B. G. Kinney

Darling Eddie

He sent a letter she hadn’t opened yet. She wasn’t ready. They left on bad terms– insults, shouting.

Standing by her car, the windy rain hit her head like a million people spitting from the clouds. Charred ground confronted her with the blackened skeletons of tumbleweed, beer cans, tire shreds and dead house pets. Cars rushed by at her back, spraying her with their wake in a curt mechanical sound.

The fire burned some of the freeway lanes. A chain-link fence stood between the auto dealership and Interstate 10. Wilted bouquets lay at the foot of it with white streamers woven into the links to make a cross and a person’s name– “Eddie”… darling Eddie.

She looked over the scorched earth leading up to the makeshift shrine. His time came too fast. Eddie was invincible, impervious to death, like any headstrong, cocky boy, awkwardly overwrought with his own youth.

She wasn’t sure what bothered her more– what was gone, or what was just beginning.

The rain stopped and the sunlight broke through the clouds sending down beams of light that looked so ethereal against the darkened clouds. Some might have taken this as a sign from heaven, but to her it seemed like God was mocking her. How could the sun warm such an ugly spot of earth?

She resented the fact she could not be alone, hundreds of speeding intruders watching a lone girl with wet stringy hair and worried eyes. She only hoped nobody who knew her was going by.

She didn’t know what to do with herself. And that was before any of this happened. Ready to graduate high school with nowhere to go. Friends and family now called at all hours to offer their support and prayers. But she grew tired of their awkward platitudes.

“You must be strong, move on with life and persevere,” blah, blah, blah. Her mother set up a meeting with the priest at St. Rose’s, a stodgy old-school cleric who spoke in calm, measured tones but like others in his profession loved God, everyone, and no one.

She thought about hopping into her little red Toyota and just driving to nowhere in particular. But she had no money and the car was making strange noises.

She fought with Eddie for hours and hours about the pregnancy. He wanted an abortion, but she wasn’t so sure, especially since it would constitute a cardinal sin. Now the little embryo slowly growing inside her was all she had left of him. Her mother’s Catholic pride would be shattered.

She could see Eddie in his Ford Rambler. A car he rebuilt with his brother, Richie. It rumbled down the street like an angry steed fueled with nervous energy combusting under the cool veneer. He sat in the front seat, sunglasses on, flashing his freshly tattooed deltoids.

But she knew everything that Eddie the tough gangbanger tried to hide. The Eddie who cried when they watched West Side Story and Maria cradled the dying Tony. Eddie the romantic, who dreamed of taking her away to some quiet town as far from gangland as he could go. He saw this house he wanted in a magazine, cut out the page and put it on the wall of his bedroom. It was a two-story house with dormer windows topped by a quarter-horse weathervane behind a while picket fence in a tree-lined neighborhood. It looked like nothing in his neighborhood of stucco bungalows and dilapidated Ranch-style surrounded by rusting iron fences and snarling pitbulls.

His family moved out to the Inland Empire to get away from the bad influences, but the bad influences just seemed to follow them. Or, maybe the bad influences were already there but his parents just saw what they wanted to see. Eddie kept talking about moving to the East Coast because he couldn’t think of any place farther away than that, and it looked almost otherworldly on television, like Narnia or Middle-earth.

Poor Eddie. Speeding down the rain-drenched highway, he ended up lodged beneath a tanker truck full of fuel that spilled everywhere. The fireball could be seen as far as Fontana.

Back at home, her mother was still at work and the letter lay on a candy dish like a sealed verdict.  It was time.  She couldn’t let it sit there any longer. She could feel his energy around the envelope like a holy aura.  She could see his hands as he wrote the words that she read silently. It contained a lyric from a Bruce Springsteen song:

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
And maybe everything that dies, someday comes back
Put your make-up on
Fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.

B.G. Kinney has lived and worked in and around the Inland Empire for much of his adult life. He is a marketing and communications professional for a higher education institution in the IE.

Christian Shepherd

Red Sunset

Part One

Adam stood a precautionary three feet away from the edge of the grassy hillside. This distrust of heights had very recently snuck up on him; he used to hang his feet over the ledge without a giving a single thought to the consequences of a misplaced step. It was quite the contrary now, as he looked over the edge, he had decided that it was at least a six-story drop to the bottom, riddled with plenty of rugged weeds and stubborn shrubbery to ensure ample amounts of scrapes, gashes, and bruises if you found yourself falling down the steep incline. The thought of it intensified the usual tightness of his chest.

The sunset had already fallen below the mountain range in the distance, but that didn’t bother him. Adam had always preferred the subtle red hue of a post-sunset/pre-nightfall sky to the blinding yellow that the sun was always so eager to offer. The red sunset had fallen onto a nearby mahogany tree and highlighted small withstanding carvings that he had made with her when they were kids.

This hillside was a place where all the neighborhood kids gathered to play and fight despite numerous grim warnings from their parents to avoid the cliff. Not many of them listened. The path they used required a hiking and squeezing through terrain that adults were to unadventurous to take to ensure their children were having no misadventures of their own. The path had become even more overgrown and unnavigable since his generation had abandoned the cliff side haven.

Adam remembered the evenings that he would spend with her on the cliff side alone when all the other kids in the neighborhood had gone home. Memories he had forgotten about, jokes between the two of them, moments of weakness, anger, and sadness; countless occasions came resonating back to him and he smirked when he remembered that they spent more nights together on the hillside while they lived here than nights they didn’t. He was just a boy back then, with short black hair and light skin. He was average height for his age, but was in good shape from playing sports. Adam had always felt as if there was nothing distinctive about his appearance; no freckles, birthmarks, or other physical attributed to separate him from everyone else.

It had become their tradition, even a secret between the two of them. Adam would often leave early and come back when she was alone to avoid explaining their daily routine to their friends, who, as most kids their age would, would give them a hard time about spending so much time together.

It had started by accident one evening when Adam had climbed to the hillside alone. He had just moved into town a few months prior and this hill had become one of his favorite parts of the move. This particular evening, he was surprised to see a young girl he recognized from the neighborhood brigade of kids sitting right next to what he had become to think of as his personal tree.

Adam wasn’t sure how to react that evening. He hadn’t made any friends in his new neighborhood and lacked the courage to walk up to the kids he would see outside every day. In fact, if it hadn’t been for her hair, a deep, soft red with curls running past her shoulders, he might have turned around and left without muttering a single word.

As it was, Adam stood immobilized by the way her curls matched the faint red in the sky. Before long the young girl had turned around and noticed Adam behind her. No syllables came to mind for him to utter, let alone fully formed words or sentences. He unwillingly left any chance of conversation between the two of them up to the red-headed girl.

“Well hi there,” she said, catching Adam off-guard despite the fact that a few sizable moments had passed since they had made eye contact. “I didn’t know anyone else came here.”

Adam wasn’t sure how to respond. Her tone and body language were non-existent and he couldn’t be sure if she was upset that he might have intruded on her what could have been her spot for a lot longer than it was his.

“Yeah, I actually just started a few weeks ago,” he managed to wrench out. “I moved
here not too long ago.”

The young girl smiled, but Adam could barely recognize her expression through the shadows on her face from the sunset behind her. It was hard for Adam to look in her direction without being blinded from the last bit of the day’s sunlight.

“It’s nice isn’t it?” the young girl asked through her smile. “I have been coming here for as long as I can remember. I grew up in this town.”

Adam again found himself at a loss of words. The blinding light was doing its fair share of diverting his focus. To remedy the situation, he began walking towards the girl and took a seat next to her. When he finally found his seat on the cliff side he turned his gaze and was able to focus on reciprocating the conversation.

“I grew up in a bigger city than this one,” he began. “I never really got to see anything like this where I used to live. I doubt there was a spot like this there anyway.” She turned her head away from his direction back towards the sunset when he tried to look at her. When he realized she wasn’t planning on looking back, he matched her gaze and focused on the hills that were fading into a darker green as the sunset made its way down.

“Well you can come and see it every day now,” the girl said to him as she placed a hand on his far shoulder. It felt warm and familiar. He had never liked the old city he used to live in. It was too busy and chaotic for his taste. The slow pace and serenity of this small town was a much better fit. She looked at him intently and gave him his first chance to examine her face.

She had clusters of even spaced subtle red freckles throughout her nose and cheeks. Her teeth were straight, but like most kids their age; they were too big for her face. She wore big squared black glasses that slid down her nose regularly and her lips were the same tone as the freckles that decorated her face, chapped from playing outside in the wind. Her skin was the same tone as his: a light complexion, making the red accents throughout her face apparent. The large square glasses left plenty of room to see her hazel eyes, which were focused right at him.

“Yeah, I can,” Adam murmured under his breath as he returned a small smile. “What is your name anyways?”

“Emily,” she said as she once again turned her face away from Adam, replacing the veil of shadow across her face. “The other boys call me Em.”

“I like Emily. I think I’ll stick with that.” Adam had caught himself leaning forward to get another look at her face when he realized he was dangerous close to losing his balance on the cliff side. “My name is Adam,” he said, finding his balance as he spoke.
Emily brought her half-clenched hand to her mouth as she smiled. “Adam, I like that name too.”

“How old are you Emily?”

“Fourteen. My birthday just passed a few days ago.”

“That means you are older than me.”

“I guess so! How old are you?”

“Thirteen, my birthday is in about a month.”

“Aw, the little baby!” Emily joked as she lightly pinched Adams cheek. “Are you looking forward to your birthday party?”

“You are barely older than me,” Adam said. “I already had a party in my old neighborhood. It doubled as a going away party, so I don’t think I’ll have another one.”

“Why not? Maybe your new friends want to celebrate with you!”

“Well…I haven’t made too many new friends here yet, since school hasn’t started and I haven’t been able to meet anyone. You are actually the first person I have met from this town.”

“Why haven’t you come outside? We are out here every day.”

“I don’t know,” Adam mumbled. “I have been busy unpacking and helping set the…”

“You should come out and meet everyone else tomorrow. We usually team up and play baseball or hike through the hills.”

“That sounds like fun,” Adam said as he smiled. “You guys usually meet up at the bottom of this hill right? You sure they won’t mind?”

“Yep, right at the bottom where you first have to go through to come up here. No I’m sure they won’t. Just a fair warning though, you better get used to losing to a girl in baseball. All the boys have a hard time with it at first.”

Adam laughed and stood up to brush the grass that had collected on his jeans. “I think I will be alright, especially since I was already planning on letting you win anyways.”

The two sat and enjoyed the rich red tint of the fallen sun, occasionally glancing towards the darker, bluer side of the sky to spot a falling star, or what they would later figure out to be airplanes flying at dusk.

“Looks like the sunset is almost gone. I should probably get back home,” Emily said.

“I didn’t realize how late it had gotten. My parents are not going to be happy…”

“Mine either! I have been late a lot lately. How about we meet back up here tomorrow to watch it again? Only this time we will make sure to leave earlier,” Emily said as she headed down the path.

“Sure, as long as we aren’t grounded. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You are going to come tomorrow right? To meet everyone else? Don’t make me go and ring your doorbell.”

Adam smirked, “Don’t worry, I’ll be there.”

“Good bye Adam, see you tomorrow.”

Adam stayed for another few minutes. “How could I not come?” he smirked to himself.


The morning of anticipation had arrived and Adam found himself walking towards a large group of people he did not know. He scoured the group looking for the red head of Emily to introduce him as he got closer and closer to the edge of the hill.

“Hey there,” a tall, pale boy said. “Are you the one who just moved in?”

“Yeah, just down the street. I have only been here for a little while.”

“Well, what took you so long to come out?”

“What does it matter? I’m sure he doesn’t want to answer a thousand questions,” said a petite blonde girl from the back of the group.”

“I’m not picking on him or anything Elizabeth,” the tall boy. “Anyways, what’s you r name? “

“I’m Adam.”

“Oh good, you don’t have the same name as anyone else here. That would have been annoying. I’m James,” he said as he waved to Adam.

“Nice to meet you,” Adam said, returning the wave and looking at the other fifteen people who were standing behind James.

“You are kind of shy aren’t ya?” said a black haired boy who was standing next to Elizabeth.

“What makes you say that?” Adam said, a little annoyed at the boy’s comment.

“You took longer than a month to come out and meet us. I was sure you would never come out at all.”

“Well, sorry to disappoint you. I ran into Emily and she told me to come meet up with everyone. Where is she anyways?” Adam directed the conversation back to James, who he had already decided he liked a lot more than the dark, bold person in the back.”

“She is probably coming late like always. That’s Peter by the way.”

“Have a crush on her already?” Peter asked.

“What do you mean?”

Peter walked up close to Adam and shoved his finger into Adam’s chest. “I said you have only been here a day and you are already crushing on someone?”

Adam was thrown off. “It’s a little fast to crush on someone isn’t it? Why would I have a crush on her anyways…”

“Why wouldn’t someone have a crush on me?” Emily panted as she ran in from behind the crowd. “You met everyone already? Don’t pay attention to Peter. He is an idiot.”

“Way to back your boyfriend up,” Peter said as he walked slowly back to the crowd of kids, who were now engaged in other conversations.

“I haven’t met everyone, but I have met these two.”

Emily went on to name all of the people who were waiting on her arrival. “Now that you know everyone, what are we doing today?”

“I think we decided on baseball today right?” James said.

“Or we could go ride shopping carts again…” Peter chimed in.

“That was a stupid idea last time. It hasn’t gotten any better,” Emily said.

“Let’s just head to the field. We still need to pick captains,” James said quickly, stopping what seemed to be an inevitable battle of words between Emily and Peter. They all started walking together, grouping up in twos and threes to fit on the sidewalk.

“I’m glad you came. You are going to like everyone here. We always have a lot of fun. Sorry about Peter, he can be a little dumb at times.” Elizabeth had followed Adam to the back of the group.

“It’s fine, and thanks. I’m glad I came too. It’s been a while since I’ve played baseball.”

“Have you played on a team?” James asked.

“At my old school I did. I was planning on joining the team when school started.”

“You should, a lot of the boys play for the school. You will know plenty of people there.”

They continued to talk about Adam’s old town and a few of the people Adam would come to know very well. It was only a few blocks to the field.

“Alright let’s break up,” James said.

“Make sure you aren’t on my team Adam,” winked Emily. “I have to make sure you let me when remember?”

“Yeah, I don’t think I am going to let that happen after all. Elizabeth just told me you haven’t lost a game in a couple months. How are you getting so lucky?”

“Who said anything about luck?”

Adam was the first to bat on his team. He walked up to the small hole in the sand that marked home base and Peter lined up with him at the pitcher’s mound. Adam watched the ball release and hit the ball cleanly over the fence. Emily threw up her arms as the ball passed her overhead. Adam looked at her and smiled.

“Yeah, Emily…I’m definitely not going to let you win.”

Part Two

Adam and Brendon made their way to the usual spot where everyone met up after everyone had a chance to go home and unload their backpacks and folders. It was a sunny day in the middle of May, so Brendon had opted to change into some shorts and a tank top to enjoy the weather. Brendon was taller than Adam by an inch or two, but was noticeably thinner all around. His brown hair was brushed to the side in a messy, impromptu comb-over.

Adam had decided to stick to his jeans and t-shirt, but did pick up a plain black baseball cap and threw it on backwards as he walked out. The hat had kept his grown out hair in place. He had bulked up from playing baseball in high school and from growing a “non-human” appetite, as his friends had branded it. Emily had often gotten annoyed how he could eat whatever he wanted without losing his tone.

“Where is everyone?” Adam asked.

“Probably up in the hill drinking like they have been doing for the past few months,” Brendon answered. “They are up there more often than not nowadays.”

“You would think they would get tired of it after a while.”

“It seems to be all they care about lately. You can’t even suggest doing something without one of them offering to bring alcohol.”

“It’s starting to get old to be honest. At least it isn’t everyone caught up in the mix though,” Adam said as a few of their other friends turned the corner to meet them.

There were three of them. Elizabeth, the kind blonde girl who now had a few of the same classes as Adam, was among them. They were all within a year or so from 17, Adam and Brendon’s age.

“I guess we should go up there, now that we are all here,” Brendon said.

“Do we have to go? Why don’t we just head over to the park or something instead?” one of the boys asked.

“They are still our friends, we shouldn’t just avoid them,” Adam answered.

“I’m not really in the mood to deal with it today…” the boy protested.

“Let’s just head up there. Maybe they are up there waiting for us,” Elizabeth said as she put a hand on Adam’s back. Adam took a keen note of the gesture. Elizabeth always knew how to cheer him up when there was an issue amongst the group or when he was obviously troubled. Lately, Adam had been pretty outspoken about a lot of things his old group of friends were getting into and he often found Elizabeth comforting him when Brendon wasn’t up to the task. They exchanged a subtle smile before Adam gestured for her to go on ahead before him.

They walked up the hillside where their group had been meeting since their elementary days. They began hearing the loud and obnoxious voices of the rest of their gang. Adam was the last in the line as they joined their tipsy friends on the hillside.

“Hey! Just in time, we are about to open the next bottle!” said James, now a tall, lean young adult who many would have pinned as one of the leaders of the group a few years ago. Since half the group started partying and drinking, the usual group of twenty or so neighborhood kids had split in closeness.

None of the freshly arrived took James up on his offer. Each of them mumbling a “No thanks, I’m good,” or a “Not tonight” as they took found a comfortable boulder or trunk to sit down on.

As Adam walked into the fray, his sight was immediately shifted to a red-headed figure behind James. It was Emily, and she was chugging a can of beer from the hand of another old friend of theirs, Peter. Adam never really liked Peter; he was always getting the group to go along with his plans to cause trouble around the neighborhood. When they were younger he had convinced most of their friends to run out to different pay phones in town and hang the phone up while they were still being used. Adam looked away as Emily finished the can and as she turned around and noticed Adam she choked on the last bit of the drink in her throat.

“Careful Em,” Peter said. “Don’t go drinking like a girl now.”

“Shut up Peter, no one asked you to talk,” Emily snapped as she set the can down and found a seat directly across from Adam and Elizabeth, who were sitting next to each other on the same log. Once the noise from Emily and Peter’s scuffle settled down they started their usual routine of picking on and joking about each other as alcohol was passed around for those who chose to drink it. Emily did not take another drink, and

Adam had avoided eye contact with her throughout the length of the evening.

When the street lights came on over the hill everyone began to lift from their spots to leave for the night. This was more out of habit than necessity now that they were older. Adam stayed in his seat and said goodbye as everyone passed by him; he exchanged the customary fist bump with Brendon and Elizabeth leaned over to hug him and he noticed that the hug lingered longer than a standard farewell hug. He stayed and waited for the red sunset to come in over the mountain side.

“Hey.” Adam heard the familiar greeting. It was Emily, here for their usual meeting. “Oh you are here; you wouldn’t even look at me today.”

Adam didn’t say anything. He kept his view on the sunset with his arms in his pocket.

“You could have at least said hi.”

“Emily, you know how I feel about how the half of our group has been acting lately.”

“Then why do you still talk to them?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not the only one doing it. You still talk to everyone else who is. You are even talking to Peter, and you didn’t like Peter to begin with.”

Adam didn’t respond. It bothered him that his other friends were drinking, partying, and getting into trouble, but it tore into him deeper whenever he would see Emily involved.

“Emily, you should know I care about you more than them.”

“Well, we are best friends aren’t we?” Emily said as she wrapped her arms around him.

Adam smirked and turned his head back towards the sunset. Best friends; the brand of their relationship since a few weeks after they met.

“By your choice, not mine.”

“Well, look what a grumpy boyfriend you would be right now if you had it your way.”

“As opposed to the grumpy best friend you love dealing with?”

Emily giggled as she rested her head on his back. “You know I care about you, I told you that already.”

“Oh yeah, I remember clearly,” Adam began and he started chuckling. “I remember I told you that I cared about you about a dozen times before you finally understood that I meant in a ‘more than a best friend’ kind of way. Sometimes I worry about you Emily.”

“Well, how was I supposed to know? It was the same as any other day we come up here,” she said as she shoved his back in, her default reaction when she didn’t have a witty response for someone teasing her. “I hope you remember how I replied as well as you remember how long it took me to understand what you were saying.”

“Don’t remind me,” Adam replied as he put a dramatic hand up to his forehead and pretended to lose strength in his legs.

Emily laughed and caught his weight, “You are my best friend and I feel the same way about you, but you don’t like it when I go out to parties and drink now. You will be even more upset if we got together.” Adam grumbled and picked up his own weight again. He slung his head back to Emily’s shoulder behind him and Emily kissed his cheek, a habit she had picked up ever since Adam confessed. “Besides, Elizabeth seems to be close to you lately. You probably would prefer a girl like her anyways…”

Adam ignored her comment. He looked back to the sunset, which was now deep in its color and casting the final shadows along the hills. He grabbed her arm and pulled her in front of him, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. She put her hands on his arm tried to keep poking at the topic of Elizabeth. Each time, he would squeeze just hard enough to make extra air come out mid-sentence and continued to ignore the comments through her laughter.


A few weeks later, Adam walked into the graduation party at James’ house with his hand in his pocket, fiddling with the note he had written for Emily. He looked around to see his close friends gathered together as well as many other people from their year at their high school. Most of them were either holding a red plastic cup of ambiguity or tightly gripped a can or bottle of beer to show off. He had decided to have a drink himself to celebrate with his friends.

“Glad you finally made it,” James snuck up behind him as he finished pouring the contents of a cold, wet can into a plastic red cup of his own. “I was starting to think you weren’t coming.”

“I just got caught up,” Adam said. “Why would I miss one of my best friends graduation party? This is going to be one of the last chances we have to hang out together.”

“I wasn’t sure if you would be okay with the drinking part,” James replied, smacking Adam on the back. “You have been giving us a hard time about it, but it seems like you are over that now.” James pointed to the red cup in Adam’s hand.

“I’m making an exception for our graduation,” Adam said as he lifted the cup up to eye level.

“I like it,” James said. “Glad our little business woman is letting her hair down.”

Adam rolled his eyes at James’ joke. “Where is everyone anyways?”

“Well, everyone is mostly out in the backyard…”

Adam could read the discomfort in his friend’s voice. “Is Brendon out there too?”

“Yeah he is,” James said, pushing Adam towards the door. “Want to head out there?”

“Why are you shoving me out?” Adam said, wearily. “What’s going on?”


“Spit it out, James.”

“Emily is…upstairs.”

Adam’s stomach clenched. “Passed out?”

“No…Peter is also upstairs.”

Adam’s fingers began to tremble. He felt cold and furious. He mechanically began his ascent up the stairs into James’ bedroom.

There’s no point in going up there.”

He continued until he found himself holding the doorknob. He knew it wasn’t locked; James’ lock had been broken for at least a year when he had stayed the night at his house. His heart raced and he opened the door swiftly.

“WHAT the hell…” Peter had said. He had jumped off of the bed. His shirt was missing and his pants were unbuttoned and falling off his hips. Underneath him was Emily. Her red hair sprawled around untidily. She had no shirt on and was doing her best to cover the white bra she was wearing. Her skirt was hiked well above her waist lane as she did her best to scramble it back down. When she looked up to see who had barged in, her eyes began to tear. She threw on her white blouse over her skirt and stumbled to him as she pushed Peter aside.

“I didn’t think you were coming Adam…” is all Emily said. Adam could smell the liquor and beer on her breath, bringing him even closer to vomiting.

“What the hell are you doing Adam? Can’t you tell we are busy?” Peter wasn’t drinking heavily tonight. Adam could make out that much. He was buzzed from what he assumed was a few beers. Peter began to walk up to Adam once he had put his shirt back on; he came close enough for Adam to realize that he had put his shirt back on backwards, revealing the white tag below his neckline. The next thing Adam knew, his fist had caught Peter right on the nose. He followed Peter as he fell down and struck him once more in the mouth when he hit the ground.

“ADAM!” Emily had yelled.

James had managed to make his way to the room already and was able to keep Adam from delivering anymore blows to a lethargic Peter. Adam looked down at Peter who was bleeding from his mouth and nose and up to Emily who was sitting on the bed crying. He shoved off James and paced out of the house. Downstairs, he found himself ducking his tears away from the curious crowd of onlookers. His fist and wrist throbbed as he opened the front door and left the party.

He didn’t want to go home this upset. He made his way towards the cliff side where he always went when he was upset. He pushed through the dry shrubs that the group had yet to knock down. He finally made his way to the top and looked up at the dark sky and hills that looked violet in the moonlight. He grabbed his wrist as he fell onto a log near the cliff. He wasn’t there for long when he felt someone’s hand on his shoulder.
Adam jumped at the touch. He hadn’t noticed anyone had walked up here. “I figured I would find you here,” a soft-voice said.

Adam looked up to find Elizabeth’s face. “Were you at the party?”

“Yeah, I was.”

“I’m guessing you know what happened.”

“Well, Peter walked out bleeding all over the place and Emily couldn’t stop crying. I left pretty quickly after that, but I can guess what went down. I’m sorry you had to see that.”

She took a seat next to Adam and put her arms around him.

“Wasn’t prepared for that,” Adam replied, chuckling a little bit.

“Was there something between you and Emily?”

“There was, but there definitely isn’t anymore.”

“You deserve better than that Adam.”

Adam didn’t respond. Her hand had grabbed his and was now holding it tight. He had always felt affectionate towards Elizabeth.

“I wanted to tell you on graduation day, but I never got a chance to say it…” Elizabeth started. “I sort of…like you?”

Adam was caught off-guard and couldn’t help but chuckle at her phrasing. “You like me? Like the third grade kind of like?”

“Shut up Adam. I don’t know how else to say it.”

He noticed the soft blush of her cheeks even in the soft moon light. “Elizabeth…”

“I know. You have feelings for Emily. Everyone knows.”

“Well…that’s news for me.”

“After tonight it’s pretty much confirmed for everyone.”

Adam laughed again. “I guess that’s true.”

“Have you ever had feelings for me?”

“If I am being honest,” Adam started after a few moments, “I have. I just have only seen Emily in that way for a long time.”

Elizabeth smiled and looked away. He looked at the blonde girl who had just confessed to him. He had always been comforted by Elizabeth and they had always had a good time when they were together. They got along well, and Adam couldn’t help but notice how pretty she had grown over the years.

“What if we tried giving us a shot?” Elizabeth asked.

“After everything that happened today? You know about Emily and everything is going to be awkward in the group after today as it is.”

“I don’t really care about that. If they want to make it a big deal let them. It’s completely up to you. I have feelings for you and if you said you have felt something for me…maybe it could work.”

“I don’t want to do that to you. What if it ends up bad for you?” Adam had to fight the urge to just say yes. He wasn’t sure why he wasn’t more against the idea. “I can’t just get together with Elizabeth. I might get hurt in the long run…I’m not even sure what those feelings for her mean,” he thought to himself.

“At least we tried right?”

Adam stood up from the log and walked away from the edge of the cliff. He couldn’t stop smiling at the idea. “Elizabeth, will you be my girlfriend?”

She turned around and smiled. “Will I be your girlfriend? Is this the same guy who made fun of me for saying ‘I like you’ ten minutes ago?”

“Cut me some slack, I’ve never asked this before…” he said putting his arm up behind his head. Before he had a chance to lower it, Elizabeth had made his way to him and leaned her face into his. She left a less than an inch for Adam to travel. He leaned in and coupled his lips to hers. She softly grabbed his swollen hand in hers as they spent the rest of the night at the cliff side, finally leaving when the bright yellow sun had risen.

Part Three

Adam woke up to his phone alarm’s obnoxious disaster siren. The sun was had risen enough to seep through cracks in the curtain right into his eyes. It was a daily reminder of how he much preferred the soft red it emitted in the evening, but in did help him wake up faster. As he turned off his alarm he looked over to his left and was once again blinded by the reflecting sunlight from her blonde hair. He looked away and rolled out of bed.

“Up already?” Elizabeth mumbled. “You were up late last night. It’s only 7:00 in the morning. Come back to bed.”

Adams eyes had finally adjusted to the light enough to look over at her on his way to the closet. “I have a group presentation before lecture today. We are meeting up to put some final touches on it.” Elizabeth rolled back over as Adam finished tucking his shirt into his slacks.

“What time are you done today?”

“I have to go to work afterwards. The hospital has a lot of procedures planned today, so I won’t be home ‘til around six.” Elizabeth tucked her head deeper into her pillow and curled up tighter in the blanket she was now in sole possession of.

“Don’t pout at me,” Adam said as he walked up to her side of the bed. “I don’t want to go any more than you want me to. Besides don’t you work today?”

“Eleven to five. So I’m going to be here all alone for the most of the morning.”

“Ellie, we both know you are just going to sleep it away,” Adam chuckled. “I have to go. Do you want to go out to dinner when I get back from work today?”

“You aren’t getting off that easy. You’ve been gone this entire week. One dinner together on Friday night isn’t going to cut it. You aren’t allowed to do anything work or school related this whole weekend.”

“Oh I’m not allowed?” Adam laughed, catching her playful humor. “Alright, fine. No work or school stuff this weekend.” Adam knew he couldn’t get away with what he was promising. He would just have to stay up after Elizabeth fell asleep and sneak some work in.

“This isn’t going to be like the last time you made this promise. Where you were answering emails throughout the day and staying up late to finish work. You need a break.”

Adam got a little annoyed. Finishing up a Master’s Degree and working nearly full time at the hospital wasn’t exactly a care-free task. He just couldn’t unplug himself the way she was asking. “I’ll try and finish as much as I can today. Hopefully I’ll be able to finish it all and have the entire weekend to spend,” he said as he reached over and kissed her. “I’ll see you tonight alright?”

“You haven’t told me where we are having dinner.”

“I’ll text it to you during the day,” Adam said, tying his tie as he ran out of the door.


Adam had yet to fill out the last round of patient updates before he was able to leave for the day. He might have been able to finish everything properly if he would have been able to get to work on time, but he ended up being the last of ten groups to present for a class that went forty-five minutes over-schedule.

“I’m running behind at work. Finishing as fast as I can…be there soon,” he texted Elizabeth, the time stamp read 6:53. He glanced over at the last message he wrote to her: “Let’s meet up at Little Italy at 6:30.” Little Italy was 20 minutes away from him. He hated himself for picking such a distant location, even if it was her favorite restaurant.
His phone immediately buzzed back, “Okay.” she responded. It took ten long minutes for Adam to finish and he wasted no time racing to Little Italy to meet Elizabeth. When he arrived, her water cup was empty and her usual soft smile was nowhere to be found.

“Hey Ellie. Sorry I’m so late,” he said as he found his seat in the crowded restaurant. The low grumble of conversation and small tinks from the silverware filled the air as he took off his coat and checked his watch, now reading 7:27. Almost an hour late. “Have you ordered yet?”

“Adam what took you so long? I have been sitting here for an hour.”

“I couldn’t leave work without updating patients’ files. I was late as it was since my class ran forty-five minutes after it was supposed to.”

“Same old thing then, huh?”

“I’m afraid so,” Adam said, noticing an above average irritability level. “Are you okay?”
She waited a few moments before responding. “No Adam. You seem to be too busy for anything other than school and work lately, not that it’s your fault. I understand what you are trying to do and how much strain it is putting on you. It’s been an issue for a long time now, and it isn’t going to stop any time soon, is it?

“No, it’s not. It isn’t going to slow down or get any easier any time soon,” he said solemnly. “It isn’t fair to you. I know that. I can’t blow off school or work, the only place I can pull time from is from home.”

“Maybe you should be focusing on those then, without distraction. You don’t have the time to be close to anyone right now. I am going to school too, remember? I also work a job. It may not be as demanding as yours, but I make sure to have time whenever you make your own.”

“Elizabeth…” he muttered. The cold tinks of the silverware and grumble of conversation quieted as he listened. They weren’t spending any time together and weren’t as close as they used to be. He had silently come to terms with this long ago. “You are right. I don’t want to drag you along. It’s been tense between us for a while now and I figured this was inevitable. If you aren’t happy where you are, I understand completely if you want to be somewhere else. It’s going to be hard if you do leave, but you do deserve to be happy.” Adam saw the tears trickling down her face. “Don’t think I don’t care about you Adam. We have been together since we graduated high school. Six years now right?”

“I know,” Adam said, feeling a throb in his own throat. “I hope you know I care about you too.”

They managed to leave the restaurant before they lost a hold on their emotions. On the way home they talked more than they had in the last few months. Adam told Elizabeth about new colleagues he had been hanging out around at the hospital and Elizabeth had updated Adam on the newest developments on her co-workers and their complicated and intricate relationships. Elizabeth packed her stuff that night while Adam had left to take a walk around their city. She left early the following morning.


“Adam, can you cover the patients on East Wing? No one is over there to check on them,” Dr. Freeman, the Resident Doctor of Adam’s group of interns asked.

Adam had just set down a large stack of files he needed to organize before he took his lunch. Normally, he would have asked if there was someone else to cover it, but since it was Dr. Freeman, he figured he could earn a few points and keep his paid internship safe with a little extra work. “Yeah, no problem. I’ll get right over to it.”

“I appreciate it Adam. You have been doing good work around here.”

“Thanks Doctor,” Adam replied, hiding the disappointment of his lost lunch from his face. The rounds took him around an hour to finish. It was around 1’oclock when he was finally able to take his half hour lunch.

Adam went through his email and responded to a few messages as he walked past the hospital’s parking lots and onto the crosswalk. He was headed to an Indian restaurant he frequented during his lunch hour. As he looked up as he was about to cross the street, a streak of long red hair caught his peripherals. He straightened his gaze toward the red and found himself staring at Emily.

She was dressed in short heels and a black office skirt paired with a white, tucked in blouse. She wore a black cardigan and a lanyard was roped across her neck. A small bag with what looked to be an SLR camera was hung from her left shoulder and her right hand was gripping a small notepad.

Emily didn’t notice Adam, who hadn’t moved from the sidewalk until she was halfway across the street. When she across the sidewalk she ran up to him and hugged him, making sure to not stab him with the long lens of the camera. “Adam!”

“Emily? Wow, it’s been such a long time. I thought you were out of town?”

“I was for a couple years. I was in New York. I finished my degree and went over there to do an internship. I just finished and decided to come back here a couple weeks ago.”

“I don’t even know what you do! Are you a hot shot photographer now or something?” he asked pointing to the large SLR camera.

“I’m actually a Journalist. I’m here covering an event at the hospital in the children’s wing.”

“A Journalist? When did you decide to go into that field?”

“Around halfway through college. I just sort of stumbled into the field and fell in love with it. So what are you doing? You seem to be pretty important yourself,” Emily said as she gave him a nudge across the chest, looking down to his button up shirt, tie, and slacks. “I never took you for a suit and tie kind of guy.”

Adam laughed. “I didn’t expect to be either. I am actually doing a paid internship here while I work on my Master’s Degree. My Undergraduate Degree was in Microbiology so it was a good fit. I am looking to eventually be a medical researcher and writer. I have to look the part.”

“Wow, pretty ambitious career choice you got there.”

“Yeah it eats my time pretty dramatically. It’ll be worth it in the end though I hope.”

“I’m sure it will be. It was for me. I went practically two years without having a weekend to myself. I loved all the experience I got from it though. This new job is almost as demanding.”

“Well hopefully you will have some more time to yourself now that you are back.” Adam lost track of what he was saying. “Are you free this weekend at any time? We should go have dinner.”

His stomach dropped as he realized what he had just suggested. He had almost started to rectify his mistake by suggesting lunch instead when she replied. “Sure, I actually have Friday night free. How about then?”

Adam pulled out his phone to look at his calendar: Friday night 5-10, Meeting with Dr. Freeman and other interns. “Sure, how about at six?”

“Sounds good to me. Here take my number so we can decide where at later on. I actually have to get going though. Make sure you call me and let me know where at!”

She scratched her number on a piece of the notepad, ripped it off, and handed it to Adam. “It was really good to see you!”

“You too,” he said as she ran off towards the hospital. He looked at his watch, 15 minutes left for his lunch. “Worth it,” he smiled to himself.


“Wake up Adam. You are going to be late.”

“How is it possible for anyone to wake up earlier than I do,” Adam mumbled as he wrapped a pillow around his head.”

“It’s 6:45, barely earlier than your usual time, plus I have been waking you up at this time for like a month now. Don’t you have to be at your school early?”

“Yeah, but they can wait the fifteen minutes…” An accelerated pillow found its way to Adam head.

“Wake up,” Emily said through squinted eyes, weaponized pillow at the ready.

“Last time we did this you lost.”

“A fluke.”

“Put the pillow down.”

“Then get up. Let’s have coffee before we have to leave.”

“You are leaving early too?”

“I have an early morning event to cover. News doesn’t sleep in.”

Adam propped himself up out of bed and out of the beam of sunlight that was managing to find his eye. “I have to find better curtains,” he thought to himself.

“French Vanilla or Hazelnut?” Emily asked as she sat on top of Adam. Adam grabbed her waist and threw her back into bed. He kept his arms around her so she couldn’t leave. He looked up to Emily’s hair, which was reflecting the sunlight that broke into Adam’s apartment. It wasn’t the obnoxious yellow he couldn’t stand, but a subtle red.

“French Vanilla,” he said as he got up to get dressed. It took him ten minutes to get to the kitchen.

“No World War 2 siren alarm today?”

“I turn it off when you stay over. Your pillows are alarming enough.”

She nudged him on the shoulder as she handed him his coffee. “What time will you be home today?”

“I should be done early today around five. Want to go out to dinner tonight?”

“I have an event to cover this evening at five. It’s sort of an upper class wine party. I have to go to make contacts.”

“So you will be there all night?”

“Probably. You should come with me to it. I could use a date.”

“I don’t know, it sounds like a stiff crowd.”

“You are a trying to be a medical researcher. This is right up your alley.”

Adam laughed at her sarcasm. “Sure, I’ll go. Where at?”

“I’ll text you the address. Finish your coffee so you aren’t late.”

Adam arrived to the address Emily had messaged him at 5:30.

“Hey there cutie,” Emily greeted him as they met up outside. “I’ve already been inside talking to some people.”

“Yeah, sorry about running late. I was stuck dealing with a stubborn patient. Are these people hard to talk to or…?”

“Compared to the other people who will be here you are early so don’t worry about it. Thank you for coming though.”

They walked inside to the party where the first thing that welcomed Adam was the sound of a string quartet. A gentleman took Adam’s coat and a few steps later a glass of wine was offered to the pair of them.

“Thank you,” Adam said as he took the large glass of wine.

“No thanks, I actually don’t drink.” Adam looked over to Emily. It was the first time they had brought up the topic and Emily smiled at Adam’s surprise. Nevertheless, Adam went on to sip his glass of wine throughout the night.

They only stayed for about an hour, long enough for Emily to meet everyone and introduce herself as a new reporter for the newspaper. Luckily, no one at the party was in the medical field, so he was saved from having to actually communicate with anyone for too long. Adam managed to finish his glass right on time and placed the empty glass down as they walked to Adam’s car.

“Did you drive?” Adam asked.

“I took a cab; I figured I could just go to your place again tonight.”

“Yeah, of course. Wait right here, I’ll pull the car up.”

Adam jumped in the car and drove to the sidewalk to pick up Emily.

“You sure you want to drive after the wine?”

“I don’t really feel anything. I should be fine.” Emily didn’t protest it any further.

“I’m happy you are back, Emily.” “I’m glad to be back.”

“You know, your apartment is kind of expensive. You could save money if you found a roommate.”

Emily looked over to him curiously. “Are you suggesting something?” she asked through squinting eyes.

“I think I could use a roommate too. Any ideas?”

“Are you asking me to move in?” Emily grinned.

“I’m saying you could if you wanted too, you don’t have to feel pressured-“

Emily took off her seatbelt, leaned over, and kissed him. “I’d love too.” Adam let out a sigh of relief and looked down to Emily. He hadn’t felt anywhere near this excited when Elizabeth had moved in.

“So you don’t drink anymore?” Adam asked.

“I haven’t since my first year of college.”

“What made you want to stop?”

“I just got focused on other things. There wasn’t really any time to drink with how busy I was keeping myself. I definitely don’t miss it though. When did you pick it up?”

“My last year of undergraduate studies. It’s only ever been wine and champagne.”

“Wine and champagne? Seventeen year old you would cringe!” Emily joked.

Adam smiled. “Seventeen year old me didn’t know the meaning of stress.” Adam looked at Emily who kept a subtle smile on her face. In the next moment, her smile turned to panic.

“Adam!” she screamed as she pointed out of the windshield.

He had let the car swerve into the opposite lane while looking at Emily. They were now staring a diesel head on, just yards away from each other. Adam slammed on the brakes and tried to swerve out of the way.

When Adam woke up the airbags were deployed and every window on the car except for the backside window was shattered. His head was bleeding and his chest throbbed. He looked to his right and Emily was not in her seat. He shoved his door open and ran in front of the car. Emily was lying on the ground to the left of the scene.

She had a large gash along her forehead and was lying on a blanket of shattered glass. Her arm was wrapped unnaturally behind her, motionless. The diesel driver had not suffered any injury and was already checking her neck for a pulse. The look he gave Adam could only mean there wasn’t one. The driver called 911 in a panic as Adam stood unable to move.

He looked down at Emily and watched the blood as it ran across the ground. It was a deep red. The sunset had just begun to go down. The light shadowed across the wreckage and across Emily. The blood, her red hair, and the sunset blended together as the tears started welling up in his eyes. He went down, wrapped his arms around her, screamed, and then cried.

He did not let go of Emily until a police officer pulled him away. He was forced to recall what had happened for the report, and was asked to blow into a breathalyzer. He was halfway to passing the legal driving limit.

A few weeks after the crash he decided to go visit the place him and Emily met. He took her small notepad with quotes and scribbles that were never used, and a picture of them as kids that she had put up in Adam’s apartment. When he finally made it up the hill he walked to the tree they had carved their names into. He put the picture and the notepad there at the bottom of the same tree and walked within a few feet of the edge of the cliff. He looked on as the red sunset cast its final light over the hillside.

Christian Shepherd is a student, writer and journalist working out of the Inland Empire. “The Red Sunset” is his first published fiction short story. He is currently working on a fiction novel that he hopes to see finished by the end of this year. At the completion of his degree, Christian wants to document the unique stories of the residents of the Inland Empire. He has been published in traditional and online newspaper outlets and online e-sports blogs.

Lana Bella

Universal Carving

The midnight train departed from Hampton Court
station. He went on murmuring through the signaled
horns. Held between a light-struck hooves of the air
and shadowed carriage. And half-devoured under an
English blasting rain. “It’s quite docile actually for this
time of year, darling”, he said. I’d always known he
liked the soggy cold, for his eyes were stained deep
of teal-slate orbs. I snuck a glance towards the beyond
sky. An infinite dark, peppered with hurrying trees and
spray. At the sheer edge of horizon, the armored jaw of
the wind was lopping off the moon about its neck with a
fine cutlass, draining nearly the ashy gold. While the torrent
swept wide its watery bone, plunging down the metal roof
then gutting through the graveled earth. A liquid violence.
Yet, nothing more than a mutual universal carving. Where
the depths of chaos pillaged outside and soaring notes of
passion caressed within. And never was there a more curious
state than being caved inside an intimate skin of a lover and
that of the cleaving pulses of the rain.

Lana Bella has a diverse work of poetry and flash fiction anthologized, published and forthcoming with more than seventy journals, including Aurorean Poetry, Chiron Review, Eunoia Review, New Plains Review, The Criterion Journal, The Ignatian Review, The Offbeat Literary, Whirlwind Press and Featured Artist with Quail Bell Magazine, among others. She resides in the coastal town of Nha Trang, Vietnam with her novelist husband and two frolicsome imps.


Lavina Blossom – Featured Artist

Lavina Blossom is a writer and visual artist. She has an MFA in Poetry from the University of California, Irvine, but is largely self-taught as a visual artist. She has an art blog about her process, which can be found at http://lavinablossom.com/blog. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Literary Review, and Kansas Quarterly, as well as the online journal Poemeleon. Her short story, “Blue Dog,” appeared in the online journal Women Writers. She is an Associate Editor of Poetry for Inlandia: A Literary Journey.

Timothy Donneley & the Riverside Inlandia Creative Writing Workshop


The Riverside Inlandia Creative Writing Workshop group and guest Timothy Donnelly, Columbia University professor and author of The Cloud Corporation, winner of the 2012 Kingsley Tufts Prize. Great session in which we created a collaborative bouts rime poem using the endwords from Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night”. Thanks, CGU, for reaching out to the Inlandia Institute!


Inebriated Firebird

Do not go into the mysterious night
Or you will be drenched in the driving rain
in which we see no speck of light
as we try to avoid creatures that run into our lane
we have kidnapped Santa Claus and the beat
goes on, which our inferior brain cannot explain
and we don’t hear our capricious feet
as the cilia in our ears cement the ancient cry.
We tumbled down the inebriated street
and down some grotesque path, we said goodbye.
I walk solo, she looks down from a height
as gargoyles howl the night away, as ribbons uncoil in a dawning sky.
The asphalt tilts, the filthy water drains out, all is made right.
The speck bores a hole in the infinite night.

John Brantingham

Deena and the Bear

          Harrison’s already awake on a predawn Sunday morning when he gets the call from his boss. This kind of call would not usually go to Harrison, but no one else is picking up. The early hour is not a problem. The problem is Deena is the bear expert, and he hasn’t seen Deena since he got married.
          Ten minutes later, Deena’s in Harrison’s car, coolly silent with her rifle and tranq darts. Ten minutes after that, they’re up in the little foothill community where the call came from.
          Finding the bear might have been difficult. The suburbs always have looked the same to Harrison. Streets with row upon row of stucco houses. Harrison would have been lost in a second. It would have been difficult except it’s a quiet morning, and a news helicopter circles above, the center of its radius directly above the bear. Harrison follows the helicopter until he sees the police cruisers parked in front of a two story place. It’s painted that ubiquitous tan of the suburbs east of Los Angeles.
          “Looks like it’s just up here,” Harrison says.
          “Does it?” Deena stares at the side of Harrison’s face for a good twelve seconds. Then, with a single motion, she snatches her rifle from the back seat and swings out of the front door with it under her arm.
          Harrison daydreams her death for a second. She’s got the rifle under her arm, trudging up the steps of the suburban home. The cops misunderstand what’s happening, and she’s gunned down, accidentally, tragically, but finally. She lies there twitching in her puke and blood for twelve seconds before she gasps her last. He’s not sure where the puke came from in his fantasy.
          As she actually does start up the front steps, the daydream shifts to a memory of her. He pictures her as she was, lying underneath him as he made love to her. He can see her naked body, smell her womanly sweat, hear her moan. Somehow the remembered sex and the imagined death mingled themselves in Harrison’s mind creating confusing and exciting feelings in him just for a moment.
          Sex and death have slowed Harrison down, and he has to jog to catch up to Deena who is pointedly ignoring him.
          It’s pretty easy to see why the helicopter is circling. The bear is playing a splashing game with himself in a swimming pool in the backyard. He tumbles over on himself in the water, and Harrison knows this is a video people from Los Angeles to Tokyo will be watching for the next few days. A bear playing by itself as ten police officers stand just on the other side of a cinder block wall. No doubt the footage is going out now to every insomniac and early riser in Los Angeles.
          Harrison and Deena will be a part of the tableau as well. He tries to imagine how she must look with that weapon in her hand and greeting police officers. Can the helicopter camera man see that look on her face? Can he get close enough to see how her love for Harrison has turned into hatred?
          And Harrison flashes into another daydream. In this one, Deena becomes famous. She is aiming the rifle when the bear sees her. She fires and misses, enraging the animal, who charges her, mauls her, and kills her. The bear must be destroyed of course, but the television plays her death over and over again, and Harrison is allowed to relive the moment.
          Harrison forces the daydream out of his head. He tries to focus on the current moment, the conversation about what to do with the animal. He’s here to coordinate efforts and call in transportation. He focuses on his job long enough to call the person responsible for taking the bear back to the wild after it’s unconscious, but he’s pulled out of himself and back to her body the second he hangs up.
          He’s back to making love to her, and this time it’s all about her fetish for public sex. Deena, skinny dipping in a lake. Deena, sunning her naked body afterwards. Deena, leaning naked against a tree. He hasn’t thought about having sex with her for a long time, but it’s all back in the kind of half-awake dreams he has on cool Sunday mornings.
          It’s the morning, he decides. It doesn’t have anything to do with lingering feelings. It’s not doubts about his new marriage. It’s just this time of the morning and time of the week. It’s just he’s entered into a dream world up here in the foothills.
          Deena raises her rifle as the bear clamors out of the pool. She waits until the bear is out of the water and firmly onto the grass of the backyard, and then there is the popping sound of the gun going off. Harrison can see the dart strike the animal’s flank. A gasp goes up from the police officers, and the bear seems to be wobbling already. Harrison’s never seen this before, so he doesn’t know how long the tranqs will take, but they already seem to be having an effect.
          Harrison turns to ask Deena how long it will take for the bear to go down, but he stops. Deena is aiming the rifle at him and smiling but only with her teeth. That glassy-eyed look is on her face, the same look he must have.
          There’s a long silence between them, maybe twelve seconds, and then she says, “Boom.”
          One of the police officers laughs nervously, but the rest of them are focused on the bear. Harrison wonders what the scene must look like from above and on televisions across the city.
          Are the helicopter cameras good enough to capture the dreamy quality in Deena’s eyes? Can they see the heart break living there? Are they able to zoom in on the pain that has been festering in the long months after the death of their love?


John Brantingham’s work has been published in hundreds of magazines in the United States and England, and he has eight books of poetry and fiction. “Deena and the Bear” is a sequel story to his latest short story collection Let Us All Pray Now to Our Own Strange Gods, available now from World Parade Books.

Deanne Stillman

Excerpt from Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (Nation Books, 2012)

My heart is broke
I have some glue

– Nirvana

          They had names like Lizard and Paranoid Pam, and they were in bands like Let’s Go Bowling and Nazi Bitch. They hung out at a place called Spanky’s, a punk dive across the street from the Mission Inn in Riverside, California, the history-infused hospitality headquarters for presidents, foreign dignitaries, and well-heeled tourists. A lot of these kids were products of what were once called “broken homes,” but broken didn’t begin to explain it, and their stories spoke of a wreckage across the suburban lands of their home turf, the Inland Empire, that strangely named California region that is a corruption of a vanished real estate dream—the Orange Empire!—and has engendered all manner of jokes and disparagement—Conquer this!—and that no one can quite figure out the boundaries of, but most agree that it begins where greater Los Angeles bleeds into San Bernardino and Riverside counties and then the whole thing ends where a warehouse runs into the desert and people go shooting.

          One day in 1989 ninth grader Chris Smallwood was walking through this region, down La Sierra Street in Riverside, where he lived with his mother and sister, heading to school. He met a kid named Chuck, aka Charles Donald Kueck, who had just rounded the corner from Doverwood, where he lived with his mother, her boyfriend, and two sisters, one from his mother’s first marriage and the other from her third. Chuck was tall and skinny and dressed in black—black T-shirt, black leather jacket, black jeans, black boots—and he was pushing a ten-speed bike. He was a bit embarrassed about his impaired vehicle situation and later, by way of explanation, added some information about his family, off-hand comments that to an outsider would sound an alarm: “My mother’s wasted and so’s her old man.” But not here in this working-class neighborhood of small one- and two-bedroom homes, where the mothers were beleaguered and the fathers were broken, often absent because of divorce or jail time, or at home, barely hanging on, drowning in booze or drugs, lashing out at their wives and kids, at ghosts, trying to shake off a legacy of poverty and violence that dated back to the clan rivalries of their Scots-Irish forebears, some of whom came to America as indentured white slaves. On the day of that first encounter, the boys formed a quick bond, mainly because of the neighborhood that they lived in and the mutual knowledge of what that meant. As they continued on to school, they discussed matters of the day, discovering their shared love of certain bands—Black Flag, Social Distortion, the Dead Kennedys—and spoke of their own musical aspirations. From then they on were buddies.

          A few weeks later, a kid named Rande Linville was standing outside the window of a liquor store in downtown Riverside. It was 1:30 in the morning and he was about to break in. But he heard the sound of skateboard wheels on pavement and turned to look. “There were these two guys on boards,” he says. “I was surprised to see them because there weren’t very many skateboarders then. And most of them looked like me, blonde, clean-cut, with surfer hair. These guys were wearing black leather jackets and looked like punks.” They were Chuck Kueck and Chris Smallwood and along with Rande they were about to become a close band of friends who called themselves The Three Amigos—a reference to the John Landis movie with Chevy Chase, Martin Short, and Steve Martin, in which three actors who play gunfighters end up in a Mexican village where they actually have to fend for themselves.

          As they stood in the parking lot on the night of their first encounter, Rande asked, “What’s up?” He was wondering if he was going to have to fight two people off for the swag from the liquor store, especially because there appeared to be a serious tribal difference if you judged the situation by clothing alone. And then came the response: “What’s up?” For a moment there was a standoff, and then Chris decided to end it, reaching into his crotch—to Rande’s alarm—and pulling out an American flag. “Dude,” Rande said, “whaaa?” Chris explained that they were out stealing flags and were on their way back to Chuck’s house to burn them. The news was startling and hilarious, and Rande cracked up and then they all started laughing, and then Rande explained his break-in plans. Chuck and Chris approved and Rande picked up his skateboard and smashed the window. Chuck dove in and then the other two boys followed, returning with candy, cigarettes, and beer, and then they jumped on their boards. Instead of heading to Chuck’s, they cruised back to Rande’s apartment, a small, three-room unit he shared with his mother and sister in a nearby Section 8 housing project. Inside Rande’s bedroom, they cracked open a six-pack and started to drink. “Dude,” Chuck said as he looked around the room, “you like Black Flag?” He was referring to a wall poster and he was impressed. Then Chris joined in, noting a flyer for the Circle Jerks, and high-fiving
Rande. Surprised that the surfy-looking guy would be into punk rock instead of metal, Chuck and Chris exchanged a look, and then Chuck turned to Rande. “I play bass,” he said. “Chris plays lead. We need a drummer. Do you—?” Before he could finish, Rande was in— as it turned out, he was a heavy metal drummer transitioning into punk, and he had been playing for a long time. Soon after that they formed their first band, named one night after Chris and Chuck had seen the Oliver Stone movie JFK and Chuck, recalls Chris, “was all, ‘Dude, dude, dude,’”—mimicking his friend—“Oswald was set up, we gotta call our band Oswald’s Revenge and I said, ‘Dude, that is so right,’ and from then on, that was our band.”

          Chuck was now part of a world that was getting some serious attention; it included bands like No Doubt and the local outfit Voodoo Glow Skulls, regulars at Spanky’s and famous all over the country. In fact, amigo Rande Linville’s best friend was a member of the Glowskulls, the most revered band in the Inland Empire. Because of the association, Linville became a sought-after drummer, and his crew— Chuck, Chris, and all of their musician associates— assumed a high profile in the Inland Empire, their fame only adding to their street cred. When Gwen Stefani was in town, they could go backstage, and a couple of times they partied with one of their idols, Henry Rollins, along with his seminal OC band Black Flag. Along with outlaws like William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, Rollins was a serious inspiration. Rollins looked and dressed like a skinhead, but he was anything but. Chuck often quoted from his book Pissing in the Gene Pool, with one passage holding particular relevance.

          “I’ve got a roach crawling on my hand,” it went. “Should I kill it? . . . I don’t know, let me think. It was the first thought that popped into my head. I raised my other hand to crush it but all of a sudden I stopped dead in my tracks. I thought about all the people who think of me the same way I think of this roach. All the people who see me as a filthy crawling piece of vermin that should be destroyed. Hah! The roach is my brother and long may he prosper!”

          Heartened by kindred spirits and part of a flourishing nationwide scene, Chuck and his friends were in demand as musicians, playing gigs around Riverside and once or twice at clubs in Los Angeles.

          After a while, Oswald’s Revenge became other bands, as bands have a way of doing, but the three amigos were always in them, adding and subtracting other personnel, and they were always together, in spirit or in person, bonded forever by the fact that, as Rande recalls, they were “three fully abused kids who loved the same music.” In the annals of rough upbringings, this was not an exaggeration; they were indeed fully abused, but underlying that was a theme that ran through their lives, which could be summarized by way of one question: Where’s Dad?

* * * * *

          In 1928, the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned a series of monuments called the Madonna of the Trail. There was one in each state along the National Old Trails Road, which extended from Maryland to California—twelve in all. The idea was to commemorate the pioneer woman whose strength and courage helped conquer the wilderness and make a new home in the Promised Land. Wrought from granite, the towering sculpture portrays a bonneted woman in full pioneer dress, baby in her arms and youngster at her side. She is in mid-stride, resolute, clutching a rifle. On February 1, 1929, the second to last of the Madonnas was dedicated in Upland, California, at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Euclid Avenue, a few miles from Riverside, where the first white trappers had entered the Golden State by land. The women who soon followed had not been acknowledged in such a way until this unveiling. “They were just as brave or braver than their men,” President Harry Truman had said at the ceremony for an earlier monument. “In many cases, they went with sad hearts and trembling bodies. They went, however, and endured every hardship that befalls a pioneer.”

          Over 150 years later, little had changed on the frontier. Yes, it was modern and crowded, but still brutal, with women trying to hold the line. Amid a world of violence, on LaSierra Avenue in Riverside, Virginia Smallwood maintained a safe place—not for her, as it turned out, but for the kids who gathered there. Even while sometimes bruised and visibly battered, Virginia was everyone’s mother, or in the words of her daughter Amanda, she was “the community mom”—a comparatively stable parent with a steady job (she had resumed working as a dental assistant), a person who liked to take care of others, not so she could receive foster care payments from a government agency (as some who abused the system, and the kids in it, were known to do), but simply because she felt so inclined. Sooner or later, in this land of want and need, the children who wandered the malls looking for their own kind, or just drifted through because that’s where the trails led, made their way to the Smallwoods’ house, gathering ’round the table for dinner on any given evening, nurturing their weary bones with the burritos or chorizos and eggs cooked up by the generous Mrs. Smallwood, stretching her small salary to feed an army of haunted kids.

          There was one kid who seemed a bit different, more troublesome, a tornado really; as soon as he started coming home with Chris, Virginia noticed that his energy was more chaotic and yet very intense and everyone seemed to fall under his spell. He was living with his mother at the time yet sometimes stayed on the streets, or at the homes of other kids, and soon, as always, his good looks, wit, and explosive charisma won the day, and Mrs. Smallwood permitted him to become a member of her household and move into her garage. Over time, she and the other members of her family learned the details of his personal story, and it was one of the worst she had heard, becoming more harrowing with every revelation, confirmed eventually by relatives and friends who had already fallen into his orbit.

          Who can say when the trouble began? Certainly the fact that his father had walked out of his family’s life was a factor, opening up a fissure that would not come together again in spite of attempts by both father and son to reach across it after not having seen each other for over ten years. There were other factors too—a mother whose troubles were a mystery to outsiders and her involvement with a strange man whom Chuck and his friends came to call Ranch Dressing Rod, after his fondness for slathering food with this particular condiment. And by all means, we must consider genetics, which now show that nearly all aspects of personality, seemingly, are hard-wired (though susceptible to refinement in one way or another), and certainly we must acknowledge the general malaise that prevailed in the late twentieth-century cities of the Inland Empire, where the natural world was fast becoming a dream.


Stillman Deanne (Mark lamonica) (3)Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer, often writing about the modern and frontier West with the Mojave Desert as a main character. Her latest book is Desert Reckoning, based on an award-winning Rolling Stone article. It was just named a “Southwest Book of the Year,” was a Rolling Stone “must-read for the summer” (2012), and was praised in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Los Angeles Magazine, Oregonian, Denver Post, Tucson Weekly, and elsewhere. She is also the author of Mustang, an LA Times “best book 08,” and winner of the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction. In addition, she wrote the cult classic Twentynine Palms, an LA Times “best book 01” which Hunter Thompson called “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” Deanne is a member of the core faculty at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA Creative Writing program.

Caroline Mays


          Except for black rubber skid marks on the floors, the terminal was all white and sanitized; its huge walls reminded one young woman of very square, carefully-brushed teeth. It had high ceilings with long fluorescent bulbs and sunlight shining through the glass panels looming at the front of the building. On the second floor, several security personnel manned two arches and x-ray machines. Twenty people waited their turn to go through security. The young woman at the front of the line, Brier, walked through the archway. She set the alarm off.

          “Please empty everything from your pockets, miss.”

          “Yes, I did. Oh wait, maybe it’s my earrings,” Brier unhitched the studs from her ears and walked back through the plastic doorway.

          It buzzed again.

          “Step over here, please, Miss.”

          “I’m so sorry,” Brier said, as she jammed her feet into her ballet flats, hurriedly smushing the backs down. She was meeting her boyfriend in Chicago while she worked on a movie set; then they’d both fly back to their respective universities.

          Grabbing a container with the contents of her pockets, she dumped it in her purse. Coins and lip balm fell in between business cards, a skull wallet, pens, and Altoids. She’d had to throw out her pepper spray. A security guard asked her to spread her arms and legs like an X. Brier set the purse by a wall and held up her arms, flushing as he outlined her rigid body with a black metal wand. Though she considered herself to be of average height and weight, she wore button-up, size 3 jeans paired with her favorite size-small band t-shirt. Her hair looked like curled chocolate shavings.

          Brier watched the guard screening her, narrowing her eyes on his very even teeth. She winced slightly when the wand beeped and flashed a red light twice. The guard went back over the warning areas, and again the wand beeped.

          “Are you wearing an under-wire bra?” he asked, studying her chest.

          She raised her chin, “Yes.”

          He said that he thought her pants buttons and under-wire were what was showing up, but they’d have to check. Just a moment. Brier reached for her purse and dug out a necklace. Slipping it over her head, she listened to the muffled click clack as she ran a charm up and down its chain.

          The guard flicked his fingers in the air and called over another security guard, a thick woman with a tight blonde ponytail. He introduced her as Valerie, and said that since metals on her person were picked up by both the archway and the wand, she’d need to be physically screened. Brier felt strange; her stomach made itself into a fist.

          “Physically… screened?” She asked, beginning to roll the dinosaur charm in between her thumb and index finger.

          He explained that it’s a standard procedure, probably nothing, of course, but they had to check — airport policy. “Valerie will take you into a private room and you can keep your clothes on; she’ll use the back of her hand to screen you for weapons or dangerous materials.”

          No. The idea was out of the question. “Yeah, sorry,” she told them, rubbing her pinky knuckle. “I’m not doing that.”

          Four years ago, Brier had gone to the dentist for x-rays and an estimate. Before she had even opened her mouth, he said that he’d get her braces if she was his child.

          A few weeks later, she was again reclining in the big chair with blue plastic upholstery, waiting for the dentist and hygienist to return. They were going to extract one of her teeth before gluing on brackets the brackets.

          The dentist walked in and greeted her. He began fiddling with a syringe on the tray near Brier’s head.

          “That’s a cool picture,” she pointed to a drawing on the wall. It was a cross-hatch drawing, something she’d learned to do in her ninth-grade art class.

          “Isn’t she beautiful?” he said of the drawing. “I love women. They’re all beautiful.”

          Brier raised an eyebrow.

          The dentist apologized if it hurt as he injected the anesthesia into her cheek. He said the hygienist was with Mrs. Coleman in chair five, and she’d be back in ten minutes to help him extract Brier’s tooth. Then he took off a glove and felt Brier’s jaw, saying that at least her bite was correct. She tried to keep her tongue in place while he poked around, but felt distracted and a little drowsy. Then his un-gloved hand brushed her neck and meandered down to her hip. Brier gasped. His fingers played with the hem of her shirt. She clutched the armrests, trying to push herself up. Instead of an adrenaline rush, she only felt sleepier.

          “I know the first time is scary and uncomfortable, but you won’t feel anything once the anesthetic sets in. Don’t worry. You’ll be asleep in a second, or almost asleep. Now open up wide.”

          Brier had to fight. She had to stop him. She tried to scream and bite his fingers, but he pushed his large hand into the back of her mouth, gagging her and holding her head firmly against the headrest. The tips of his fingers gently edged under her top. Brier’s eyes fluttered. She flung her legs up at his head and pawed at his hands. She panicked as the clear lines of the cabinets and blinds melted into each other. She aimed a wild punch at his face, but her hand only fell back in pain.

          Please, don’t. Please, stop. Her body relaxed against her will. Expecting the mercy of unconsciousness, her eyes drooped shut. She tried to calm her chaotic mind, tried to enable the anesthetic. If she was asleep, she wouldn’t feel him and her mind would be spared part of the memory. A hand ran softly over her hip. Please, I’m not asleep yet. Please wait till I’m asleep. She could feel her clothes getting tugged off.

          “Hm,” she heard him. “Besides that bicuspid that needs to go, these aren’t in bad shape.”

          She had to stop it, she had to save herself, but she couldn’t move and she realized that she couldn’t even sleep. Still, she had to jump out of the chair, she had to push him away and open the door and run down the stairs and out of the office and across the sidewalk and past JFK Street and Gilmore. She had to move; if only she could move a finger, just one finger.

          Something pushed in. A soft heaviness pressed her into the chair, and she knew she wasn’t dreaming. Oh my God, stop! I’m a virgin. I’m a virgin. I’m a virgin. I’m not a virgin.

          He was warm like a fever. Crushing pressure on pelvis and stomach and chest and face — he was all over her and she couldn’t breathe.

          She didn’t believe it. She had just been studying Algebra at the table an hour ago. She hated him. She had to bite his fucking lips off; she had to scream and cry and rip out his hair and stab him with needles and dental tools and kick him in the head over and over and over and over until the blood splattered and his teeth were gone and he was as still as she was, only dead.

          Something tingled. Get him off me! I don’t want this. I don’t want it even… I… it.. why is that… She felt a burning. Her own heat. No, I don’t want to… please stop. This was a part of herself she didn’t know about, a darker part. It shocked her. She hated that she betrayed herself. She was so ashamed that she thought maybe she had deserved this. She wanted to die. She wouldn’t be able to feel him if she died; she wouldn’t hate herself if she died. It would all stop if she died.

          Still rubbing her knuckle, she tapped her toes on the airport floor in an attempt to ground herself. I am at the airport. I am here.

          “All right,” the guard said. “Then you’ll have to go back to the waiting area. I’m afraid we can’t let you on the plane with unidentified metals on your person.”

          Shit. Shitshitshit. If she skipped the plane, she’d miss the call. She had ten lines! Ten! She thought of all the auditions she went to; she would have to do another twenty-eight, if not more, to get a part again.

          But she could never get it again. In this movie, she was set to play one of Laura Dern’s students. Laura Dern had been her all-time favorite actress since she saw Jurassic Park when she was eight. This was her dream job. It would springboard her into the acting world. She twiddled her necklace as she glanced at the other people going through security.

          “But didn’t you say it’s just my under-wire and buttons?” She bit the inside of her cheek. She wasn’t a dangerous person; she tried to cajole the guards into letting her through. They insisted that the screening was a strict security policy.

          “I…. er..” She said, squirming. “I have… I really can’t do that.” She couldn’t tell them, she still couldn’t tell anyone. It wouldn’t make a difference anyway. She tried to take a deep breath. It was just another one of the coping methods her old psychologist had recommended. She had also pushed Brier to talk about what happened, but if she had, the psychologist would have be able to analyze Brier and know what she was thinking — giving her the upper hand, like the dentist. Nobody will ever have that much power over me.

          Six days after the dentist, Brier sat on the living room ottoman, her right hand in an ace bandage. Her parents on the couch, grading biology papers and scrapbooking. Brier stared at them for a long time. She had only told them that she banged her hand into a wall, nothing more.

          She shut her eyes and set her jaw forward; she was about to torture their imaginations, slashing up their brains with words like scissors, and chopping out every other thought.

          “Mom,” Brier had to tell them.

          “Yep,” she continued to flip through a set of last year’s vacation photos. Brier’s father circled a paragraph on an essay’s third page.

          “When I was getting my tooth pulled… um…” Brier started, and stopped, and talked her way around it several times. Finally, she managed to say she wasn’t going to the next dentist appointment.

          “Uh, yes, you are,” her mother raised her chin and squinted at a group picnic photo.

          “There’s a fee for canceling on less than 48 hours notice,” her father informed her, dropping the essay on the stack of stapled pages next to his knee.

          “I’m not going back,” Brier said. “Ever. At the dentist’s, on Tuesday…” Her throat hurt, and she stuttered, as if her own body was working against her again, trying to keep her from saying it. “Something happened. He…” She strained, clenching the ottoman. She dug her nails far into its upholstery, squeezing the stuffing out along with the words she was going to have to pronounce. “He…” She stared at the beige carpet and concentrated on shoving out the next two syllables. “Touched me.”

          “What?” They both said. Her father clenched someone’s term paper in his fist, deeply creasing it. “Who’s he? What did he do?”

          “Nothing,” Brier cried on impulse. Everything.

          “What’s ‘nothing’? Who’s ‘he’?”

          “The dentist… he…. he,” Brier felt like she should be screaming.

          “Touched me,” she repeated, hoping they would understand because she felt unable to expand on it.

          “What happened?” Her father yelled, still holding the crinkled pages in his hand.

          Brier torqued a wrist out on the upholstery.

          Her mother raised her voice. “He didn’t touch you,” she sounded frightened. “Anywhere… private, did he?”

          One sentence had been hard enough, and they couldn’t even believe that he touched her anywhere private. She couldn’t explain that he’d stroked, rubbed, and kissed her everywhere private.

          Her mother stood up, “Brier, I… I should have sat with you. It wouldn’t have happened… Why didn’t I even check on you?” She walked over and knelt down, hugging Brier close. Brier couldn’t move. She felt the skin of her mother’s arms locked tightly around her, pinning her own limbs down. Their shoulders touched. Their knees bumped. She squirmed against her. He’s on me again, maybe he’s on me again. Stop. Stop! “Let go!” She said, pushing her mother away. She slid off the ottoman and away, hyperventilating. Her head throbbed. She needed the air and space around her. She needed to see everything in the room.

          “Baby…,” Her mother’s eyes and mouth were wide open.

          Brier backed against an old chair. Its rough cover rubbed against the back of her legs. She didn’t want it to happen again in their minds. She didn’t like that if she told them, they could see it for themselves whenever they wanted. She hated the thought of them imagining her rape behind her back, without her permission. They would make it their business, they’d think of her differently. She would forever be the damaged daughter, the one with a past.

          “Did he rape you?” Her father yelled, crumpling the essay even more. “Answer me!”

          Brier’s hands shook. If she told them, she could never pretend it didn’t happen. And she couldn’t ever see or control exactly how they imagined it.

          Now, Brier wanted to say no, of course not. Nothing like that. She pressed her lips together, struggling against her body to keep the lies in. “No,” she rubbed her nose with the wrist of her bandaged hand, glancing at the arrangement of carnations on the wooden side table. But she wouldn’t go back. She wouldn’t ever go back. “Yes.”

          They stared at her. “Bri-” her mother said. She covered her mouth with her hand, turning Brier’s name into a horrible sound. A horrible shame. Her mother shut her eyes. Brier’s father pushed his glasses up on his head and went to her mother.

          There, Brier cringed; she knew they were picturing her splayed out under someone, limp and naked, or maybe she was writhing and screaming in their minds.


          “Oh, sorry,” Brier said, beginning to breathe faster. “Um.. could I just change into something from my bag? Something without metal? Something–”

          “Ma’am, I’m sorry,” Valerie interrupted. “You don’t have to comply with the screening, of course, but we cannot let you on the plane if you don’t. Even if you switch clothes.”

          Brier remembered a small souvenir shop in the other half of the terminal, by a McDonald’s. She hurriedly suggested that she take the tram over there, buy some other clothes, and come back for the screening.

          Valerie looked doubtful.

          “AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 166 — DEPARTURE IN 30 MINUTES,” announced a loudspeaker.

          Brier froze. Oh God.

          “Ma’am, if that’s your flight, I’m sorry, but there’s no way around it. Do you want to do the physical screening?”

          Brier breathed in sharply. No. She tightened her grip on the bags. Think. Be rational. Maybe she should go. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. She could move and see what was going on. She could just leave anytime, right? And she would be clothed. But Valerie would actually touch Brier’s chest and crotch. No.

          She really needed to get on that plane. She knew Kale would want her to do it. They had an agreement that someday she would touch people. That someday they could touch.

          She wanted to run out of the airport, to blow Kale off. But how could she? He was her best friend. He never called her a freak, like her past boyfriends had. He never hurt her. He understood her, and when he didn’t, he tried to.

          A year and a half ago, Brier walked out of the dressing room with the rest of the cast, her duffel on her shoulder. Families and friends kissed and embraced their performers in congratulations. Brier found Kale and halted in front of him. “Hey,” she said, looking at the ground and the space between their sneakers, unsure of how he’d react. She’d had a kissing scene with Darien, the male lead.

          “Hey. Good job.”


          Darien walked up behind them and slapped Brier on the back. “Hey, great job, Desdie. You really broke that leg.”

          “It looked more like she broke your lips,” Kale said.

          “Oh, yeah,” Darien winked at him. “Kale, right? Lucky guy.”

          “That’s right,” Kale pointed at his chest. “Because-”

          “Kale,” Brier interrupted, but he talked over her.

          “-when there’s a script nearby, she’ll let you suck her face all night long, but I, I don’t even know wh-”

          “Kale, stop,” she thought she was going to cry. She pulled on his hand, turning him away from Darien. “Kale.”

          She dragged him over to a wall and tried to explain again that she’s not herself on stage. She’s a villager, she’s the Girl in the Red Dress, she’s Waitress #3, she’s Mrs. Shaw, she’s Mushu, she’s Annie Oakley. And when I kiss him, I’m not Brier-the-girl-who-got-raped. I’m Desdemona-the-wife-of-Othello.

          They stood off from the crowd, by the rough, brown brick wall. She tried to explain that on stage, she was always in control. If she wanted to stop kissing, she stopped. No questions asked. Nobody was mad. Nobody was hurt. Nobody thought something was wrong with her. Nobody called her a freak. She could kiss if she wanted to, how she wanted to, for as long as she wanted to. She was in complete control.

          He stared straight into her eyes. “You mean, you think I’d make you kiss me if you didn’t want to? You think I’d do that?”

          “No,” she looked at chalk marks on the floor. But it’s different because it’s real. The blue-chalk S in “Seniors” twisted around their feet. She couldn’t explain it to him any better than she already had.

          He stepped in and leaned down, breathing close to her face. They were standing in the same S-loop. Her heart fluttered about. No, no, no, this is why I only do it on stage. She felt sick, and yet she wanted to prove that she trusted him. Just a little. Just a little touch. She lowered her eyelids, lifted her trembling chin, and touched her lips to his. I’m touching him, he’s not touching me. I can run if I need to.

          She started breathing too fast. I need to.  She stepped away and began running towards the double doors. I could’ve stopped it on stage. Her head throbbed once for every step she took, but she kept running through the doors, across the concrete, into the parking lot. She skidded up to her car and fiddled with the keys. She opened it, slid onto the seat, and slammed the door. Leaning her forehead against the steering wheel, she wiped her eyes. She’d felt him again, she’d felt the dentist’s flesh on her mouth. She groped for the handle and swung open the door. Leaning over, her she threw up on the asphalt. Vomit and phlegm dripped from her mouth. It wasn’t the dentist it was Kale but still he touched me. He touched me, and I let him. She gasped for air and brushed her hair away before her stomach contracted again.

          They discussed this afterwards, and made an agreement that someday they could touch. It made sense; if they ever decided to get married, of course she’d have to be okay with touching him. Still, she dreaded the process.

          Kale encouraged anything that would help her recover, like movies with hospital scenes and sets with big, close crowds. Sometimes they even practiced a little. She would let him rest his hand on her shoulder for a little while at a time, but only when she was standing up and staring at him — comparing every one of his features to how it was not like the dentist’s. She hoped she’d eventually be comfortable with it.

          She thought they made some progress — they held hands if he asked permission first. She even kind of liked that. They were touching, but she could easily pull away if she needed to. Also, the dentist never bothered with her hands.

          Although Kale knew it would be a long time until she was comfortable with him, Brier thought he got impatient sometimes, especially around spring and fall — play season. He went to all of her plays, even though she sometimes tried to convince him out of it. She knew it killed him to watch her make out with the actors, but he kind of tried to convince himself that it might help.

          She fiddled with her dinosaur necklace. What was she thinking, she’d be getting touched again. Of course it would be bad. But, what was she thinking? She already knew that waiting for the next plane was not an option, and even the nearest airport was too far away to drive to. What would Kale say when she missed her first small role because she refused to be searched by a security guard? What if he broke up with her? If she’d give up an acting break before she’d be touched, he might think that she’d give him up before being touched. He would think that. He might be right. She shut her eyes. He would be right. I’m not letting that happen.

          “Okay,” she said quietly, staring at the creases in the front of Valerie’s light blue pants. The other security guard left. Brier stood up very straight and followed Valerie into the back of the terminal. She took a deep breath in an attempt to stave off the hyperventilation overtaking her. She tried to pretend everything was all right, but soon failed. Drumming her temple, she stared at Valerie’s heels and frantically ran over all the causes for the screening and every way out of it and all the reasons why they wouldn’t work. Metals, under-wire, buttons, change clothes, new clothes, another airport– no time.

          She saw a straight row of white doors with metal lever handles. Her head started to hurt. Valerie pulled a gold key from a string around her waist. She stuck her hip up near the handle and unlocked the door.

          Brier walked inside the small, grim, grayish room; it had a darker gray carpet that was snagged near the door. Two dull blue plastic chairs sat near each other. They had round, metal legs, and no arm-rests.

          Brier lowered herself into the chair, knees clenched together. She set her bags by her feet; it was so brightly lit in there that it looked like an operating room. She shut her eyes and took a few deep breaths. She needed to get to Chicago. She needed to act. She needed to prove to Kale that she could recover. She knew she couldn’t ask him to exist like this forever; she needed his love. She tried to fold her hands in her lap, but her fingers shook against each other.

          Valerie looked a little distracted, but she explained again that it was nothing, really. She would only use the back of her hand to feel around Brier’s breasts and crotch. Oh, no. Brier’s vision blurred. Her forehead and stomach ached. She couldn’t do this screening. She couldn’t handle it. She simply would not be touched. She swore that this wouldn’t happen again; that’s how she got better — by consoling herself, promising herself, swearing that that had been the last time. Four years later, and she wasn’t even recovered yet. This would just make it worse. She already hurt horribly inside. She hated it. She hated the shame, duplicity, her own doubts and reservations.

          She tapped frenzied, shaking fingers on her jeans, hating the crazy-person looks she got. She hated the Dares she ended up performing to avoid the Truths she was tired of lying about; she hated the crying that she couldn’t stop when an Avon lady brushed her face with powder; she hated the shivers she got when people talked about doctors, or when ambulances passed her on the road. She was tired of the crying.

          Valerie knelt down by her side. Brier pressed her toes into the carpet. She hated that she wrestled with her mind every time it was referred to as “rape,” because some little thing in her head kept asking her if she secretly wanted it, if she deserved it, and another little thing said that if you liked it, it wasn’t rape. She hated that she’d had to resist his body as well as her own, but she could not stand how much she’d hated herself for it afterwards.

          She’d sworn she’d stand up for herself, and she had, so far. She’d been disappointed, lost things, but she’d gotten through it before and she could do it again. She was not going to get touched. She still tapped her knees. I won’t hate myself for letting this happen… I can’t hate myself that much again. She rubbed her pinky. I can do another twenty-eight auditions. She made fists. But I can’t be touched.

          Brier lay on the mat doing situps while Roxanne, a junior, held her feet down.

          Quatre-six, quatre-sept, quatre-huit… “Okay, thanks,” Brier leaned forward, over her knees.

          “Ten more,” Roxanne urged, nodding her head.

          “No, no, I’m done, thanks,” Brier put her hands down to stand up.

          “C’mon, you gotta push yourself,” Roxanne still clasped her white and pink athletic shoes.

          “No, sorry,” Brier stood up and wiggled her feet out from Roxanne’s grasp. Walking away, she raised her shoulders up and forwards, towards her ears. Her blue T-shirt looked empty, hanging off her concave shoulders. She walked over to the side of the gym and stood near the scale and an exercise bike. She put a dusty hand on the wall above her head, letting her arm dangle between the wall and her shoulder. She took quick, shallow breaths, trying not to expand her ribcage.

          “Hey, you okay?” Her gym coach asked.

          “Yeah,” Brier said, still concentrating on her breathing. “I’m good.”

          “Yeah… I’d have that breathing thing checked out if I were you.”

          “I’m good.”

          Coach Gerri wrote out a note and instructed Brier to go to the nurse’s office.

          Brier dragged her feet to the 300 building, trying to breath regularly and figure out any way out of it. She’ll ask me to sit on the bed, she’ll listen to my heart, she’ll listen to my breathing, she’ll put her hand on my back, she’ll ask me to take off my shirt… she will not touch me. She will not touch me!

                      By the time she got to the square, tan building, she only felt a sharp prick in her chest when she breathed in deeply. I can’t get off campus. If I’m reported for not going, then Coach will tell them I was supposed to go because I was breathing funny… and then my parents will force me into going to a doctor… so… I need to be sick, but not with whatever it is I have. By the time she leaned into the glass doors, she also had a plan. If the nurse had to touch her, she would only touch her extremities.

          She began limping down the hallway to 318. The hall was painted beige, and lined with blue-framed doors. Each door had a small plastic plaque stuck next to it.

          317, 318, Brier pushed in the door; she started to breathe raggedly again, worrying she’d be found out. The nurse greeted her and took the note.

          “Are you okay? You’re breathing hard.”

          “Oh, yeah, no,” Brier gasped. “My ankle hurts really bad.”

          Brier rolled her eyes around the room gray room and took in a deep breath. Valerie reached out her hand and Brier’s eyes jerked back to hers..

          “Actually,” Brier stood up, bumping Valerie’s hand with her thigh. “No. Sorry.”

          Brier was so relieved. It felt good to say no without anyone challenging her. Just one word — no. Her breathing seemed to steady. She lifted her chin and picked up her bags, turning towards the door. Let them try and touch her. Just let them. There was nothing you could stop her from doing once she made up her mind. There was nothing you could do to her if she didn’t want it done, and there was nothing you could make her do if she didn’t want to do it. She didn’t want to do the screening, and she wasn’t going to.

          She put her fingers on the metal door handle. How she hated him. He’d fucked her up. She wouldn’t have had to make this decision if it weren’t for him. It was his fault that she was like this. It was because of what he forced on her, in her. It wasn’t just his dick. He forced this hatred, this life. He controlled her life. She pressed down on the handle.

          From her boyfriend to her acting career, to her own thought process… He was the reason she couldn’t be touched. He was the reason she had her hand on the door. If it weren’t for him, she’d already be on the flight. If it weren’t for him, she wouldn’t be like this; she wouldn’t be doing this. No. I am leaving; I made the decision. You can’t touch me. They can’t touch me. But… if it weren’t for him to begin with, she wouldn’t have a problem. It was because he had… Say it. Rape. Raped me. I don’t know.

          “Let me escort you out,” Valerie said from behind.

          Raped her. It was because he’d raped her that she feared contact, hated contact. She died of contact. Because of him. And now she was missing her future because of what he’d done to her. He was fucking controlling her life.

          She slammed her shoulder into the door to open it.

          He began controlling it four years ago, the second he gave her the shot. He’d been making her decisions ever since. He’d decided who she’d first have sex with. Then he decided who she could date and what activities she’d do, what movies she could watch, even how well she could breathe at times. And the fucker decided her own feelings for her — he determined what made her happy and what made her upset. She knew the books said that rape was about power, not sex. Her rape gave the him complete power over every moment of her life after he pulled out. And she had thought she was free when he got off her, when her eyelids fluttered and her fingers moved.

          She looked out down the blank hallway, at the white walls and the floor, dirty, like plaque.

          She felt nauseous. I won’t be raped again. I won’t be assaulted. I won’t be touched. She didn’t trust many people, and not being touched was her one way to stay in control. She squeezed he eyes shut, furious. Or rather, his last way to control her. Because of him, every choice she made erred on the side of avoiding human contact.

          Half in and half out of the doorway, she clenched the handle as if she wanted to crack the thing open. But not this choice. I’m not letting him fucking control my life anymore. He made me lose my virginity; he made me lose my self-respect; I’m not losing control.

          She yanked the door back shut. Quaking with anger, she slowly eased the handle up. It latched. She wouldn’t cry over him anymore after this. She hated him. Four fucking years of my life belongs to him. Four years of my life, nine months and fifteen days. No more. Not another year. Not another month, not one more day. Today’s the day I break it. Today’s the day it ends.

          She turned to Valerie. “Sorry,” she focused on the words. She would do as she wished. She would take the call. She would keep her boyfriend. She would take back the needle. She would take back control. “I — will do it.” Stiffening her jaw, she flung her purse and small duffel across the room. She sat.

          “Okay,” Valerie hesitated, waiting for Brier to stand up again, then squatted by the side of the chair and apologized a second time, looking like she probably meant it. Brier tried to ignore her own head. She glared into Valerie’s eyes; they were light blue with white specks splattered throughout. She had short eyelashes with mascara that didn’t help much. Small and angular, they were set far behind the brow bone. Brier ground her fists together and pushed them into her legs. She hated her almost as much as she hated him, almost as much as she hated herself. Valerie rubbed her hands together and grasped her own knees. Her hands were medium-sized and a little wrinkled; they looked rather motherly. She had wide knuckles and short nails. There was a blood clot on the nail of her left index finger. She shook her head slightly, “Are you ready, then?”

          “Yes,” Brier hissed, hoping her nails would make her own hands bleed, because some people said it made you feel better. Her eyes narrowed.

          “Are you sure you want to do this?”

          “Just do it,” Brier yelled, thinking that Valerie might waver.

          But Valerie lifted her right hand, palm facing inwards. She touched Brier’s chest. Brier’s shoulders jerked.

          “I’m so sorry, honey,” Valerie said again, patting her down.

          Like hell you are. Brier’s nostrils flared. I hate this! I hate him! I hate him for raping me! I don’t want to think about it I don’t want to think about him I don’t want to remember his hands on me, hands that wouldn’t come off, hands that I feel right now, I know where they were, I know where he had them on my hips on my legs on my waist hands on my chest they don’t come off because I can still feel them, her hands feel like his hands, her hands are his hands!

          Valerie moved to the other side and gently pressed her hand into the crease between Brier’s ribs and left breast.

          Brier tried to calm herself and channel her fury into convincing herself she was at the airport, not the dentist’s. But the chair’s even blue. Shut up.

          She took in the hard chair and smashed her feet into the floor, bubbling the carpet. I am in control. I am not with a dentist. I am not with a dentist. I am in control. Her hands are her handsAt least I have clothes on. At least I have clothes on. The tendons in Briers wrists bulged out; her face was pinched and her throat constricted. Valerie pulled her hand back from Brier’s chest, cleared her throat, and stood up. Brier’s mouth twitched. She didn’t move. She didn’t turn her eyes.

          “Sweetie, I’m sorry, but your plane leaves in about fifteen minutes…..” Valerie’s square eyes softened at the edges, and she wiped one of them. Brier’s breathing came regular and paced, though loud. It’s not sexual at all, she rationalized. It wouldn’t effect her anymore. It wouldn’t control her life. He would not control her life.

          She spread her legs and wrapped her feet backwards around the supports. She slid her fists down and clenched the sides of the chair. She held on as if she was being tipped over the edge of a cliff, and holding on to the seat was the only thing that could save her. She could do this. She could stay in control.

          Valerie leaned over and touched Brier’s crotch. Brier stared straight ahead, concentrating on the second joint in the door’s lowest silver hinge. She told herself nothing was wrong; she was in control; she’d chosen this; she’d made the decision. But she could feel the light touch of Valerie’s hand on her pubic bone through the pants. She took a short breath and her eyes glazed over. No, no, I’m not losing control. She hated him. She hated him, and Valerie and security measures and guards and metal detectors, and the gray room. Brier hated the metal and hated her body for drawing attention to itself all the time and then betraying her and shaming her. She tightened her muscles even more, holding this hate in so it wouldn’t seep out as acid through her pores, or burst out of her mouth, splitting her head in half, it was so immense. But she wanted to let it go. She wanted to burn everything up with her hatred. And her jeans — she could still feel Valerie’s hand in between her vagina and anus! She wanted to dash out the door, but that would mean he’d win. She would live her own life without him. She would brave anything to defy him. To stop him. She wanted some paper nearby so she could scribble on it so hard that the pen poked through and ripped across it. She wanted to tear it up, huge pieces of it, and then she’d shred it with her teeth. She wanted a punching bag so she could hit it over and over until the seams opened and then she’d tear out the stuffing and light it and she wanted something with lots of little parts like a computer so she could smash it against the concrete to see the sparks and watch the plastic crack and metal pieces and circuit boards come flying out and she wanted to rob people and hurt them so they would know what it felt like, so they would understand her and her desire to control things because she had been controlled, so they would understand her desire to destroy things because a part of her had been destroyed. He wouldn’t destroy her anymore, he wouldn’t control her anymore.

          Valerie gave Brier some space, about to say that she was done. Brier still clenched the chair with her hands and feet. Black hatred dripped down over her contorted face and eyes and poised to jump out of her.

          I’ll never let him touch me again! I’ll never let anybody touch me! Don’t you touch me, I don’t belong to you and you can’t control me and what I want to do, I’ll do it, I’ll just do it and you’ll have to deal with it because I’m doing what I want and I’m not going to be touched. you have no right to touch me. don’t touch me, don’t humiliate me, don’t violate me, don’t degrade me, don’t hurt me — but you won’t have to worry about avoiding that because i won’t let you, i won’t let you have a chance, i’ve done it before and i won’t fail myself again i won’t betray myself again and live with the hatred it brings because it wasn’t my fault it wasn’t my fault no matter what i did or how much I hated myself it wasn’t my fault and it won’t be my fault again it’ll never be my fault because it’ll never happen again and i’ll never feel like that because i’ll keep myself safe and i won’t let it happen again because i hate you for making me hate myself i hate you for touching me any of you all of you and i’m telling you i’ll die first you can kill me first before you can touch me…

          Brier leaned far over her knees and opened her mouth. She finally screamed the hate. She sensed the commotion  but couldn’t feel the hands on her shoulders or hear the men or see through the blackness and still she screamed.


Caroline Mays graduated from UCR, interned for Inland Empire Magazine, and is currently an MFA student at CSUSB. Her favorite books include Emma, House of Mirth, A Proper Knowledge, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. She enjoys martial arts, dance, pirates, and traveling.

Robbi Nester

Southern California Apocalypse

In the meadows of the Republic
there are no moles. Their burrows,
corked with plugs of clay, lie empty.
Once, with the blind certainty of saints,
they’d navigate their native element,
an unzoned metropolis of tunnels, every
entrance with a back way out.
Now, tollroads flap like flypaper
under the bare-bulb sun.
The tame hills, furrowed with faults,
shake their broad brown shanks
and shudder to their knees.


Robbi Nester is the author of a chapbook, Balance. She has published poetry previously in Inlandia, Poemeleon, Northern Liberties Review, Qarrtsiluni, Floyd County Moonshine, Victorian Violet Press, and Caesura. She also has a poem forthcoming in Jenny. She has published reviews in Switchback and The Hollins Critic, and her essays have been anthologized in Easy to Love but Hard to Raise (DRT Press, 2011) and Flashlight Memories (Silver Boomer Press, 2011).

Michael Dwayne Smith

The Breakfast Tree

New neighbor’s hanging over my fence, avocado face yammering about his bread and butter, bread and butter, Why don’t my boss understand this how I make my quota? My spring morning quiet, sitting under my orange and lemon trees in my lawn chair, has flown off with the flustered sparrows and towhees.

He’s only had the house a few months, after Pop Bartlett died, 91 years old. No idea where they stole in from. Not Oriental. Not Mexican. Brown skin, black haired, too many kids to count.

The man admires a fat orange on a branch of my tree that’s grown out too near the cinder block wall that divides us.

This whole valley was citrus farmers when I was a kid, I tell him. We sped our Schwinn bikes through dirt rows and around smudge pots, grabbing fruit, old men with rock salt in their shotguns chasing lamely behind. Lemon juice, orange juice, lime, it flowed to us free and fresh, like water from the aqueduct our grandfathers built. This was desert. They made a paradise from barren land. Before it was overrun, bankrupted by freeloaders.

I’m looking him dead in the eye.

There was people here, he says, gawking the near-to-burst fruit. They lived the land before missions come. They knew it. They had, you call, tribes. Indians to your cowboys, no? He laughs a little.

The last standing navel orange tree in the valley sits on my property. A plump, sweet, juice-spraying orange hangs in his sight, a breakfast promised by old California. He’ll pluck it as soon as I turn away. I could just snap it from the tree, white blossoms filling the air, and I could offer it, a prize for my late wife’s sake. She always took pity on these creatures.

But I do not. Will not. This is not humanity, it’s California. And I am not his bread and butter.


Michael Dwayne Smith proudly owns and operates one of the English-speaking world’s most unusual names.  Not counting a year in Alaska, he’s lived in or near the Inland Empire his entire life.  No one knows why.  He’s a long-ago graduate of U.C. Riverside’s undergrad creative writing program, where he studied with Stephen Minot, Maurya Simon, Susan Straight, and was honored to serve as editor-in-chief of UCR’s literary journal, Mosaic.  Michael’s poetry and fiction materialize at Monkeybicycle, BLIP (formerly Mississippi Review), Pirene’s Fountain, Right Hand Pointing, Northville Review, Red Fez, Quantum Poetry Magazine, Orion headless, Phantom Kangaroo, Four and Twenty, and other mysterious locations.  He lives in the high desert with his wife, son, and rescued animals—all of whom talk in their sleep.  He can be conjured using the spells michael dot blackbear at gmail dot com, michaeldwaynesmith.tumblr.com, or michaelthebear on Twitter.