Hark the hands of the clock
Now dead men
Rise in the frost of the stars–
And fists on coffins knock.”
Letter from the editor
I was born in the winter, so I’ve always felt a special connection to the season. The moon just shines brighter against the snow. But with the immense and intense beauty that comes in winter there also comes a great darkness. The leaves fall from the trees, the flowers wilt and cease to bloom. Yes, death is an inevitable part of winter, and life as a whole. Death is a topic that most people don’t want to talk about, but many of the world’s greatest artists made their greatest work by embracing the power of the dark. I hope you enjoy this collection of poems, photos, and short stories tackling the topic of death in the winter, be it physical or metaphorical–and remember–it’s always darkest before the dawn.
by Fiona Murphy McCormack
“One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Rebecca call me.
First name intimidation. The clear calling warning. Usually he sugar-coated it with ‘sweetheart’ and dipped her name in ‘honey’.
Why are you ignoring me?
She could see the ellipses of him typing as a dotted line.
What is this about?
Do you want me to say sorry?
I don’t know what I did.
She could read this as genuine concern or snarky. That was the problem with interpretation and text messages. It could mean: genuine. It could mean: an apology. It could mean: I love you, please come back to me. But with the next he had become bitter.
You need to grow up and wise up.
This is so petty.
Her fingers were trembling, but she did not reply.
Each new message made her lurch her stomach as she feared he knew she could hear him as she left each on read.
Seriously I don’t know why the fuck you can’t just pick up the phone and call me
In their relationship he had ways to make her feel so small it was as if she disappeared into the empty spaces between walls. But now she envisaged his apparition, a ghostly spectral figure half there. He was alive, but he still had the ability to haunt her. He could walk through her and in memory she could still feel his presence on her skin. He leant against the door, body bent to block her way.
She read his last text. So why can’t you answer me?
And in her mind, she responded. Don’t you see?
Imagined him replying. No, tell me.
It was my mistake to stay but I will not let myself write you an apology.
Why now? Why can’t you tell me? he’d ask, slamming his hand against the wall.
You shouldn’t have to hear it she imagined telling him. you should know where it hurts.
Where you turn your knife in, that’s the worst. I’m planning out conversations in my head and sometimes I think about how right you are. And then I wish I was dead.
He would have asked what did I ever do to you? He would have defended himself I didn’t do anything.
She thinks of the words she saw on the website with the hotline number. Shuddered. Trying to remember the words the woman on the hotline used. An abuser hardly ever thinks the victim is abused.
So that is how you see me? She saw his figment against the door.
She turned the knob and she felt a twist as his ghostly fingers held her wrist.
You’ll never get rid of me.
She opened the door in front of her and she shut him out of her mind once again. Lifting the phone. In the light of the screen, his spectre started to speckle into space. Block number. Block messenger. Block profile. She would block every way he could address her.
She hoped he would get the message she was wordlessly trying to send him.
Fiona Murphy McCormack is a 22-year-old writer from Northern Ireland. A recent MA graduate of the Creative Writing program at Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University Belfast. She previously studied a BA in English with Creative Writing in Glyndwr Wrexham, Wales. Her short stories have been published in Electric Reads, Germ Magazine and Fearless Femme.
In The Past
by Sarah Chang
I loved you for a while…
and then I couldn’t.
I turned back
and searched for you
for a while…
even though I knew I shouldn’t.
The person that made me smile
is no longer you.
The person I’ve loved like a sister
is in the past, and…
I cannot look back.
Sarah Chang, hails from foggy San Francisco. She is finishing up her Master’s Program in Education, while surviving on caffeine and fast food. When she’s not writing, you can usually catch her re-watching Criminal Minds.
“Where you tend a thistle, my lad, a rose may never grow.”
–The Secret Garden
Just Before Midnight
by Natalie Cuddington
The cold air bites at my face and I regret not wearing a scarf. But now that I think of it, I can’t even remember the last time I wore one. Do I even have a scarf? I shake my head and try to think more clearly. My mind is not working right now; it’s moving in five directions at once and I’m so afraid of what will happen if I don’t get there in time. What if I don’t get there in time?
My breath is still coming out of my mouth in big white clouds in front of me, and the snow crunches under my boots with every step that I take. I try to focus on those two things to keep my mind calm, but I can’t. I can’t stop thinking about what her voice sounded like on the other end of the phone. How panicked and upset she was. But she wasn’t just upset, it was more than that. So much more that I don’t even have a word for it. As soon as I heard her crying, I told her I was on my way, I told her to hold on, that I was coming. I almost called a cab, but it’s New Year’s Eve; there’s no way I would get one in time. I didn’t even think; I put on my coat and left before I even hung up the phone. I didn’t even tell anyone at my party where I was going. I probably should have, maybe someone could have helped, but my mind wasn’t working properly. I just knew that I need to go. I stayed on the line with her for the first five minutes of my walk, but then she hung up. I’ve tried calling her again twice but her phone goes right to voice mail.
What if I’m already too late?
I check the time on my phone and curse myself for not realizing what time it was before I left. It’s 11:30, and everyone should already be at their midnight destinations. I probably could have gotten a cab pretty easily. I think about calling one now, having them just meet me where I am, but I call her instead. I need to make sure that she’s okay. I hit redial with my numbing nose so I don’t have to take off my mitts, and almost cry when her voice mail comes on again.
“It’s me,” I say. “I’m coming. Please don’t do anything, I’m on my way.” I pause, wondering if I should say the words that so badly want to come off my tongue. I can’t feel my lips and I’m sure my words aren’t super clear anyway. But the words I want to say will be clear no matter how numb my mouth is. I take in a breath of cold air and let it out slowly, watching the puff form in front of my face. “Please,” I say. “I love you.”
It almost hurts to say those three words. I haven’t told her that in three months, and it’s been even longer since I’ve heard her say it to me. Even if she still doesn’t feel the same way, I hope she at least gets to hear me say it. I need her to hear me say it.
I think she needs to hear it too.
A car drives by on my left side and I flinch even though I’m on the sidewalk. The roads have been so quiet for my walk so far, I could have been walking down the middle of the street. The car honks excitedly a few times after it passes, and I wish that I was excited too. I wish that I was happy, that I could raise my hand in the air in response to the driver now ahead of me who wouldn’t see me anyway.
I try calling her again and hang up as soon as I hear the recording of her sweet voice. She sounds so happy in that message. I wonder when she recorded it. It was definitely before we got together.
My heart starts hammering and I can feel it slamming against my ribcage. I pick up the pace, but my thighs are frozen and I can’t feel my steps the way I know I should. Why does it have to be so damn cold? Why can’t my brain work properly in situations like this? Should I call a cab? If I call a cab, does that mean I have to stop walking and wait for it to show up? I can’t stop walking. Even though my entire body is numb and my ponytail is making my toque ride up and not cover my ears properly, and even though my face might have mild frost bite, I can’t stop walking. I can’t just sit here and wait for something to come to me. I can’t wait. I have to keep going.
I tear my right mitt off with my teeth and text her. Maybe she’ll see a text.
I love you I type.
I don’t care if she doesn’t love me back. She needs to know that someone loves her.
I stare are my screen, feeling like I’m going to barf up my heart, waiting for her to reply. She has to reply. I can’t take it anymore; I call the taxi place. But I just get a busy signal. I hang up and try again. Busy.
“Dammit!” I cry. I want to throw my phone across the road, I want to step on it and smash it into pieces.
But I don’t really want to do that. I just need to release my feelings somehow. I don’t know what else to do but walk, so I walk.
My thoughts are still moving a mile a minute, from one thing to the next, and I can’t keep my mind straight. I can’t help but think of our first kiss. I had kissed a few girls before, but she hadn’t and she was nervous. She told me that she wanted to kiss me, but she that she was afraid.
“What are you afraid of?” I had asked her.
“I don’t know,” she mumbled, almost shrinking in on herself.
I backed away from her a little bit, not wanting to make her feel pressured, but she then just stepped into me again. It was like she was trying not to be nervous. Like she knew she wanted it, wanted me, but her nerves were making her second guess herself. So because stepped into me, I helped a little and brought my face in to hers, leaving only milimetres between our lips. “Are you afraid of me?” I whispered.
“No,” she replied quickly.
“Then what is it?”
“I’m afraid… I’m afraid that I’ll never be able to get you out of my head.”
I almost laughed. But it seemed like a legitimate fear. Your first kiss resonates with you, keeps a hold on you so strong that you can’t break free from it. Once someone takes your first kiss, they can’t give it back. I wanted to be perfect for her. I wanted her to not be able to get me out of her head, but I wanted her to want that. I wanted her to want me for the rest of time. If she couldn’t get me out of her head, I wanted it to be a good thing.
“Do you want me out of your head?” I finally asked, still just as close.
“No.” And then she closed the tiny gap between us, and she kissed me.
That seems so long ago now. We’ve both grown and changed so much, we’re almost different people. I try calling her one more time, even though I know she won’t pick up. I don’t leave a message. I pocket my phone and put my mitten back on, try to keep my head up high as I keep making my way to her place. I’m almost there. I’ll probably make it just before midnight.
My phone rings and I yelp, pulling it out of my pocket right away. My heart sinks when I see that it’s just someone from my party. They’re drunk and loud and don’t listen to me when I try to say what’s going on. They ask me where I went and when I try to say where I’m going, they just tell me that she doesn’t want to see me.
“You’re not together anymore, you have to get over it,” my friend says, their words slurring.
“That’s not what this is about,” I say. “She needs my help.”
I’m about to ask for their help but the crowd in the background gets louder and our call is disconnected. I start to cry, the phone still against my ear, nothing coming out the other end. I can’t bring myself to pull my phone away, but I’m not sure why. Did I mess this whole thing up? If I just called a cab from my place, or if I asked a friend to come with me, would this night turn out differently? What if someone at my party hadn’t had anything to drink? They could have driven me. Why don’t I think rationally when I’m scared? I wish I had it together enough to handle this situation properly. I just left. I just threw on my boots and left. And now she’s probably gone too.
She was always so happy when we were together. Her giggle lit up my entire world, and her smile was so warm and genuine. I never thought that anything like this could happen, that she could be in a place like this.
She was always so happy.
I can finally see her apartment building and I let myself pocket my phone. I start to run. I almost slip on a patch of ice but I catch myself before I fall and keep going. I can see a light on in her apartment. That doesn’t mean anything, but to me for some reason it means hope.
I smash my thumb against her intercom, but she doesn’t buzz me in. That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe she’s just asleep. I don’t take any chances and start pressing all the intercom buttons until someone buzzes me in. As soon as I hear the sound come from the door, I pull it open and sprint down the hall, my boots thumping along the carpet and leaving trails of snow behind me.
As I slam open the stairwell door and start making my way to her floor, my phone starts to go off. Notification after notification, and I know that it’s midnight. Everyone I know is wishing me a happy new year, oblivious to the fact that I’m not having a good time. Oblivious to the fact that I’m not happy.
But that’s how it always seems to happen, isn’t it?
Her door is unlocked and when I open it I almost fall into her entryway. She sits up on the couch as soon as I come in and I gasp, so relieved to see her. So relieved to see her alive. She’s been crying, but as soon as she sees me, her entire body language changes. She still looks sad and broken, but there’s a piece underneath that so badly wants to fit. I can see it.
She lets out a sob, but stays where she is, allowing me to come to her. I don’t even take my boots off; I step into her living room and join her on the couch, letting her wrap me up in her arms.
She cries into my shoulder and takes in a deep breath. “You’re here,” she says.
I let out another sigh of relief and hold her tighter. “I’m here.”
Natalie Cuddington is a budding author born in Ottawa Ontario. She has a degree in Advertising from Cambrian College, but her true passion is creative writing. She has self-published three books over the past four years. and is an active member of the Booktube community.
“When life is getting scary, be your own illuminary.”
–Mary Poppins Returns
Katy Likovich is a 4th grade teacher in LA. She has a BA from Salisbury University in Theatre and is currently finishing her Masters in Education at UCLA. She has had poetry and photography published in Echoes & Visions. She also has a
cat with whom she is obsessed.
“She was the sun and he was the earth waking from a thaw.”
“There are no lessons in it. There’s just this harsh, horrible world touched with beautiful magic.”
How to Make an
Igloo Before Dark
by Susan Marie Doyle
She had gone alone. It was only a four day hike, five if you were slow or had problems. She had data to collect and her mate was sick. The professor had told them to never go out alone. But she was comfortable in the outdoors.
The day was bright and clear. The sun would only be up over the horizon for a few hours today. There was enough twilight before dark. “Make sure you make your igloo before dark,” they had said. She didn’t know why a tent wasn’t good enough. They used them on Everest! But she had practiced building an igloo at the base, as required but wasn’t very good at it. Honestly, she didn’t try that hard. That’s why she had needed her mate. She tried to take a tent. They were kept locked away. “So no one will be tempted,” the professor said. Tempted to do what? Deal with the Arctic snow like a 21st century scientist instead of an ancient explorer? Build an igloo. That was going to take at least two hours. Maybe three, as bad as she was at it.
It would take a day and a half over the snow to get to the research spot, most of a day to check everything and record all the data, a day and a half to get back. That was at least three nights, but she would only need to build the first igloo. There should be one where the research instruments were located, and she would time it use the first one on the way back.
They had been warned not to count on either of those things, but seriously, she wasn’t an idiot.
She made good time in the morning. Stopped for lunch. She was surprised at how fast her hands got cold when she took her gloves off. But she got them back on. She had all the best gear, of course. She ate her power bars, drank some tea, got going again.
She didn’t make as good time in the afternoon. I had thought I was in better shape, she thought. Using snow shoes is hard work. She checked her GPS. She was only a little off course. She made the corrections. She wasn’t as far along as she wanted. She didn’t want to have to make an extra igloo. Some people took two days to reach the little station. They got mocked as “southlanders”. No way.
She didn’t get as far as she wanted, and it was later than she had planned. It would take ten minutes to set up a tent. She got out her igloo making tools. Like I’m a god damn Eskimo. I know, politically incorrect. Fuck me. She thought. She laid the first circle of blocks. Placed them in a spiral, slant the tops, bevel the interior. Sort of a circle. A little uneven, not fitting as well as they should. She decided she hated igloos.
She cussed and worked and sweated. She didn’t notice it was getting darker.
Almost done, almost done, almost done. She repeated the mantra. She was exhausted. She looked up. There were stars out. It was beautiful. Stark, lonely, a little scary. But beautiful nonetheless.
She thought she heard a noise. Not wind, but a sort of crunching. Small, like… hamsters nibbling. She tried to refocus her attention on the task at hand. She needed to finish. All she had left to do was to put the top of the dome on but that part was what she was the worst at. She wondered if maybe she could just sleep in it with the top open. Her gear was warm and she was so tired.
She heard the noise again. A little louder. Maybe I’m imagining. She turned her lantern on. A nightlight against the monsters.
She had not cut her ice bricks clean enough. Bevel the edges, cut at a slant, keep them tight. She had hurried too much. It was leaning in too much. She was going to have trouble with the dome.
Back outside, cutting the last bricks. She could feel the blisters. Her shoulders ached. Damn her mate. This was all his fault.
She heard the crunching again. Louder. All around. She was not imagining this. She looked, slowly, turning in a circle. The snow. It looked… alive. Almost as if it was moving. Like little bits of it were crawling towards her, making that damned crunching sound.
Terror crawled down her spine. She shoved the dome piece up onto the top, prayed it would hold, and dove inside. She had forgotten the door piece. Panicking, she dug a block from the floor, hoped it would fit. It did, almost. She peeked through the hole, saw the snow moving, creeping, and crunching, and munching. The sound was getting louder–closer. A cacophony of crunching. The creeping snow was shifting into little shapes. Small, like field mice–blueish-white–creeping and crunching, towards her igloo.
Adrenaline surged. She filled in the hole. Panting, she could hear them. Munching, crunching, creeping, right up to the igloo. Right outside. All around.
They were on it. Like rats. Crunch, crunch, munch, munch. She remembered her mate–joking–make your igloo before dark, after the sun goes down there’s no hope. She had thought he meant the cold.
Crunch, crunch. She heard them overhead. There was a gap in the dome. Something fell through. Then another something. Not snow exactly. Now there was the crunching on the floor. Movement.
She got up and and tried to stomp on the movement. Shoved snow up into the cracks. In her haste, she knocked over her lamp. They had been warned to keep the lanterns on all night. That had seemed stupid too. She fumbled, set it upright, couldn’t get it on. The munching crunching got louder. More little frosty things fell down. She stomped, screamed, fumbled for her headlamp, turned it on.
The floor was moving. They were crawling up her legs. The hole in the dome was bigger. The snow things were crunching her shoes and legs, and falling down like sleet. They were everywhere, they were on her head and arms. She screamed and screamed. She felt bites. Tiny little bites all over.
She fell, and was covered in them. Her light went out. She screamed but then she couldn’t breathe. They were on her face and in her mouth.
In the morning, the igloo and the traveler were gone.
Susan Marie Doyle is a weirdo, old, hippie, science teacher by day, author of scary stories by night.
by Michelle Doering
“What are you talking about?”
Luna clutched her wine glass to her chest and steadied herself against the doorframe. Just seconds ago her mind had been swimming with all of the substances she’d pumped into her bloodstream, but now that roar had faded into a dull hum. The sensation was just enough to dampen her feelings, but not enough to shield her from the words Melody was saying.
Your brother’s been in an accident. He’s probably not going to make it.
She stared down at Melody as the girl licked her overdrawn lips. There were two distinct lines in her foundation on either side of her face, but no black marks. Obviously whatever waterproof mascara she was wearing tonight had served its purpose.
“You need to get your shit together and come with me,” she continued.
Luna drew in air through her flared nostrils and let her eyes fall closed. Surely this was just a hallucination. Kevin was fine. He drove like a grandmother. She was the one who was always getting into accidents, not her baby brother. He was the golden child; perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect grades, a clean bill of health, early acceptance to MIT. Luna couldn’t even remember the last time she’d heard him curse.
“Go away,” she whispered at Melody. That was usually enough to shake her drug-fueled delusions, but when she opened her eyes, Melody’s tear-stained face was still there.
“Jesus Luna,” she hissed. “Stop fucking around. Your brother is dying and you’ve been missing through the whole thing. Your parents are freaking out and panicking and and crying and wondering where the fuck you are, when they should be worrying about Kevin.”
Her voice broke while saying his name.
Kevin and Melody had dated on and off for the last three years, and although this off period had lasted much longer than the others, it was clear that Melody still cared about him. Luna had no idea if Kevin reciprocated the feeling. There were a lot of things about Kevin that she didn’t know anymore. The thought sent a twinge of sadness through her.
Luna heard footsteps behind her and suddenly there was a firm hand pressed into her shoulder.
“Is this chick bothering you?” John asked.
Luna blinked and nearly dropped her glass.
“You can see her too?”
Melody crossed her arms and John gave her a long once-over.
“Pink hair, Led Zeppelin shirt, looks like she just got out of a midnight screening of The Fault in our Stars? Yeah, I can see her.”
“Fuck off,” Melody said before turning her gaze back to Luna. “Please just come with me, alright? He’d want you to…I mean, don’t you want to say goodbye?”
Luna didn’t answer right away. There was a high pitched ringing in her ears that wouldn’t go away. Her heart was thundering in her chest. She felt like she was going to vomit, but she hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday afternoon. Melody reached out and wrapped her fingers around Luna’s wrist, trying to drag her away. John didn’t take kindly to that.
“Get your hands off of my girlfriend you crazy bitch!”
John lunged forward and Luna had the presence of mind to grab him by the back of the shirt before he could do any serious damage.
“I’ll go with you,” she said, eyes wide. “Take me to my brother.”
The hospital smelled like iodine and rubbing alcohol as Luna and Melody walked down the hallway. Up above, one of the long fluorescent lighting tubes was flickering erratically, drawing Luna’s almost, but not quite sober gaze. Her heart felt like a lump of rotten flesh beneath her ribcage and she couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t supposed to be here; that she didn’t deserve the chance to say goodbye. But her younger brother also didn’t deserve to be hit by a car, so.
Melody stopped in front of a room marked 397 and clasped her hands together in front of her.
“Go ahead,” she said, nodding at the door. “I, uh, I already got a minute with him.”
She was clearly holding back tears. Old Luna would have hugged her and told her that everything was going to be alright, but the newest incarnation wasn’t a liar, so she nodded, opened the door, and stepped inside.
Her parents barely glanced up at the sound of her entrance. They were hunched over Kevin with their hands clasped and tears streaming down their faces. Luna forced herself to look away from them and focus on her brother. His entire face was bruised and swollen. There was a tube hanging out of his mouth, methodically pumping air into his chest. His eyes were shut in a way that would seem peaceful if not for his mangled appearance. Luna took a tentative step forward and placed her palm flat against the foot of his bed.
“It’s okay Kevin,” she whispered. “I’m right here.”
At this, the tears finally came and her parents pulled her into their grief circle, momentarily forgiving all of her sins as they filled her in on what had happened. It was a drunk driver who had hit him. Someone with a blood alcohol level that was probably similar to her own right now. She didn’t know what to do with that information. There was too much grief for her tiny drug addicted body to hold. She just kept crying and crying; a steady river flowing down her cheeks until the machines started squealing and the nurses came to take the husk of her dead brother away.
Luna grabbed her apron and turned to look herself over one last time in the mirror. She had exactly two minutes before she had to leave for work, but her eyes kept getting drawn to one feature or another thinking about how unrecognizable she was from her former self. Her faded blue hair, once waist-length and white-blonde, was pulled back into a bun and her ass was almost spilling out of her favorite pair of work pants. The latter was the result of the nearly forty pounds she’d gained after getting clean last year. The former was just a dumb spur of the moment thing she’d done right before Kevin’s funeral; she’d wanted her hair to be his favorite color and she knew he would have gotten a kick out of it. Her parents hadn’t exactly seen it that way. They called her horrible names and accused her of trying to steal the spotlight at her brother’s funeral. She got over it quickly though. It didn’t matter what they thought. She knew why she’d done it and she was basically just keeping it that color out of spite now.
What with getting clean and cramming to pass all of her finals and graduating high school and moving across the country, it seemed like the funeral had happened a decade ago, but today was only the one year anniversary of Kevin’s accident. There were already so many new things about her that her brother would never know: She was majoring in social sciences. She was nine months sober. She lived in bumfuck Delaware. She didn’t talk to her parents at all unless they specifically called to check up on her. For all intents and purposes, she was a completely different person.
That wasn’t to say that she had moved on though. There were still plenty of days when her roomate, Shana, had to wake her up in the middle of the night because she was screaming Kevin’s name in her sleep, or when she’d see something that reminded her of him and break down crying. Not to mention that there was a part of her, a huge part, that just wanted to fall back into her old vices and let them dull all of her pain. It was hard, and today’s date was making it even harder, but she had to treat it just like she had treated each one before, by taking things one step at a time.
With that, she grabbed her keys and ran out the door.
Big Matt’s Diner was located at a truck stop along the 40, about forty-five minutes outside of Brookside. Most people thought it was crazy that she was willing to drive that far just to go to work everyday, but she was from Los Angeles. She was no stranger to long commutes. Besides, she liked the feeling of seclusion the job provided. She didn’t have to worry about running into people she knew or dealing with chatty regulars. Pretty much everyone she served on a daily basis was using the diner as a brief reprieve or a stepping stone in their overall journey, just like she was. The drive did give her a lot of extra time to think though, and that wasn’t always welcome on days like today. Nevertheless, she made it work without incident.
When she entered the building, Pam was already up to her knees in tables so Luna clocked in quickly and took over a few of them. She worked quickly and efficiently and before she knew it, the small brunch crowd had begun to dwindle. She cleaned up all of the vacated tables and checked in on her few remaining customers before sliding into a booth with Pam and Marcus for a quick break. They each had a cup of coffee and engaged in some meaningless chit chat before getting back to work. Everything was running smoothly. Just a perfectly ordinary day. That is, until the doorbell rang and in walked a young man who looked exactly like Kevin.
Luna stopped in her tracks, heart beating erratically in her chest, and watched him interact with Katie, the hostess. He wasn’t exactly the same, obviously. He was a little bit taller and had a mole just above his left eyebrow, but the resemblance was strong enough to make her palms sweat and her blood run cold. She silently begged for Katie to put him in someone else’s section, but naturally, that didn’t happen. There he was, smack dab in the middle of her tables, and she didn’t have any other customers she could ignore him in favor of. Luna closed her eyes and took a couple of steadying breaths before approaching the look-a-like.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked, trying her best to look at her notepad and not at him.
“Can I get some orange juice please?” he asked.
Even his voice sounded like Kevin’s. Hearing it felt like a thousand tiny needles aimed right at her jugular. Luna nodded and all but ran away from him before he could say anything else. As soon as she was out of customer sight, she sank down to the ground and buried her head in her knees. Of all the days to have this customer, why today? Was the universe trying to tell her something? Was she being punished for moving on and trying to forget?
It didn’t take long for people to notice her absence.
“There you are. Table eight is ready to order!”
“Hey, what’s wrong with you?”
“That guy at six never got his orange juice.”
Luna didn’t respond to any of them. Eventually Katrina, her manager, stepped in to deal with her.
“Luna,” she said quietly, crouching down next to her. “This is the third meltdown you’ve had here. You said after the last time that it wouldn’t happen again.”
Luna lifted her tearstained face to meet her manager’s eyes and shrugged hel[ressly. She knew that she should just suck it up and brush herself off and get back to work, but she couldn’t really see the point anymore. She wasn’t okay. She was never going to be okay again. She had been resigned to living in a glass house for all eternity.
“Look kid,” Katrina continued. “It’s not that I don’t feel for you, I do. But if you won’t tell us what it is that keeps triggering these episodes, how are we supposed to help you?”
Luna shrugged once again.
“Go home, Luna. You’re no good to anybody like this. And don’t bother coming in until further notice, okay? I’ll have Pam cover for you. You take some time to sort out your priorities. You can come back when and if you decide that this job is one of them.”
Katrina walked away and Luna hung her head and continued to silently cry. She didn’t know why getting control over her grief had to be such a sisyphean pursuit. Every time she thought she had reached the top of the mountain, along came a bad dream or a familiar-faced stranger to send her tumbling back down.
Eventually she worked up the nerve to gather her things and walk out into the freezing cold parking lot. To her surprise, Marcus was leaning against the driver’s side of her truck. Luna crossed her arms in front of her chest. As much as she liked Marcus, he had a bad habit of ogling her from afar whenever he thought she wasn’t paying attention. That was the last thing she needed right now.
“What do you want Marcus?” she asked him.
Marcus held up his hands in a don’t shoot gesture.
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay. That’s all.”
Luna closed her eyes and pressed her hands against her throbbing forehead.
“I’m fine,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Sure you are,” Marcus said in that smug way of his.
The two of them remained at a standstill for several moments before Marcus caved and broke the awkward silence.
“I get off in five,” he told her. “You could come to my place and have a drink with me if you want. I know good company always cheers me up.”
Luna knew that she should say no. She knew that Marcus had less than noble intentions and that if she went with him she’d be breaking her oath of sobriety. She also knew that Marcus was little more than a work acquaintance and that this situation had the potential to go very very badly for her. Under normal circumstances she would have brushed him off and told him to leave her alone, but she didn’t have the energy for that today. She was miserable and Marcus was nice enough and she desperately did not want to be alone with her thoughts right now.
“Okay,” she said finally, keys jingling in her hand. “Lead the way.”
Later, at Marcus’s rathole of an apartment, Luna found herself gratefully downing her first drink in months, and true to former addict form, once she had started drinking, she couldn’t stop. Even Marcus seemed kind of taken aback by her enthusiasm.
“Pace yourself,” he kept reminding her, but that didn’t keep him from continuously refilling her glass.
“I’ll pace myself when I’m dead,” she told him.
Marcus laughed even though it really wasn’t funny and asked her if she wanted to watch a movie. Luna shrugged. She didn’t really want much of anything right now other than to drown out the image of her brother sitting at her sanctuary of a workplace, taunting her.
Marcus took that as a yes and put on some indie horror movie. It was an obvious attempt to get her to cuddle up with him, but alas, the demons on screen weren’t half as scary as the ones inside her head.
Luna got up halfway through to get something else to drink and Marcus followed her into the kitchen. She felt his eyes on her as she opened up the fridge and rifled around in it for a beer, but she did not grow concerned until she felt the warmth of his breath on the back of her neck. Suddenly he was leaning into her, arms roaming around her midsection and lips hot against the side of her neck.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she slurred, breaking out of his hold with her elbows. She’d inadvertently sloshed beer all down the front of her outfit. Marcus was giving her this annoyed look.
“Come on Luna,” he whined. “Loosen up a bit, won’t you?”
Luna chugged the rest of her leaking beer and crushed the can in her fist.
“I didn’t come here to ‘loosen up’ with you,” she informed him. “I came here to get wasted.”
“Same difference,” Marcus said with a shrug.
“It’s really not,” Luna grumbled.
“Look,” Marcus began. “I’m sorry. Just come back into the living room and watch the rest of the movie with me. Please?”
Luna took a deep breath and said okay. Marcus was probably just getting all handsy because he was drunk. She couldn’t expect everyone else to hold their alcohol as well as she did. She wiped her hands off on her pants and moved to precede Marcus into the living room, but for some fucking reason Marcus decided to take her begrudging okay as permission to slap her ass as she moved past him. Luna turned around quick as a whip and landed a solid punch to his abdomen, sending him to his knees. Being a former street rat did have a few advantages, she supposed. Without looking back to see if he was okay, Luna pulled her jacket and purse off of the coat rack and made for the door.
“Luna,” Marcus rasped. “Please don’t drive. You’ve been drinking.”
At this, Luna finally looked back at him.
“Fuck off,” she sneered, slamming the door behind her.
Out in the labyrinthine maze that was the apartment complex’s parking lot, it took Luna a good fifteen minutes or so just to figure out where she’d parked. Once she did though, she found that she couldn’t step foot inside of her truck. Asshole or not, Marcus was right. She was drunk. The thought of driving under the influence after what had happened to Kevin made her feel sick to her stomach.
Luna pulled out her phone to call for a ride, but the battery was at 1%. She still tried pulling up a ride-sharing app despite it, but the device died in her hands before she could type in her address. She cursed herself for being so stupid and shoved the now useless piece of machinery back into her pocket. She had a charging port in her truck, but she never thought to bring a spare chord with her to work because Katrina had a strict no phones policy anyway. Had she been in a different state of mind, she probably would have gone back up to Marcus’s apartment and demanded to use his phone, but as it was, her pride wouldn’t allow her to do that. It seemed that her only option was to walk.
Resigned, Luna hobbled out to the front of the complex and took off in the direction that she thought was most likely to lead her home. It didn’t take long for her to realize how terrible of a plan this was. The night was dark and freezing cold. Within moments she was chilled to the bone, and there wasn’t another car, person, or building in sight. There wasn’t even a sidewalk for her to walk on, just a rugged dirt path lining the side of the road. She momentarily contemplated turning around and waiting out the night in her truck, where at least she could turn on the heat for a few moments at a time, but she’d already come so far and she wasn’t certain that she could make it all the way back. At this point, all she could do was keep going.
Luna buried her hands deeper in her jacket pockets and tried to remain calm. As much as it seemed like she was in the middle of nowhere, that couldn’t be the case. People didn’t build roads to nowhere. There was bound to be another residential area somewhere, and when she came to it she would just find a bar or a gas station and ask to use someone’s phone. It wasn’t the greatest plan, but at least it was one. That alone was enough to keep Luna putting one foot in front of the other.
But her body was exhausted and her gait was wobbly. Soon enough, her drunken, unsure footing came to bite her in the ass. She misjudged the distance between the road and the small pathway beside it and ended up tumbling down into an empty ravine.
Luna had no idea how long she’d been lying there. Her leg was in agony and she couldn’t move it, no matter how hard she tried. Her throat was raw from screaming for help, but there was no one around to hear her.
This was just like her, going off and getting herself into a giant mess. It didn’t matter how hard she tried to stay clean and walk the right path. She would always be the same screw-up she’d always been. The only difference was that now there was nobody left to come bail her out. She’d made sure of that.
Luna clenched her fists in the cold hard dirt and tried once again to drag herself backward, but even that small amount of effort sent ripples of pain all throughout her body. She cried out and then broke down in sobs. Kevin never would have gotten himself into a situation like this. Why on Earth was she the one who was still here? Wasn’t it supposed to be survival of the fittest? Luna didn’t think she was fit for anything.
As the temperature continued to drop and her teardrops started sticking to her face, Luna was at least able to take comfort in the knowledge that her death would not hurt anyone the way her brother’s had hurt her. She wasn’t going anywhere or doing anything with her life. All she had to do was shut up and let the night take her.
Almost as if hearing her bleak thoughts, the sky unleashed a sudden round of dense and unrelenting snow; thick, harsh, flurries that blew in out of seemingly nowhere. At this rate, it wouldn’t be long before Luna was buried underneath it. Luna took this as a sign and closed her eyes, succumbing the cold pressure building all around her.
Then, somewhere in the distance, Luna heard a hazy and dreamlike voice calling her name. Her eyes shot open and were immediately bombarded with white powder. Now she was struck with the urge to fight the looming unconsciousness that she’d been ready to succumb to only moments ago, but at this point resistance was hopeless. The last thing she recalled before completely passing out was a small shadowy arm fighting it’s way through the snow, reaching out for her.
When Luna came to, the first thing she realized was that she wasn’t cold anymore. The second was that she was no longer attached to her body, which was now lying several feet beneath her at the top of the ravine, partially shielded from the snow by a large tree. She looked down at her floating shimmery limbs and gave a distressed little squeak. She tried flapping her arms in an attempt to get closer to her body, but the more she panicked, the farther away she floated.
“Luna,” said a familiar voice. “Calm down. Please.”
Luna looked down and saw Kevin’s semi-translucent form sitting cross legged on the ground right next to her, the physical her. Luna’s eyes went wide and she swooped down, desperate to be as close to him as possible.
“Kevin,” she whispered, appearing right next to him as if by magic. Her voice sounded ethereal and far away, even to her. She reached out a hand to touch him, but her fingers passed right through. She glanced down at the appendages with a frown.
“What’s happening?” she asked. “Am I dead?”
Kevin shook his head.
“Not yet. I dragged you up out of the snow so that you’d last a little bit longer, but that’s all I could manage by myself. It’s hard to stay solid for more than just a few seconds at a time.”
Somehow, even in her mostly incorporeal state, Luna felt tears streaming down her face once more.
“Kevin…I–I’m so sorry.”
Kevin quirked a brow.
Luna gestured down at her unconscious body and said, “For this…for everything. For not being there when you needed me.”
“Luna,” Kevin said sternly. “You haven’t done anything wrong. What happened to me was going to happen no matter what. Yes, that accident ended my life, but you don’t need to let it end yours too. I want you to keep going. I want you to be happy again. I want that for you more than anything.”
“But I’m no good at this. I keep making mistakes. I’m never going to be as good at living as you were.”
Kevin scoffed at her.
“Luna. I wasn’t as perfect as you think I was. I cheated on Melody. That’s why we kept breaking up. I lied my way through my MIT entrance exam. I stole fifty bucks out of mom’s wallet this one time. I did all kinds of terrible things that you didn’t know about. That’s what life is. It’s about making mistakes and learning from them. It’s about having the strength to realize that where you are is not where you want to be, and actually doing something about it. You need to stop worrying about me and go out there and tackle life in your own, Luna-esque way.”
Luna let his words process for a moment.
“You were really cheating on Melody?” she asked finally.
He looked sheepishly down at his shimmering lap.
Luna let out a hollow laugh.
“Kev. That’s horrible. She’s horrible. Melody loved you so much.”
“I know,” he admitted. “But do you see my point? You gotta stop being so hard on yourself, Lu. You’ve been through a lot. Everyone’s gotta let off steam by doing dumb shit every once in a while.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
“I really miss you,” Luna said after a while.
“And I really wish I could give you a hug.”
Kevin gave her a watery grin.
“I know. Me too.”
As the sun started to rise, filling the world around them with color, Luna became increasingly aware of her body calling her back to it. Her senses returned to her one by one. First it was the feeling of the cold hard earth beneath her back. Then was the sudden sound of a female voice, Shana’s voice, calling her name. She could still see Kevin’s outline, but he was fading fast as reality shifted all around her. She looked over at him in a panic and fought desperately to remain on this spiritual plane with him. She didn’t want to lose him again.
Kevin didn’t seem to share her concern. He just smiled down at her and told her not to worry.
“It’s okay Luna,” Kevin said, as he dissolved into the morning light. “I’m right here.”
Luna could still make out the faintest sound of his voice carrying on the wind as Shana’s footsteps drew nearer.
“I always will be.”
Michelle Doering is a reader, writer, and self proclaimed “cool dude” from sunshine-y Phoenix, Arizona. She loves cats, hails from the same high school as Alice Cooper, and thinks Wally West is a better Flash than Barry Allen will ever be.
“The scariest monsters are the ones that lurk in our souls.”
–Edgar Allan Poe
To Build a Home
by Danni Maxwell
It’s said that when one door closes, somewhere someone opens a window. Something that’s never said is that the window being opened overlooks a busy highway, or that it’s literally at the edge of a giant cliff. The moment you think it’s safe to escape out that window, you’re hit by a bus or falling face first over that cliff. My bus? My cliff? Growing up. Selling my family home. The knowledge that there wasn’t a ‘home’ to come back to when school was at its end. The knowledge that there wasn’t a ‘home’ to come back to at all. The feeling that I was losing the only thing I had left of my father.
You see, my father died when I was little, just months after the birth of my little sister. He had been sick for some time, and of course when you’re eight years old you don’t question why daddy doesn’t play with you anymore or why he sometimes doesn’t leave the couch or his bed, because you’re too busy playing with your new friends and he always sleeping became the new normal in your life. So I didn’t question it, because I didn’t think anything was wrong. Until he died, and then I realized that everything was wrong.
Of course, over time it got easier to talk about him, to remember him without crying, to remind myself of all the things I knew he would’ve wanted me to do. He wanted me to finish school like he didn’t, to marry someone who would treat me right and love me unconditionally, to live a long, happy life. One thing I knew for sure about my father, he loved this house. This house was his pride and joy, one of the few things he felt like he got right. We may not have been the wealthiest family, but we had all the love in the world, food in our bellies and a house to keep us warm. This house. The house I was about to say goodbye to.
In its early years, this house was a fixer upper to say the least. Nothing was finished apart from the electricity. My father basically built this house for us. Standing before the house, I stepped up onto the wrap around porch. This had been worn out and grey in the beginning, chipping at the edges and creaking with each step. My father had replaced the entire thing, one board at a time. There was once a purple footprint of mine in the right corner beneath the chair swing. My foot would engulf that footprint now. But now it was only a memory, painted over with an ugly off-white colour. Our pretty little blue house turned an awful shade of sunny yellow that hurt your eyes when you looked at it. Our once red door switched for an emerald green. It didn’t even look like our house anymore. And after today, it wouldn’t be.
Despite the changes to the outside, the inside was still the same house I grew up in. The cream coloured walls with dark wood crownings and hardwood floors, the feeling of home. The rooms were empty now, apart from my old room still holding all the boxes of my youth. All the furniture had been burned, and the boxes had been moved into Mom and Lucy’s new apartment in the city, and most of my things were already long gone from when I went away for school. These boxes were the only things left.
The whole reason for selling the house was that Mom had got a new job in the city, and Lucy was going away to school in a few years. When that happened, Mom would be all alone in a big house that she could barely manage as it was. It still didn’t make it any easier, I knew that as soon as that new front door shut behind me, the house would be gone for good. No longer ours. Some new family would come in and taint everything that was once my family’s memories to make their own.
I still wasn’t sure how Mom could be so okay with it, or even Lucy. But I suppose my sister didn’t hold the attachment to the house as a piece of Dad, because she never really knew him. There was only ever one photo of him holding her, there was almost nine years of photos of my life with him.
To distract myself from thinking about that any further, I ventured to the one place that still had anything in it that made it ours; my old room. As the eldest child, I’d been given the biggest of the bedrooms, the one with a balcony that overlooked the rolling hills of our backyard. From my bare window, I could see the fire pit that roasted many a s’more, the tree swing that broke my arm when I was seven, the horizon that let the sun fade behind the meadows peaks each and every night.
If I continued on like this, I knew I’d never leave. So I grab the first box of things I’d left behind when I went to school. Old things, lost things, my things from a time when I was younger, naive, believing that everything would stay as it was and always would. How wrong was I?
I slowly realized that in order to truly let go of everything I was holding onto, I was going to have to see a physical change. Not only in my house, but in me. The other boxes riddled with winter clothing for Christmas break were left behind, and the box of my childhood followed me with a box of matches to the backyard, the smell of freshly burned wood in the air. Lucy had said they were getting rid of the old furniture, the remnants of a broken down couch and table were all that remained.
I lit the first piece of paper like saying goodbye to a toxic friend. Watching its crumpled white appearance turn to ash and dust and fade into the pit, forgotten. More and more papers follow it, a broken heart’s love letter, a completely knotted shoe string, a A- grade that should’ve gotten at least an A. I stumbled upon a single envelope with my name on it. I froze then.
My Lovely Lena.
The name broke something inside me, it was a name death took away from me. I quickly grabbed the ashy envelope from the pit before it went up in flames, stared at the letter in shock; how had I never seen this before? Every fibre of my being begged me to open the envelope, but something held me back. The unknown, that is what I feared, in every aspect of this. The realization washed a feeling of calmness over me. I took a deep breath, and I simply let go.
The envelope opened with ease, old and tattered and now a little singed. A single slip of paper with a single paragraph, clipped to a pile of photos.
My Lovely Lena,
I’m so sorry I never got as much time as I wanted with you, with Lucy, with Mom.. She will give you this letter when the time is right. Remember that a house is just a house, it’s the people and the memories that make you happiest that truly make a home. You, my family, you will always be my home.
I love you always, my Lovely Lena.
Nine years of my life, captured in each photo. My dad and mom posed in front of the house, holding a newborn me. My tiny one year old hand grabbing my dad’s nose in the second, our house in the distance. Similar photos followed, in each one my father looked more and more tired, but never unhappy. In year eight, thin and frail, he held me in his arms and kissed my sun touched cheek, my mother brushed her hair out of her face. The last photo, our only family photo. Dad held me, and Mom held newborn Lucy. I was staring at baby Lucy like she was the sun and I a sunflower. He was staring at both of us. Mom stared at him. So much love in one photo. The feeling of home.
I understood then what my dad was trying to tell me. I didn’t need this house to keep the memory of him alive. This house might’ve been my home at one point, but it was the people, the love, the happy memories that made it a home.
I looked into the nearly empty box. At the bottom laid a single board of wood, with four hand prints in smallest to largest order. Lucy’s no bigger than a silver dollar. Mine just a few inches bigger. Mom’s and Dad’s next to ours, with our names above. A single sticky note at the top with a note from Mom, telling me she’d kept this from a long time ago, just before Dad passed. Now it was my turn to cherish it. I didn’t realize even I had been crying until my tears mingled with the coloured hands. I was finally feeling something, and it brought that calmness over me that I welcomed. I was ready to do this.
It was when I was loading the final box into the back of my car that I heard the wheels of another vehicle travelling up the driveway. My heart started thumping in my ears at the sight of them. The new family. I thought of my previous encounter with them. They had come to see the house again, and my mom had just informed me of the ‘sold’ sign on the house. Enraged by their very existence, I had stormed past where they stood at the door and prepared to knock, screaming about everything until I noticed the shy little girl tucked behind her father. I saw myself in her, the fear of the unknown filling her just as it was in me. Before I scared her more, I just shut up and drove away without apologizing. The family hadn’t seen me since.
The moment they saw me, I knew they wanted to drive away. I raised my hands in the air, placed a friendly smile on my face and approached them like startled deer. The little girl tucked behind her father again. I smiled at her most.
“Hi… I’m Lena. I just wanted to say I’m really sorry, for the last time you met me… I was out of line, of course upset, but it wasn’t right for me to take it out on you…” I took their nods and faint smiles as acceptance. I knelt down to be level with the little girl, and I smiled at her. “I’m sorry for scaring you. Can we be friends?”
I offered her the only thing I had to give; my old key to the house on the chain I used to wear. I was ten when my Mom had given it to me, and I wanted to make it special, painting daisies in nail polish on it so everyone knew it was mine and this was my home. Her eyes lit up when she saw it, looked at her mother for permission to take it, delighted when I placed the chain around her neck and stood up.
“Amelie, you can go look at your room if you’d like. Use your key in the door. It’s the one with the balcony.” The mother said softly, encouraging her.
“That was my old room! That’s exciting, you’ll love it.” I winked at her. She ran off excited, and I turned back to her parents. They watched her run off with the fondest smiles, and then turned back to me.
“She hasn’t been this excited since her brother left home. He’s away at school now, it’s why we’re moving here. Thank you for showing her this can be exciting too.”
“I really am sorry about before…” I replied.
“We understand that change is difficult. It’s just really nice to see how much someone loves this place.”
“You’ll love it too. It makes you feel at home right away…” I smiled, only slightly sad that this was it. That this was my last goodbye. I took the final key out of my pocket, the cool metal pressed into my palm. I gestured out my hand, palm upward to show them the key. “I believe this belongs to you.”
The father took the key, a smile on his face. “Thank you.” Amelie called out from the bedroom window, telling her parents to ‘come see, come see’.
As if in slow motion, they looked at each other, back at me, and gave a small smile before walking toward their new house, and I stepped back toward my car. I stayed, just for a moment longer, to see them step inside and close that ugly emerald green door. With one look to the letter, the photos, the hand prints in my front seat, I pulled out of the driveway, sparing only one last look to house that built me in my rearview mirror, and to my surprise, I smiled.
Danni Maxwell has been writing stories for as long as she can remember. Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, She is the debut author of A World in Blue. She has won multiple prestigious writing awards in the past few years. When she’s not writing, you can find her creating book- and writing-related videos on Youtube’s Booktube community, at Danni Darling.
“If you have the words there’s always a chance that you’ll find a way.”
THANK YOU TO
Susan Marie Doyle, Patron of the Arts, for helping fund this issue of The Elephant Ladder. Thanks to her, our artists were able to receive compensation for their work
Susan Doyle is a writer, photographer, and science teacher. Her photography and writing have appeared in The Daily Times, Chesapeake Life, Blue Ridge Country, Arnold and Friends, Geoparent, Irish American Post, Fitness Management, Nanticoke Watershed Alliance, Write Away: The Newsletter for the Rockford Writers’ Guide, Family Times, Dapher Newsletter, and Community Connections. She also has had work appear in previous issues of The Elephant Ladder