Piano Player Fingers

In “Piano Player Fingers”, Yong-Yu Huang evocatively captures the dynamics of sibling and family relationships.

My mother said that Janet had piano player fingers: each segment arcing into the next, flexing in unison because that is how the human body is supposed to work. But the first thing I remember about Janet’s fingers is how she stuck them too close to my face and I, a teething toddler, promptly chomped down on them. A baby’s gums does nothing but coat everything in the slime of innocence, but she hollered for Mom anyway.

 

Janet gave up piano when she hit seventh grade because basketball was all the rage. Mom dragged me to all her games where my feet dangled as I saw on the bleachers. And when the people stepping over us to find seats stepped on my white sneakers, she would console me with those lemon drops she always kept in her purse when I knew that Janet liked basketball—she’d come home at seven from after-school practices, sweaty and beaming and starving—but I wondered if she started dribbling because she was sick of etudes and sonatinas, or if it was because she liked the way the ball arced into the hoop, a motion as natural as the way her fingers used to dance over the ivories.

 

The summer before Janet’s freshman year, we moved and sold the piano. My mom cried when she sold the piano; Janet cried when she said goodbye to her friends. And I sat, squashed in the backseat between Janet and her basketball shoes, glad that we were moving. I was sick of spending Saturday afternoons at the court with her.  In reality, I had nothing better to do. Janet had been going to sleepovers since she was five, while I had made a grand total of five friends in the twelve years that I had been alive. Some tangled organ inside of me sang that if we were moving, it meant that Janet wouldn’t have any friends either and so maybe, just maybe, she’d be my friend.

 

Seventh grade premonitions don’t come true. I learned that the day Janet strutted into high school and made it onto the varsity cheerleading squad freshman year. She dyed the ends of her hair platinum blonde and swiped mascara over her eyelashes as soon as Mom left the house in the mornings, sliding me the piece of toast with the most peanut butter as a peace offering. Or a bribe.

 

The high school didn’t play basketball or soccer or volleyball—they played lacrosse and waved pom poms at football games. Janet shot right up there on the social ladder, skipping rungs and accepting hands that boosted her up. Mom made me go with her to Janet’s first cheerleading performance. A couple of my new friends had sisters on the squad as well, so I sat with them, starry-eyed over the football players and watching as the cheerleaders flipped and danced and contorted themselves in perfect coordination: a red and white being of undulating limbs and high ponytails, high off of the attention fixated upon them.

 

That was the first and last time Mom saw Janet execute a perfect backflip: arcing through the stuffy gym air and landing, shoes squeaking against the varnished wood, without a wobble. Over sweet and sour chicken that night, she told Janet that she had found out that a retired concert pianist lived two blocks away and that he was willing to give lessons and let her practice on his piano.

 

“Such a waste of your lovely fingers—they’re so talented! And all those flips and tricks—what if you injure your fingers?”

 

I smirked. All of Janet’s friends were on the cheerleading squad, and if Mom made her quit, she wouldn’t even have time to kiss that football player she liked goodbye. The ladder would be wrenched out from right under her, and she’d hurtle down back into the masses and would no longer be perfect Janet.

 

I saw Janet’s nails dig into her palms under the table. She went to bed early that night, but our new house had thin walls, and I could hear the whisper of the pom poms as they cut through the air, over and over again.

 

But the next week, she came home from school, having traded her pom poms for a deck of cards.

 

“They’re vintage,” she told Mom when she huffed in disapproval at her eldest shuffling yellowing cards over the table,“like all those plates you like so much.”

 

I found out from my friend Bethany, whose brother was dating one of Janet’s cheerleader friends, that Janet was now playing poker at lunch and making a killing. When I came home from school, I’d find cards dancing as she made them vanish with a flick of her fingers and reappear in her other hand.

 

Perfect arcs, still, and I envied her ability to make things flow just right. The diamonds soared through the air and landed in her other hand in a rapid burst of plastic-coated paper slapping each other, as if pulled by some invisible string. I wished that I could do that.

 

She offered to teach me how to shuffle one Friday afternoon before her weekly piano lesson, but I was going to the movies with Andrew. He had shyly asked me out on Wednesday, during those last few precious moments of lunch. I left her offer untouched and instead asked can you lend me lip gloss.

 

She put down her cards, the queen of hearts on top, looking at me solemnly, and led me upstairs where she rummaged through the back of her closet and gave me four different tubes of lip gloss to choose from. She covered their labels and named them for me: “tastes like raspberries, will get you into trouble at school, makes you look kissable and the one mom doesn’t mind.” I grabbed “makes you look kissable” but nothing happened in the dark cinema except for a lot of crying scenes. That was my last date with Andrew.

 

Mom still thought that Janet was set on the trajectory towards Carnegie Hall.

 

When she asked me for a favor, I couldn’t say no. I wanted to be the magnanimous sibling who helped their crying sister. The one who would climb into my window at three in the morning, mascara running and a deck of cards, creased and stained, sticking out of the pocket of her ripped jeans. I wanted that moral superiority to dangle over her stupid French-braided head. She asked me for money, and I handed it to her wordlessly. All one hundred and twenty dollars of my babysitting money for the family next door who always wanted me to come over and be such a good influence on little Izzy. Janet’s hand stayed outstretched, as if she expected more, but the moment that I opened my mouth to tell her that the wad of tens and twenties was it, she yanked me into a hug.

 

She smelled like cigarette smoke and the girls’ locker room and cheap deodorant, so I held my breath until she let go of me and whispered in my ear. 

 

“You’re the best sister. Thank you so much, I swear I’ll pay you back. Please don’t tell Mom, thank you so much, good luck with your algebra test tomorrow.” 

 

She said that like a prayer. The mantra followed her to the window.

 

Downstairs the next morning, I was greeted by my mother and a police officer who tipped his hat at me politely but I did not see him—I only saw my mother’s red-rimmed eyes and raspberry nose and the papers in front of her. I did not see Janet anywhere near.

 

“Did you know anything about this?” Mom’s voice was switchblade soft, and I wasn’t fooled by her splotchy face anymore.

  

She jabbed a blood-red finger onto the top document, and I leaned in and saw a mugshot with my sister’s eyes wide and not entirely focused and looking so young—nothing like the piano player, three-point shooter, card trickster that dwelled in the pictures on the mantelpiece. 

 

“She asked us to contact you, miss, but as part of our policy we don’t contact minors. We called your mother when we picked her and some other teens up for illegal gambling. Turns out she was running quite a prolific business and was getting involved with some local gangs.” 

 

Something heavy and sticky began bubbling up in my stomach, and for a second, I thought it might be the “makes you look kissable” lip gloss, but I knew it wasn’t that when I turned to my mother and said “piano player fingers, huh.”

 

Yong-Yu is a Taiwanese teenager who has lived in Malaysia for all her life. Her current favorite self-descriptive adjective is “culturally-confused.” She had been previously published in The Heritage Review and the bitter fruit review. In her spare time, she can be found binging Doctor Who, playing the flute, or lazing around the house.

Art by: Tao Tiva

Welcome to the Galapagos!

In her piece, Avalon Felice Lee takes you through a funky and absurd adventure into the Galapagos that contains strange bird-like characters who fight in a wacky wilderness.

Welcome to the Galapagos!

‘Tis the season of freshly cracked eggs and budding miconias, so spring forward and send your fledglings here for the finest education in the ecosystem. We teach the finches of tomorrow everything from how to nibble around the nectarine pit to how to tell a radish from rhubarb. Best be sure that your chicks will realize their true wingspan.

Hullo, Hunter.

Oh!
Is that for show and tell?

Your special toy must fit in a lunchbox—

bang

 

Survival of the Fittest

Not a chirrup from Ms. Darwin. She has a bullet in her gizzard.
Babes, spread your wings! Downy puffs lick conifer-scented oxygen as the flock departs

from the nest, the survival instinct kicking in.
The farthest only makes it a couple yards before his spiderweb bones snap under the

currents. The rest scatter, frisking from branch to twig to twig to branch, frantic to bilk the hunter. Flying—Ms. Darwin hadn’t covered this in class. Just yesterday they were still practicing tail feather coordination.

Quick, find a hollow gnarl. (Cabinets, cupboards.)

 

The birdbrains disappear into clusters of leaves. (Quilts, desks.) To be fair, what choice do they have?

Trees only have so many knots.

 

Jay

The art cabinet is Jay’s domain. The waxy scent of crayons soothes his nerves as he holds his breath like a vendetta, trying to erase the image of Ms. Darwin on the nylon carpet, unmoving, unblinking.

Last September, she had elected him the Art Materials Official. Every day Jay follows through with his duty, scrubbing off leftover acrylic, testing the ink intensity of the markers. The good-for-nothings are tossed out. And of course, the most important task of all: sharpening each of the crayons in the twenty-four packs.

Cerulean—his favorite. He uses it to color everything.

One day, Jay will be a famous artist! World famous! His aunt might finally look up from her blue Skittles. Imagine, a museum gallery with his drawings of a

                                                     cerulean giraffe

      cerulean astronaut                                                                 cerulean harp
                                                       cerulean tractor

cerulean—

The cabinet hinge whines.

bang

 

Efron

His pterodactyl print shirt camouflages with the cornucopia of backpacks. Smart boy. The hunter’s graphite eyes slip right over him.

He knows his shapes. A square is most certainly not a trapezoid. He knows a fish from a mammal. A shark and a bottlenose, respectively. He even knows a sliver of subtraction, how to borrow the one, et cetera.

Efron knows everything about death. Every Sunday, the deacon rambles and ambles about the same old as his unhemmed robes scrape the tiles, punishing the marble for its mere existence.

For all his efforts, daily Psalms recitations won’t buy his ticket to heaven. Apparently, certain types already have designated fire-pits. Still. There is a boy whose favorite crayon is cerulean…

Red paint dribbles from the art cabinet, the drip-drops distinct from the outside April shower.

Efron knows everything about death. The classroom is a collage; thumb through the pages yourself. It reeks of iron and is as silent as divine intervention.

After his expiration date, he has eternity to spend being barbecued in his private fire-pit. Why rush it?

So, while the hunter surveys his yield, checking every nook and cranny for strays, Efron abandons his place, soaring at godspeed.

Past the doorframe.

 

Hunter

Now, Hunter has a keen ear for Eminem

Bartók
and squeaky sneakers.

 

Efron

A microcosm of comatose autos, mostly Fords and Toyotas. Chipped lacquer flashes in silver daylight, urging him to hurry through buttery puddles though his socks may dampen. The hunter is on the go.

There! Up ahead, near the patchwork of wire, a familiar stegosaurus in all its yellow glory. Twice a day it tromps to his cul-de-sac. If he asks nicely, would the stego offer refuge?

The east wind carries him over, hurrying him behind the stego’s hulking body. Shivering in cloud tears, he prays.

 

Hunter

Behind a school bus tire, rubber soles play

peek-a-boo.

 

Efron

Sirens grieve in red and blue. Matchbox cruisers pioneer down the trail at more than twenty-five miles an hour. Answered prayers? Efron’s spirits lift.

The hunter slinks around the corner, tool in hand, the kind reserved for lions and tigers and bears. And kindergarteners, evidently.

Efron falls back. Wet concrete scrapes his palms as his heart wracks his ribcage.
Muzzle, meet forehead.
Instead of praying, he says, “Please don’t,” to a different kind of deity. Blasphemy? Who

cares. Efron simply doesn’t want to die.
A long pause. “One good reason, kid,” he says, baritone stifled by his knit mask. His

trigger finger slackens.
“I’ll go to hell,” he tells him in a beat. “Deacon Eric said I’ll go to hell where I’ll rot in

fire-pits because I’m unclean and I still need to get rid of—”

bang
bang
bang

 

Natural Selection

The hunter drops his toy and crumples, a soggy paper doll. Efron emerges, the lone finch.
Evolutionists coin this “natural selection”.

 

Welcome Back to the Galapagos!

 

Once again, ‘tis the season of freshly cracked eggs and budding miconias, and parent finches are still springing forward to send their babes here to realize their true wingspan. Fledglings learn how to nibble around the nectarine pit; how to tell a radish from rhubarb.

But recess is spent in code-red lockdowns. They realize their true wingspan is, in fact, as flight-effective as cotton wads. They learn to arm themselves with safety scissors; how to blitz hunters with Dr. Seuss hardcovers.

Certainly, a fair fight against an AK-47.

Quick, scribble letters to Mother Finch and Father Finch. Apologies for bad behavior. Farewells, snuggles and pecks, miss you’s and love you’s. Binder paper decorated with tear stains, signed in rickety letters.

One hundred and eight written today. Thirty-one last words.

Hatchlings, finches, welcome to the Galapagos! Hunters are out of hibernation, so beware of rifles and razor mesh. In each nest, scout for the best hiding spot and stay near it at all times, just in case. Efron, dearest finchling, one year down, twelve to go.

Welcome to the Galapagos!

 

Avalon Felice Lee is an Asian-American sixteen-year-old sophomore at Notre Dame San Jose High School. She has been writing prose since the age of eleven, thanks to her author-mentor-mother. When not writing, she’s probably practicing cello, assaulting the ears of nearby victims. When she grows up, she wants to be an author. And a millionaire.

Art by Yiting Ruan

The Symbolism behind Driving into an Underpass on the Garden State Parkway

In her piece, “The Symbolism behind Driving into an Underpass on the Garden State Parkway”, Zoha Arif beautifully captures an eccentric character’s relationship to love and nature.

One time, while driving home from a Tuesday grocery trip at the Little India produce market, you wiped the last fragment of boiled spaghetti away from your lips with a Chipotle napkin and said that only things that bluntly resemble the form of humans can have symbolism. Take the trees, you said, and see how their branches jut out like frozen twizzlers from the lean figure-eight waist — it all looks distinctly like the silhouette of a human body. This is why there are so many poems littered with metaphors about trees. And look ahead at the chipped brick underpass, you said, there is no symbolism in this thing, no blunt resemblance to humankind, just a loaf of carved brick designed to spare our Chevy truck from the humming Jersey rain for a few seconds. Pay no heed to the underpass, pay heed to the trees, you said. 

Now I don’t understand what this Garden State underpass has done to you to be named the most un-symbolic thing on the planet, but, then again, I don’t get a lot of things. For example, how did we two people, one a believer and the other an atheist, find ourselves together in the midst of a wedding. We announced our commitment to each other somewhere in the local mango fields, property of a fruit farmer who was not invited to our ceremony. I did not fancy stealing another man’s oxygen and trespassing like this, but you said that it did no harm, and so we exchanged rings on another man’s property unbeknownst to that man. 

The mangoes of the tree we stood under decorated the tufts of leaves like hairpins and your soft fingers did not hesitate to plunder a fruit from this tree for your lips to bite into, water syrup forming rivers through the lace of your gentle fingers like poetry. I was stunned when you did this. The fruit, mango, was nothing more than a complicated collection of particles to you, but I saw clearly that it was a child of the tree and the property of a man we both didn’t know. In the taxi your brother paid for, I pressed you for a reason as to why plundering the forbidden fruit was the arch for sharing my life with you and you said that it was just a mango, that it didn’t matter, that we shouldn’t fight on our wedding day. 

But our first night together, we fought anyway, this time with pieces of hips and elbows for the first right to the bathroom sink and, in the end, we had to share, like children. In between toothbrushes and shaving cream, with mouth foaming with listerine, dental floss, and toothpaste, I turned to you and said that I would love to be a liquefied mango, or any fruit for that matter, because it would be nice to be able to just disappear down the sink drain sometimes. Except, the part about being a liquefied mango is important because it would be quite horrid to flow down the drain like regular bathroom water. And you spat out a puddle of Colgate toothpaste into the sink and told me that you didn’t understand how mangos could possibly matter. I must have looked crazed to you, defending an eaten mango and then announcing that I want to be a liquified mango. But I didn’t want to tire you with my theory about the universe so what I said, instead, is that I guess what I mean is that I want an overripe mango for breakfast. 

Then dawned the days when you used to bike to Chinatown every morning, through dim sum palaces and dumpling dens, to buy a pound of fresh mangos for me, wearing nothing but husky trousers and that oversized gray Santa Cruz hoodie you once left on the couch and missed a flight to retrieve. And even though you never bothered to fix that brake lever, even New York City traffic didn’t keep you from your bike. Thinking of you one day as you had gone, I came to the conclusion that your Santa Cruz hoodie and your bike spend more time together than your lungs do with air. I wondered what a love letter from your Santa Cruz hoodie to your bicycle would sound like, maybe something like this: 

 

     Dear Bob the bicycle, 

I fell in love with the perfect curves of your tires that carry your full lust. I can fit into any space you allow me to. I wish for our dust to dance together like charcoal at the end of each day, when you’ve tired yourself and return from the dirt and grime of the winding streets.

Love, 

Your Santa Cruz hoodie 

 

I thought the love letter was quite clever, but when I gave it to you, you said that I have this unsettling tendency to pay attention to things that don’t matter, like bicycles, sweatshirts, and pigeons. Stealing a mango from a plastic grocery bag, you said that the rooster windbreaker with a missing “W” and the Chinese minimalists shopping for vegan tofu in China Town don’t matter in the grand scheme of life and the universe. So the next morning, I really tried to not think of the symbolism behind your tongue pushing water through the tube of your throat after 59 push-ups in the foyer, or the meaning behind a person who cuts an apple pie with the knife tilted up at 90, instead of a flat 180 degrees angle, or the symbolism behind the strange way in which you eat spaghetti and meatballs because you, My Lord, are the only living being who can get drunk off of dipping spaghetti, like nachos, into a tomato sauce with eggplant and zucchini. Now the truth of the matter is that I tried to pay no heed to the underlying symbolism of things for about two days, before rolling over and accepting defeat and the fact that cheesecake somehow represents the birth of a child. (A cheesecake is heavy and burdensome on the stomach, buttery, satisfying like the feeling one has after birthing a newborn, but touch the crust, and it crumbles to reveal a world of sin.) 

But you never got how these things could possibly matter because you never cared about the mango from the tree that did not belong to you, or the rooster windbreaker with the missing “W,” or the Chinese minimalists. You don’t remember the three people who always stood leaning on the tar hill cascading around the price pole for diesel in that gas station that bordered our flat. You don’t remember what the moon looked like, crescent or full, that night we built a cardboard airplane out of the cereal boxes in our pantry. That night, I told you that the reason our marriage collapsed was because of the mango and you laughed and asked again how mangos could possibly matter. The truth is that if you had cared about the mango, then the walls of the world would have leaned closer to you, given pieces of itself to you, and held you like honey with the gentlest of arms and lips. 

But the world and its things obviously never mattered to My Lord, you, who never hesitated to plunder and pluck the forbidden fruit and drink the soul of the mango leaves that were summoned to protect you and I, the paired pigeons, from the rest of the world. The people vomited sins and you spat back in the name of the holy Scripture. I am bitter. I wish that the fruit farmer had awoken our marriage night and thrown us both, like Adam and his beloved Eve, with the complementary threats and curses, to the cumbersome paved streets for drinking his property’s air. 

Now if we’re going back to the underpass, My Lord, there is lots of symbolism behind that Garden State underpass. The underpass broke the slaps of the rain as we drove underneath and somewhere in between, I grew up. That underpass is a symbol for our marriage, above all things. We drove Ferraris and Mercedes through each other as if we were somehow able to still stand even with an arching hole simmered through our pooling belly buttons. As we ate the fruits and beets, the things of this world fell from our throats through our bellies and out, though the difference is that I tasted it and you shoved it down your throat. You are like the underpass. You don’t stop to think about the cars and trunks that pass through you. You stand and assert your strength and courage by pushing something as gentle as rain away. The truth is that no one will care when that Garden State Parkway underpass is torn down one day and built into a better, stronger underpass, and the underpass knows that and maybe that’s why it’s so bitter. The underpass breathes, My Lord, just like the mangos breathe. The world beyond our bubble breathes, full inhales and exhales, drunk on the taste of air. It carries lessons and meaning and that’s why something as prosperous as mangos matter to the overarching scheme of the universe. 

 

Zoha Arif is a 16-year-old high school student studying computer science and programming at the Academy for Information Technology. She currently lives in New Jersey and enjoys spilling her strangest ideas into her works of fiction in her free time. She is also an editor for her school newspaper, Polyphony Lit, and E&GJ Press.

Visual arts by Ordy Chen

Chance Block

Hewson Duffy showcases the atmosphere that a senior in high school experiences through his humorous yet suspenseful piece, “Chance Block.”

Rosey first heard about the fire after club announcements ended, as all the students filed out from the auditorium toward Chance Block. Some of the freshmen were talking about it, and flowing down the hallway with the vast tide of tired high-schoolers, she caught snippets of their conversation.

“In the cafeteria… someone said… fire—”

“UHNUH,” a senior boy grunted, drowning out the freshmen’s chatter.

Rosey put her fingers in her ears. She knew all too well after three weeks that grunts were contagious: first the other senior boys would grunt back, then all at once the hallways and classrooms would burst into a many-layered chorus of grunts, each louder than the next, as the younger boys struggled to prove that they, too, were masculine enough to bellow like angry cavemen.

Rosey walked halfway across campus before she took her fingers out of her ears, sure that Mozart’s Sixth Symphony in Grunt had subsided. Ugh , she thought, remembering the freshmen’s conversation. Probably another fire drill . At least it’ll be during Chance Block.

Nobody, least of all Rosey, understood Chance Block. Held after the final class every three days, the 45-minute period was one of those weird experiments to which private schools lik the Winthrop-Hall Institute for Technical Education (or WHITE, as all their sweaters read) occasionally subjected their students. Its official definition was completely incomprehensible, brimming with hallowed education buzzphrases such as “cooperative learning” and “21st century citizenship.” But as far as Rosey could tell, Chance Block boiled down to an awkward 45 minutes that athletes often missed for games. Since no administrator had the guts to send kids home early, they needed the time to be crucial—while also inconsequential. The only problem was, nobody had yet figured out how to make the period both vitally important and wholly unimportant. Instead, every few weeks the administrators opened up an old Monopoly set, picked a new Chance card—hence the name—and imposed whatever instructions they found on the students.

This week, the administrators pulled a blank card and decided the school would test its most revolutionary idea yet: assigning each teacher to babysit a random group of students who would figure out for themselves how to make the time educational.

Rosey couldn’t remember which of the middle-aged math teachers she had been assigned to (they were all just nerdy white guys in various stages of balding), but she did know that Courtney—the talkative girl from her AP Auctioneering class—was in the same group, so when the crowd thinned out, Rosey approached her.

“Hey, do you know where we’re going for Chance Block?” she asked, tapping Courtney on her shoulder.

“What’d you say?” Courtney said, whirling around to face Rosey. “Sorry. God, I’m so tired—I was up until five a.m. doing the Auctioneering paper. That book took, like, forevvvvver to read.” A five-page paper discussing the eight pound real estate book they’d read was due that day.

“You read it all last night?” Rosey couldn’t believe it. After all, they had been assigned little sections of the book each night for two weeks.

“Yes! I mean, okay, no, but like, Sparknotes takes a while to read, too.”

“Right,” Rosey laughed nervously. “Anyway, do you know where we’re going for Chance Block?”

Courtney giggled. “Of course, silly, I love Mr. Borkus. Follow me.”

As they walked, Rosey remembered that Courtney had announced a club.

“Hey, which club did you say you were starting?” Rosey asked. Everyone started clubs at WHITE, although only two or three of them ever got past the first meeting.

“The Diversity and Inclusivity club! It’s me and a bunch of my friends.”

“Oh,” replied Rosey, grimacing. An all-white diversity club. “Are you into, like, social justice and all that?”

Courtney shrugged. “I mean, enough. Whatever. Gotta get into college somehow.”

When they reached the math room, five or six other students were already there sitting around a large table with blank looks on their faces. There was Harry, the lacrosse player whose voice was usually hoarse from grunting; Samantha, the girl who was always doing homework; and some seniors Rosey didn’t know very well. Courtney sat across the table next to Harry, immediately opening her laptop—a rose gold Macbook—to the Brandy Melville website. Rosey, on the other hand, sat in the nearest empty seat.

While they waited for Mr. Borkus, Rosey watched Courtney’s fingers run absentmindedly through her hair. Maybe I should dye my hair blonde, too , Rosey thought, and straighten it. Her eyes traveled down to Courtney’s neck, where a golden letter C hung from a rose gold chain like an expensive name tag. I could be like her , thought Rosey. She imagined herself with the other girls taking pictures like the ones she always saw on Instagram, all of them in that pose that said “I’m not showing off my ass, but like, did I mention I have an ass?”

A clatter toward the front of the room yanked Rosey from her thoughts: Mr. Borkus had arrived.

“Hey guys, welcome to Chance Block.” Mr. Borkus began in a bored voice. “About half an hour ago a fire started in the cafeteria when a burnt-out teacher tried to panini press his computer. Unfortunately, all the fire extinguishers were crushed in that one experimental art project. Now, the principal said we’re supposed to let you all decide what to do about the fire, okay? He said it’ll be, like, a collaborative, 21st century, student-driven alternative assessment.”

Rosey looked around. Some of the students were on their computers; others were fast asleep. Rosey’s eyes began to feel heavy, too. Mr. Borkus was still talking. “—and so the only rule is you can’t be doing homework.” At this, Samantha’s eyes shot up from her work.

“Sorry, but can I do homework? There’s an Honors Puppetry assignment due tomorrow.” She motioned to two worn socks with frowny faces drawn on. “And did you say fire?”

“Yes!” Mr. Borkus seemed to be realizing how little anyone cared. “Guys! There’s a real fire—not a drill. It’s already spread to this building, so we need to figure out how to extinguish it.” Some students raised their heads, looked around groggily for a moment, then put them back down.

“We could use the water fountains—” offered a quiet boarding student named Tim.

“But can we please do homework?” Courtney interjected. A couple of students nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, why can’t we, like, work on our own stuff? Someone else will put out the fire,” agreed Harry, who, with his whirling mouse and laser-like focus on his computer, was clearly engaged in an epic round of Fortnite. Mr. Borkus looked to be at a loss for words, and an awkward silence fell over the room. Rosey tried to think of something to say, but the vast apathy of her classmates was paralyzing.

No one spoke. Harry was trying to conceal clouds of vapor as he puffed on his Juul. The room started to feel hot, smoke drifting in through the cracked door—or was that just another of Harry’s clouds? Mr. Borkus began to pace frantically, muttering to himself about student-driven death. Rosey was still deciding what to say when tongues of flame came under the door, ready to engulf the classroom.

Hewson Duffy is a 16 year old writer and photographer who attends St. Anne’s Belfield School in Charlottesville, VA. His work has been published in Aerie International and Polyphony Lit. When not writing, he is probably drinking chocolate milk.

Visual arts by Anastasia James. 

Pulse

Krystal Yang in this piece explores the voice of queer Chinese-Americans and how cultural influences can shape a person.

 

i.

The boys share a single room. They sleep on the floor, stomachs splayed on bamboo mats, passing stories in muffled whispers as their mothers’ incense filters through the sliding door. They lay in clusters and pop sunflower seeds in their mouths the way their grandmothers do every night in the kitchen, sticky rice glued to their gums to fill in missing teeth. Tonight the boys debate whether they can sneak beer from the night market. Zhou thinks that there will be pretty girls from Beijing, the ones with wide set hips and straight eyebrows and fake double-eyelids carved on the front of cheap magazines that the boys hide beneath the floorboards. The boys lick the salt from their lips and under the blankets you can taste swordfish and pickled vegetables fermenting between their teeth. Yong claims an old man once beat him for stealing cigarettes from a push cart. He rolls down his pants to show everyone his purpling bruise. Wang Wen doesn’t believe him, kicks Yong in the shin and cusses him out with words that would later be washed out with his father’s fingers down his throat. Limbs push and pull against each other as the boys arm-wrestle, placing bets to see who will be the first one to sneak through the window. Bei Qing bumps into another boy, the one named Chao Cheng whose chin grows facial hair as sparse as the fuzz on rambutan fruit. Piss off, duanxiu, Chao Cheng shoves him away. He spits from the space between his two front teeth. Bei Qing rolls over, feels a foot come down on his neck, hot and thick against his throat. Duanxiu, dianxiu, the other boys chatter. Short-sleeves, short-sleeves. They pile on him, a feast of humming termites and whistling cicadas, snapping their fingernails against his back, dotting his skin with red bites. In the other room, the fathers slide their hands across their laps and the mothers get on their knees and pray, pray their sons go off to university and become doctors in America and marry delicate wives with V-shape chins and thin calves perched upon tiny feet. Behind the symphony of fluttering hands and cracking belts and rustling clothes, Bei Qing’s mother prays for her son to marry a lady, marry her until she drowns in oranges and rice wine and her stomach swells twice times—once for a boy and once for a girl.

ii.

Bei Qing. The professor never gets his name right, always pronounces it bitching. Bitching, bitching, bitching. The class laughs and the professor flushes red, blue veins popping out from her forehead. The girls sitting behind Bei Qing giggle in sharp intonations. Mei guo qi, American flag, they cackle. Today the class studies Emperor Ai of Han. All the students remember the story from high school, but the professor insists they don’t. When she opens her mouth, Bei Qing realizes she does not speak in an English he understands. He squirms in his chair and watches the boy sitting in front of him. The boy spits on his desk and uses his finger to spread the wetness across the table. When it dries, he reaches his hand under his shirt and wipes what’s left on his stomach. The girls behind him shift around, hike their skirts up a little higher and gossip in a dialect Bei Qing doesn’t recognize. The professor is engrossed in her own motions, pointing to an image on the projector. It’s a painting of the emperor and his commander. The commander’s head lays on his lap, face fixed in a calm smile. It’s the passion of the cut sleeve—rather than waking his commander, the emperor simply cuts off the sleeve of his robes, leaving the other man undisturbed. The professor uses a yardstick to outline a triangle on the painting. Renaissance beauty, she explains. This three-sided composition. Heavily inspired by Italian artists, no doubt. She shrugs her shoulders, pushes her glasses into her bulging forehead. How many of you are familiar with the story of the cut-sleeve? It’s spectacular, really. Spectacular. The boy sitting in front of Bei Qing wets his thumb and forefinger again before raising his hand, slick and shiny. He ignores the professor’s glare and asks, did the emperor also chop off his arm off? 

iii.

Bei Qing proposes to the girl on her nineteenth birthday. They fly back to Beijing but lose themselves on their way to City Hall. They stop at street vendors and old men huddled on cardboard boxes, mouths forming shapes but sounds getting caught on their tongues. It’s a hellish midnight hour and they’re whisked underground by the enticing smell of salt and smoke. A single room, surrounded by heavy limbs and heavy breath and heavy bodies swaying in the hiccups and the laughter. Everywhere bleeds music, and Bei Qing feels the bass pass through him with every stroke. His wife sits next to him at the bar, one leg draped over his, the other clinging to a stranger’s ankle. Bei Qing finds the boy thrashing against the far wall. He is dressed in a silver suit with matching pants and nothing underneath. His jacket throws blue and white across his face. His neck is pink from a single shot of baijiu, his chest as bare as the professor’s engorged forehead. Mei quo qi, mei guo qi, the words are passed under tables and between wadded bills. There’s a not-quite-throbbing in Bei Qing’s head. Thoughts protruding in sharp angles, begging for release. So he waits, runs a hand down his wife’s calf and teases her hair with his middle finger. He stares past the crowd to observe the curve of the boy’s Adam’s apple, to count the red marks on his collarbone. The boy is swarmed with bodies, bulging thighs, fabric and flesh cut from broken wine bottles. Ya nan, Bei Qing’s father would call them, whisking the young boys out of the night markets, ya nan ya nan ya nan. Bei Qing feels one slide up next to him, dressed in a sleeveless white shirt and metal cuffs, a holy uniform, the kind his mother wore when she bent in half between Buddha’s legs and prayed for her son with her mouth wide open and she prayed so hard and she prayed until her upper lip melted with sweat and her tongue tingled with a bitterness she couldn’t swallow. Bei Qing’s hand tightens on his drink. He takes a sip, curls his lips around his teeth and holds the ice cube there, numbing his chin. But the pounding in his head gets louder, more insistent, and Bei Qing knows this warmth, this slow buildup of warmth in his gut and the drumbeat heat radiating off his cheeks. He loops his fingers through his belt loops and swallows. Across the bar, the boy continues to dance, his spine bending and bowing, still searching, still seeking. A ya nan rips off his jacket and three more bear down on the dragon tattoo etched on his shoulder. China’s symbol of divinity, legs spread, mouth weaving through slick bodies, dribbling saliva as the boy waves and ripples beneath the pulsing lights. Krystal Yang is a high school senior from BASIS Independent Silicon Valley in San Jose, California. Her work, inspired by her travels and personal experiences, has been featured in Crashtest Magazine, Polyphony Lit, and Rising Star Magazine. Aside from writing fiction, she is also a lover of dance, sharks, and green tea (unsweetened).

Fiction and Poetry Scholarship Contest!

Win a $25,000 scholarship to attend Idyllwild Arts Academy as a Creative Writer, and possible publication in Parallax Online!

Fiction and Poetry Scholarship Contest:

Win a $25,000 scholarship to attend Idyllwild Arts Academy as a Creative Writer, and possible publication in Parallax Online!
Submit a story or poems by May 1, 2019 to be considered.
Click here for more details.

Rivers in Her Hands

In “Rivers in Her Hands” Viviana Wei explores a mother’s dedication to her daughter, and her daughter’s growth.

My most vivid memories of my mother are the thick, blue veins in her hands. They lurk beneath the surface of her thin skin, distant reminders of decades of age. I like to run my fingers over them, imagining that each line is a river encased in the pores of her skin.

Every evening, she raises me up to her worn chair, sits me in her lap, and runs her fingers through my hair as I trace the rivers in her hands.

“You can be anything you want to be,” she tells me.

“Really?” I always ask, even if I already know the answer.

“Yes.” My mother smiles a worn, tired smile, and I watch the earth crumble and crack around her eyes and mouth, the wrinkles etching her skin like moving plates.

I didn’t realize what she meant until I entered primary school, when talk of immigration and foreign countries began. During those times, I thought about my mother, and began to understand why she sat me down in her leather armchair every night after dinner and held me in her lap, whispering words of encouragement into my ear.

My mother, who never got the chance to be whatever she wanted to be.

My mother, who came to America in hopes that an unborn me would have a better future.

My mother, who never got the chance to go to school the same way I do.

But my mother is brave, resilient. She tells me how hard it was to learn English, how she spent years poring over textbooks, memorizing when to use “-ed” for past tense and when to change the word altogether. She tells me how hard it was when she first came to America, the strange looks and mocking from strangers with perfectly-enunciated English.

I can’t imagine my mother, who has rivers in her hands and the earth in her smile and the sunlight in her eyes, ever struggling with anything. It makes me feel lucky to have been born here—to speak English fluently.

When I came home from school crying after my classmates mocked my strange-smelling lunch, the shape of my eyes, the color of my skin, she was there for me. She picked me up, placed me on her lap, and sunk into the leather chair, whispering words of her home. She described Chinese countrysides and the family I had in a country across the world, and suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad about my heritage.

As I grew up, I learned not to cry about the teasing and smiled instead. Now that I’m too old for her lap, I sit across from my mother in a chair of my very own. Of course, she keeps her old, leather one; even when it sheds black flakes onto the carpet, neither of us can bring ourselves to get rid of it. We still sit across from one another in the evenings, but I miss the days when I fit in her lap. She still tells me stories of her beginnings in America, detailing her struggles, and how, to this day, she still hasn’t mastered English.

I kiss her cheek. “Your English is perfect,” I say. She smiles and reaches forward for my hand. I place mine atop hers and see myself in her eyes, in the bridge of her nose, in her lips.

I am a spitting image of my mother, and I hope that, when I grow up, I’ll be as selfless and noble as she is, too. Because my mother has rivers in her hands, and the power to change the lives of people who come after her.

Even when these rivers dry up and the earth shatters, I’ll always be grateful for the chance my mother has given me.

 

 

Viviana Wei is a 16-year old girl living in Cooper City, Florida. She goes to American Heritage in Plantation and enjoys writing and drawing. As a first generation Chinese-American, she speaks both Mandarin Chinese and English; she is eager to share her Chinese roots through her writing.

Visual Art by Rudy Falagan

Sisyphus and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

A short play exploring self awareness and creation in its many forms.

Play opens on Sisyphus standing at the bottom of a hill under azure sky, preparing to roll the stone up to the top of a rather large hill.

Stone (indignantly): Not this again.
Sisyphus: What?
Stone: You rolling me up to the top of this hill. I’m getting rather tired of it. Day in day out it’s all we do,you just roll me up to the top of this hill and I roll back down to the bottom again. And then we do that again. It’s a totally boring story.
Sisyphus: They enjoy it.
Stone: Who enjoys it?
Sisyphus: Them, the reader. The people who are reading this story right now.
Stone: How could they possibly enjoy it? It ends the same way every time. You roll me up to the top of this hill and then I fall down.
Sisyphus (thoughtfully): I think they see it as a sort of triumph of the human spirit sort of thing. I keep rolling you up the hill even though I know you’ll fall down when I get to the top.
Stone: Don’t they know you were forced to do this? You’re doing this as punishment. It’s not like you have another choice.
Sisyphus: Yeah, but despite being punished I still find happiness.
Stone: Who’s making you do this anyway?
Sisyphus: It’s the gods.
Stone: Who are the gods?
Sisyphus: They’re people who live up in the sky except they live forever and have control over humans and the earth.
Stone: I think I understand, but why do they make you roll me up this hill?
Sisyphus: I’m not exactly sure.
Stone (at this point generally confused): I don’t know who these gods are but they
have some explaining to do.

 

Silence echoes up the mountain, it is broken. Here it is, a giant bolt of lightning striking from the sky and appearing out of the darkness the Greek god Zeus. Enter Zeus.

 

Zeus (dressed in armor, bearded, and with a genuinely ironic smile on his face): Good morning Sisyphus. How are you doing today?
Sisyphus (the mere sight of Zeus serving as catalyst for all his fiery blood): Horrible, I’m feeling horrible.
Zeus: And why is that?
Sisyphus: Isn’t it obvious? I have to roll this rock– this large, heavy, fairly unsymmetric rock –up a hill, and I have to do this for eternity. And you’re the one that made me do this. You’re the reason I’m feeling horrible and you’re the reason I’ll be feeling horrible for the rest of time.
Zeus: Well how do you think I feel? I have to watch you.
Sisyphus: What?
Zeus: Yes, that’s my punishment. I am destined to sit at the bottom of this mountain and watch you roll this stone to the top of this hill and then have it roll back down. And isn’t that not much worse?Sisyphus: But you never do anything you just sit there and watch me. Why don’t you just let me free?Zeus: You think I’m pulling the strings up here? You think I get to make all the important decisions, snap my fingers and solve all your problems? I’ve got people I have to answer to.
Sisyphus: But you’re god.
Zeus: You have your gods and I have mine.
Sisyphus: So what you’re saying is there are other gods who control you and who mankind has no idea about.

Zeus: That’s right. I could pray to them if you’d like.

Silence.

Zeus: You know, if you’re really interested in complaining I’d talk to the author.
Sisyphus: What author?
Zeus: The author of the play we’re in right now. He’s the one who really has it out for you.


Enter the author, a telegenic young man with the look of brilliance about him. It should become clear 
to the reader right now that this author guy is an absolute genius worthy of the highest honor and praise.

 

Author: Oh, goodness. I’ve never been in one of my own stories before, what an absolute delight. Tell me did that description make me sound fat? It made me sound fat, didn’t it? I’ve ruined it. Let me try again, it’s alright. I’ll just jump out and jump right back in, it’ll only take a second.

 

The author disappears. Suddenly the author, a man extraordinary in both intellect and physique,reappears on the scene hoping that this time his entrance will better convey his general appearance.

 

Author: Hmmmm. Seems a little bit dull, doesn’t it? It lacks a theatrical touch, yes it does…this will not do as my introduction. Let me try, just one more time, I’m sure this one will be fantastic.

 

The author disappears to try his introduction yet again, a gag which must be appearing increasingly cliche to the reader, the author apologizes. He means well. With no further ado, the author appears once again, ready to finish this brilliant little play.

 

Author: That was the worst one yet. I simply must give it — interrupted.
Sisyphus (frustrated and in a loud voice): Stop it.Author: I’m terribly sorry, it’s just you only get one chance at a first impression.

Sisyphus: Exactly.

 

The characters feeling slightly awkward about the presence of the author are all silent.

 

Author: So why am I here again?
Sisyphus: I have it on good authority that you’re the one who’s making me roll this stone up the hill for eternity.
Author: Well, yes. I suppose.
Sisyphus (furious): What is the matter with you? Eternity? Are you mad?
Author: I thought the reader would be inspired by you, a sort of triumph of the human spirit sort of thing.
Stone: I told you.
Sisyphus: But eternity? Can’t I just die, can’t you just kill me? Why must I live for eternity?
Author: Live for eternity or die for eternity. There’s no way around it.
Sisyphus: Let me die for eternity.
Author (slowly working up a frustration himself): You know if you don’t stop complaining I’ll make you roll that stone up the hill for two eternities.
Sisyphus: That doesn’t even make sense.
Author: Doesn’t make what?
Sisyphus: That doesn’t make-
Author: Oh, sense. That makes sense.
Sisyphus: That makes what?
Author: Sense.
Sisyphus: Sense?

Author: It’s a common word. You should get out more.

 

Silence. Again.

 

Sisyphus: I still don’t understand why you need to make me continue rolling a stone up a hill. Are you a sadist or something?
Author: I’m not a sadist, I’m just an author. Answer not satisfying Sisyphus, the author restarts.You think it’s up to me? Why, I’ve got people I need to impress, people I need to please with this story.I need to impress committees, I need to get into a college with this for god’s sake. If I let you off, with say, 100 years of rolling a stone up a hill, then people are going to be absolutely furious. They’re going to whine about how it’s unrealistic, about how they feel cheated and then all that hate is going to comedown on me. There are going to be organized protesters and nasty letters and it’s just not something I’m prepared to deal with. It’s much better for you to suffer your entirely fictional life for me so that I can happily live mine.
Sisyphus: So, in other words, you have your gods too?

Author: Hundreds.

 

The characters at this point all stop and share a very brief moment. Notice how I said that the characters all stop and not the people all stop. That’s because, as the reader has undoubtedly forgotten by this point, the characters are not real people and are merely a projection of the author’s imagination. These characters, like you and me and all real people, could be at any moment pummeled, hanged, squashed, shot, crucified, buried, or otherwise knocked out of life.

 

Sisyphus: You and I, we are not so different.
Author: No, in fact we are exactly the same.
Sisyphus: Indeed, could you not, for my (or rather your) sake create another Sisyphus to roll the stone up the hill in my place.
Author: Sorry, but no. There would be little to no precedent for that. It would shock people.
Sisyphus: Bah. Aren’t you good for anything?
Author: Am I?
Sisyphus: Are you?
Author: Who, me?
Sisyphus: I don’t know I asked you.
Author: Asked me what?
Sisyphus: I asked, are you?
Author: Am I what?
Sisyphus: I don’t know.
Zeus: Who?
Author: You know Sisyphus, sometimes I feel we struggle to communicate.

Sisyphus: What?

 

At this point a silence descends over our mighty cast of characters and they reach what seems to be a profound and lasting understanding.

Sisyphus (breaking the quite lengthy silence)So now what?

 

Author: Back to you rolling that stone up the hill for the rest of time, that’s what this is all about after all.
Stone: I thought it was more about you writing a play so that you could gain all this respect and admiration. You probably think you’re pretty clever referencing yourself all the time, you probably think this is how you’re going to get your respect and admiration. You probably think that if you keep doing this the audience is going to view the author as an actual character and forget who you are. You’re not fooling me author, you’re in control of everything here. Everybody listen the author is a fake character who should not be trusted.
Author: No, I’m not. I’m a real character. Look at me I’m in the play.Stone: Only because you wrote yourself into the play.
Author: I’ll write you out of the play if you keep mouthing off to me, I am your author for Zeus’ sake. I control you at this very moment.
Stone: Screw you. I’ll talk about whatever I want.

Author: That’s it, you’re out.

 

With a snap of his fingers and the explosion of some yellow and decidedly metaphysical smoke, the stone ceases to exist.

 

Sisyphus (alarmed)What was that all about?
Author: What?
Sisyphus: You just made him disappear.
Author: I could make all of you disappear, I’m the author.
Zeus (a cool annoyance playing upon his face): This play makes no sense at all, you should stick to whatever else you’re good at and leave us alone.
Author: I’m not good at anything else.
Stone: You’re not particularly good at this either.

Author: How’d you get back in here?

 

With another finger snap the stone is once again gone.

Author (
frustrated at the defiance of his characters, viewing this incident as a rebellion against a
Zeus: I agree with Sisyphus, by making your work more plot based you could appeal to a much larger, much less Existentialist population.
Sisyphus (after a short pause, now scratching his chin): Also it seems you have a habit repeating the same things over and over again. For example, you have already used the word ‘clever’ six times, in this short play. Also you’re often quite redundant.
Zeus: A pattern of tautology as well if I’m not mistaken.
Sisyphus: Indeed.
Author: Stop saying that. Stop criticizing me.
Sisyphus: But you’re the author, you’re making us say these things.
Author: That is true, my self-deprecating sense of humor has always been a large flaw of mine. I’d say my self-deprecation is the main reason why I have not and never will amount to anything and the reason why I feel I need to assert absolute and total control over fictional characters.
Sisyphus: Wait, so let me get this straight, you have complete control over us?
Author: That’s right.
Sisyphus: You can make us do whatever you want?
Author: Bingo.
Sisyphus: So I don’t really have any free will?
Author: I made you say that. I’m picking whatever you say, next you’ll complain about how this is all horribly unfair.
Sisyphus: This is all horribly unfair.
Author: God, Sisyphus you complain a lot. I should have chosen a more likable main character, this little story would sell a lot better.
Sisyphus: You would complain too if you had to roll a stone up a hill for eternity and then to add insult to injury a dumb little author appeared every once in awhile to make things awful for you. Can you imagine how hard it is for me?
Author: Nobody cares about your little sob story.
Sisyphus: Are you kidding me? I have to roll this stone up for a hill for eternity.
Author: Yeah, we get it. You’ve already complained about this stone thing.
Sisyphus: For eternity, do you have any idea how long that is going to take? By the time I’m finished I’m gonna be all old and gray and decrepit. Pauses. How long is eternity anyway?
Author: Well, let me think…….(mumbles under his breath, does the math in his head) divide by three, carry the one…..
Zeus: It is quite simple to prove that not all infinities are of equal size. Cantorian diagonalization can be used to prove that since infinities lack bijection-
Author (still mumbling, doing math in his enormous head): Multiply by the square root of 2 …..add two pi over five….
Zeus (continuing on): — and some sets can naturally be mapped onto larger sets (ie the set of square numbers onto the set of positive integers). Therefore it is impossible to say how large your infinity is.
Author: 127 years. Infinity is equal to 127 years. I have proved it.
Sisyphus: Well that’s not so bad. I feel I have an infinity or two yet in these limbs.
Author: Good thing, you never can know how many infinities I’ll make you work through.
Sisyphus: I’d rather live through an infinity of infinities than spend another second with you.
Author: You know you’re really starting to piss me off.
Sisyphus: What are you going to do write me out of the story? The story doesn’t make any sense without me.

Author: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

 

The author, a man of infinite wit and perfect judgement, writes out Sisyphus. Sisyphus has ceased to exist.

 

Author: Jesus Christ, I work every goddamn day writing these tiny little characters. I give them their own little minds and their own little thoughts and what do they do? They turn on me. The little bastards. Why did I choose to write when I could have gone and become a policeman or a soldier or some other easy job?
Zeus: So I guess it’s just you and me.

Author: Screw you.

 

The author begins to write out the character Zeus when he is interrupted-

 

Author’s conscience: Are you sure this is wise? If you write out Zeus it will just be you alone in this story and that’s not particularly interesting, is it?

Author: Screw you too.

 

Author proceeds to write out both Zeus and his own conscience. There is a profound emptiness, a silence, as the author realizes that he is all alone in this universe and that without the illusions created by his own mind that he is truly a pirate in a sea of cosmic emptiness.

 

Author (lonely, smiling): So much for pathos.

 

So much for pathos.

 

Ted Baas is a student at Holland Christian High School. His interests include reading and writing.

Christopher DeWan: The American Dream and the Future of Television.

Fellow student Kalista Puhnaty and I sat down with Christopher DeWan to talk life, writing, his career, and his new book of short stories, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan is author of HOOPTY TIME MACHINES: fairy tales for grown ups, a collection of domestic fabulism from Atticus Books. He has published more than fifty stories in journals including Bodega, Gravel, Hobart, Passages North, and wigleaf, and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. In 2017, he was named as one of the ISA’s “Top 25” screenwriters and recipient of a fellowship from the Middlebury Script Lab. 

 

Chris started with the history of his relationship to literature, and how it grew into his life as a writer.

 

My mom was an English teacher and when she wanted to celebrate something, she would take us to a bookstore as a special treat. At the end of the school year, we would celebrate by binge-buying a bunch of books.

In terms of a “writing career” I think of that term as an oxymoron. Leaving school environments and going into adult environments and figuring out what role I wanted writing to play in my life changed a lot. I worked for ad agencies for a while, then I was a blogger. I had a decently well known blog. Writing came up in a lot of different ways so that even when I wasn’t writing, I thought of myself as a writer. I worked in theater for a long time, partly as a playwright but I ran a couple theaters for a couple of years. It wasn’t always writing, but it was always stories.

 

His debut collection of these stories, Hoopty Time Machines, opens with an epigraph: “In olden times, when wishing still helped…” It’s a pregnant introduction; the ellipses are ominous, suggesting that what’s to come is a world where the hopefulness of the old world still holds some magical play. But these tales aren’t sweetly magical or thinly veiled moral lessons. Goldilocks navigates the modern dating world while juggling jobs, a husband watches his wife have an affair with Poseidon after they meet on a kayaking trip, the last man on Earth blogs about solitude. What follows the epigraph is over forty stories, or “fairy tales for grown ups,” as the subtitle calls them.

 

The stories that repeat in our daily lives become personal mythologies. DeWan identifies these myths and presents them to us, sometimes as revitalized classics; those legends and fairy tales we’ve heard since children.

 

The stories in [Hoopty Time Machines], I wrote over the span of four or five years, and I wrote other stories that weren’t a part of that book. But for the book I wanted stories that were already familiar to us, whether it was a myth or a fairy tale, but something we all knew so we could look for other ways to see it, hold it up, and show something a little different.

In that book, a lot of stories go back to Greek mythology. The label “fairy tale” came later when I was talking to the editor of the book. I was like, Oh yea haha these are like fairy tales for grown ups, and he was like, I can market that! We’ll make millions!

A lot of what glued those stories together was that it had a lot to do with the hopes and aspirations we have. It was a lot of American dreamy fairy tales, the fact that we all buy into the idea that our futures will be a certain way, and then we go down certain paths looking for those things, and that might or might not come true, but it’s never what we expected it would be. And ultimately that was the fairy tale that was at the heart of a lot of those stories that glued them all together.

The reason the book starts with a story that explicitly calls out the American dream, and the last story does the same thing, is because I wanted to make sure people felt that vibe even after we talked about Greek mythology and Rapunzel and Goldilocks, that it was still couched in the aspirations we all have to live happily ever after, and how hard that is in real life, how irreconcilable that is with real life.

 

The first story in the book captures this irreconcilable disjunction between the fairy tale world we pursue and its evil twin, reality. The piece is titled “Conestoga Wagon,” and it goes like this: “When he lost his job at Best Buy, Dad packed all of our things into a Conestoga wagon and we crossed the border into Canada, in search of the American Dream.”

 

“Conestoga Wagon,” like its counterparts in the collection, sits at the junction between our modern reality (the loss of a retail job), and the fairytale world where our hopes and dreams originate (traveling by mystical Conestoga wagon). It ends critical of the American dream, our great, looming fairytale, and the fact that it can’t be found here, but in another country altogether.

 

DeWan presents a series of easily digestible ideas, but they left me satisfied as I turned the page. A previous story would often hit me while I was in the middle of reading the next. And this is no mistake or distraction. The stories build on each other, expanding on a world where “wishing still helped,” even when it seems to be no help at all. There are many hapless people struggling to deal with a world where logic and reason is replaced by wonder.

 

There was a point two thirds through writing the story that I became aware of what kept coming up. And then I realized, oh that’s what I’m writing about, and I could do it more consciously instead of accidentally. With the stories in the book in particular, some of them are so short. They were just accidents. I’m always writing and there would just be some weird idea that got stuck in my head and I decided to write about that for twenty minutes. So they didn’t start with a lot of intention, they just bubbled up out of an image that I couldn’t quite puzzle out. Later I figured out, oh, this image added up to this story, and this added up to this story, and this added up to this and so on. Once I realized that, I decided that’s what the book will be.

I think naturally, there’s the stuff you’re interested in and you can’t get away from, so if you put enough words on paper, those will be the words that keep repeating, the stuff you’re already obsessed with.

And it doesn’t mean we can’t write other things too, and it doesn’t mean we can’t do it with more intention. Like some of those stories came up by accident, but some of them I steered. But I do think that the more layers we peel off, and the more honest we can be with ourselves, the more we keep going back to those same themes, those things we really, really, really care about, whether we know it or not.

 

Hoopty Time Machines offers up stories with various depths. Many stories are perfectly short to meet the required idea within. “Sacramento,” for example:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into some other one.”

Even though it’s a one liner, “Sacramento,” feels like a complete story. Others are one paragraph, or just a page.

 

In the stories in this book, sometimes I wanted it to just be enough to evoke a question. In some cases the question was more interesting than the answers to the question. With “Sacramento,” I wanted to think about all the other possible alternatives to this one story that we all know somewhat well, this cultural troupe. All of a sudden I wanted to imagine all of the things that didn’t happen.

The first story in the book, [“Conestoga Wagon”] the one I mentioned earlier, is just a sentence about this family who goes to Canada looking for the American dream. I could’ve written, and then they settle in Canada and become micro brewers and learn hockey, or whatever. But for me it was about invoking the possibility and putting a little crack in the myth of the American dream. That was all I wanted and then it was time to get out.

The longer stories were more character based. A character intrigued me more and had more going on so I couldn’t really dismiss them with a couple funny lines, I had to live with them a little longer and try to recon with their complexities a little more.

 

DeWan does well to trust the power in the economy of his words. The length of these stories perfectly match their reach. But even the shortest stories tell us as much about their close little worlds as ten pagers, like “Rapunzel’s Tangles.”  I was hard pressed to find a superfluous word or detail that detracted from the punch of a story.

 

Some of the stories in the book are so short, shorter than people are used to or might expect, and easy for people to dismiss. Like, how much substance can there be?

There’s this Argentine writer named Augusto Monterroso, and he wrote this story I read many years ago. I think the whole story went like this: “When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” And that’s the whole story.

Again, all the questions of that are so much more interesting. Why was the dinosaur there? How did the dinosaur get there? What happened the night before? Right? It’s just this weird thing that cracks my brain for a second.

Ever since I read that story I wanted to write those little zen koan of stories that make people see things a little differently, at least for a minute.

There’s a story in this book where the first draft was like a thousand words long, and I started cutting some things that were getting in the way of the real essence of it. And I was cutting and cutting and cutting and I got it down to eighty three words. At a thousand words it can go either direction, it can either be a clever thing that can help you see things in a new way and then it’s done, or it can be about real people, and reveal things about people that are complex, that could never be done in just a thousand words.

It feels like you’re trying to crack a gemstone. You have this raw thing and you’re trying to chisel away the parts to make it perfect as much as you can. And that’s different than a bigger story. A bigger story has to be messier. The rewards in that story come from some of the mess. I think in an eighty three word story, if there’s mess in there then there’s an impurity in the gemstone.

 

Chris is well versed in these “bigger stories.” His website boasts a series of screenplays. He also teaches a weekly TV writing course at Idyllwild Arts Academy.

 

I moved back to LA in 2010. I’d been in New York for a bunch of years doing this blog and writing fiction, but by then all of my playwriting friends from when I was in theatre had moved back to LA and were doing TV. So I got back and they were like, Why aren’t you doing TV? And they were getting nicer and nicer houses so I was like, Why aren’t I doing TV?

I’ve been working in and around Hollywood since then. I didn’t really start on TV writing until 2012. I do think because of that whole prior decade where I was working in theater, TV feels more continuous to me.

The there was this giant migration of theatre people to TV. There are so many TV writers now who are just TV writers that if you just walk in the door and you’re like Hi, I write fiction, they’re like Have a seat, have a drink, make yourself comfortable. They’re fascinated just by the fact that you’re a little different. That absolutely happened to playwrights, they got taken way more seriously for having studied craft instead of just going to film school.

What was shiny and new and refreshing to all the bored Hollywood executives were these new writers who were suddenly new to television and trying to bring new things. Particularly at this time where TV itself is getting weird and breaking all its rules. The whole medium has turned itself out in the past decade, and in the past five years, and in the past two years, and in the past six months, with not even the stuff we think of as TV but with web series and shorter form things, there are so many different ways people are trying to tell stories right now.

I’m working on a virtual reality project, and no one knows how this works, no one has had one that actually works yet. There are a couple experiments that are kind of interesting but kinda don’t work. But no one knows the story that you can tell in virtual reality that doesn’t work as a gimmick but works as a story.

As the executives realized the medium was changing, they got really curious to get people who were interested in a variety of storytelling platforms.

TV stories are at the other polar extreme of those really short short stories that I was talking about. Those really short short stories can get by on being clever because once you have the idea it’s over. A TV story is never over, so clever isn’t enough. Clever is enough to get people laughing. The only thing that makes a TV story work is that I have to care about the people, and they have to be going on this journey that I can invest in. It doesn’t mean I have to like them, it doesn’t mean they have to be doing things I want to do, but if I can’t find a reason to care about them and all of their ongoing heartbreaks, disappointments and struggles.

Striving is a key ingredient in a TV show, the characters don’t have what they want, so they’re striving to get something, and by the end of the episode they won’t get it, or they’ll get it and it won’t satisfy the thing they wanted. And then they keep striving. If they were ever to quit striving, the show would be over. Whatever human engine drives them is really compelling, to look at people that deeply, and have this longform opportunity to understand how people work when they’re colliding with other people. Particularly when they’re colliding with the same people every week, and their relationships get deeper and stranger and more like our relationships.

The first show that made me realize this was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the twentieth anniversary of Buffy today, but I still love it because it does all those things. It dressed itself up as this light, silly, clever show. This light gemstone of a show — this girl’s going to go kill vampires, how cute and clever — and then it totally tricked me into loving those characters, and crying over them, and wanting what they wanted. When I watched the ad, I thought that show was going to be fun. Instead, I wound up weeping week after week after week, and having fun. But if I hadn’t cared about them, I wouldn’t have watched it for seven consecutive years.

 

Chris just touched on this word “tricked.” I was wondering how that played a role in his story telling. How does this affect a screenwriter’s relationship with the audience?

 

You have a relationship with the audience where you’re promising certain things, and if you ever don’t deliver on that promise, they’ll stop watching. So you can’t trick them at that level. You can’t promise them a show about a cute cheerleader who will kill vampires and it will be fun and funny all the time, and then give them something different and expect them to keep watching. So you trick them at that level. I think you trick them at the level of a constant sleight of hand where the character is almost going to get what they want, or they do get that thing, and the trick is that only once they arrive did they learn that the thing they needed to learn wouldn’t help them. That the thing they thought they wanted wasn’t what was missing. And it keeps the story going.

The trick is all the tricks that keep a story going. How can you be more clever, or more interesting, or more revealing, or more honest?

Another show I really admire is Six Feet Under. It’s not really plot driven at all, it’s just this family and they’re stuck together, but the way that story keeps going is they just keep peeling off more and more layers of their relationship. Or we see more and more layers of those relationships. The only trick there is that they’re going to keep surprising us just when we think we know them. They’re going to do something that’s not what I expected and yet more right for them than anything I ever would’ve expected. When a show works, I feel it doing that to me: I never saw that coming, but that’s the only thing that could have happened.

Shameless does that a lot. It just goes deeper and deeper and deeper into those people, and we know all the ways they’re going to disappoint us, and yet they manage to disappoint us in ways that are even more disappointing than I ever expected. And then I get my hopes up for them all over again the next time.

 

The differences between prose and TV writing feel obvious to the audience, but as a writer of both, Chris spoke on these differences between the final products and the writing processes themselves.

 

There are a lot of ways where the differences are obvious, but there are other ways where they’re not as different as we think. Either way we’re telling a story. A lot of times I’ll start something, and at the beginning I won’t know if I want to write it as prose, or if I want to write it as a script. It will take a while to feel out the story to know what kind of story it is. The more internal the story is, the more likely it is to be prose. If what I care about is about what’s going on inside your head, then that’s hard to put into a script, but not impossible. But if it’s more about what happens between us, that might work better as a script.

We’re all so saturated in video stories, that we all think pretty cinematically anyway. A lot of fiction that you read might be easy to shoot. Not all fiction, there’s fiction that people create that can only be fiction. You can’t shoot the inside of that person’s head.

TV has forced fiction to get weirder too, more innovative. But there are plenty of people who are not writing fiction like that. Plenty of people are writing fiction that’s more like a movie. There’s obviously a ton of space for them in the marketplace.

For me, if it starts with an image I’ll often scratch at the image in prose until I understand what the image is. Sometimes the image grows into something that will cross paths with the character, and maybe the character then takes the baton and runs with the story from there. At that point, maybe it becomes a script instead. But if it stays with the image, and it doesn’t get the baton passed to the character, it stays in prose. If the thing starts with the character from the outset, if the image that I’m intrigued with is the character, I’ll almost always start that as a script.

There are certain people who only think of themselves as screenwriters so they don’t have to even decide, like people who only think of themselves as prose writers. But for people who do both, every one probably has a different process. I don’t know how other people decide to open up Final Draft, or keep it in Word, at what point they’re like, this isn’t gonna work as a story.

All this writing that we do is trial and error experiments. We try it and see if it works, and if it doesn’t work but we still like the story, we try it in another way. Prose vs. script is another set of choices we can make to decide if the story lives better like this or like that.

 

Chris went on to share the methods he uses to push his writing process forward.

 

I wish I had easy, efficient tricks. A lot of my teaching, I do through writing prompts. I’ll set someone up with a prompt and tell them to write for fifteen minutes. The trick in that case is then the writer doesn’t have to worry about deciding anything. The pressure of deciding what to write gets taken away from you, so you don’t have to do both jobs. You don’t have to be the writer and the teacher if someone else is saying do this. That’s a harder process to do for ourselves. If I give myself a writing prompt, if I get bored, then thirty seconds in I call bullshit on it. I’m like, I gave myself that prompt, I don’t have to do it, there’s no teacher here, so I won’t do it. That means the tricks I use when I’m trying to help other people write aren’t the tricks I use when I’m trying to write.

The tricks I use for myself are grossly inefficient. I just write everyday. I write lots and lots and lots of words. But the words will ramble uselessly if I don’t frame it as trying to solve problems. That helps. The theater background helped me figure that out. Improv games in theater are usually setting a couple actors on stage and asking them to solve this problem. And all of a sudden you have a scene because two people are working on something. If I’m not trying to solve a problem, then I’m usually just journaling and that’s not gonna help me find my story. If I actually flip the switch and say, What problem am I trying to solve, then all of a sudden the work gets a lot more focused.

But it doesn’t keep me from rambling in my journal too, because sometimes I need to filter out the noise. When I’m not trying to solve a problem and I’m just throwing words at the page, that’s just like taking my pulse. I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on in the back of my head.

I vacillate between those. Sometimes I just want to know what’s going on in the back of my head because that’s where I might find the next story. Sometimes I want to take that thing I found and try to hammer it into a story, and that’s when it gets into problem solving.

 

Kalista Puhnaty and Campbell Dixon 

Tilt

Tilt explores a taboo subject seen through the eyes of a small boy. Ashira Shirali uses a childlike voice to depict the hard realism within the piece.

This summer Mummy, Daddy, Bunny and I are going to visit Grandmammy in her house by the sea. We don’t visit Grandmammy often. Mummy says it’s because she lives so far away.

When we visit Mummy lets me and Bunny play at the edge of the water near Grandmammy’s house. Bunny gets all fat and bloated and then Mummy has to put him out to dry. Mummy says best friends can’t be stuffed toys but I know she’s wrong because Bunny is mine. He always wants to play the games I think of and he never laughs at me like the boys in school.

The last time we visited Grandmammy I was only in kindergarten. Grandmammy told me she’d buy me a chocolate sprinkle cone if I tell Daddy that I want Grandmammy to live with us. Mummy was angry when she found out. I didn’t get ice cream and we came back three days early.

I like looking out of the window to see the big trees at the side of the road. There are only small trees where we live. Mummy points out pretty birds and a little monkey sitting on a rock. The monkey acts very funnily, jumping about and scratching itself. I yell out, “Mummy, it’s touching its bum!”

Mummy says the monkey is acting in this Shameful Way because it isn’t intelligent like me. I look away quickly from the monkey which doesn’t know not to show its Private Parts in front of others.

We finally reach Grandmammy’s house. When I enter Grandmammy smiles and says, “Who is this handsome young boy?” I laugh and run to the other room to sit on the bed and watch Scooby Doo while Daddy and Mummy talk to Grandmammy.

During dinner, Grandmammy puts rice on my plate and says, “Such a shame that he has to grow up an only child.”

Daddy says, “We’re a happy family of three.” I feed Bunny some of my rice.

“Those who cannot do better must be…” Then Daddy is yelling at Grandmammy and Grandmammy is yelling back. Mummy is

trying to get Daddy to sit back down. Bunny falls off his seat.

Daddy goes straight to bed without clearing his plate. I ask Mummy if Daddy wants to play I Spy but she says no, not right now. Grandmammy says she can play with me, but I say no, thank you and sit with Mummy and colour my notebook.

On the last day of our visit, I make sandcastles till Mummy says it’s time to pack. I run in, put my clothes in my blue sailor backpack, and try to run out but Mummy stops me. I have to wait there while she and Daddy carry our bags to the car.

I sit on Grandmammy’s blue sofa and swing my legs. Grandmammy keeps strange things on the side tables – little stones from a riverbank, a mood lamp, a prayer wheel from Tibet. Grandmammy doesn’t have any toys or comics.

Bunny and I are playing cross and noughts with my red jumbo crayon when Grandmammy comes into the room. She starts taking out jars and boxes and putting them noisily on the table. Mummy says it isn’t polite to make so much noise but I don’t say this to Grandmammy because I don’t want her to feel bad.

I know I have to listen to Grandmammy because she’s older than me. I stop and make more crosses.

“You’re acting like a cat in heat,” Grandmammy says in an odd voice. She’s looking at me strangely. I look down at my notebook paper. I wish Grandmammy would go back to moving the jars. I wish Mummy would come back into the room.

I try to focus on my notebook. But Bunny falls off the sofa and I’m trying to win the game and I’m used to shaking my leg when I sit.

Grandmammy is yelling at me now. “Stop it! Shaking your legs means you want sex. Is that what you want?”

I stop doing everything at once.

I feel like when Vicky from class hit me on the head and I couldn’t breathe or think, I just waited silently for Mummy to come get me. My eyes are burning. I nod like a puppet.

Grandmammy said the s-word.

The Dirty and Wrong Thing you shouldn’t say.

The Secret Thing grown-ups do in movies after they take off their clothes, even though you should never show anyone your Private Parts.

The Very Shameful Thing you cannot say.

The Chinese paintings on Grandmammy’s walls are tilting. It makes my head hurt. I want Mummy to come and take me away like she did after Vicky hit me. I want to go far away from Grandmammy who says these Terrible Things.

But my arms and legs aren’t working so I just sit there.

Mummy and Daddy come to take me to the car sometime. They say bye to Grandmammy. I say bye to the plant next to Grandmammy’s feet. Grandmammy says she hopes we visit again soon. I hope Daddy forgets the way to Grandmammy’s house.

The small pebbles in front of Grandmammy’s house are jumping. My Lightning McQueen sandals are tripping over them so Mummy takes my hand. My eyes are open too wide and I look at the dancing pebbles so Mummy doesn’t notice and make me repeat the Bad Thing Grandmammy said.

In the car I open the window and look out. Mummy asks me if I want to sing a song. She asks if I want to play I Spy. I pretend to sleep and she stops asking.

I feel like I’ve fallen in a very muddy and smelly puddle. I don’t touch Mummy’s hand when she gives me a sandwich so the dirt won’t get on her too. When we get out of the car to go home I see the sandwich fallen on the floor.

Only at night, when I’m pouring shower gel and water into my ears do I realise that I left Bunny behind.

Ashira Shirali is a high school student from Gurgaon, India. She loves books, music, good food and the colour blue. Her work has been published in Teen Ink and Moledro Magazine.

Visual Art by Paulina Otero