD | Honorable Mention, student prose contest

“Mr. Crawford, did you hear what I said?”

I looked at the man sitting in the chair across the small coffee table from me and squinted. He was dressed in a pair of khaki slacks, with a button-up white dress shirt and olive green vest. A red tie was visible against the white shirt, disappearing under the vest at the tip of its “v” neck. He had one leg crossed over the other, so I could see the shine of the light reflected in his brown loafers. A notepad sat in his lap, with a pencil poised above it as though he had just stopped writing. The light shone off his bald head to match the gleam on his shoes. He was looking at me over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses that sat perched on the tip of his nose, and I could tell that he was getting impatient by the way he pressed his thin lips together and wrinkled his brow above those ice blue eyes.

“Mmm sorry. . .Dr. Godfrey.” Recognition hit me as my own slurred words got my sluggish brain to start processing the world around me again. “Wha’ did you say?”

“I asked if you remembered why you are here.”

I glanced out the nearby window again, focusing beyond my reflection. The iron bars on the other side of the glass couldn’t keep the rain from pattering against the pane. Droplets made their zigzagging course toward the bottom of the sill. They combined with the sudden tears in my eyes to help blur the form of a small body lying in the parking lot outside. The water around the form tinged pink as it washed across the asphalt.

“The accident.” I said to the window.

“The accident happened more than a year ago, Mr. Crawford.” Dr. Godfrey said as he scribbled notes. “What can you tell me about the incident with your wife?”

“I-I don’t know. I don’t remember.” I squeezed my eyes shut, but the damned image lingered in my mind.

“Do you remember the police bringing you in? Anything at all about that night?”

I kept my eyes closed. My head slumped toward the ground between my knees, and I had the sudden urge to rock in the chair. I wasn’t sure how long I sat that way, but was barely aware of the doctor walking to the intercom on the wall and calling for an orderly. A burly, young man, with brown hair cropped close to his skull, wearing light blue scrubs, came into the room. I felt the firm pressure of his grip at my elbow.

“It’s alright, John. Let’s go back to your room,” He said with genuine compassion.

My room was bare of any decoration. Four white walls boxed in a twin bed with a metal frame. The scent of bleach, or other cleaning products, just reinforced the sterilization of its spartan image. The bed was bolted to the floor. There were no sheets for the same reason there wasn’t anything else in the room. It was hard to inflict self harm if you didn’t have the tools. I was just happy the single window in the room was too high on the wall for me to look out.

I lay back on my bed and stared at the ceiling. It was calming to focus on the white tiles to the exclusion of everything else. I just had to be careful not to fall asleep. I couldn’t control my thoughts while I slept.

An hour passed before the same orderly came to get me for dinner and rec time. We walked together down the hallway, passing other rooms with other patients. You could always tell the new ones from those that had been here awhile. They lay on their beds, sometimes in the fetal position, but always they cried. They cried and they struggled to block out the hell they were seeing. The old hats just sat despondently, waiting for someone to tell them what to do and when to take their next dosage.

We got to the cafeteria, and I was steered to the line and given a tray. I couldn’t place the smell of the food, but knew it was some kind of meat byproduct. We didn’t pick what we received. Everything was pre-planned. So were the seating arrangements. I was still kind of new myself, but had been here long enough for the medicine to take the edge off. That meant I got to eat in the cafeteria with other people instead of in my room. It also meant that I was seated at the last table in the room, mostly empty except for myself and a couple of catatonics. So I was a little surprised when they sat the new guy next to me.

He was a smaller man, with dark hair and dark eyes set in a hatchet face. The way he twitched and wrinkled his nose reminded me of a cornered rat. He seemed like the perpetually nervous type, his eyes darting around the room, occasionally flinching away from something no one else noticed.

“John, this is Andrew. Andy is a regular here at Pineview, but he was out in the real world longer this go-round than ever before. Dr. Godfrey thought it might do both of you some good to get to know each other.” The kind orderly gave Andy a pat on the shoulder after the introduction, and then left us to get acquainted.

Andy frowned at the tray of food in front of him, and idly pushed a few peas around with his plastic spork. “Goddamn, this shit never gets any better does it?”

I huffed out a single breath of a chuckle. “I guess not. I haven’t been here long enough to say.”

“Well hope you aren’t. I could really use a fucking cheeseburger right now.”

I nodded, but went ahead and took a bite of my peas mixed together with the mystery meat on my plate. “It’s not so bad. You get used to it.”

“Heh, I’ve been here longer than you have, pal. I ain’t never getting used to this shit!” He shook his head, and pushed his tray towards one of the catatonics. “Maybe this guy will appreciate it. Probably not though.”

“I’m pretty sure they get spoon fed by the orderlies.” I said, frowning at the tray.

“Heh, I know that man. Just making a little joke. I know all about what goes on at this place.” He said, like he knew something no one else did.

I turned my frown towards him, and raised an eyebrow.

“Just don’t take the meds anymore. They aren’t helping like you think they do. That’s all I’m saying.”

“But, you’ve been released before.” I said. “The drugs had to help you some.”

“Yeah, if by help you mean make you smile through the fucking pain. You still See everything. Once you’ve Seen it, it never goes away. Your Eyes are open now, amigo. There’s no closing them to reality. We know what’s out there, even if the normies want us to ignore it for their comfort.”

I looked away from Andy, and that’s when I saw her again. She was laying in the middle of the cafeteria floor in a blue and white dress. One ruby-red slipper was still on her foot. Blonde curls hid her face. Blood began to pool from under her body in an irregular blob. I couldn’t take my eyes away, even though I knew what was coming next. The small body twitched, and her head began to peel off the floor, strings of thickening blood and hair pulling away from her face. Her eyes met mine, and I saw all the anger and pain of the world reflected back at me in that broken visage. Once delicate features twisted into animal rage, and she opened her mouth wider than a human could have, though no sound came out. It didn’t need to. The screams were being torn from my throat.

They kept me in my room for several days. No rec time for the malcontents. I spent the time staring at my ceiling, inhaling the bleach fumes, and taking every drug they brought me. The fuzzy feeling and lack of stimulus was more relaxing than any meditation could have been. I was almost sorry when it ended.

I didn’t see Andy again the next time I went to dinner in the cafeteria. I wondered if they were purposely keeping us apart now. It didn’t really matter, I suppose. I ate in silence, and tried not to look around at anybody.

After dinner, I was allowed to go to the rec room. It was filled with zombies. Not literally, of course. Just mindless humanity, too high to do anything but shamble aimlessly and occasionally stare at the TV mounted on the wall. There were several tables and chairs scattered around the room. A few were occupied by orderlies trying to play board games with some of the more lucid patients.

They kept the TV tuned to an old sitcom station, playing reruns of shows like I Love Lucy. I watched for a bit with the other zombies before shuffling off toward one of the corners of the room to be alone. It was no luck. My corner was occupied tonight. A small, twitchy form turned as I approached, and Andy gave me a toothy grin. His bloodshot eyes looked intense.

“Hey bud! That was some party the other night, heh heh! You had everyone worked up real good. Whole place was crawling tormentors. I thought that dipshit Godfrey might even see them for a second. He sure looked like he felt them! Hehehe!” His giggles had a piercing, demented quality.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “Who did he see?”

“Oh hoho! You’re still taking the meds aren’t you, sheep?” He teased. “Baah, Baah! Good little sheep. You must have a pretty powerful pain to see your tormentor through the meds, chief! Open your Eyes, sheep! You think you're the only one who Sees?!”

Then he was off like a jack-rabbit. Bounding from one zombie to the next, a chorus of “baah, baah” followed him. Some of the patients actually took the time to notice, and glanced at his eyes before jerking their heads back in fright. Gasps and moans became cries of fear and sorrow in his wake, and the orderlies in the room worked to calm the sea of agitation while corralling Andy.

It was then that I noticed something about the other patients. Maybe Andy’s words had stirred some kind of intuition. I looked—really looked—for the first time at their eyes. They weren’t all glassed over and vacant. Not all of them. Several of them, all of the disturbed ones, had their eyes tracking something only they could see. No, that wasn’t quite right either. A few of them looked in multiple directions, not only tracking things no one else saw, but also some of the invisible things being viewed by the others.

I sat in my corner and watched their behavior with fascination. It didn’t take long for the orderlies to get Andy out of the room, and the rest of the seething masses settled. They worked quickly and efficiently like they’d done so many times before. That night was the first time I didn’t take my medication.

“What do you see?” A voice asked from the darkness.

“Nothing,” I almost replied. But, right as my lips formed the words, a raindrop hit the windshield in front of me.

I was driving through a neighborhood in the rain. As I became aware of my surroundings, I answered the voice, and told it what I saw. The radio station blared “Monster Mash” as I roared around the corner of one street onto the next. The car fishtailed in the water slightly before I regained control. I looked up into the rearview mirror to make sure no one had seen what had happened. Especially not the police. I couldn’t afford to get pulled over in my state, with the car reeking of alcohol.

I saw my reflection in the mirror. Bloodshot eyes and rumpled clothes a testament to the number of drinks I’d had at the office party. Lipstick was smeared on one side of my lips, and the buttons on my shirt weren’t lined up properly. I wiped at my mouth with a napkin I had in the car, and worked to fix my shirt as I turned into the neighborhood. My wife was already pissed. She would kill me if she saw the evidence. I was drunk and distracted. It was raining, and I wasn’t paying attention to the road ahead. There shouldn’t have been any trick-or-treaters out. Not that late. Not in the rain.

She was playing in a puddle in the middle of the street. Her golden curls plastered to her head in the rain. She had a basket on one arm, presumably filled with candy, with a small stuffed dog sticking out of the top. My headlights lit up her terrified face, mouth gaping wider than a human’s should have, for a split second. I jerked on the wheel as hard as I could, the car sliding into a spin on the wet surface. I heard a honk and screeching tires as the car coming from the other direction swerved to miss me. Swerved the only direction they had available with a split second’s notice. Into the lane I had just vacated.

I heard the impact. Saw a little red shoe go flying through the air in my rearview. I sat there for a minute, my whole body shaking. This couldn’t be real. It didn’t really happen. Then I heard the screams from the driver of the other car.

I got out into the rain, and rushed to the front of the other vehicle. The driver was crouched over a small form. Wet blonde hair hid her face. One ruby-red slipper was still on her foot. The water in the street around her was tinged red and pink in the headlights. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the small, still form. Even though the other driver was still screaming. Even though it wasn’t their fault. I couldn’t acknowledge them. I couldn’t acknowledge every life I had ruined that night. Just the one that had ended.

A snap brought me back to consciousness.

“Very good, Mr. Crawford.” Dr. Godfrey congratulated. “I think the medication is starting to help. We’re finally making progress.”

I was reclined on the leather upholstered chair in the doctor’s office. I pushed myself back into a sitting position, and studiously avoided looking at the forms hovering behind Dr. Godfrey. Even so, I was aware of the straight jackets they wore, and the menacing glares they directed his way.

“If you say so, doc.” I whispered.

“At least we’re having honest conversations now, Mr. Crawford.” He replied. “Can you tell me now if you remember why you are here?”

“Yes.” I said simply. “I attacked my wife with a knife.”

“Why?” He asked.

“I was delusional.” I answered. “I thought I was protecting her from something that wasn’t there.”

“So you attacked her with a knife?”

“I didn’t know it was her,” I replied truthfully. “I was seeing things that weren’t there.”

My eyes went to the standing mirror in the corner. I saw her lying there in the reflection of the doctor’s office. A pool of blood formed under her body to create an irregular blob on the tiled floor. Her body jerked as she pulled her head off the floor, looked into my eyes, and screamed silently from her impossibly wide mouth.

“You’re lucky she refused to press charges,” the doctor continued. “You’ve somehow managed to avoid prison on two separate occasions. One could look at that as being very fortunate.”

I looked back at Dr. Godfrey and saw his tormentors writhing around him, their arms held tightly to their sides, lips and eyelids sewn shut. He couldn’t See them.

“Yeah, I’m grateful.” I said with an insincere smile. “To be so fortunate.”

I walked back to my room with the kind orderly by my side. We passed the room I had learned was Andy’s when he was in residence. I had seen him one last time after the ruckus in the rec room. It was pure chance that left me in the hallway by his room, door open, while we were both unattended.

“Hey sheep. Bleep, bleep!” He said in a singsong voice.

I don’t know how he knew it was me. A bandage covered both of his eyes, and I could see spots of blood soaking through the gauze. A shiver went through me as I entered his room.

“Hey Andy.” I said gently. “What happened, man?”

“They’re here, they’re there. They’re everywhere!” He continued to sing.

“I see them too.” I whispered. “Are they really there?”

“Real? What is real!?” He squealed in glee. “Real to you, real to me! Is it real if both can See?!”

I saw them then. His tormentors. A pair of junkies, both with needles still hanging from the skin of their arms inside the elbow. A girl and a boy, both in their teens or early twenties, both with long hair hanging in front of their eyes. Andy didn’t lose his smile as he turned his head to watch their approach.

My curiosity got the better of me. I walked up to Andy and lifted the edge of his bandage. A ruined socket wept blood from the empty spot where his eye should have been. I didn’t need to look at the other side. I knew it was missing as well.

“Didn’t help to tear them out,” he sang in a whisper as he turned back to me. “...still can See them all about.”

I slowly backed away toward the door, watching as the junkies surrounded Andy on both sides. His grin became feral as he glanced first at the boy on his right, then deliberately turned his head to the girl on his left. His laughter was loud and terrifying. It was insane. I fled down the hall, as fast as I could, but his voice caught me as I ran.

“No escape! Can’t get away! They’re always there! Night and day!”

“Dr. Godfrey says you’re doing better, John.” The orderly said good-naturedly, bringing me back to the present. “We can get you into a better room now.”

“That’s good,” I replied, looking from Andy’s empty room back to him. I didn’t mind looking back at him. He didn’t have anything lurking around him.

Instead of continuing toward the hallway to my room, we took a right into an unfamiliar wing. Some of the doors in this wing were open, and I saw smiles on the faces of the occupants. It had been a long time since I’d seen a smile. Their beds had sheets and pillow cases, instead of the built-in plastic cover. One of them was sitting at a desk, and appeared to be writing a letter. With an actual pen.

“Here we are,” the orderly said, opening a door at the end of the hallway.

I looked inside and saw that it was similarly furnished as the others. The orderly left me there, and I sat on the bed. It was much softer than what I had become accustomed to. The desk didn’t have any writing implements, but I supposed I could get some if I asked. Light spilled in through the window as the sun began its descent. I frowned at the window. It was low enough for me to see outside.

I couldn’t remember how many days it had been since I had stopped taking my medication, but I knew I couldn’t stand it any longer. I needed to forget again. Especially if I was going to live in that room.

I went through dinner and rec time with as little contact with other people as I could. Since I was in the new wing, I was allowed to be with the new people in this area instead of the old cafeteria and rec room. It was harder to keep to myself, as chatty as these other people seemed to be. These “better” people. I still noticed some had tormentors lurking around, but they acted like they didn’t notice. Plastic smiles were molded on their faces, too-white teeth showing in rictus grins.

I was relieved when rec time ended, and rushed back to my room. I didn’t have to wait long before an orderly brought my medication. I stared at the little blue pills, then glanced at the window. It was only a second, but I thought I saw a small form lying in the darkness. I almost fumbled the pills onto the floor before throwing them into my throat, and washing them down with water from the disposable paper cup. I showed the orderly my tongue, like it was definitive proof that I had actually swallowed. I guess they just had us do that because it was part of the routine, not because they really cared. I lay down on my bed, and stared at the ceiling, waiting for my thoughts to get fuzzy.

I continued this routine for several more days, but something was wrong. I continued to see tormentors around the others, but I didn’t tell anyone. I kept having appointments with Dr. Godfrey, and he kept praising my progress. His tormentors still hovered over his shoulders. If I wasn’t insane before, then I knew I was slowly losing the fight against the breaking point.

I saw the little girl lying in her blood everywhere I looked. I had thought the pills would dull the edges again, take away my memories and make everything fuzzy. But, she was crystal clear now. Her silent screaming thundered in my ears. Sleep didn’t give any reprieve. I wanted to scream all the time, to tear out my hair and tell the world what I saw. But, my body didn’t obey those thoughts. I looked in the mirror and saw my fake, plastic smile with too-white teeth. I heard myself thanking the doctor for his help, and felt his hand in mine as we shook.

Then I was in my room again, looking out the window. It was raining again, and the drops streaked slowly down the pane, racing each other in futility like Sisyphus pushing his boulder. That’s how I felt focusing beyond the drops into the night beyond. I knew what I would find, but couldn’t help looking. I saw her through my own ephemeral reflection in the glass. An idiot’s smile plastered to my face.

I still couldn’t scream, but this time I was able to rip my eyes away. I fell to all fours on the floor, panting like a dog and trying not to vomit. I was frantic as my eyes searched for someone to help me. Even though I knew there was no help. I pressed my palms against my eyes with enough force to be painful, and heard Andy’s voice in my head. “ Once you’ve Seen it, it never goes away. Your Eyes are open now, amigo.”

I took my hands away from my eyes and looked at my bed through the tears. I looked at my bed and sheets for the first time in a long time, and I remembered why I hadn’t had sheets before. I laughed with manic glee as I looked at those sheets. I felt grateful for the help they were about to give.


Aaron Oxford is an English major at Tulsa Community College. His short story "Tormented," published by Tulsa Review, is his first published work. Mr. Oxford has been an accountant and operations manager for more than fifteen years, but plans to continue his degree in English education and become a teacher in the state of Oklahoma alongside his wife, Jordyn. They reside in a small farm outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they plan to raise their four young children.