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One Last Round
by Morgan Victoria

Simon already didn’t like to drink. He always complained about the stupor-inducing, sack of potatoes hangover he got for a three day minimum when he drank too much. And he especially didn’t like how I looked at him in the days following. A gaze he said followed him with a stinging earnestness that reminded him of cleaning a cut with an alcohol swab.

But after he sawed through his finger, that was the true beginning of the end. Blue laughed and laughed until it didn’t make sense to be laughing anymore. So much blood on both of them, on the floor, it should have rung alarm bells that it was scary. I knew right then I couldn’t have held more color in my face than a fresh sheet of snow. My hands shook and I couldn’t open my mouth all the way without making a bird-like sound of shock. Blue left the room. When he came back, he swung out and grabbed Simon’s bloody hand before plunging it into a mug of table salt.

“It’s what soldiers do.” He said with a sideways smile. The E.R. nurse disagreed and actually yelled at him when he explained what he did. His smile never faded from his face. Of course, she was a melodramatic bitch and Blue was in the right. Of course. Of course. How silly of any of us to doubt him. He still had the damn hand, didn’t he? Though according to the nurse, Simon didn’t get infected either through an act of God or pure, bumfuck luck. Blue said that considering how hideous Simon’s face was, it wasn’t God helping him out, and then ran away from the kick Simon tried to level at his shins.

Throughout all of it, he kept his composure much better than should have been expected. Admittedly, I haven’t been in a lot of circumstances where someone cuts off an extremity. But Simon just telling us where his wallet and keys were and then googling the nearest hospital felt more capable than someone who cut nearly half their finger in two should have done.

Simon cupped the mug of salt while we sat in the astringent smelling waiting room of the E.R. for a few hours. Blue rotated around in one of the plastic chairs, bending and twisting his legs and hips around until a patient with yellow eyes and a dripping nose snapped at him to keep still. He saluted him and hung upside down until that got boring and then watched a movie loudly on his phone while his face faded from the red of asphyxiation. I held Simon’s mug for him so we could play tic-tac-toe on crumpled-up Dunkin’ Donuts napkins from his glove compartment. We played until my eyes blurred X’s and O’s after every blink like I was seeing the world through a love letter. When we finally got into a room, we all sat through a flurry of nurses and one surly doctor and then got to be alone. 

In the early morning, men’s button up blue of the sky, Simon leaned his forehead against the hospital window. “I want a cig,” he said, his breath fogging the glass.

“Me too,” I agreed. If I were taller than him, I would have ruffled his hair or slung an arm around his shoulders, but I wasn’t so that felt weird. Loaded without meaning to be, but too much nonetheless.

“Is it always gonna hurt this bad?” He asked, and he sounded so much like a child, the part of me that remembered the bone crushing, chest stealing fear of childhood ricocheted between my ribs. His finger looked mummified, encased in a thick swab of gauze and tape the nurse instructed him to change in three days' time.

I tucked my head against his shoulder and slugged his side in a ghost of a punch, fingers curling against his jean jacket stiff with the scent of cigarettes and dirty kitchen. “It won’t if you don’t fuck with it. And don’t listen to anything Blue says.” I could say that because Blue was on a mission to get Almond Joys from the downstairs cache of vending machines in the nurses' station. According to Blue, none of the ones for patients and their guests had any ‘decent’ candy and he wanted to get back at the nurse who yelled at him. He could say that as much as he would like, but I knew he was doing it because Almond Joys are Simon’s favorite. I stayed with Simon and we waited for Blue to come back and tell us what to do like he was Jesus. Or just a skinny, candy-bearing Santa Claus.

“It’s not that bad though, right?” I asked, not looking at him full on because I knew the answer.

Simon would have had a lot more promise if he’d just been born to a different family.

Sometimes, during sweltering summers where we could only go outside at night because the day smeared us into sweaty zombies only complacent in front of an A.C. unit or sneaking into someone’s pool, we got crossed and laid out on Simon’s roof. We only had access to it by shimmying onto his boot-printed bathroom sink and crawling through the window. One of those times, he told me his earliest memory was of his mom trying to kill him.

A ridged slat of roof tile dug into my back when I turned to him.

“My dad likes telling this story too,” he said and laughed. “I don’t remember exactly– my dad always said I had a mouth on me, even at like, seven years old–” He screwed up his face and made a funny little voice to cloak what he was saying. “Simon, you always had such a mouth on you and that got you into such,” he stressed this next word with rolled eyes and a louder, warbled intonation, “trouble with your mom.”

“What did you say to her?” I asked. I looked anywhere but his face, instead at the exposed stretch of skin from the thin tank top he wore. The swirls of his tattoos were so vivid and beautiful that I wanted to stroke the psychedelic spiral of them, press my fingers to the warmth of his black-inked olive skin. He accumulated them through friends of friends who wanted to practice on someone. Some of them were impressive and some were just a mess, but they somehow all pulled together. 

He shrugged. “I don’t remember. I just remember my mom like, her face getting all twisted up and this fuckin’ rage in her eyes, fuck–” Simon paused again to laugh, at what he considered to be absurd and what I considered to be terrifying. “And she like, she tried to come at me, her hands–” He made clawing motions at the night air, at the black sky that held no stars because it was cloudy and light pollution in the city prevented most, if not all of them. “She started to come at me and my dad had to grab her by the middle,” He curled his outstretched arms and mimed pulling something broad in a quick, angry motion, “and pull her away from me while she screamed.”

At the hospital, when Blue came back with a handful of Almond Joys, all of us trundled out of there in our huge coats and scarves. Simon clutched his discharge paperwork and audibly counted out the amount of extra shifts at work he would have to do now to pay this new medical bill. The numbers swirled around and around in my head as we walked out into the biting cold of the parking lot. Blue laughed at him, clinking Simon’s keys around in his hands. The sound reminded me of this TV show Blue and I used to watch at 3 a.m. when we were little and unaccompanied, about an old-timey sheriff who liked to dangle prisoners' freedom in front of them before walking them outside to get shot. We watched a lot of late-night TV together when we were young. The house got too silent with just the two of us in it, so we would sit and watch until the sun rose and we could hear our street wake up again. Our parents weren’t the greatest either. 

“Gonna have to do a lot more mopping, kitchen boy.” 

Simon spat onto the ground. “Gimme my keys you fuckin’ waste of space.” 

“Nah cripple, I’m driving.” 

It must have been March because Simon let Blue drive us into the McDonald's drive-through so we could get those green milkshakes that taste like a sweet root canal. I remember the shine of red on all of us from the rear lights of the car in front. The way the crimson hit Blue’s hand when he placed it on Simon’s thigh. I pretended to not be staring, picking at the empty wrapper of an Almond Joy in my pocket. Simon didn’t do anything, but I could see his smile in the rearview mirror. We were all a little too in love with each other back then.

Saturnine
by Bernardo Villela

Once Saturnine could be seen sitting at the baby grand piano in his family’s living room practicing. On his ninth birthday, he dazzled friends and family with his virtuosity.

He was still not yet ten, but so much had changed since that party. It started with a bad bout of encephalitis. The hearing loss was dramatic and fast. Hardly any time elapsed between his being declared legally deaf and completely deaf by his pediatrician and ENT alike.

                                                                                                  #

Nothing had been normal since then, his world had been flipped on end. His mother had hoped that the holidays, with family newly around, would change that. As she laid a steaming plate of food down—goose, mashed potatoes, and cranberry relish—and he didn’t change his expression, she knew he wasn’t there yet.

His Aunt Ingrid, who looked much like his mother, only a brunette to his mother’s blonde, said:

[“Saturnine is getting so handsome. What did the doctor say last week?”]

Regina, his mother, tried to indicate to Ingrid that they shouldn’t talk about it. Saturnine had read their lips (he started learning that quickly), got up, and got a drink to detach from their conversation.

He passed by his chuckling Uncle Oliver and saw his older cousin, Michael, banging on a plate.

The living room was bedecked with tinsel and holly, the family gathered around in whatever seats they could find.

His mother sat at the piano. He read off the sheet music that she was playing: “Moonlight Sonata.” Her eyes closed and her torso swayed back and forth as she got lost in the song and notes reverberated around the room.

As melancholy set in, he sneaked upstairs unnoticed. He took out a book about the solar system he’d had since kindergarten. When he got in a mood like this, he liked to stare at his planetary namesake.

Taking rosary beads off a nail in his wall, he began to pray.

He still recited his prayers aloud out of force of habit.

Rosary completed, he opened his laptop and closed his browser whose tabs contained research on deafness he’d been doing.

The word processing app was still open to his diary. Writing, he felt his fingers falling on to keys. He was entranced by the words appearing on screen, but there was no catharsis.

Picking up a tennis ball, he threw it against a wall angrily. The pop of a tennis ball being struck was a sound he loved.    


As he stood, he saw the moon now hanging high in the sky.

                                                                                                 
#


His inner monologue was not silent, he still remembered the sound of his voice as he tried to read their lips (there was still much to learn). It was frustrating learning the basics over again.

Often he went to the bathroom just to wash his face. It was not dirty, it was a process in which he removed his sight, but he had control of it. It was not conscious.

What was conscious was that he didn’t want a DEAF CHILD AREA sign to go up, to change schools, didn’t want to be different, didn’t want to be pitied. Ever. When the words they formed with rudimentary signs said nice things, positive things, things to be thankful for, he saw the pity they tried to hide. He saw and understood better than he used to.

[“Hello”] his cousin David said. Saturnine nodded and dried his face. The first-floor powder room must’ve been occupied, why else would his cousin come up here?

Saturnine went down to continue to watch his mother play. He sat on the staircase looking out through the baluster slats. No one took note of him, they were lost in the music.

He went back up to his room. Michael and David were roughhousing. When he opened the door to his room he felt a push against his head by his left ear.

David’s screaming, he thought with a smile.

Looking at them, he saw he was right. That he could’ve guessed whenever. David was a shrieker, but that feeling made him wonder.

A staccato beat.

Michael’s laughing, he thought proceeding to enter his room. Turning anew, he confirmed that and smiled.

Saturnine ran downstairs, making Michael and David take notice.

Entering the living room, he felt small breezes and pumps of pressure coming his way— applause. His mother had finished the song.

Everyone was facing the piano. Saturnine mumbled a garbled “Excuse me,” his voice had begun to slur in his first year of deafness. As family and friends began to turn toward him he began to sign.

—Excuse me. Pardon me.

[“Encore.”] Saturnine saw a few people call out. His mother’s attention drifted from the accolades to him. Her eyes were locked on her son who was walking with a purpose.

[“I can’t think of anything else.”] he saw her say absentmindedly.

Arriving at the piano, Saturnine reaches out to the book of sheet music. He flipped to “Liebestraume No. 3” by Franz Liszt.

—May I?

Regina nodded, smiling, trying to choke back emotion.

His father walked up, nervous. Saturnine looked up at him and said [“Regina, is this a good idea? What if he can’t?”]

Saturnine merely looked at him and signed—

—Please

—OK.

[“This is one of his favorites.”] His mother tells them.

He took the sheet music, then laid his head on the piano as he plinked out the first few notes. He hadn’t touched the piano in months, it used to be his greatest joy. In the depressive state he wallowed in trying to adjust to his new reality, he stopped, thinking, How could I ever again?

Now, a calm inner quiet had come to him during this season that made him not worry, doubt, or pity himself as much. He’d sat upon this bench and played since before many of his friends could recite their ABCs. He was done stopping himself. It was something else he’d learn to do anew.

A few bars down the page, he leaned back and felt more confident, the song, unheard, flowing through him. Much like his inner voice, his memory of this music still lived within him. He could still feel it.

Regina readied her hands in a moment of doubt, thinking he would make a mistake, but he didn’t. Then she reached to turn the page for him, but he got it right on time.

With that, they all knew they were to let him finish. They watched and enjoyed. He had come into his own again. His parents still lamented that as a child in his formative years he had to adjust and redefine himself before most children have to, and would still have to do so again. But in that awestruck moment, they saw again how remarkable their son was and that they’d allowed themselves to forget that.

Saturnine felt great playing, but was a little off timing-wise on some notes as he was rusty. When he was done, his eyes which had closed—as muscle memory had taken over—opened and he saw something he’d not seen in a while: joy in his parents' faces, the admiration of his family for something other than his so-called bravery, and that they saw him at last, just the same as he’d always been now that he’d found a way to show them.

With all the emotion he felt, he didn’t want to overwhelm his parents, even at nine, even after all that had happened, so he knew what he said (signed) next would be crucial.

—Where are the Christmas songbooks?

His mother, after repeating what he asked for those not versed in ASL, laughed, wiped away a tear, and quickly found one. Saturnine opened it to “O Holy Night,” so they could all sing. His statement had been made, and he no longer needed the spotlight.

She is Our Rock
by Audacia Ray

The eldest sibling, a long-haired butch who prided herself on her abilities to tend to the sourdough starter as well as fell trees and chop wood, started to feel a push down on her bones during her third decade. A much heralded butch top, a dear friend of hers, had been diagnosed with lung cancer though she was not a smoker and was an ultramarathon runner. The LHB tended to the top, delicately respecting her toughness while also nursing her through a decline that would be the death of her. “She is our rock,” their friends said about the LHB as they came to visit the top while she rested and wasted away on the platform bed the two friends had built together long ago. The LHB was proud to be a solid presence for these people she cared about, but she had nowhere to lean. Their friends squeezed the LHB’s bicep (strong now, not from wood chopping but from doing transfers for the top) and gushed, worshipfully, “You’re so strong. I could never do the caretaking you’re doing for the top.” At the top’s funeral, their community curled into the LHB’s arms, let themselves be embraced, and noticed but didn’t say that the LHB was shorter. Maybe the better word was compressed? All the layers of sadness other people had piled on through the top’s illness had created striations in her skin, which was getting harder and harder to the touch. Her time caring for the top had changed her. The tears of everyone who had leaned on her had eroded the softer sediments of her body. She was a rock.

The middle sibling welcomed and embraced her sister-mother role. Her fierce femme armor was hard-won, she constructed it out from underneath her family of origin telling her what was natural and right (not her). Her love was a house built of stones that many had carried a long distance to set down at her feet, for her to decide how they fit together and to make a firm foundation, for her to take the weight away and set her children free. Her daughters came to her for guidance, to learn whom to go to for eyelash extensions and silence about their stubbled chins. Her daughters wanted nothing but softness and hated the ways that others projected hardness onto them while desiring it and loathing it all at once. When friends reported her sixteenth daughter missing but the rest of the world appeared to move on just the same, the middle sibling planned a candlelight vigil for sixteen. Her broken body surfaced in the river the day of the vigil, floating home. Sixteen’s loved ones set floating candles down in the current, the flickering lights reflecting and growing small as they bobbed downstream. The middle sibling became curved and smooth over the years, as the demands on her time and energy lapped at her harder edges, as the current of young femmes washed over her and smoothed the hallways of her home. She was a river stone.

The youngest sibling wanted to run hot and free and liquid through the streets, wind through well-worn canyons like an orange snake. They didn’t want to be contained, held, or cooled down. They were molten and angry, had heard the stories of their siblings, and resented the ways that this expectation and demand for care had weighed them down, reshaped them, turned them to stone instead of allowing full, free expression, the lightness of feather boas and wild birds. But the pull of caretaking was strong. They, somehow, had the internal resources to show up for their chosen family. People leaned on them. They became a baker, kept the insides of the brownies they made soft, and added plant medicines to the batter. They delivered small packages of special brownies to community members who were homebound by their bodies and the anxieties that made the outside world too much. They were a town herald among their people, one who traveled among many households and spread joys, griefs, little gifts, and mutual aid among their people. But as they moved, their softness wore off. The movement made them round and agile, but it also made them cool and hard. They were a rock.

She Was Steady
by Leslie Cairns
*CW: eating disorders

                 When it occurred, the love spiral went wrong, it should have been nighttime. A blood moon, 
or a sliver of a fang, hung down low. Love spilling out the brim, or the sides of gravity.

                  We all conjure the moon when we feel lonely. We all do, yet we believe the moon appeals 
only to us.

                 But when Hazel asks me to conjure spirits, it's midday, in the humid upstate NY summer, 
where it feels like time will go on endlessly. We have that feeling we can’t unravel, that we might
turn sixty just sitting here, not knowing where the time has gone. Lazy, yet frantic.

                I didn’t know then that I would turn into a walking corpse. Like the shark teeth necklaces
people wear, jangling around and you can almost forget it was taken from a real animal. That it was
once a fang. Taken from something that was once breathing, alive, and wanting.

              Her hair and skin were tawny, rich, and kind. Her eyes—I didn’t realize it then, as a restless 
teen—were always deep and murky, like the hollows of the ocean bottom. I should have traced them
then, every contour, every inch. But in a way, our love without romance was even richer: safe, no
arguments, a dividend of finding lavender outside after a rain. I always knew she’d run towards the
barn when she let her beagle—Maggie—out too late. I always ran towards the flowers, and she’d
come circling back. Maggie never hid in either place or was somewhere in the murky middle. We’d
find her by shouting her name, then whispering until we heard a crackling of grass. Wet and slick,
her tail brushing mud from the rain. But we went the way we felt safe. And we dovetailed back, like
ghosts, to find her again.

                I was fourteen and I hung out with Hazel most, but I also toyed with being a popular girl.
My other friend, Dani, had been a friend since we were too young to starve for attention or labels.
But now, in middle school, Dani had figured out how to get her mom to pay for highlights, the good
salad bar every day, and a trial spot on the cheerleading team. She still fell when she tried to do a
backbend, but she was getting closer.

                 Dani was testing me every day. Have I kissed a boy, how come my eyebrows are thicker than hers, why do I still like Doritos...

                 Dani’s still indulging me with sleepovers, where after a while we would giggle like we were
still in childhood. She’d grab her hands and freeze the frame so she could drool over Legolas when
the movie was paused. You don’t know yet: you are divine. You can get through anything.

               But I didn’t know it then. I was quicksand, awkward laughs at cafeteria tables, superman
lunch boxes, and barrettes. It’s like everything good about us is a weakness.

                Hazel never wavered though. She was steady. She played video games, wore bathrobes while
drying her hair, and painted her nails an eel green even before it was popular. She loved chicken on
kabobs, smiling at me whenever I said anything, even and especially if it was stupid.

                So naive. The last time at Dani’s, she had fluffed her coiffed hair and said I could borrow
her Ouija board, claiming it was weird (after we had used it for hours, making our hands move
around the board, claiming it was the other).

               I brought it to Hazel’s at 2 p.m., even after we had exhausted the sleeping in, games, and foot
twirling on Maggie’s fur...plus swimming with her family friends.

               She asked if that was the board that conjured tragic things, and I nodded sagely. Smugly,
even. I knew the board was ridiculous. But we were on Atomic Project Road—aptly named—near a
power plant. We should’ve known we were so close the spirits could almost hear our heartbeats.
And so, in that way, they were tempted.

                It may be a cliche that my first crush was unknown to me at the time it was unraveling, and
that we conjured ghosts from a Ouija board. Better yet, no one is going to believe it. But I do. I did,
even on that day. It was sweltering but I’ll never forget that we both shivered.

                First, we placed our fingers on the board. We asked it basic questions, and to our surprise, it
moved. I played piano, and the movements reminded me of arpeggios: slow, and then with a boring
spirit.

                  Hazel—in a moment of wisdom—asked how he died and what to call him. Our hands paused there,
waiting to be touched.

                 “How do you know it’s a guy?” I asked.

                  She flicked her eyes towards me and covered her hand so only I could read her lips, although I
suppose ghosts hover all around the airways.

                  “Because I’m scared,” she said. Placed her hands gingerly back on the board. I didn’t think
to ask what she meant. I knew her father towered over her, a military man. Asked questions I didn’t
know the answers to. Didn’t smile and peed with the door open most of the time. Maybe that’s what
she meant. But I wasn’t yet old or brave.

                  Suddenly, I wanted to protect. Fling my arms around her like the lifeguards do in all the
movies. Shove the board all the way back to Dani’s, on the rich side of town. Have Dani, with her
flamingo-colored fingernails, deal with it. Stop dreaming of coffins, or that this spirit called himself
Mintay when Hazel looked at me.

                 “Let’s try it with just one finger. Then we’ll know it’s real.”

                  I nodded. “It is moving really fast,” I added.

                  She nodded. Her glasses were perfectly poised on her nose, square. Her bangs a crescendo
towards her forehead, tufts and whisps slightly sloped.

                  Frenzied, that tiny piece of plastic or cardboard began to move as fast as skipping rocks in
water. One & two & three. Dancing with a longtime lover, in a waltz, not wanting to go home.

                  Spelling the words
                  ​You    will     be     sick

                  Hazel had asthma, so she muttered something about getting a new inhaler. Whiplashing,
flinging its partner, towards the ‘no’ on the board.

                   “How were you killed?” I asked. I felt defiant, jutting out my chin.

                     No,     not     H.     You.     Leslie. It spelled, then said:

                     I am... you are... Sick.

                                                                                Listen

                  “I’ve never been sick,” I said. Hazel nodded in affirmation. “Not even mono or
chickenpox.”

                                                          Not hungry. Not hungry. Not hungry.

                “It’s not you?” Hazel said. I realized she was ripping apart her eyelashes, one at a time. I was
the one with the faux friends and the line almost near the cheerleaders, after all. She was usually
steady, unlike me.

                    “I swear. I swear on Maggie,” I said.

                     “Please, please, tell us how you died. We need to know. It’s only fair,” said Hazel. Palms
sweaty.

                                                               Leslie sick. Do not—be careful.

                   Then, it dashed towards the moon, as I asked it one more time, “How could I be sick? I’ve
never even gotten strep or broken a bone!”

                  We barely had a finger on the game piece as it cannoned towards the moon, at the corner.
We didn’t think it mattered. When it was gone, though, we hugged suddenly. Parting. She then made
Taquitos, and there were only three left. They looked like ribs.

                 We went swimming that day, but I found my eyes kept lingering on her when she went
underwater, even though I knew she knew how to swim.

                  I kept the Ouija in my closet after that day. Hazel came over all the time, but I pretended it
wasn’t there anymore. Mintay was his name, and I started to trace my fingers over my ribcage, near
my belly button. I never got brave enough to throw it away until much later. When I was in
recovery.

                   Six months later, in a snowball trajectory that made little sense to me, I shivered myself into
the hospital, vertebrae by vertebrae.

                                                                                        Anorexia nervosa.

                    In hindsight, I believe it started on the day we conjured ghosts, where I took Hazel’s
enormity for granted. Not really seeing those lazy Sundays with junk food and swimming, as we
waited for summer to turn into something colder and more sinister. I know it’s not rational – unreal
– but I believe all the same. Haven’t you ever believed in irrationality, as it’s changing your mind? A
flicker of a day, or a missed kiss, changing everything?


                   Hazel was the first to visit. Her arms broiled over with origami birds that we scattered near
my hospital socks, rolled twice downwards because they kept falling off. We laughed but it was
brittle.

                  She looked at me then the way she had with our hands—full flight—on the board: that maybe we
should stop. We should listen to the moon, to him bidding us

                                                                                           An early goodnight.

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