Each semester we are given a selection of both prose and poetry to sift through. These written works cover a wide range of topics, tones, and writing styles. Below are the submissions that were carefully reviewed and chosen by the committee for this year's publication. 

While these are only the selected submissions for Fall 2016, our Spring 2017 selections will also be showcased below once reviewed and selected. These together will form our 2016-2017 Canvas publication. 


Complacency Lost

By: Reese Valle

Why are we all ways
searching for something beyond
the rose in the cement?


Gathered in Backyards and Parking Lots

By: Sarah Panfil

In the moments spent outstretched flat on earth,
or with backs pressed against grimy car hoods,

in the moments fresh green dew stains our backs,
or pigeon guano sticks to our shirts,

in the moments when language lingers between tongue
and lips, between forged speech and breath mist,

in the moments when our eyes roll toward stacks of stars
and pointer fingers outline the Big Dipper like freckles on arms;

in these moments, perhaps, we are all religious. Perhaps
in these nights immobile and infinite, we awe God into existence.


Darn Good on a Good Day

By: Sarah Panfil

There is so much something in this small space. Something
about the patrons slurping spice butternut squash,

kids sticking out borscht-purple stained tongues, hippies
dipping whole grain bread into spinach lentil. Something

about the woman rolling straw paper wrappers into spiders legs,
sprinkling water droplets to dance them into life. Something

about her partner’s laugh. I order soup to-go at the counter,

the man spoons cream of mushroom from tin barrel to Styrofoam,

steam rises from the ladle. He tells me he has been sober two years
today, wipes his hands on his apron and gives me a smile, and asks

how goes my day. And isn’t that something, too?

I mean, really, something.


Cradle Robber

By: Sarah Panfil

Have you seen the man wanted for theft?

He twisted the nipples of budding breasts
like ripping ripening fruit from branches.

He stroked peach fuzz patches on inner thighs,
like tearing up young roots of seeds freshly planted.

He cooed How Long Will Your Lovely Youth Last?
like singing to songbird while dismantling nest.

Have you seen the man wanted for theft?

Like discarding bitten apples to rot in the grass,
he took us, tasted us, and left.


Parking Lot by the Student Union

By: Steven Johnson

that the rivets in the handicap ramp were flown in from Liaoning fourteen years ago; that the parking meter digests a quarter once dropped from a young girl’s pocket in a Six Flags two states away, from pants her mother had disapproved of; that the hundred headphones dangling bring music from 1998 Mexico and 2008 Canada and 1974 Tennessee and poems; that the ants and worms under that patch’s largest sycamore are stitching back the earth a child destroyed two days ago; that a girl looks at all those walking from a high window and weeps for her family’s religion; that the landscaper’s glove is tight on his third wedding band; that molecules in this lamppost shrugged and blew the bulb, and its brokenness will not be noticed for four nights; that these six boys and women read texts and two of them are about love; that love had bent these grasses until the next morning dew bent them more; that this newcomer walks by and wonders if he can buy a gun; that the crotch of this bike was left out and oxidizing—its owner had rushed out of town for cancer; that last winter’s salt had gouged the hole heading for this skateboarder’s wheel; that this bird meets its reflection with a concussion that will kill it on the weekend; that we are all in the same milk and a breath dropped by the dumpling maker weeping in Kyoto is swallowed by this young alcoholic; that there is no true name for his stellating feelings; that all of this is coarse gravel, brilliant gravel, and how could anyone think to give it a Name, how could anyone think to name it?


Moraine

By: Steven Johnson

We hope the earth has a mind under it
some thinking thing to palm down gulches
like smoothing cheeks. Scratch little waterfalls.
Something that wipes its brow, pops zits.

I hope my feelings are more like moraine
scraped slowly, too fragmented to account for—

if change must come, let it be slow

So that ardor stays ardor and not zeal,
sorrow blankets to the horizon and not be pity,
fear be blessed and not unleashed.

The glacier always returns what it eats.

I hope the worst that can be said about us
is we loved things to death.

I hope things stay bigger than us.


Lingua Franca

By: Jenny Huang

On the night in mid-December that my Waigong died, an overzealous Chinese man tapped my shoulder in the checkout line of Kroger and asked if I could speak his native language. Ni hui shuo zhong wen ma? My shopping basket cradled eggs and apples and Greek yogurt and sweet potato chips, that disarray of trendy and convenient that plagues the college diet. I was sheathed in a high-school track sweatshirt and black leggings, openly texting my family’s group chat using the English keyboard. Almost anyone could’ve taken a single look at me and pinned me as an American-born Chinese, and yet this bleary-eyed stranger reached out, hopeful.

I slipped my phone in my sweatshirt pouch, dug deep, and drew out my tentative Chinese. “I speak it, though not very well.” His lank shoulders relaxed. “You’re the first Chinese person that I’ve met in Indiana. It must be strange to live here,” he remarked. I eyed the package of frozen pork dumplings that he was preparing to buy, one of the less contrived Asian food items that my Kroger carried, and realized how adrift he must have felt in my scrappy Hoosier town. And so despite my unease, I smiled diplomatically. “I was born here, so I’ve always felt pretty comfortable.”


He told me a little about his own background: he’d just moved from southern China to Chicago’s insulated Chinatown, and now he was visiting Indiana for a job interview as an industrial chemist. His words tumbled out in a froth, and the woman in front of us, thumbing through the rack of tabloids while clutching a package of bulk chicken breast, shot us a wary glance. “Have you been to the mainland? Do you still have family there?” he probed, not noticing her. Stomach wringing, I mentioned trips that I’d taken to see relatives and said nothing of my grandfather’s passing. His head bobbed to the cadence of the conversation, too enraptured by the sound of a familiar language to notice my elusiveness -- or perhaps writing it off as a consequence of an underdeveloped vocabulary.
 
My mom had mentioned Waigong’s illness to me a few weeks prior to that night, during my brief Thanksgiving homecoming. Doctors had discovered Stage 3 lung cancer growing inside her father, she measuredly explained over an evening mug of tea; when they anesthetized him to conduct a biopsy, the stress that his body endured triggered a stroke. Now Waigong was hospitalized and bedridden, half-man and half-machine. Since hospice care didn’t exist, my maternal side of the family, most of whom lived locally, scheduled shifts to take care of him around the clock. They fed him, bathed him, and changed him, as he had once done for many of them. “You know, if I’m ever on tubes, I just want to go,” Mom mused.


Siyun, one of my eight maternal cousins, works as a young nurse at the hospital in which our grandfather rested. Sensuous and strong-willed, she would whip me away from the bustle of family reunion, taking me instead to shop or indulge in street sweets. And yet when I recall Siyun, her strength and elegance are coupled with an unshakable memory of dishevelment. On a visit many years back, when I was 11 years old and Siyun was 17, the extended family gathered at a restaurant to celebrate my mother’s return home. An uncle, liquor-drunk and mouthy, divulged to Siyun a buried secret: that her mother was actually her biological aunt; our youngest maternal “aunt” was Siyun’s real mother. With one daughter already a toddler and under pressure to eventually give birth to a son, this aunt had asked her sister to take in the newborn. Disoriented by this revelation, my cousin fled the restaurant and vanished into the city.

So in a sense, Siyun belongs to my mother’s family as a whole, freed from any one branch of the tree; maybe this was why she showed especial tenderness towards the family’s patriarch, my austere grandfather, as he lay in languor at her hospital. She would sneak into his room between her work duties to adjust his pillow, offer him water, hold his hand. Out of all the children and grandchildren that watched over him, she was the only person who could convince my Waigong to touch his rice porridge in spite of his nausea, who could shake him out of his irritability. And after he passed, she refused to forgive the relative who fell asleep during his shift, failing to awake as Waigong’s machines began to beep, permitting our grandfather to die unattended.

In the days that followed Waigong’s death, Mom’s five siblings bore a heavy guilt for permitting his biopsy in the first place. And I recall a separate guilt that Mom once admitted to feeling about her parents’ first and only trip to the United States. They came over to care for me when I was a newborn, and over the course of those months, amidst the ennui and restlessness and novelty of the move, Waigong grew fond of plump burgers and grubby fries. His weight ballooned and his health deteriorated; upon returning to China he aged quickly, never quite bouncing back to his pre-America vigor.

That partial year during which my maternal grandparents were in South Bend, long before I could form and guard memories, was the lengthiest and most intimate period of our lives that we ever shared. Afterwards, when I visited China at the age of 6, 11, 15, and 18, I spent more time with and grew closer to my paternal grandparents than my maternal grandparents. “They call their Yeye and Nainai by their American names,” Waigong had written bitterly of my sister and me in his notebook, a comment that my mother discovered posthumously.


And it was true. Some of the distance was geographical and generational. Some of it was, of course, cultural. But much of it was linguistic. Unlike my paternal grandparents, with whom I used Mandarin, my maternal grandparents spoke in a provincial dialect that I couldn’t easily interpret. And so during my infrequent visits to their home, I would sit on the sofa silently, clutching my English language and my American presence tightly to myself as I cross-stitched and read novels. Waigong would lumber around his modest apartment, drinking low-grade liquor by noon and smoking a pack of cigarettes that one of his daughters had dutifully purchased by nightfall, tending to the orchids that grew in his balcony garden. His beloved dog Black Bear scrambled back and forth between us, our eager mediator. I’d let him jump up next to me, nuzzle my thigh, and nibble at my fingers before he ran back to Waigong, his tongue lolling in indiscriminate bliss.

I imagine that Waigong and Waipo encountered a certain recognition of sacrifice when they saw my mom leave for university, an understanding that she was exiting their world. She was the class valedictorian, the prim announcer of her school’s daily news, the sole student to attend a prestigious university from that small hometown. And she was only 17-years old when she relocated to Shanghai, a journey that took four days by ship down the Yangtze River. “What was it like to move so far, so young?” I asked her once during a winter power outage, as we sat in the gaunt shadows of candlelight, stripped of the wifi that usually divided us. “I never thought about it too much,” she admitted. “I was protected by the university.”


Traveling four days by ship, returning home only once or twice a year, and then eventually migrating across the ocean -- a permanent farewell. During the fleeting visits back to her hometown, years after her initial departure, I’d watch my mother and her mother talk so tentatively and tenderly -- as though this precious pearl of a daughter were a resurrection of someone that Waipo had presumed to be already gone.

On a Thursday in December, four days before she left to see her ailing father, my mother informed me of her last-minute trip. I realized, then, the gravity of the moment -- usually, our China trips were planned half a year in advance. Mom bought Siyun a necklace, a tacit expression of gratitude and self-reproach. On the following Monday, necklace in tow, she flew from Chicago to Shanghai, stayed briefly with my dad’s parents, and took an overnight train to her hometown. The train arrived around 10 a.m. Tuesday. Her dad had passed away earlier in the morning; she missed him by just a couple of hours. Compared to those old four-day journeys, the speed of Mom’s travel across countries was inconceivable -- a 16-hour flight and a 10-hour train ride to reach Waigong’s bedside. Yet she couldn’t move swiftly enough.

I received the news of my Waigong’s death while grocery-shopping in Kroger. My dad told my sister and me through our family’s group chat, and then he reported to us the essential facts of Waigong’s existence -- his name: Jiang Fengshi. His age: 82. His birthday: September 8, 1933. “He was so kind, so gentle, and so full of love,” he eulogized. But Dad’s fullest grief wasn’t unleashed until Mom texted us two quiet sentences: “His body was still warm when I arrived. I held one of his hands the whole time until he was moved from the hospital to the memorial place.” In a message meant for only my mother, though delivered to all of us, he responded in Chinese, “Wo de yan lei ye xia lai le. Ta yin gai shi an xin di zhou le.”

Now my tears are falling. Surely he left us peacefully. As though English could not contain the expanse of his grief; as though his tongue refused to yield to the wrong language. Standing in the checkout line, all I knew to write back was a slew of generic sentences: “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Before I could think of more, an overzealous Chinese man tapped my shoulder and sought a conversation. He clutched a package of dumplings and a palpable loneliness. Mourning my grandfather in empty English, I turned and spoke to this stranger in tenuous Chinese.


Granny Mac

By: Emily Teague Sinnet

I felt like Jackie O
on your funeral day.

Not because your end was violent.
I heard it was nice.

Was it asking to be held?
Or sitting in a dusty sunlight?

I felt glamorous, important;
we blocked a two lane highway
and strung headlights for miles,
while the rain flooded rivers
and the spring planting was delayed. 


Hearth and Gouache and Their Mighty Ham

By: Mitch Raney

H:  These knickers are just my size, lover.
G:  But they’re a bit mussed!
H:  Nonetheless!
G:  Your kindness goes a long way with me.
H:  How far, precisely?
G:  Oh, precisely, I cannot say, but concisely, I’d say, a fairly far ways.
H:  That’s concise enough and sufficiently precise.  Danke vielmals!
G:  Again, your kindness!
H:  Let’s leave this Theme.  We’ve a ham to consider.
G:  Ah, that mighty hock-a-hog!  It thaws, or?
H:  Or what?
G:  It thaws or it thaws not?
H:  Oh, certainly it thaws.
G:  What means a thing to “dethaw”?
H:  By law, when a thing “thaws” or “dethaws,” it makes the same action.  It’s called the Law of Moving in the Same Direction.

G:  This is sinnlos!  This is without sense!
H:  It is without sense, it is without sin.  It is Law.  Please let it be, Gouache, your Teutonic jowl is a-flush!
G:  Yes, yes, I shall “let be be finale of seem”/The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream”.
H:  By Stevens, that’s the spirit!
G:  So, considering this ham, which, according to Law, simultaneously thaws and dethaws…
H:  Go on!
G:  I will start my consideration with “Well...”
H:  Bravo!
G:  Well, I allow it’s a mighty ham…
H:  Mightier than most!
G:  And mighty hams wear mighty pajamas…
H:  Hearty nighties and the like!
G:  Well-played, Hearth!  So, what have we in this regard?
H:  Regarding this, we have Secrest’s ragged childhood zip-up!
G:  That rotten-footed dragon jumper, you mean?
H:  I mean it!
G:  But it’s of cotton, or?  And rotten?
H:  Of cotton and of rotten, yes!
G:  Well, it should breathe good, or even better than good.  This is a mighty ham!  How good does it breathe?
H:  It breathes decently, as told to me by Secrest hisself!
G:  And Secrest speaks in truths?

H:  Almost always, I believe!
G:  Settled!  Let us fetch this gross garment and proceed to our mighty ham!
H:  Ho!  Forward!
G:  But are we marching now?  Ah, we’re marching!  I feel it!
H:  Where?
G:  In my mighty hams!


Voicemails

By: Miranda Garbaciak

“This is Ron, I can’t make it to the phone. Please leave a message after the beep.” Beep.

“Uh, Hey, Ron..? I saw you called. Emilia didn’t tell me, but I saw it on the caller ID. What did you want to talk about? Give me a call back, soon, I’d love to talk.” Beep. 

Of course it would be his dog to betray him. George should have known the moment the leash lurched forward--causing him to almost trip over a bump in the sidewalk--this dog-walking adventure would end badly.  

Six years. He had been avoiding this moment for six long, beautiful, (mostly) silent years.  

Once he caught his balance, George looked for the cause of his dog’s over excitement. Dottie was currently getting scratched behind her ears, wagging her tail. His eyes followed the movement, trailing up the person squatted before him. The other man glanced up to make sure petting the dog was okay, a wide grin stretched across his features until he recognized who stood before them.  

“Oh.” Brad blurted out, unable to keep quiet in any situation, as always. His hands remained frozen behind Dottie’s ears, eyes somewhat widened. “Wow. I mean, I knew we both lived in L.A., but I never thought we would run into each other.”  

George smiled thinly, wrapping the leash handle around his fist tightly. “I guess we were both wrong.” He wanted to pull Dottie away and turn around so he could just go home, but who was he to deny her affection?  

“This is Ron—“ “And Zooey!” “We can’t make it to the phone.” Giggle. “We’ll give you a call back if you leave a message after the beep.” Beep.

“Um. I see I missed you again. Oh, this is Brad. I don’t know if you have caller ID, so I guess I should say who it is. I heard you moved out to L.A. recently, and I was wondering if you wanted to meet up for some—“ Beep. 

Brad dropped his hands to his sides and stood upright. His eyes must have found the bump in the sidewalk interesting because he studied it instead of looking at George. That was fine, it gave George an opportunity to look at Brad for the first time since he flew home early from their vacation in Cape Town. Six years. Brad’s hairline was receding, but that wasn’t anything new. It was an inside joke between them that Brad would be bald by the time he was thirty. His eyes were still a warm whiskey, not yet chilled by the world George had seen. And George didn’t need to look to see the callouses on hands that he knew still tenderly played ballads or fun ditties in a bar on a Thursday night.  

“So, I heard you’re going by George now.”  

Dottie had wondered off to sniff at some flowers growing out of the crack in the sidewalk. Her unintentional tugging of the leash caused George to loosen his grip. When his eyes returned to Brad’s face, Brad was returning the favor. “Yeah, my dad finally kicked the bucket.” The lack of expression change told George that Brad must have heard from someone, maybe their old, mutual friend Stanley. “Thought I would honor the old man by going by my real name for a while. Might as well. I’m the last George now.”  

Brad swallowed loud enough to be heard over the passing cars on the street. “Yeah…sorry about that. I know you two weren’t the closest and all…but yeah.” He shrugged awkwardly, averting his eyes once again.  

“This is Ron. Sorry I missed your call. Leave a message and a number, and I’ll try to call back.” Beep. 

“Hey, it’s Brad…again. I ran into Zooey the other day, she said she’d heard a lot about me. Hope you didn’t say anything bad! Give me a call back. I’d love to catch up soon.” Beep.  

More silence. Six years of silence hung between them, weighing more than the matching leather jackets that both men wore. They always did go through phases of fashion together. Brad’s stance was about as uncomfortable as George felt, neither of them knowing what to say, wondering if they were to push buttons or make small talk.  

“How’s your wife?” George bit out, a sharp smile on his face. The look of surprise on Brad’s face confirmed his theory: no one thought George knew about the wedding he wasn’t invited to.  “She’s very pretty,” he continued, the malice fading slightly. “Everyone’s wondering when you’ll finally give your parents the grandchildren they wanted.”  

Brad carded his fingers through his hair, sighing deeply and doing his best to avoid George’s gaze. “Emilia doesn’t want children,” he answered the unspoken question. “She…failed to mention that before the wedding.”  

George hummed in acknowledgement, watching as Brad became more and more fidgety. He felt some sick sort of satisfaction knowing she too couldn’t fulfill the expectations of the Roscoes. It was time to go, though. There was no reason to continue this charade of pretending he cared about Brad’s life or his lack of children. He tugged on Dottie’s leash gently two times, signaling that he was ready to leave. Not feeling the need to say goodbye, he had already been on his way home for about a block before a hand stopped him by grabbing his arm.  

He could have just pulled his arm and kept walking. Or he could have merely looked at him, knowing his smoldering gaze spoke loud enough for the both of them. But Brad looked so innocent and genuine and—and almost as young as he did when they first met eleven years ago. So he didn’t leave. He stood still, jaw clenched as he waited for Brad to get on with what was so important that he had to chase after George.  

“Why didn’t you call me when your dad died?”  

“This is George. I know I probably missed your call considering I’m out of the country. I’ll try to get back to you when I return. Leave a message after the beep. Beep.”  

“George, huh. That’s new. Well, this is Brad. Sarah said you called a few weeks ago, but told me yesterday. Anyways, call me back, please.” Beep.  

Brad must have seen the sudden way George’s face closed up, the familiar eyebrow furrowing and narrowing of eyes, because he tightened his grip on his arm and stepped closer. “No, really. Why didn’t you call? I know it wasn’t too long after…you know.” Brad trailed off, looking off to the side as if that could imply the way their relationship went by the wayside.  

“I did call,” George responded through his teeth. “Emilia answered and said you were sleeping, so I didn’t call again.” He moved to rip his arm away, but Brad was always the stronger between the two of them, and the most persistent. “What? I got the message. You had her answer so I would stop calling.”  

Ignoring that, Brad kept talking. “You know, I tried calling you after that. And recently. You must have changed your number. But you know, of course it’s still your number. Cause I still call you, but I get your machine.” He was babbling now, speaking too fast to be anything but nervous. His fingers dug into George’s arm unintentionally, the leather groaning in remembrance of similar embraces.  

“This is George. Sorry I missed your call, but if you’re important enough, you should have my cell by now. Leave a message anyways.” Beep. 

“Hey, Ro—George. Just curious if you got an invite to Stanley’s wedding and if I should be expecting to see you there. Hope I do. Hope you’re doin’ alright.” Beep. 

“We’re getting a divorce.” Brad said, one last desperate attempt at keeping George in place.  

George raised both eyebrows before laughing, catching Brad off guard. He shook his head then took advantage of surprising Brad to finally pull away. Harshly brushing his sleeve off where Brad had touched him, “Why is it necessary to tell me that, Brad?” He hissed out the other man’s name, clenching his fists. 

Brad’s eyes widened, taking a startled step back and crossed his arms across his chest defensively. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with you, or why you’re acting this way. This isn’t you.”  

“You don’t get to decide what is me and what isn’t me. You haven’t seen me for six years, so how do you expect me to act the same?” George couldn’t help but laugh again, mirroring Brad’s actions but in a defiant motion rather than defensive. “People change. They especially change after they’re told they’re not good enough for another person or their parents, so excuse me if I went through a personality change.” He dug his fingers into his jacket, looking away as his jaw clenched and unclenched. After a few moments, George felt he could look at Brad again. “Do you know how many times I’ve wanted to call after I hear your voicemails? I don’t want to face the embarrassment of Emilia answering the phone again. I want you to feel how I’ve felt since the end, but I don’t want to get you in trouble with her.” At that, his shoulders slumped and his eyes fell to the ground again. 

No words came out of Brad’s mouth as he just stared, mouth open and eyes searching George’s face for any…explanation at all.  

George tugged gently on Dottie’s leash to let her know he was ready to go. “I’d like to say it was nice seeing you, Brad, but I don’t really think it was.”  

The answering machine was still blinking when George walked through the door of his apartment. Six messages, one from each year. The most recent one had gone unlistened. He unhooked the leash from Dottie’s collar then swiped the answering machine into the trash can, causing it to land on the play button.  

“Hey George. Emilia kicked me out. I…don’t necessarily want to talk about the details over the phone. Give me a call please. I miss you.” Beep.


Sulking in the Stacks

By: Miranda Garbaciak

Iris hated her job.

She hated coming home smelling musty. She hated having fingers littered with paper cuts and band-aids. She hated that she needed glasses from straining her eyes for hours on end. She hated how many times a day she shushed patrons. She hated when little kids returned books covered in slime, food and who-knows-what else. Iris could not remember what moved her to apply for this godforsaken position.

What she hated more than her job though…This other hate stemmed from watching her coworker—Tessa (the name asked to be hissed out between teeth). Tessa was the most dutiful librarian. The most dedicated librarian. The most annoying librarian.  

Tessa took everything too seriously. She pressed each due-date stamp perfectly aligned with the others. (Some days when Iris ran check out, she would stamp incorrectly to watch Tessa throw a fit.) Every book stood straighter than Iris could ever pretend to be. Tessa paid one hundred and twelve percent attention to each and every patron—even the rude ones! She never argued with an old woman about how her books were indeed four weeks overdue. Iris scowled whenever she could see her reflection crystal clear in the computer screen—a sign that Tessa was the last to clean the computer.

Her hatred for her job broke all expectations this morning, however. With each metallic crunch of a staple being ejected, Iris clenched her jaw harder. If her teeth shattered that instant she would not be upset in the very least. She dared to look over her shoulder at the perpetrator and of course, of course, Tessa was stapling away, making a new display for the summer reading program. She somehow managed to staple to a beat, which was even worse in Iris’ opinion. 

A small cretin approached Iris’ desk so she plastered her best smile on. “Hey, little one. How can I help you?” Her voice rang out saccharine sweet, nothing a kid could look past.

Thankfully, the creature only handed over a book that looked relatively clean. Iris sighed in relief, pushing her glasses back up her nose and reveling in the newfound silence without the clack clack of a stapler pounding through her ears.

After a few moments of silence passed, Iris glanced up from her computer tentatively. The silence never lasted more than a minute at a time when Tessa worked. She was not in the children’s section any longer, it appeared. 

Iris chewed the inside of her cheek as she pondered what to do in this extended peace. There was nothing for her to do. Well, she could actually do her work, but she preferred to be annoyed by Tessa. The children finally cleared out to return to their school, completely silencing the room. 

The silence breathed down her neck like an invisible observer.

Shouldn’t Iris be pleased with the silence? Shouldn’t she enjoy this time without the bane of her librarian existence? She should, yet she couldn’t. 

Oh.

Sweat trickled down the side of her face as she remembered how she got to this position in the first place. A stark image of a woman with long, curly, brown hair and a mousy smile came to the forefront of her memory. Iris groaned and sank down in her chair, hands coming to cover her rapidly warming face. The door swung open several moments later, causing Iris to split her fingers so she could spy through them. 

Tessa shut the door behind her, casting a smile over at Iris’ still partially covered face. “Sorry for leaving you alone with the kids. I had to get more staples. I hope they weren’t too much to handle!” She sat the stapler down and swept her long, curly, brown hair into a pony tail to keep it out of her face as she continued the obnoxious stapling. 

Ah, there it was. The feeling Iris apparently enjoyed. Annoyance. She grumbled about it not being a problem, earning another mousy smile from the harpy--but, noticing that Iris didn’t retort in her usual fashion, Tessa sat the stapler down and crossed to Iris’ side of the room. “You don’t want to argue today?” She cocked her head to the side, eyebrows quirked like sideways question marks. 

Iris grit her teeth and pointedly looked away, “Nope.” She popped the p sound, to show her annoyance without actively voicing it. Of course, this didn’t work because she could hear Tessa take an obnoxious breath, readying herself for more questions. “I don’t want to argue, so before I change my mind, please stop speaking. Better yet, hold your breath for a few minutes.” Iris blurted out before Tessa could get another word in. 

A huff brought Iris’ eyes to the other librarian. For the first time since she met her, Tessa had a miffed look on her face. Was the world ending? Iris blinked a few times in disbelief before a smile cracked the tension. “Are you seriously mad at me?” Tessa pursed her lips and crossed her arms, the telltale signs of ‘yes, I am mad at you.’ 

Well, this was a new look, and one that Iris didn’t completely feel repulsed by, one that sparked her interest, in fact. However, the brief moment of anger dissolved to one of disappointment and…dare she think, sadness? 

“I believe you frustrate me more than I frustrate you,” Tessa mumbled. Unlike Iris, though, she continued to look at Iris rather than look away. “I know I can be annoying, but I feel like I’m more than nice to you.” She paused, biting her lip. “Is that what’s annoying?” 

No, what was annoying was the way her eyes sparkled with unshed tears (and it was absolutely disgusting that Iris even thought of that phrase). What was annoying was how Iris felt guilty for upsetting Tessa. But it was an impossible thought, even telling Tessa these things that ran through her head. Iris cursed under her breath as her heartbeat quickened and fluttered. How gross it was to be infatuated with a librarian.


The Life of Nettie (excerpt)

By: Tessa Jones

“Tess, your questionnaire tells me you are suffering from depressive symptoms. When we last spoke on the phone, you were frantic.” She paused. “You mentioned a friend—”

“—Nettie.”

“Yes,” Doctor Menno blinked concerned. “Why don’t you try telling me about yourself? And we will get to your personal relationships.”

I nodded trying to think about where to being but there was no way of beginning. Therefore, I confessed my deepest flaw. “My life is nothing without Nettie. 

Every thought is so deep there’s no rest for your mind only a dive.

I met Nettie at age five. School playground. I was playing by myself and she came over.

The other girls squealed and pretended to be whimsical princess as I waited off on the slide wishing for an invite. I didn’t at first noticed her approached but I noticed the way she viewed the other girls. It wasn’t a lonesome perspective like mine, it was demeaning. She didn’t need those girls. She believed those girls needed her. There, my invitation was born--at random with a type of strength I couldn’t ignore.

“Do you wanna play?” And I grabbed her outreached hand as she introduced herself and me as her friend. Instantly, she became leader, the queen and somehow—someway we kneel at her orders. I didn’t know this encounter would set the foundation for myself at the age five, ten, fifteen, and now twenty. I didn’t know at five, why she chose me—the weakest in kindergarten to be her right hand but I gladly accepted.

At this age we discovered our bodies for the first time. This exploration wasn’t sexual to me even though I often question if I did in fact love Nettie that way. But what I realize wasn’t love but adoration for Nettie’s beauty. Femininity. See I always role-played as her boyfriend…as the leading guy. I did this because my facial features didn’t live up to the expectation of my beauty standards nor surpass the beauty of Nettie’s. When she kissed my lips in play, I didn’t think of it as wonderful in a sensual way, I thought of how wonderful it would be if my lips were like Nettie’s. If my hair was like Nettie’s. My body like Nettie’s. And so on.  

Though, I was always the boy. At school, the boys thought of me this way. In their eyes, I was enjoyable to pick on until Nettie set them straight then I was merely a friend. I officially became one of them and girls like Nettie would get their attention in ways I never could reach. I was a friend. One of the boys. A friend. I became obsessive. With every new crush I became, willing to makeover myself. This was easy to do since Nettie could always be around to help.

Our mothers were both hard working single moms, only my father was still somewhat in the picture—Nettie’s dad was an abusive narcissist who had been married too many times. My grandmother gladly watched us afterschool. Everyone in my household, was glad I had a friend.  

“When Sam meets you at recess pucker up with this!” She hands me a Smacker’s lip balm with specks of dirt in it. Crunchy but still tasted good. “Now, pucker.” We kiss. Hers soft. Mine rough. She sighed. “Your lips are all chapped. Put on more!” she demanded. I did. We kissed. And tried I to imagine Sam. His blond hair. His light up Skechers. We kissed longed until my grandma walked in.  

When Nettie’s mom came to pick her up that evening, my grandma told her about our playtime. I protected myself not Nettie. I told them it was all her. I betrayed my only friend.

Nettie’s mom was beside herself. Conservative about boys. She replies with the truth by slapping Nettie across the face. Feet jumped to the floor. Both grandma and I are standing. Only I didn’t feel outrage. Shock, yes. But, joy. It was the first time I saw Nettie’s vulnerability in a split second before she secretly smiled back with her own strength. That vulnerability released some type of control, I never had before.

After that, I would often ask Nettie if I could play the girl. We were better hiding our playtime. “I’m prettier.” She finally explained. And that was the last time I played. I tried often to helplessly take my boy drama and advice by myself. It often failed.

Middle school was such an awkward stage. I blocked most of it out but I remember occasionally Nettie getting many stares from boys. Only in random passing, though. She mentioned to me sometimes but I always felt the attention was more of a harassment that she held too dear to her heart than as affection.

Her father figure was never any good and her chase for men reflected that. Meanwhile, my taste for boys always were high and unattainable. My grades were excellent because Nettie pushed me always to achieve high standards but this made me less of a friend to anyone at school. At five, I had a reading problem that led to remedial classes. Ever since then, I had to continue to overcome my learning disability. I always had to be the best to prove I wasn’t stupid. Competition is what I became. Competition is what fueled me. The higher increased on an academic hierarchy, the more the smarter kids—the usual outsiders hated me. Hated me but friends we became.

I planted my roots with the nerds while Nettie—well, sat at the opposite spectrum with the popular kids. In movies, everyone talks about the mean girl that everyone loves. Those were movies. In real life, there was Nettie. She was friends with everyone and her dad, as bad as he seemed was rich. Like, I said my dad was somewhat in the picture but his allowances that he sported me instead of child support gave me the chance to pretend that I was rich. Oh, boy I tried to pretend. 

I try so hard to let people see an image of myself that isn’t real.

High School. Fifteen is different than ten.  Cars, boobs, and booze. Some how I got a boyfriend. He was a shy boy. Came off as a gentle giant. He came to the school store one-day asking for Nettie so I answered him. He stammered given me the impression that he liked her. I told him she wasn’t around to go to lunch. Come back another time. But instead he extending the invitation to me and I don’t know why I took it. Why not? At Wendy’s he confessed his love. I hear the words he says about her. Smart, Beautiful, talented. We are going to get you set up with her.

So, I hung out with him everyday. He became my project to obsess over. I fell in love with him in the process. My love for him hit me like an unexpected flu. I didn’t like being knocked down. I love too hard.

We were together for nine months. I experienced my body without Nettie’s help. With Joe. What threw me for a loop was that this ecstasy wasn’t felt on both side.

We don’t have to do this anymore. We shouldn’t have done it. Then why do we do it all the time. I don’t know. I’m going to go take a shower.

Everyday the same conversation. Everyday I stare blankly at his dark blue wall, wishing I wasn’t naked and feeling dirty underneath the sheets. It’s because you’re not Nettie. I will always get dress. Hour later. Do more. Send me this. It’s your fault.

It’s my fault. It’s always my fault. When it didn’t work. I did more. I sent pics. I did it because I thought someone loved me. I did it because I thought I would get something out of it.

The Play. Hold my hand, Joe. You’re hurting me. Let go. You’re hurting me.

Thousands of whispers of I love you, I’m sorry, and you’re stupid in multiple different forms. I kept loving him until he said he didn’t want me anymore. That’s what’s unique. Did I make it up? He doesn’t want me anymore. Alright. It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s my fault. Because I’m not Nettie.

She wasn’t around when he left. All our friends flew off with their own high school dramas. He said maybe you should talk to someone. So, I did. He suggested therapy for me. I’ve always been sad. I’ve always been suicidal. Maybe it is my fault.

“Dr. Menno, that was five years ago.” Twenty is different than fifteen. “I don’t know what to do anymore.” Last boyfriend, I had. Last boyfriend, I will probably ever have. I approach men and they approach me drunk. I lay in their sheets looking at the wall. Feeling naked and dirty.

“What happened in the woods?” I drove to the woods on the outskirts of town. I had stolen my brother’s car and intended to do a shopping spree as a pick me up. I’m always overly emotional. I had gone out with Nettie the night before. New Year’s. One more year. One more boy. Another bed. She pushed him towards me. I caught him and didn’t throw him back in.

I thought. He liked me. He was warm. Kind. I was drunk. He wasn’t any of those things when I woke up.

So, I went to the woods. Nettie sat next to me. “He pulled out right? Sucks if you got pregnant. You can barely take care of yourself.” I looked at myself in the mirror. I shivered at my dark circles. My chapped lips. She’s so beautiful. Even her shadow is beautiful.

 I parked the car. Why are we here? We are going to play a game. What kind of game? She pulls out a gun. I stumble in fear. She points. ME? NO!

“Did Nettie pull the trigger?” Yes. She pointed it to my temple like this. I put my hand to my head like a shape of a gun. I see myself blinking. It’s a blurry image of autumn trees flicking in the sun. Birds chirping. “Tess, when are you going to stop separating Nettie from yourself?” Never. “Nettie? Why did you kill Tess?”

“She’s weak.” I hear myself say.