Spelunking in the Caves of Despair (originally written in 2017)

Canto IX

His Loves and Linage Arthur tells,

The Knights knit friendly Bands:

Sir Trevisan flies from Despair,

Whom Red-cross Knight withstands.

“A part of me still can’t believe he killed himself.” Arthur wasn’t looking at Red. He was watching the road as the two friends sped down the winding back road in a roundabout way toward Red’s apartment. The sunset painted the sky in rich orange and yellow, but between the trees that lined the road there were only short glimpses of light piercing through the dark shade. The contrast was almost blinding. Through a hairpin turn in the road time seemed to move from night to bright day back to darkness within a few seconds. Red could barely see, but Arthur kept his foot to the gas as the two hurdled back into town.

“What makes someone do that? What makes someone decide to end their own life? And now we have to deal with all the shit he left behind. So selfish.” Arthur still wasn’t looking at Red, he was focused on the winding road. Red decided to stop looking out the window. If Arthur’s erratic driving was to be his demise, he’d rather not see it coming. He looked at his friend. Arthur’s face was red, his eyes a bit puffy; a tear ran down his cheek.

“I miss that idiot. And I still don’t understand it.” Arthur sniffled. “And don’t get me started on Tristan deciding not to show.”

“It’s still too fresh for Tristan. Funerals are meant for closure, seems to me they’re also warnings. Here’s someone you loved who died, avoid what killed them. With Terwin what we’ve got to avoid is killing ourselves. Maybe back off the gas a little Art.” Red’s voice was quiet, barely making it over the roar of the engine constantly switching gears to make it through the twists and hills of the country road.

“Sure, okay, so how the fuck do you do that? Seems to me that suicide is like some kind of disease, one you are far more likely to catch if someone near you had it. Like an emotional flu, no, emotional ebola.” Arthur hadn’t slowed his old Honda Civic Hatchback.

Red turned his body to face his friend. “Arthur, are you happy? I know we just left our friend’s funeral, but before all this shit, were you happy?” The car began to slow a bit, though not quite down to the posted speed limit.

“Sure. I was happy. Nearly finished with school, nearly have an awesome job, nearly ready to start dating. Sure, I’d say I was nearly happy.”

“Nearly?” Red tried to answer this question for himself, and he’d come up with a similar answer, occasionally, but overall, not yet; almost, sure, but in general, no.

“Yeah. I guess that sounds bad. It does sound bad.”

“Okay, what will make you happy?” Red’s tone was that of a helpful friend, but he was honestly curious of the answer, secretly hoping it could make him happy as well.

“I guess the easy answer’d be a girlfriend. Some others: graduating college and getting a good job. I guess what will make me happy is some security, some consistency in my life. I can’t be happy now, ‘cause I’m not done yet. Sure I’m an adult on paper, I can buy alcohol and everything, but I’m not on my own by any means. I’ve got a shitton of debt from school, and I still need a bunch of help from my parents to be able to afford rent and food. It’s like I’m not a complete person yet, but I will be soon, so I guess I’ll be happy soon.”

The two sat there, the car speeding over rough asphalt, not paved in years, as the words really started to hit both of them.

“That sucks.” Red finally said out loud. The two stared out the windshield and wished Terwin hadn’t killed himself. More than that they wished they didn’t have the creeping feeling that they’d like to join him.

Arthur’s turned his head to look behind them. “Did you see that? Just now, I saw something moving in the rearview mirror. It looked like a dementor from Harry Potter.”

Red turned, “I didn’t see anything. Must have been a deer.”


The small glass bowl had glowing embers surrounded by the bright green of finely ground plant matter. Smoke twisted around the tall glass tube as water in the lower chamber bubbled like a boiling witch’s cauldron. Tristan removed the bowl from the glass bong and sucked the smoke into his lungs. Red watched as his friend’s eyes began to dilate. He replaced the bowl and turned to look at Red. He began to speak, seemingly forgetting his lungs were full of smoke. The heavier-than-air gas made his voice come out deeper.

“Red, you ever seen Catch Me If You Ca – “ He was interrupted by a fit of deep rasping coughs which seamlessly transitioned into a sort of laughter. “Fuck man, gotta cough to get off.” He picked the bong up from where he had placed it on the end table. The glass bowl looked like a pizza slice had been burned out of it, but otherwise it was still green. Tristan glanced around the room. He squinted his eyes.

“It’s still in your hand.” Red pointed to the purple lighter in Tristan’s right palm.

Tristan laughed. “That’s weed, man; terrible for your memory.” He flicked the steel against the flint and took another puff from the large piece of glassware. This time he remembered to exhale before talking. “So what brings you ‘round here? I haven’t seen you since. . .” His voice trailed off.

“Yeah.” Red didn’t look at him.

“But I’ve forgotten my manners, and what’s a stoner if he isn’t a gentleman. Puff, puff, pass and all that.” He gathered the various pieces of paraphernalia and presented them to his friend.

Red hesitated for a moment, but decided there were worse vices, and he hadn’t driven here, so what was the harm? He took the bong and proceeded to light the bowl for a small hit. He lay back on the couch and surveyed Tristan’s apartment. Not ten days ago it had been the joint residence of Tristan and Terwin. Now Terwin’s room was packed up in boxes. The posters of coffee he had bought at Ikea had been taken down. The nails still stuck out of the wall. Odd little reminders of what used to be; who used to be.

“Tris, why weren’t you at the funeral yesterday? Arthur and I were really hoping you’d make it. I know you and Terwin were clo-”

“Hey, don’t Bogart it, dude. Take another one and pass it along. Don’t talk in between hits. This isn’t ‘Nam, Donny; there are rules.” He laughed at his butchering of the Big Lebowski quote and continued to eye the dirty chemist’s beaker like a dog begging for a bite of ham sandwich.

Red wasn’t pleased with Tristan’s avoidance of real conversation, of reality in general, but he wasn’t in the mood to call him out on it. He was in the mood take another drag, to join his friend in the far more entertaining version of the world. One where the colors seemed brighter, the video games were more fun, the food tasted better. The world felt more like it should; more like it used to.

The bong was still in his lap. He bent over, placed his lips against the cold glass, sparked the lighter, placed it to the bowl, and inhaled.

“Snap it!” Tristan was requesting that Red finish the current bowl. The host had already removed another nug from the mason jar on the side table. He placed it in his grinder and began prepping the next while Red attempted to finish the first.

There was far more left than Red had expected. Tristan was excellent at avoiding conversations he didn’t want to have; weed another hammer in his toolbox. Red was coughing his lungs out before he had finished emptying the chamber. Tristan took the bong from Red’s hands before he dropped it on the carpet, and cupped a hand over its top before the remaining smoke escaped into the room.

“Heh, I’m sorry Red, I forgot how much of a lightweight you were.” He lied. “That should put you in a good place. Get you out of your head for a while.” Tristan picked up the lighter from where Red had dropped it on the couch and finished off the last few bits of black in the bowl; Red having burned the last of the green.

Our hero’s head was spinning. He sank back into the couch cushion and looked up at the ceiling. Even with his neurons’ cannabinoid receptors influenced by a hefty helping of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, he couldn’t shake his current stresses; he couldn’t forget about his friend’s recent passing. He saw all kinds of curious shapes in the textured plaster ceiling. He thought he could see a face; thin, stretched, and smiling. It sent chills down his spine. He stopped looking and watched his friend pack the next bowl instead.

Tristan held the grinder in one hand and the bong in the other, but he wasn’t moving. He was staring past Red on the opposite couch like he’d seen a ghost. His face was deathly pale; a harsh contrast to his bloodshot eyes.

Red did his best to speak, “Tris, you ok-okay?” He turned around and craned his neck trying to see what had startled his friend.

“Fuck man, weed can make me hella paranoid sometimes. Gotta remember not to buy this strain again.” He shook his head. “I thought I saw a crazy monster, like a big black cloaked figure. Real scary.”


Red found himself back in his apartment. He didn’t live alone. Through an odd set of circumstances he’d found himself renting the walk-in closet of a one bedroom apartment of a friend of a friend. It didn’t have any windows, no outlets, and barely enough room for his bed and dresser. When he closed the door he was in his own little box. He often thought about how this sort of space was the punishment the Dursleys had forced on poor Harry in The Sorcerer’s Stone. At least Harry wasn’t paying $350 a month for the privilege.

Red had attempted to make the hole-in-the-wall livable with a few posters and some extra pillows on his bed, but some things aren’t fixable. The National Geographic map of the world reminded him of how big the world was outside, and how little of it was his. Despite the heavy metal door, and the 1950’s concrete and asbestos walls, he felt like he could hear every apartment on his floor, the one above his, and the one below. He was frequently awoken by the sounds of lovemaking, or the crying of babies; further reminders of how lonely he felt.

A bundle of wires connected his computer and phone chargers to the outlet in the living room, snaking under the door, where a small band of sunlight creeped through. Red’s eyes weren’t on that organic glow, instead they were trained on the harsh light of his computer and phone. The computer currently displayed two women in a romantic embrace, porn; while his iPhone was on the Facebook app. It may have seemed like a curious juxtaposition, but to Red, both scenes were equally fantastic. The world his Facebook friends lived seemed as unreachable as the threesome that was beginning on his computer. For a moment he glanced up at the other tabs he had open on his browser: Three homework assignments, two already late; his student loan online bill paying, unpaid; his current bank balance, lower than he’d hoped, but about what he had expected. His phone showed a new event, a wedding he had been invited to. His peers were getting married and he was masturbating in a closet. He popped a tablet of Methylphenidate (brand name Concerta) that he’d bought off a friend, and told himself he’d use the drug-induced concentration to start climbing out of this hole he’d found himself in.

“It’s okay to be sad, Red,” he said out loud. “Your friend just died. It will take a while for things to get back to normal. Of course things have gotten a bit out of hand.” He looked at his computer where a man was doing something that couldn’t possibly be causing the sounds that were coming from the woman’s mouth.

This shit didn’t start when Terwin died, he knew better. This had been his life for a while now. Terwin was today’s excuse. There was a great difference between sadness and depression. One was an emotion, an intense one at that, and the other was a lack of emotion. Sadness was the color blue and depression gray.

Red felt a small pressure on his right shoulder. Turning his head he saw a hand; boney, pale fingers ending in long tanned nails, common of long-term malnourishment. The hand protruded from a deep black sleeve. Red didn’t move for a moment, stunned. When he regained his composure, he googled the drug he’d taken and saw “psychosis” as a possible side-effect. He exhaled, but it wasn’t relief.

“Friend, you can’t explain me away so easily. I’ve been following you for a while now.” Red turned his head back toward the hand on his shoulder, this time following it back to it’s owner. It was almost human; gaunt, draped in tattered black robes. It looked skeletal, pale skin stretched across bone. Two deep circles looked back at him, all he could make out of the creature’s eyes.

Red wasn’t alien to psychosis. Though he had never experienced the symptoms himself, he had an aunt who was institutionalized. He knew that interacting with a hallucination was what constituted a “psychotic break,” so he kept his mouth shut.

“Oh you brave soul. You have nothing to fear from me.” The creature said through cracked lips, held in a warm smile. “I am here to offer rest. I’m a dove with an olive branch; a warm bed on a Sunday morning.” There was compassion in his voice. “Your friend has taken his life, and left you hurting. But I’ve been with you. You were hurting long before.”

Red’s curiosity got the better of him. He spoke, but his words came out in a rough whisper, “Terwin was a coward.” He couldn’t believe he’d said the words, though he’d been thinking them since the funeral.

“Are you so perfect that you might judge him for deciding to stop playing this silly game? His flesh is dead, as it was destined to be, and Terwin made that choice for himself. A last bit of agency in a life otherwise ruled by fate. Poetic if you think about it. A final act of a free man after a life of slavery.” The creature’s voice was soothing. “And now he is at rest; his troubles ended. That we might all be so lucky. Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas, ease after war, death after life, in these there is peace.”

Red raised his voice, “No. Killing is murder; it doesn’t matter if it’s your own life. And murder is a sin.”

“My child, every day of your life is full of sin. Every hour that passes you sin the more. Simply put, the longer life, the greater sin. And what is in a life? Fear, sickness, age, loss, labor, sorrow, strife, pain, hunger, cold; all damaging to even the strongest of hearts. And all these bound in fate. Your action or inaction matter not to the vast majority of the events of your life. You didn’t choose the nation of your birth or the color of your skin. Fate chooses so much, why let it choose the day of your death? And make no mistake, all that lives must die.”

Often Red felt like a simple beast. His base cravings for food and sleep and sex disgusted him. Looking back on high school there were so many moments that seem to have been controlled almost entirely by hormones. It was foolish to think those days had ended, especially with porn open on his laptop. He didn’t feel in control.

“You are in control,.” the figure whispered. “All this is just a game. You get to decide whether or not you play. Life is so much work. Why not sleep instead? There’s only one way to actually stop sinning, and it isn’t asking God for forgiveness. The wages of sin is death, and death is the end of woe; so die soon friend.”

Red’s heart was beating fast, his breaths shallow. The creature, Despair, loomed over him.

“What’s a moment’s pain to end a lifetime of suffering? A small price to pay. Now you have but the method of your exit to decide. There are a great many options.” Red’s mind raced through the possibilities: the knife in his pocket, the rope with his camping gear, the pills in his bathroom. He was shaking. It was one thing to decide your life is not worth living, and another entirely to actually end it. He felt sick to his stomach.

Despair noticed his apprehension. “The worst is over, friend; you’ve discovered the ruse.” Red felt the knife in his hand. “One last little cut, followed by endless peace. As far as endings go, bleeding out is quite pleasant. It’s as if someone slowly turns down the lights, then the sound, and then all falls away. What a beautiful departure from this wretched place.”

Red held the knife in his right hand. Despair’s bony fingers helped guide the blade to his left wrist. It will all be over soon, he thought to himself. Or perhaps those were Despair’s words. He had forgotten the difference.


Forever Emma (originally written in 2017)

It was a going-away party. A friend of Charlie’s was moving to LA in a common and often fraught attempt at “making it big.” Emma hadn’t cared enough to ask in what form. Friends had gathered at Karl’s Portland apartment, at this point mostly in boxes, to mourn his passing. Karl gave out some items he didn’t feel worth the trip south, but somehow worth something to his friends: a wine rack, an old pair of leather shoes, an end table, the complete works of Shakespeare with Barnes and Noble faux-leather cover and built-in bookmark. These objects weren’t important enough to take with him in his next life. As with many of Emma’s friends that had made the mistake of traveling to the oasis in the desert, the only relics of the northwest they brought with them were a closet full of now useless coats and rain jackets and an appreciation for good tap water; two curses in that arid place.

Emma had “dressed up” at Charlie’s prompting; though a Sunday night party didn’t sound particularly formal, she opted for a black dress that made the event feel far too much like a wake. She sipped at some pinot and took small bites from a piece of sharp cheddar; the last normal-sounding cheese from the plate. The party was populated by Charlie’s friends; a mixture of well-read unemployed millennials and well-read underemployed millennials. Throw a rock into the crowd and you were guaranteed to hit a tattoo, a piercing, a beard, a flannel and pair of Wayfarers, more than likely all on the same person. Alan, starbucks barista for the last decade, needed a rock thrown at him, especially with the way he was flirting on the cute Chinese girl in the sundress. He kept spinning his wine around in his glass, placing it up to his nose and then swishing it around his mouth. Earthy with notes of pure bullshit.

Emma had to remind herself that she was there for Charlie. Karl was his friend, and showing him a final good time before he made the Hajj to Hollywood was what friends do. Just because she was stuck in a shitty job in the rain didn’t mean everyone had to be. Emma had dragged Charlie to a similar event for her friend Katie not two months ago, though that party had considerably better cheese. Karl had been at that party. He should have learned how to set up a proper cheese plate. Karl’s girlfriend Tara had been there as well. She gave Emma a wave to get her attention. Emma approached her from across the party.

“Hey Em -cough cough- so nice you could make it.” The hostess looked like shit. She had dressed up in a nice enough dress, and her hair was done up fine. But she held herself in such a way that Emma knew from across the room that she was very sick.

“Hey Tara. Are you okay?” Emma didn’t walk up to her for the usual greeting hug.

“Fuck no. This is the only day we can throw this damn party before we leave. So it’s either be here feeling like I’m going vomit out all my insides and see my friends through fever induced delirium or not at all. Don’t worry, I don’t think it’s conta-” the leper retched into a napkin she had at the ready.

Emma’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She’d felt it throughout the evening’s festivities, but hadn’t thought the vibrations important enough to interrupt the party. Now, her health on the line, she was grateful for the interruption. She pulled her little pocket slate computer from her purse. The iPhone showed the failed attempts at contact by Emma’s mother: two missed calls, a voicemail, and two texts.

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Grandma was dying. In a manner of speaking she’d been dying since she was born, but the last few grains of sand were falling through the hourglass. Though they shared the same name and lived in the same town, Emma wasn’t close with her grandmother. Her relatives were always mentioning how accurate her name was, and when she saw pictures of her grandmother she couldn’t help but see her own  face with the bob haircut in the black and white. Emma had spent time with her when she was younger, but she had felt it odd to be around her namesake. Like in some way Emma was a replica of her grandmother, made and named for her good deeds. It’s odd to think yourself a living statue of someone else, a memorial soon enough. Looking on her grandmother’s face was to see yourself 50 years in the future. It had felt novel when she was younger, but time doesn’t give favors. Her grandmother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s nearly a decade ago, and her arthritis was far more visible these days. Emma’s human window into the future was looking more and more bleak.

Emma had left the party early. Charlie would take an Uber back to their place. Emma didn’t want him driving anyway; Karl’s “celebration of life” required the consumption of sacred elixirs, Eastside’s Marionberry Whiskey and Terminator Stout among them.

She flew back home, changed out of her dress into a pair of jeans and hoodie, and grabbed a toothbrush and a water bottle. The hand-stitched blanket draped over the couch put a lump in her throat.

She pounded the gas pedal and merged onto the highway. She’d been given a countdown of the final moments of her grandmother on this earth, time outweighed safety. The city was a blur, though everyone but Emma seemed to be having a leisurely Sunday evening. A gold Buick Lesabre going five under in the left lane blocked her way around a black Timex semi truck.

Emma flashed her brights at the car in front of her, revealing a head of gray hair with a bald spot on top behind the wheel. The gentleman’s speed did not change. Emma closed in on the vehicle, leaving less than a car length between them in the hopes of getting the old man to get over. Couldn’t this man see she was in a hurry? She would never be so inept. Surely this man was beyond the age of being allowed a driver’s license. Her right foot danced between the gas and brake pedal to keep her Toyota Corolla as close to the Lesabre as possible without slamming into it’s rear bumper.

An eternity later the man signaled and moved into the more appropriate lane for his prefered speed. Emma slammed on the gas at her first opportunity, anxiety blinding her to the reason for the old man’s lane change until her tires perfectly aligned with the obstruction on the road.

A quick thump thump scared the shit out of Emma as her Corolla flattened the already rotting carcass of an opossum. Her heart raced as adrenaline flooded her veins . After a moment of shock, her vehicle racing ahead of the Lesabre, she signalled and pulled over to the side of the road. She threw on her hazards, put the car in park, and let the floodgates open.

A dying grandmother, a little roadrage, a fuzzy animal now much more dead. Sometimes life really sucked. It sucked that you can’t drive a car while your eyes were full of tears. Windshield wipers were only for windshields and eyelids weren’t translucent. Not to mention she was shaking.

She blew her nose on one sleeve of her hoodie and used the other to dry her eyes. Why did her grandma have to die now? Was there a convenient time to die? Was she even going to die? The brief conversation she’d had with her mother seemed to point heavily in that direction. In the last hour her uncles and mother had moved their mother from the urgent care unit of the local hospital to a nearby hospice house. Apparently they thought it too much a hassle to take her home to die in her own bed.

Emma wondered why she hadn’t visited her grandmother more. What kind of granddaughter was she that she hadn’t been by in the past year? A hug on holidays and a phone call every few months to help with grandma’s iPad wasn’t much of a relationship, especially with the person she was named after.

The adrenalin began to pass, her heart rate became more normal. She wiped her eyes one final time and signaled back onto the highway. This was going to be a long night.

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Fighting between the pain of kidney failure and the euphoria of opioid pain management, Emmeline Emerson Wyatt looked up into a face she knew too well. It was her own face, but some 50 years younger. She had seen that face in the mirror every morning as she got ready for the day. Some days were better than others, that face held many expressions. She had watched that face change. As the years went on, that face shrugged and slouched and spotted and wrinkled. She was lying in this bed dying because of that slow change. The face in front of her had skin that was bright, though its expression was solemn.

“Grandma, how are you?”

Dying was how she was, and everyone in the room knew that. Grandma Emmeline had brief moments of knowing that too, and in those moments she would make it abundantly clear to those around her. It’s odd to be near someone who has only brief moments of consciousness, someone who is not at all used to that sort of experience, and someone who knows, just like everyone around them, that they are going to die. In those brief moments it must be maddening, fighting to get some last words at the people you love before you’re no longer something that can talk, perhaps not even something at all. Luckily, in between these moments of extreme realization about the nature of humanity and the need for connection and communication, you (if it is you that’s lying in a hospice bed) are flung into an incredible opioid high. There’s a reason Heroin is so popular, and there’s a reason we still give morphine to just about everyone who has extreme pain that will harass them to the end of this world.

The older Emmeline did her best to respond, which came out something like “hunnngff.”

Emma sat down in the chair nearest to the hospital bed. Her grandmother was lying in the bed with the upper half tilted upwards, so she could see everyone without straining her neck. She had a number of bandages around her, one on her left hand, another around her head. A tube went to her nose to supply extra oxygen. Emma wasn’t clear on exactly what it was that had pushed her over the edge, it looked like a combination of a lot of things. She didn’t have a heart monitor, she didn’t have any wires sticking out of her arm; she had a blanket. All those fancy wires and things are for people who might live. A blanket is to cover a corpse.

Emma gently held the unbandaged hand of her grandmother. It was cold, but gripped so tightly she knew there was still some life in her. This hand was apparently the same size as hers, yet holding it it felt so small, so bent from the years of arthritis that Emma was destined to inherit.

“Grandma, it’s me, your granddaughter Emma.” It felt weird to speak her name at her.

The eyes of her grandmother looked up with clear recognition. She looked exhausted to the point that she couldn’t speak, but she could look. She could sorta smile through the tube on her face. Her breathing was beyond forced. It came out as a crisp rasp. It hurt to hear; the combination of aged lungs and the pressure of incurable disease.

Younger Emma’s mother, older Emma’s daughter placed a hand on younger Emma. “Honey, she can hear you. Talk to her.” Her hand reminded Emma of what the vitality of others felt like. She could feel her mother’s heat through her cardigan. What a difference from the cold appendage she now held.

“Um, I got that job Grandma. I graduated college a few years ago, you knew that, but the job I was in was just poop. This one is far better. I actually like my co-workers.” She looked at her grandmother expectantly.

Her grandmother was looking her dead in the eyes. Sometimes she’d seem to lose focus for a moment, but then she’d be right back looking her granddaughter right in the eyes.

“I got a new car, and my apartment is uptown in a really cute neighborhood. There are big oak trees in the median between the sidewalk and the road. It makes the place feel matured, warm and rounded on the edges. I think I’ll pull Charlie’s leg until he ditches his place and moves in with me.”

After a bit her grandmother seemed to have fallen asleep. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was incredibly crackly but measured, rhythmic. Emma could still feel the grip on her hand, so she stayed beside the bed. This thing she was holding was what she was destined to become. She was looking into a mirror that was 50 years into the future. No, she was holding hands with her grandmother. Not an older version of herself but a completely separate being two generations removed.

Suddenly her grandmother’s breathing became more like Darth Vader, to the point of waking her. She coughed and looked up at Emma.

“Karen?” That was the name of Emma’s mother, who had just stepped out of the room for a bit of air. “Karen, I don’t want to die.” Her grandmother looked up at her with pleading eyes. She gripped Emma’s hand more tightly.”It hurts Karen! Oh god make the pain stop!” She released Emma’s hand and started grabbing at the bandage around her head. She squirmed under her blanket like a small child. Her moans sent a chill down Emma’s spine. She felt so helpless. She couldn’t think of anything she could do to help besides sit there and hold her grandmother’s hand, if you could call that helping.

“Mother, it’s alright, we’re here.” Emma’s uncle got up from his chair on the other side of the room and walked toward the bed. “Emma, let me sit there a moment, and please get the nurse, it’s clear mom’s morphine is getting low.”

Emma got up from the chair as her mother and the nurse entered the room.

“Everything’s okay Mrs. Wyatt. I’ve got your medicine right here.” The nurse spoke as if to a small child. The tone made Emma uncomfortable, like her grandmother was already gone, replaced by a giant wrinkled baby.

The nurse administered the morphine and the elder Emma fell back asleep. The nurse dabbed her mouth with a small sponge on a stick that kept her mouth from drying out while she slept.. Emma thought it an odd detail to focus on for someone who was clearly dying. She was glad someone was thinking of details like that. Anything to make this transition a tad easier. Anything to bring her grandmother a little peace. The nurse left the room. Emma’s mother and uncles stood or sat around their dying mother. They spoke in low whispers.

“Karen, I’ve called into the office, they aren’t expecting me on Monday. I’m here until it’s over.” Emma’s Uncle John stood over his mother like a guardian angel, too little too late.

“I won’t be going to work tomorrow either, I don’t expect I will all week, regardless of how this ends up.” Karen looked up at John from her seat beside the bed. She couldn’t look at her dying mother. Emma watched her mother’s eyes dance around the room, to the Ikea painting to the JC Penney drapes to the oxygen tank on the floor, but never where they needed to be. Important things are often hard to look at.

Karen looked over at Emma, “Honey, you don’t have to be here. You have work tomorrow, you look more exhausted than all of us. Come back in a few days. The time for talking to mom seems about over anyway, I’m glad you got a moment with her before. . .”

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How do you go back to life after that? How do you look death in the face, look between your loved ones still holding on, look at your ancient facsimile and then shake your head and go back to work? How the fuck do you. . .  

“Emma, you don’t look so well. Are you alright?” It was Becky, a co-worker. Emma had made it home last night, late. She had planned to buy some McDonalds on the drive, but hadn’t found the appetite. She lay in bed until her alarm went off. She hadn’t slept for a second. Right now her job was waiting, just waiting for her grandmother to die. Once she was gone she could begin grieving. She wasn’t gone, yet she sorta was. She was basically gone, but not enough to be actually gone. So Emma was waiting. She wasn’t sleeping; she was waiting.

Emma half-whispered “My grandmother is in hospice. I. . .” her voice trailed off. She hadn’t used in a while; it sounded coarse, alien.

“Oh-my-god-I’m-so-sorry-to-hear-that!” Becky said the phrase like a single german noun while she put both hands to her mouth as if to catch some small fish she was expecting to issue from it.

Emma stared blankly at a spot just to the right of Becky’s head. Her eyes felt chapped. She couldn’t believe she drove to work this morning. How many cups of coffee had she drank today? She’d at least need one more to make it home.

Somehow she did make it home. Her boss had overheard her conversation with Becky, and forced her to go home and sleep, but you can’t force someone to sleep without narcotics or a baseball bat. Emma was beyond sleeping.

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What the fuck even was it to die? Like what does that mean? I know, one day your heart doesn’t pump anymore. Your lungs don’t breathe anymore. You aren’t you anymore. Your body stops being yours, and it just is. But when we talk about death we aren’t just talking about the physical body. You were never just a body. You were a character in the cast of every life around you. Death means you’ve wrapped your final scene in the final episode of the final season of your life, but you’ve also wrapped in the hundreds of other films of the lives of people around you. You’ve left their story but it keeps going on without you. After that moment, after you die, you exist only in the past tense. You were and can no longer be. So one day your body stops working, the you inside that body stops being, and the chatter and changes that being brought to the world around it stops. In time the things you’ve done are undone, the things you made, destroyed, maybe just decompose. Just like you, the ones who remembered you die, and eventually no one remembers your name. After that, after no one remembers you, nothing you’ve done still scars the earth, you have died.

By that definition Grandma Emmaline wouldn’t die for many years yet. Though her body was on the edge, the rest of her, her actions and memories, what she’s done to this earth, will outlive her body perhaps by a century. Her time for action was about to end, but her time for memory had really just started. Hundreds more may learn her name in the coming years; Van Gogh was far more famous after his death, maybe grandma would follow his footsteps, though she hadn’t killed herself, and Emma doubted she still had that option, regardless of Oregon’s laws on assisted suicide.

There was a certain peace to this version of death. Grandma’s body would be returned to the ground, to feed the earth. Her carbon, the creation of stars, the structure of prehistoric flora, and bones of ancient dinosaurs, would find new forms, maybe trees and flowers, eventually deer and birds. And that was just her body; the letters she wrote, the books she read, the movies she watched, they would spread out. You could say that these ephemera were children of hers, you could just as easily call them grandma. A Christmas card she wrote sat on Emma’s mantle. The gift that had arrived with it was draped across the couch. The quilt didn’t match anything else in Emma’s apartment, but at this moment it was better that it stood out. It smelled just enough like her, and there was something about love captured into warmth. It didn’t matter how sick, how dead grandma was, she could always give you a hug through these creations. The card that accompanied the quilt was something bought at Walgreens or Walmart or something, some Hallmark bullshit.

My Dearest Emma,

Watching you grow into such a beautiful and strong woman has been one of the greatest joys of my life. I can’t help but see myself behind your fiery eyes. I hope this blanket keeps you warm on those cold winter nights, and reminds you that your grandmother loves you.

Forever yours,

Grandma Emma

Her flowing, perfect hand somehow negated the false heartfelt nature of the Hallmark card. Emma had bent the card and placed it on the mantle inside-out to show it’s better half to the world, hiding the glitter covered kitten in a stocking on the front. These words were grandma, this blanket was grandma, in a way that felt less weird the more Emma thought about, Emma was her grandmother as well.

She was named after her, she looked like her, she was a part of her.

You can only think about the deaths of others before you start thinking about your own death; that’s just how the brain works. Emma had spent the better part of the weekend staring at the frail body she was sure to inherit. There is always some selfish string that winds through the mind in hospitals when visiting family: “Is this illness genetic? When will I be here for these same reasons?” There was a certain peace to visiting family in the hospital for lung cancer or heart disease from obesity. Sure those people were sick with serious conditions, but conditions they’d done to themselves. There was no foreboding feeling when her aunt had passed. Family by marriage didn’t leave disease in the family blood when they left, at least not in Emma’s.

It seems silly to say you know you are going to die. Emma knew she was going to die. It didn’t take her grandmother in hospice for her to make that realization.

Grandma’s things would be packed up, her old house would be sold. Her garden would no longer be tended by her gentle arthritic hands. Her possessions would be divided up by the family. Emma was old enough to know that her will was more than likely two lines long, giving all of her objects to her eldest son, and her body was to be cremated. The document was just a formality, the family knew her wishes, and if there were any special objects she wanted certain members of the family to have she had already given them to them. That still left all the things that build up living alone in a house for decades. There was sure to be a great deal of work ahead to send Grandma into the next life. She wasn’t going to be buried with all her shit like an egyptian pharoah, but all her stuff still had to go somewhere. A sealed sarcophagi sure would be easier than a yard sale and a U-Haul.

Grandma was born before colored television, before a great deal of modern medicine, before desegregation. Emma could barely imagine the world that different. Where was the world going to be when Emma was as old as her grandmother? Will robots take care of her in her old age? Will she even get old? We have quantum computing. How many decades until general artificial intelligence is created? When will Elon Musk’s neural lace be complete? Who says Emma was going to die? No one thinks they’re going to die when their young is a gross generalization that should be avoided. Death wasn’t just this big hassle, it was a necessary part of life. It was a punctuation mark to the sentence you’d made with your life. Socrates said death may be the greatest of all human blessings. Billions of people have painted with the brush of life and so far not one of them has made it longer than small moment of history. Emma feared that biologically imposed timer was about to be broken. Technology had in some ways already broken it beyond repair.

Grandma wasn’t big into social media. I don’t know too many from the Greatest Generation that were. She had an iPad and sometimes posted things to facebook, but her online presence was minimal. At no point in her visit was Emma asked to delete her grandmother’s browsing history. What a difference two generations can make. As Emma thought about it, she herself had a wildly elaborate online presence. A facebook with hundreds of pictures and posts, an instagram with another hundred, this time with fancy filters, thousands of posts on twitter, complete with hashtags. Now that she got to thinking about it, she had thousands of facebook messages as well as posts, along with hundreds of thousands of emails in her inbox, not to mention the ones placed in the archive. She had thousands of pins on pinterest and thousands of bookmarked pages on her web browser. On her phone she had a seemingly endless log of texts. They had followed her with each iteration of iPhone she bought. She remembered when her old flip phone couldn’t handle more than a hundred, now she had years worth. The list just kept going. There was so much of Emma online. What would happen to all that Emma when her own body died?

What about her history before social media? She looked toward her bookshelf where decades worth of journals traced her history back through middle school. The times before that were meticulously chronicled by her mother in a series of scrapbooks, all the rage back in the eighties and nineties, now near completely out of style with the introduction of facebook.

David Eagleman said: “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” How the hell would Emma realize that third death if there was so much of her in writing? The complete works of Shakespeare, all of Plato’s writing, every scrap of paper Da Vinci scribbled on that’s still kept in a museum, all that doesn’t even come close to the word count of Emma’s collective corpus. She thought about the insane level of detail it had picked up. Her phone tracked her steps, it knew her location. Maps could be made of all the places she’d visited, all the people she’d met, especially all the conversations she’d had over writing online. All this was saved. Would that data ever be deleted? She doubted it. She thought all of it combined could fit on a flash drive that could fit in her pocket, not that anyone really had those anymore, everything was on the cloud. This version of Emma didn’t take up any physical space, and it didn’t have a body that could decompose. Why would it ever go away? What could this incredible ledger of the minutia of Emma’s days be used for? How many text messages, journal entries, and facebook posts did it take to make a person? Could a digital facsimile of Emma be made from this log? Clearly. How accurate would it be to who Emma was? What the hell was Emma besides all those words? A body. A bunch of blood, bones, and organs stuck inside of sack of skin that thought itself unique.

It wasn’t like technology was getting less complicated. Everyday a new device, a new technique confused the boundaries of the self. Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher sure looked like they were in Rogue One. Tupak looked like he performed at Coachella. CGI wasn’t literally bringing anyone back from the dead though, not yet at least.

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A box of kleenexes, a few glasses of wine, a sleeve of oreos, a touch of ambien and a good cry later, Emma was fast asleep.

Anxiety-induced insomnia keeps you from sleeping, so you take some drugs to help. Ironically those drugs lead to vivid dreams, the subconscious you’re trying desperately to avoid projected in beautiful technicolor. You never remember the dreams you’ve had as they’re happening. They hit you all at once like a train upon waking. I’d argue that dreams aren’t lived at all, they are experienced exclusively in the past tense. You grab at the tendrils of them, the small disjointed aspects you can remember: a friend from high school, the house you lived in college, the cat that hung around that cafe when you were on vacation. Together these images stitch themselves together to make something new, some raw expression of the subconscious. Doesn’t matter if you’re Joseph with his colorful jacket or Freud with his brown jacket, these expressions say something important.

Her grandmother was alive, younger, healthier. The Grandma Emmaline that Emma held in her memory, not that twisted dying thing she had seen yesterday. She hugged Emma and showed her around her old house. She hadn’t lived there in years, but Emma didn’t notice, didn’t mind. You never know you’re in a dream while you’re dreaming. Lucid dreams aren’t in the same category. They tell different stories. They are the work of the conscious, not the subconscious. True dreams are uncontrollable. They happen like the weather. Emma’s grandmother was there. The two talked, she knew they did. Emma asked her about her life, who she’d loved and what she’d done, and glancing out the window toward the lush garden, she’d answered. Upon waking Emma couldn’t remember those answers, but she knew they were good.

Her phone buzzed on her nightstand. She guessed this is what had woken her. Squinting at the incredibly bright screen in the dark room she saw what she’d missed. A facetime call, a voicemail, and a handful of texts, all from her mother.


An Exploration of Love (originally written in 2013)

“So much for the three day weekend!” Chris said as he looked out at the menacing gray storm clouds through the bay windows of the front room. He glanced from the window to the other side of the room where the television was. The entertainment system it sat on was covered with dust except for a square area where the black plastic underneath shown through.  “Why does my Xbox have to be broken?”

His sister Kayla didn’t respond. She sat across the room in her father’s Lazy Boy flipping through the pages of a well-loved copy of Tiger Beat.

Chris sighed. “Reading is only entertaining for so long in this boring house”

Kayla looked up from her magazine. “Yeah, whatever Chris. As if you were spending your time in here reading. If you plan on complaining more, please do it in the hall, I’m trying to actually read.”

“That’s cute Kayla! As if anyone would consider that ‘reading’. If asked, I’m sure most people would call what you are doing there sighing while looking longingly at pictures of members of the latest bubble-gum boy band.”

Before Kayla had a chance to put in a word, Chris took another stab. “To be considered reading, my dear sister, you must actually be deciphering combinations of letters to form words. Looking at pictures of cute boys is usually called depression-induced fantasizing or brain cell destruction.” Chris felt good with that retort and slumped against the window. Putting his back to the storm seemed like the best way to get it to go away.

Perhaps for the best that isn’t how rain works. A roll of thunder shook the house as Kayla’s rage built. The synapses in her brain fired in a fury as she planned her attack. One eye closed and she scowled as her brain went through every possible response.

Her face snapped into a cruel smile as her eyes slowly met her younger brother’s. “Oh Chris. Chrissy, Chrissy, Chris.” She shook her head in mild disgust as the smile grew on her face. In her mind she had won before the words had left her mouth. “Christopher,” she spoke through the teeth of her smile, “at least I keep my crushes to celebrities. I’m sure Anna would love to hear about the things you do at night in her name.”

Chris’s face soured. “You wouldn’t” was all his lips could form in the way of words.

Kayla’s expression changed as she considered this new statement. Would she? Her smile returned and Chris quickly realized that yes, quite possibly, she would.

Chris, acting quickly to keep the issue from getting worse, jumped up, ran across the room and tore the magazine from his sister’s fingers. If Chris resorted to physical violence first he was insured a great punishment from his father. If he let Kayla throw the first punch he at least had a small chance of some form of justice for his devil of a sister. If he didn’t act at all he may as well have handed her the phone to call Anna. If a ruse was something she wanted, Chris would be happy to oblige her.

Chris knew that Kayla’s phone was currently in the possession of their father as punishment for poor grades in math class. This would keep his sister’s ideas from coming to fruition, for now.

Chris crushed the cover of Tiger Beat in his clenched fist as he thought about what his next move would be. “I would give that back if I were you.” His sister said, almost with a chuckle. “Anna’s locker is just down the hall from me. I’m sure to run into her on Monday.”

“Barry.” The word just fell out of his mouth. “Barry Saunders.” Chris knew that was all he needed to say. The words carried so much power. He may have touched himself late at night to a girl in his class, but at least he wasn’t crazy enough to have a crush on someone two grades above him. He had heard her discussing her affection for him during a sleepover with one of her friends.

Kayla didn’t even flinch. Her smile was gone but she gave no real signs of her distress over his words.

Chris knew that he had struck a nerve. “You know he’s in my math class. We actually sit next to each other. I can hear it now. ‘Hey Barry, do you know my sister Kayla?’”

Kayla opened her mouth to propose a truce as the door to the front room creaked open.

“Kids, lunch is ready,” Victoria said as she poked her head through the opening. “I made sandwiches and put some chips on the table.”

Chris and Kayla exchanged glances. They wouldn’t say a word around their nosy new stepmother.


They ate their lunch in silence. Their stepmother stood in the next room cleaning some dishes, or rather pretending to. If she had had the sink running the two might have continued their conversation in a whisper, but as it was she could hear everything that happened at that table.

The two kids were under the false impression that Victoria was out of the loop, but a trophy wife stepmother can only get so much drama from her soaps. Her stepchildren’s bickering’s were far more entertaining to listen to. She had been listening through the whole argument and had intervened when she did less because lunch was ready (it had actually been done for some time) and more simply to extend the plot; to let the drama build through a bit of suspense. They needed time to let their hatred fester so they didn’t decide on a truce right when the argument was getting good.

They kids ate in utter silence. They knew what was at stake, so telling Victoria, or especially involving their father was completely out of the question .They liked their asses too much for all that. The paddle fell with enough force to be a powerful motivator.

Their stepmother stood with a maniacal grin on her face as she dried the one dish out in the kitchen. The whole room was spotless but she sure looked like she was doing something, any excuse to keep her near the action.

The two silently finished their lunch and placed their dishes in the sink. Kayla glanced over at her stepmother and said “Thanks for lunch Victoria.”

“Oh honey, call me Tori. Just don’t call me Vicky. I despise that name.” She flashed them a smile. Chris and Kayla walked back to the front room, to the battleground.

“Now be good, you two! It isn’t every day you get to spend so much quality time together.” Of course their stepmother understood all the irony in her words though the kids thought she was completely ignorant in the ways of children. Kayla wondered if ‘Tori’ had ever actually been a child.

In the front room the war continued. Both sides now resupplied with fresh ammunition. In the kitchen, their stepmother wondered if she should pop some popcorn for the occasion.


The palpable rage in the front room was reaching a point of solidifying into words again when the doorbell rang, cutting like a knife through the heavy air. It rang again as the children got up and moved to the entryway. Their stepmother didn’t even get up. She sat at the dining room table enjoying the events with a glass of wine.

As Chris approached the door, a voice could be heard on the opposite side. “Hey, someone let me in. I know you guys are home! Come on. It’s pouring out here!” It was Chris and Kayla’s older sister Karen. “Hurry up! I’m freezing!” The doorbell rang a few more times as Chris fumbled with the lock and pried the door open.

“About time!” His sister grumbled. She was soaking wet. Her skinny jeans clung more tightly to her than usual. Her bleach blonde hair stuck to her sweatshirt, now two shades darker, like it had been painted there. She stomped out some of the water from her ratty Chuck Taylor’s before stepping past the threshold. “Vicky, could you get me a towel?” Although phrased like a question, the words left her mouth more like a statement.

“Sure dear. How was your date?” Could be heard from the other room.

Karen froze. For a moment her shivering stopped. She heard the sound of water dripping off her clothes onto the tile of the entryway. Her stepmother appeared from the hall, a dish towel in her left hand.

“How did you know that?” the words came out in a whisper, so faint they was barely there. Her lips barely moved as they slid out.

Victoria looked at her with a false smile. “Honey, I was your age once. I lied to my father plenty of times.” She surveyed the shivering Karen. “And look at yourself. Even through all that rain it isn’t hard to notice the marks of passion on your neck.” Her dripping face flushed bright red. Her shivering increased.

Chris stood in the corner of the room, not quite understanding what had just happened. Kayla had moved from her chair in the front room and was now eyeing the scene from the hall. She was hardly oblivious.

“You were with Tom!” Kayla nearly shouted the words. Karen spun around, spraying water from her hair at Tori and Chris as she did.

“Shut up!” She looked at everyone in the house in turn. “No one says a word of this to dad. I’m not about to get in trouble for spending time with my boyfriend!” She snatched the towel out of Tori’s hand and marched toward her room, leaving a puddle where she had stood and a trail of wet carpet behind her.

Kayla wasn’t fazed. From behind her, Karen heard the two most common words exchanged between siblings, “I’m telling!” As an older sibling, Karen was expecting these words. She spun around again, now covering the walls of the hallway with water. “You’re just jealous.” This was all she needed to say. Kayla scowled at her as she walked to her room and slammed the door for effect.

Victoria chuckled as she left the room. Karen could hear her through the thin walls of the house. Karen’s iPhone was already ringing for her friend Ashley. The insensitivity of her stepmother would be the topic of her venting this evening.


Kayla’s brother, realizing that they were alone again, took his chance to make the first strike to rekindle the fire of the two’s argument. “I bet you want Barry to make marks on your neck too don’t ya Kay?” he paused for effect. “I bet he’d love to hear about that. Maybe I should tell him.”

Kayla turned a fiery red. Her fists clenched as she stomped toward her insolent little snot of a brother. Chris took a step back. Looking into her eyes he had seen the demons he had just unleashed on the world. Kayla swung her open hand toward her brother at record speeds. It met Chris’s face only with its sharp tips.

Four red marks quickly appeared on Chris’s left cheek. Kayla had hit hard enough to break the skin.

Chris looked at his sister wide eyed and open mouthed. For a second he was dumbfounded. That didn’t last long though. Vengeance must be given for this sudden act of violence. With a shout his clenched fist impacted Kayla’s left shoulder.

Kayla crumpled to the ground. Her brother stood over her, his fist still clenched. She held her wounded shoulder as if not even a skilled surgeon could save it. Tears welled in her eyes. She followed in her sister’s wet footsteps as she ran down the hall to her room and slamming the door.

Chris didn’t know what to do at this point, and decided he’d also retire to his room. Kayla, who wasn’t crying quite as hard once she was alone, heard his footsteps as he entered his room.

The grooves of the brass against the tumblers of the lock, although only a faint, grinding sound, filled the house with dread. He had arrived. The door swung open and the man of the house entered. Clad in a rain covered duster and fedora, he placed his briefcase on the tile floor and his large black umbrella in the stand by the door.

The house he entered was perfectly silent. Dead. “I’m home!” He looked down the hall as he removed his jacket and hat. “Is anyone here?”

Kayla knew the horror that would soon be upon her two siblings. She couldn’t help but smile as she forced herself to cry again, this time much louder than before so her father could hear from the entry way.

It didn’t take him long to arrive. He opened Kayla’s door, his shoes replenished the supply of water on the hall carpet. “What’s wrong sweetie?” Kayla let a few more tears roll down her cheeks before saying through long sobs, “Chris – sniffle – Christopher hit me.” Her father tried to look compassionate, but Kayla could tell he was tired and really didn’t want to deal with a case of sibling rivalry after his long day at work. He sat on the bed next to her and kissed her forehead as he thought about what he would do next.

An interruption from his young wife made his decision easier. Her head peeked around the door. “Hey Honey, how was your day at work? Just so you know, Chris hit Kayla in the shoulder. He’s in his room.” Kayla knew those words sealed her brother’s fate. Her father got up from her bed. “Chris!” He stormed out of the room and toward the culprit’s room.

Kayla heard a door slam, followed by an exchange of words in muffled yet angry voices. She couldn’t make out everything that was said, but she could hear Chris scream “She hit me first!” followed by her father yelling “I don’t care! You should never lay a hand on a girl, especially one of my daughters!”

Screams from her brother escalated, followed by the sound of three hard slaps. This was the usual punishment for violence in their father’s house, more violence; this time in the form of spankings. The screams quickly turned to sobs as the sentence was completed.

“Are you going to hit your sister again?” The words of her father sounded strained to Kayla. Chris’s sobs turned to coughs before he said “n-no” in a defeated tone.

But Chris wasn’t done. He wasn’t about to be the only one in the house punished for their actions that day. “Karen was out with Tom today. Shouldn’t she be punished too?” Karen gasped in her room. She had all but forgotten about the atrocities performed by her older sister.

She heard her father’s footsteps as he moved from Chris’s room to Karen’s at the end of the hall.


The man of the house moved from one dealing of justice to the next. His hand grasped the handle of his eldest daughter’s door. “Jim,” Tori said from down the hall, “remember that she’s just a kid. She may try to convince you that she’s an adult, but she doesn’t know what she’s doing. Let her make some mistakes. I think today was a learning experience for her. Before you punish her for being with her boyfriend without your permission, ask her how it went.”

Jim nodded before opening the door. Inside Karen was on her laptop. Jim could see she was Skyping a friend.

“Ugh, my dad is here. I’ll have to call you back.” Karen closed the laptop and looked up at her father.

“I hear you were out with Thomas today.” He made sure to sound disappointed rather than accusatory. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I knew you would have said no.” Jim opened his mouth to say something, but his daughter was all too ready to share without being told. “His parent’s weren’t home, so we had the house all to ourselves.” Now Jim was worried. He opened his mouth again but was interrupted. “I know what you’re going to say and no, nothing happened. I wouldn’t let it, but Thomas sure wanted something to happen.”

Karen nudged up against her father, who was now sitting on the edge of the bed, and began to cry quietly. So much emotion this evening, Jim thought to himself. He patted his daughter on the head and was about to say he was proud of her when he was interrupted again.

“Why can’t I just have what you and Vicky have?” She wiped her eyes, smearing mascara across her face. “Why do boys have to be so complicated? No. Why do they have to be so simple? I’m more than just a set of tits.” Jim was about to say “Of course you are dear,” when he was again interrupted.

His eldest daughter gave a sniffle and composed herself. “Thanks for the talk Dad. I really needed it. I’m going to break up with Tom. I want someone who isn’t just in a relationship for sex. I’m going to text Ash and tell her. Love you!” She hugged him in a way that said “this conversation is over, please leave,” and removed her phone from her pocket.

Jim stood up and, slightly confused, returned the sentiment. “I love you too dear.” He left the room feeling like there was something he had forgotten.

In the dining room, his wife was back at the bottle of Merlot.

“Did you hear what your little brats were fighting about today?” Tori had such a way with children. “They were threatening to expose each other’s crushes! It was rather entertaining to listen to this afternoon; something to pass the time at least.”

Jim stared at his young wife. He slumped into the chair next to her and poured himself a glass of the wine. “Oh to be young.” He raised his glass. “If only life was still as simple as worrying about crushes and math homework.” He took a drink. “I miss those days.”

His wife looked at him quizzically. “But now you have me dear.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek.

“Yes, yes I do. Don’t I?”


December for June (originally written in 2013)

A soft pitter patter was all that could be heard of the rain outside. It was a wonder that clouds let any light through them at all. The light that did push through the cloud-covered Portland sky swept past the towering buildings of downtown and crept in through the uncovered windows of the classroom. It came up from below and tickled his perfect face; warming his eyes and highlighting a subtle smile. June couldn’t see, or even think of seeing past this beauty to the board on the far side of the room. The board displayed the Periodic Table and a few notes jotted by the tweed-clad professor. It was for Chemistry 110; the last of the pre-req’s June needed before she began studying English full time, something she would be more than happy to start today. Sitting aways in front of her sat her dream, a boy, the same age as her, with short brown hair and sinewy muscles on his uncovered arms. She had never talked to him before, but she assumed he would be a wonder to converse with. He didn’t participate in class, but she had the firm intuition that he had a wonderful, deep speaking voice. The Justin Biebers that polluted the current pop culture environment disgusted her. She didn’t want some kid with earrings, a hoodie, and the voice of a prepubescent girl; she wanted a man. And there he was in front of her. He sat there, looking blankly at the white board, now showing a number of organic compounds, while the droll of the monotone professor added a breath of reality to June’s off-topic mind. That reality faded back to hopeless daydreaming at the first mention of “Benzene Rings.” She had discovered that the boy’s name was Chris through some sneaky eavesdropping on a conversation he had with some of his friends, one of the many skills June had picked up as a master wallflower. Today Chris sat with a ragged pair of jeans and a tight graphic tee, displaying the words “Holy Grail”. June assumed that was a band. Although June knew very little about this boy, her brain had filled in all the missing pieces. He was more than some kid to June, he was an ideal.

June was deep in the grip of a cold December. As she walked through the quad of her school on an extra blustery afternoon in Portland Oregon, she thought about how much she didn’t really mind winter. She wrapped her pea coat snug around her thin frame; her scarf and beanie allowing only enough room between them for her reddening nose and the frames of her glasses. She felt toasty warm. The rain had let up for the time being, turning instead into a small drizzle, and she had used this small window of opportunity to make the trek from the school library to her dorm on the other side of campus. She didn’t think she minded the cold rain that fell around her day after day. She even took a moment to stop and jump into a small puddle with her bright red rubber boots, but whether she knew it or not, the weather was definitely affecting her. As the sky turned gray, so did her spirit.

Portland is by no means known for its cheerful weather; one look at June’s beautiful pale skin could tell you that. June acknowledged the irony of being named after a summer month in a place like Oregon but the beauty of summer was the last thing on June’s mind as she walked across the campus, finding her way through the raindrop covered lenses of her glasses.

The warmth of her hall rushed at her as she opened the door to sophomore housing. She rubbed at her red cheeks as she walked to her door. Removing her key from her pocket, she looked up at the door. Since the first week of class, all the doors in the hall had tacky construction paper signs placed on them. These were made by June’s overly enthusiastic R.A. and displayed the names of the room’s current occupants. In this case, it read “June & Karen.” Since class started in fall, June couldn’t remember Karen actually staying in the room for longer than a night at a time. She was always staying with one of her boyfriends. She was currently on her third of the term. It is safe to say June despised her.

June turned the key and opened the door. Waiting for her inside was a large, brown cat. He meowed up at her as she hung her coat on its hook. She sat down at the edge of her bed and patted her lap for the cat to join her. He did so gladly, purring loudly as he rubbed against her outstretched hand. June smiled, but it wasn’t the kind that lasts. Of course cats were not allowed in the dorms. George had been strategically smuggled in, and it was only luck that had kept him from being found.  He didn’t mind the cramped living arrangement. He was an older cat and was content simply looking out the window while June was away in class.

June’s room was an organized mess. Piles of books dotted the floor, along with a food dish and litter box for George. Pictures on the walls displayed June’s best friends: Emma had been friends with June since they were both in elementary school. They shared everything and talked about everyone. Unlike many girls, their friendship only grew as they moved from elementary school to middle school to high school. Emma had gone to college in the East. She had received a scholarship she just couldn’t say no to. June talked to her on the phone every week or two, but slowly they were growing apart, they both could feel it. June’s other close friend was Sam. He had met her freshman year of high school and stuck with her ever since.  He was the creative type that had dreams of never needing to work for a real company. His dreams had left him with a job at a Starbucks in North Portland and an endless struggle to be able to pay to stay at the Art Institute. June visited him every week or so, usually meeting over coffee. They were far from romantically involved, and neither had ever tried to change that.

June kicked off her boots and fell back on the bed. In the room next door she could hear girls laughing. The only thing she knew about them were their names, and she only knew that because of they were displayed on their door, written in a flaring font with hearts for i’s on the cheesy sign the R.A. had made. June had never met the girls. Adding to her existential crisis, she had met so few people in her year and a half in college that she could count them on one hand.

June skipped dinner, and although it wasn’t yet dark, she slipped into her pajamas and crawled under the covers of her bed. June loved reading, especially Victorian-era romance novels, her favorite being by Jane Austen. Her thin fingers curled around her current read, her third time through Jane Austen’s Emma and turned on Bon Iver from her iPod that she kept on her nightstand. Her glasses half down her nose, her auburn hair held back by a ribbon and George curled up on her chest to get a good view of the words, she read.

The noises from the room next door increased. June could tell they had more guests over, including some boys. They laughed, their words blurring with the contrast of the Bon Iver coming through June’s speakers. June burned through the book, sucking the light endorphins from the very mention of romance from the characters. She read until George was fast asleep and not even her glasses could keep her eyes from blurring with fatigue.

As she fought back the curtain of slumber, her eyes fell on a passage, a she played through it in her mind over and over as she drifted off to sleep.

“It is such happiness when good people get together – and they always do.”

June awoke in a cold sweat. George looked up at her from the foot of the bed with worried and knowing eyes. June felt around the nightstand for her glasses and began a tiresome crawl out of bed.  Her mind was plagued with the dreams she had just awoken from. She was in no mood for that kind of pain, so she pushed them to the back of her mind.

She continued her morning rituals as if nothing had happened, although she had awoken well over an hour before her alarm.  She was greeted in the communal bathroom by an unconscious young woman; quite obviously “partied out” from the night before. June opted not to interrupt her sleep as she moved towards one of the grubby showers at the end of the bathroom. Hanging up her towel, she turned on the water. Frigid at first, the water began to slowly emit heat until it was a scalding, steam producing flow. Perfect. June stepped in, naked but for her pink flip-flops and let the world fall away as the water scorched her bare skin. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t fight the pictures presented in the dream she had just awakened from. Having protected herself for no more than ten minutes, she gave in.

Upon waking, most dreams first appear vivid; but as time goes by, so does the dream, until it fades into simple memories, such as colors or emotions, or small details that make describing such an experience near impossible. Ironically, the dreams we most want to forget are the ones we remember with the most clarity. For June, this fact was painfully true. Not just brief images of her nightmare now plagued her conscious, but the entirety of the dream, in painfully specific detail.

She had dreamt of a time in the future. This future, although simple, had presented the most terrifying of nightmares in the mind of June. She would have placed the woman she saw at about fifty. The woman had the deep lines of aging and grey hair, but the features of a woman half her age; as if a woman of a much younger age had neglected to take care of herself in any way, and produced this monster. This woman sat in a large rocking chair in a small room with tacky wallpaper and bookshelves lining the walls. Covering the floor was a multitude of cats, of varying sizes. She knew without any words that this woman was herself. This dream put her in the omniscient, though powerless. She watched as this “future self” sat and knitted while her many cats pranced around the room. The woman would often talk, seemingly to herself, sometimes directed toward one of the cats on the ground. The words she said were disconnected. June couldn’t understand them, but she knew what they were: the ramblings of a woman who had no human connections, and was forced to receive oral stimulation through conversations in which both sides were played by her, or trivial arguments held with animals that couldn’t understand more than their names and “no.” What June saw was a woman trapped by herself; alone more than anyone has ever been. This was the reality of the fear that June had more and more begun to adopt.

She watched as the woman in front of her began to cry. Not loudly, for there was no one to hear, just a dull weeping. June could see that these tears were meant for no one in particular. They were simply the outward expression of the depth of crippling depression. The dream suddenly took an unexpected turn as the woman caught herself. She wiped her tears with one angry arm; fingers clenched into a fist, and rose from her rocking chair. June could tell she was arthritic, as her movements from the chair were slow and calculated, but had the feeling of haste all the same. The woman looked at the floor of the room as she uncaringly threw her knitting needles beside her. Her eyes focused on one of the cats; a rather large one with a pattern very similar to that of George’s. For a brief instant she looked up to meet the eyes of the real June. The eyes that June saw were lifeless. They were empty and seemed to burn from the inside with some deep hatred. Although only lasting a moment, this stare seemed to go on forever. Even now, blanketed by the pacifying water of the shower, June could see those eyes; more than that, she could feel them.

June wanted more than anything to wake up. She knew how this nightmare was going to end. She didn’t need to see it; but we don’t get to choose when we wake up. June watched in horror as her older, crippled self, grabbed at the large version of George and threw it as hard as she could into the poorly wallpapered wall. The cat made an ear-splitting shriek followed by two thuds. The first, its body impacting the wall; the second, it’s now limp carcass falling to the ground.

June turned away. She couldn’t watch this, a small tear slid down her cheek as the older June fell to her knees; her tears once again renewed, this time with added vigor. When June turned back, the sobbing of the old June had stopped, replaced by an odd grinding sound. What lay on the ground in front of her was a body, very possibly days decomposed, being consumed by the many cats that had survived the brutal attack of the woman.

The dream was more than just an unfortunate nightmare. June knew that what she had seen was her worst fears sewn into painful ending to her story. The woman she saw, who hauntingly reflected her own appearance, was not crying for no reason. June knew that her future self was falling apart from a life of loneliness. She was unfulfilled by the cats she thought she loved so much, but whether she would admit it or not, she knew George did not fill the hole meant for human interaction.

She opened her eyes and gazed down at her open palms, noticing the pruning of her dainty fingers. She glanced up at an old analog clock that hung on the wall toward the back of the shower room. She had been in there for almost an hour. She stood up straight and got her wits about her. She grabbed her shampoo and made short work of washing herself before making her way back to her room, taking care not to step on the limp body of the wasted girl in the third stall.

Trudging her towel-covered body back across the length of the dirty blue colored hallway of the dorm, June hid her face. She didn’t want anyone to see the red of her cheeks, the obvious sign of a long cry, that she knew wasn’t far from returning. As she worked her way down the hall, she noticed a door open, squinting her eyes to get a better look, since she had left her glasses in her room, she could just make out the First letter of one of the names on the door. It was a sparkle covered K.  As June got closer, the name became more clear; Karen.  June and Karen. She ran toward the door, clenching the towel around her body in an attempt to not expose herself in the hallway. She peered into the room and saw an obviously angry Karen gathering clothes from her dresser on the far side of the small dorm room.

“I was wondering where you had run off to.” Karen said, looking up briefly and then continuing in her condescending tone as she gathered her clothing from the lower drawers of her dresser. “What the fuck were you thinking keeping a cat in here?” George. June scanned the room quickly, searching for her little friend. She had forgotten that it had been over two months since Karen had shown up, and June had thought her as good as dead, having decided to ditch her less important possessions and live with her current boyfriend. June had only had George in the room for about five weeks, and convincing her parents it was okay was far too easy. “Where is he?” June said in a panicked voice, having found no sign of him in her hurried search. “Fuck if I know. It ran out right after I opened the door.” June was not in the mood to continue this frivolous conversation while her only friend on campus was scared out of his mind in the large building of the sophomore dorms. She was about to turn around and begin the search for George immediately, except a slight breeze from across the hall reminded her of her current clothing situation. June was not the kind of girl to do anything in the halls in only a towel, save walk from her room to the bathroom for a shower.

She had to think fast. She grabbed her peacoat and a pair of sweats and, dropping her towel, quickly clothed herself. Turning from Karen without a word, June went searching for the lost George. The screams of “Where the hell are you going? Don’t expect me to be quiet about this, it’s my dorm too!” followed her out as she shut the door, leaving her whore of a roommate behind it.

She kept her eyes open for the small grey coat of George; worried people would wonder if she called his name, she opted to whisper it. “George, George. Where are you?” She looked up and down the hall, but there was no sign of him.

After hours of searching as subtly as she could, she had done everything she could to find George without acknowledging the existence of the smuggled refugee to the other residents of the dorm. She walked back to her room. Hurricane Karen was long gone, but the citizens of the small coastal town would deal with the damages for years to come. It looked like maybe this time she had collected all her belongings, high stripper boots included. June slammed the door and fell into bed. It was still morning, and June was still clad in little more than a pair of sweats and her jacket; her hair still wet from the morning shower. She pushed her face hard into the pillow to muffle the sound of her sobs from her own ears. She had not lost George, he had to come home. She had class in an hour, and as much as she wanted to, she could not bring herself to miss Chemistry, and the chance of seeing Chris.

June vaguely heard the sound of a knock at the door through her sobbing. It knocked a second time, June was sure it was meant for the neighbors. A third knock. They must have found George! She jumped out of bed and rubbed the tears from her eyes. She swung the door open and said, “Is there something I can help you wi- Emma!”

An untamed mop of curly brown hair and clothes askew were telltale signs that Emma had just gotten off the plane from Virginia. Her school had been released a week early. Emma threw her arms around June and squeezed.

“Jeez June, I love you, but you look like shit.” Emma was definitely the best friend type, and she wasn’t about to go soft on someone she loved like June. She spoke the truth as she withdrew from their hug. June raised her arm to her face in an effort to wipe the redness of pain from her face; all she got was salty tears.

June didn’t need Emma’s pity. She quickly decided she would make up an excuse other than George for her rough exterior. “Sorry I look like this, you caught me in a bad time, I just got the grade on my first quiz in Chemistry. I just can’t seem to wrap my head around carbon chains.” Emma looked at June with the concern of a mother. She could see through her lies, but hadn’t seen her friend in a long time, and would let June talk to her about these problems in her own time. With a hard sniffle, June fought to change the subject. “How are you and what’s-his-face doing?” Emma’s face brightened. “Rick? Yeah, we are doing great! I actually just got off the phone with him before I came up here. I can’t wait ‘till you meet him. He is a really great guy.”

June forced a smile as Emma explained her recent fallings into romance. Her head was so full of everything else. George wasn’t the half of it. As Emma talked of her outing with Rick to a beach in Maryland, June realized that of the regulars of her dreams had been absent from this most recent nightmare, Chris. Why was this boy plaguing so much of her subconscious? Why did a visit from Emma have to be so much work?

Emma described her trip in romance novel level detail, even producing pictures from her phone for evidence of “just how fun it was.” Why wasn’t this June? What had she done differently? She imagined walking up to Chris and just saying hello. He would turn and look in her eyes and smile. They would talk. He would ask her to coffee after class, and the rest would be history. That’s it. She had made up her mind as Emma’s story dissolved into background noise.

She would talk to Chris.

June took her usual seat in the back of class and pulled out her current page of notes from her pink binder. A few rows in front of her, Chris sat on the top of his desk, chatting with a few of his friends. Her head down at her notes, June peered up at him above the tops of her glasses and through her auburn bangs. Although his figure was slightly blurred compared to the image of him she usually saw through her expensive prescription lenses, she could still notice his eyes move from the conversation to the girl in the back of the room, whose nose in her pink binder wasn’t fooling anyone. June tensed her back as their eyes met. For a second she saw the ecstasy of the relationship she had dreamed up. Butterflies filled her stomach until she felt she would burst. Chris looked at her with the deep dark brown eyes that June loved so much. He winked at her, making June nearly drool on the page of notes below, and turned back to the conversation with his friends.

June’s heart began to slow back to normal. She composed herself and began again to arranged her notes before the class started, occasionally stealing quick glances at the god in front of her. She noticed a change in the tone of the conversation that Chris was participating in. She noticed their eyes move to her direction far more than before. One pointed a finger in June’s direction, followed by a nod by Chris. June shivered. She swallowed hard as she realized the conversation had turned to include the quirky girl in the back of the class with the obnoxious glasses. She was out of earshot, but it wasn’t hard for her to fill in the words to fit the expressions and body language of the group. June was sure she was being made fun of.

The rest of class flew by. She could barely hear the professor through the cloudiness of her thoughts. As the professor called for the end of class, June glanced at her notes, she didn’t recognize a word she had just written. Naming hydrocarbons was lost on a girl trying to unravel the hard questions of infatuation briefly seen as love rolling through her mind. June decided that although she had once seen Chris as a wonderful ideal, she had been kidding herself. Wrapped up in the embarrassment of being made fun of by a group of childish boys, her peers, June had seen the real Chris; a mere boy who had no understanding of women and was far from dateable. She didn’t see it as a stretch to call him an asshole.  She recalled the line from Pride and Prejudice: “A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment.” June took this passage to the next step, and in a moment more, a lady can realize the horrible crime she has committed and come to her senses. She gathered her things, threw her backpack over her shoulder, and left the room without a word.

Following close behind, but unseen by June, Chris reached out a hand to confront the cute girl whom he had been noticing all term, but hadn’t found the courage to talk to.  Her glasses and bangs of auburn hair offering a small shield between her and the rest of the world. The hand never found its mark. A slammed door made the separation final, and a disheartened Chris sulked back to his friends.The trudge across the waterlogged quad brought a shower of familiarity to June’s troubled mind. Quite a literal shower, as heavy rain covered her coat and glasses, creating a speckled view of the world. The moist air was reassuring, and although her hands were cold as she grasped the iron handle of the dorm door, it felt right. Kicking the mud from her boots in the entryway, she began the walk up to her room. Under the familiar gaudy sign displaying the names June and Karen sat a small figure. George looked up at June with kittenish eyes and meowed. June could barely contain herself as she grabbed up this little beacon of hope in her life and squeezed him hard enough to produce another meow.