27820950_d7f1981743_o

Undead

By Gabriel Valjan

“May I help you?”

He had heard the question repeated numerous times while he sat there on the long bench with the others, their questions waiting to be answered. All kinds of people were with him there in that packed room in their various states of anxiety and impatience, slips of paper in their hands, but it was just the same: they either sat or stood like question marks.

“Next.”

The line moved and another person disappeared. He glanced down at his hand to revisit the letter of the alphabet and then the number. This could take time. He wanted to get up and stretch his legs, but if he forfeited his seat then he would have to stand and wait. He would blend in with any of the other men, hands in their pockets, no slips of paper visible, their call-number memorized, if that. They were all players in this grand line for an answer, still waiting, ready to ask, ready to march to either the next “May I help you?” or the next “Next.” He chose to remain seated; he slid over when a body vacated the bench and another one reloaded it at the far end. Monotony is the great weapon of state bureaucracy.

“May I help you?” Continue reading

beach-333875_640

An Autobiography in Water

by Harmony Button

 

In fourth grade, at my artsy hippie school, we used to walk to the local YMCA to go swimming. It was about a mile from the school to the pool, and we knew the route backwards and forwards: past the weird historical building with the lions on the porch, past the rod iron fence, over the freeway bridge, past Loraine’s Lunch Basket, which always seemed like an incredibly romantic place to me. The locker rooms at the YMCA smelled like hot chlorine and hotel shampoo, and I hated the first touch of the wet floor on my dry feet. It was always an odd feeling to shed our winter coats and hats, our sweatshirts, our t-shirts, our underwear — we had just walked through the snow, and now here we were, naked! We were supposed to shower before getting in the pool, but who ever heard of taking a shower with a swimsuit on? It felt wrong, stepping into the warm water, letting it soak through the tight, dry Lycra. Continue reading

1024px-U.S.S._Chicago_Anchor

The Anchor

By Jennifer Cornet

The anchor looks less blue under the dismal, cloudy sky. I would call it hazy gray or ash white. It sits perched in its corner, surrounded by black metal bars and dusty brick walls. Behind it, a barren field of dirt and building debris and in front of it only half trampled bushes; a sad attempt at landscaping. Nothing about this says strength, or unity, or power. Even the vases full of yellow water and long dead flowers, strewn about on the ground at its feet bring a sadness to the marker. It is neglected and lonely and I can’t help but feel pity for the steel as I stand on sidewalk, just outside the gates.

The traffic flows smoothly into the Navy Yard. Even at the height of morning rush hour, there is little back up by foot or car. The guards work swiftly, bundled up in fluffy jackets and warm fleece gloves keeping the constant stream of workers flooding the base in motion. It only stops for the morning colors.

As the last note echoes through the biting November air, I have to remind myself to keep moving. I cannot waste the entire morning staring at the anchor although I feel like it wants me to. My finger tips are beginning to numb and I can no longer feel the warmth of my coffee seeping through the insulated layers of my thermos. I should get to my desk and enjoy it before I am forced to drink the swill in the mess instead. Continue reading

640px-Tertiary_limestone_cliffs_of_Uluwatu

Cliff Diving

By Tejashri Pradhan

Every night, she stands at the edge of the cliff, her gaze on the sky rather than on the ocean below. The world stretches about her in every direction, but there’s only one direction for her. She feels the wind buffet her body and tangle her hair and chap her skin until she can’t handle the cold any longer. She doesn’t jump, but merely takes a step off the edge.

Every night, she spreads her arms out to the sides like skeletal wings. She imagines the air buoys her and lifts her up to the singing stars and jellyfish moon above. For a moment, she’s suspended in midair, and then the sea rises to claim her.

Every night, her body shatters against jagged rocks that slash the skin from her flesh. The current drapes its cold fingers around her ankles and tugs her down until she has no choice but to let the seawater pierce her lungs. She’s reminded in that instant of how fragile a human life is and how easily lost.

Every night, the frothy ocean swirls around her like mouthwash swishing around the slick rocks that are Earth’s teeth. It presses into her broken skin, cleansing in its sweet agony.

Every night, she feels his pain when he lost his footing and slipped, crying out for Mommy. She’d told him not to go to so close to the edge, but in that moment, it didn’t matter. She threw herself on the cliff on her stomach, groping wildly for his hand. Her fingers barely grazed his tiny wrist. For a frozen instant, his pulse fluttered against her fingers like a broken wing trying in vain to fly. She saw his development in reverse. He was shrinking back into a baby and from a baby into a fetus until he was encased by Earth’s womb. She had no choice but to watch helplessly as the ocean swallowed her heart.

Every night, she knows she should let herself feel his terror too, but that would mean sleeping instead of jumping. It would mean allowing her nightmares to crawl into her torn heart the way the salty waves of the ocean seep into her open wounds. She can bear the pain again and again, but she’s too cowardly to risk feeling his fear.

Every night, she dies and floats in nothingness—no thoughts, no existence. It could be nirvana or some higher state beyond consciousness, but it just feels like a void. Maybe it isn’t that she seeks out his pain. Maybe she seeks out an escape because it is only when she’s drowned that she can take comfort in oblivion. And yet, it’s so incredibly empty because she knows if there’s nothing, she’ll never see her baby again.

Every morning, the sunrise sweeps her back to the shore with all her pieces reassembled in just the physical sense. She returns to a life that has long since ceased to have any meaning—that seems like pale watercolors compared to the vibrant acrylics of the cliff at night.

And when night finally comes, she does it all over again.

Tejashri Pradhan has lived her whole life in California, making up stories even before she could write. This is her first published story. She can be found on Twitter @TejiSunflower.

Photo Credit: “Tertiary limestone cliffs of Uluwatu” by PHGCOM

2368266487_53ed45a73b_o

The Family Tree

By Jonathan Levy

Fifteen years after he last set foot in his boyhood home, David moved back. When he parked his car in the driveway, he noticed that everything looked the same—the browning grass, the hoop attached above the garage, even the chipped wood on the corner of the roof where lightning had struck years ago. The house itself was a one-story, nondescript thing. The only reason David was there was that he couldn’t afford to buy a place of his own.

Inside, David’s steps clicked against the wood until he reached the rug, which displayed a now-faded floral collage. The rug will have to go, thought David. He turned and faced the living room and saw dust particles floating in the block of light from the kitchen window across the hallway. He saw the same pictures of his family, the same couch, the same TV—but what mostly caught his attention was the ugly sofa chair. David stared at it, and though it was empty, he swore he heard it creak as it had whenever his father flopped into it after a long day of yard work. The chair will have to go, thought David.

He realized that while some light came into the living room, none illuminated the foyer where he stood. The shades to the back porch were shut. David opened them to a full assault of blinding rays. Only after his squinting eyes adjusted did the tree emerge. Continue reading

4269771776_914861e0e6_b

Rounding

By Carla Stern

“Ask him if he’s worried about his wife and children in Mexico.”

Looking at the patient, I saw the corners of his mouth trembling. The haunted look in his eyes keenly reflected the horror of what had happened to him. I averted my own eyes, not wanting to share his misery.

I repeated the question in Spanish, leaning into him so I could hear his answer. With a breathing tube he could only speak in a low rasp, making my job as medical interpreter precarious. I hated asking for repetition, especially when the patient was making such a supreme effort to get the words out. Then there was the problem of the question itself. Why did the nurse need to ask the obvious? She knew that the Mexican consulate had had no success in getting his wife a temporary visa to come here. He would be alone in the ICU, trying to make sense of his misfortune with no family to comfort him. Worse, he would no longer be able to send them money.

Sometimes the nurses’ questions veered into the land of the surreal. Once I was called into the ER for a patient who had been run over by a tractor on a farm several hours away. He had been life-flighted to the hospital and sent immediately to trauma. As he lay writhing in agony on the gurney, the nurse asked him, “On a scale of zero to ten, what is your pain level?” I fought the urge to leave out the patient, turn to her and shout, “Ten! It’s a ten!” However, I understood that the nurse was only following protocol, so I interpreted the question into Spanish for him, internally rolling my eyes.

¿Está preocupado por su esposa y sus hijos en México?” The man with the broken body nodded. I looked at the nurse and nodded reflexively, even though she could see the answer. Then the surgeon came in, a grim expression on his face, and stood there for a few seconds, perhaps assessing how he was going to say what he needed to say. “We tried very, very hard to save your leg. We performed multiple surgeries. Unfortunately, we had to amputate it. You might feel pain in the leg that isn’t there. We call that ‘phantom pain’.”

He stopped and again stood there silently before telling the patient that he would be back in the morning to check on his wound. After he left, the nurse said, “Do you have any questions?”

Agua” the patient croaked. “Quiero agua.

“Water” I repeated. “I want water.”

Interpreters are supposed to use the first person to lessen their own presence and make communication more direct. At first it felt bizarre, but I quickly got used to hearing other people’s voices in my own.

“I’m sorry. You can’t have water. You have a breathing tube and the water will go right to your lungs. As soon as the tube is taken out, we’ll give you water.”

I explained this and then stood quietly, looking down at the list of all the other patients I had to see that day.

“We know that your stay here has been difficult and we know that you’re having a hard time coming to grips with your accident. We’ll be starting you on an anti-depressant called Gabapentin. It will take a few weeks before it starts working.”

The patient looked from me to the nurse and back again to me, his mouth a rictus of despair. In my mind’s eye I saw him on the steamroller and then suddenly on the ground, flattened beneath it. At least the accident happened at work, I reasoned. That meant the medical bills would be paid by worker’s compensation. This might give him a measure of comfort, but I doubted it.

Carla Stern is a nationally certified Spanish and French medical interpreter. She has worked in this field for the past five years at a hospital in Boise, Idaho. She also works as a court interpreter in Spanish. Her story “Tilt Test” is forthcoming in Sinister Wisdom in 2016. She can be found on the web at carlastern.tumblr.com.

Photo Credit: West Hospital Emergency Room from “Historic VCU: A VCU Images Special Collection

gentleman-151337_1280

Memoirs of a Dissociative Youth

By Dan Morey

Every week in group therapy we are encouraged to share what is generally referred to as life experience.  The idea is to diffuse individual psychoneurotic sufferings by creating an atmosphere of empathy—rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep, as it were.

Unfortunately, the notion of life experience has always been a bit tricky for me, owing to the permeability of certain mental boundaries that in normally functioning brains serve to keep separate reality (physical-world sensory phenomenon) from that fantastical alternate dimension where one is readily convinced that a simple Morris chair isn’t a simple Morris chair at all, but is, in fact, a grotesque dwarf who wants very badly to sodomize one in some diminutive fashion.

Consequently, as I share my experiences with the group, Dr. Boylan invariably interrupts me with: “The truth please, Mr. Moreau.  No one benefits from this absurd dissembling of yours.”  And I do my best to accommodate him, though on certain days, as I reflect on my past, I see nothing but dwarves (so to speak), and am utterly unable to judge them on the basis of their materiality.  It is only on the good days—days when my mind is ordered and capable of differentiating Morris chairs from dwarves—that I can confidently paint for the group an honest portrait of my turbulent youth.  On one such recent occasion I began my story with the following introduction:

“When I was seventeen my mother and father had their throats pawed open and partially digested by a dyspeptic Rottweiler.” Continue reading