Fireproof by David Dunn


I have always wanted to be a drag queen.

            Though I suppose always is a big word. From the moment I saw my first live show though, I knew it was something I wanted to do. But wanting something and being something exist in their own universes. First of all, I have no rhythm. I can’t dance. It’s not that I’m bad; I freeze on the dance floor. I’m also tragically masculine, and I’m not sure any amount of contouring is going to change that.

            So I became a cop. Maybe those are related and maybe they’re not, but I explain it all to Oliver, the bartender I’m obsessing over. Everyone else in our little dive is at the stage singing and dancing along to Annette Fairness’s rendition of a Taylor Swift song I vaguely recognize—a deep cut, for sure. I like that about Annette. By day, a philosophy undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, by night a femme fatale with in-jokes only she’s aware of. Judging by the bills in the air, she’s doing alright tonight. I’ve taken to worrying about her ever since she performed Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” No one danced to that one, but Annette stood her ground, reciting each line of the poem in her affected voice she uses for the stage.

I went straight to the ATM and withdrew a hundred dollars.

            When I met her at the bar later that evening and held the money out in my hand, she just looked at it and said, “Don’t pity me.”

            I told her I would never.

            She then took the money and asked, “How much if I do it again? These swine are so uncultured I’m not sure I could.” She feigned weakness, lolled her head back.

            I think I fell in love with her then.

            I tell the bartender this too. I’m rambling a bit because he has an ACAB button on the lapel of his gray hoodie.

            He’s also killed four people.

            The latter fact he’s not exactly wearing on his sleeve. He doesn’t even know that I know. He probably doesn’t remember that I’m a cop. Some people claim they can spot one, but I don’t think that’s fair. I think a lot of people are good at spotting white men with authority issues. I didn’t get into the game for the power, so I can usually fly under the radar. Besides, we’re dressed nearly the same. Gray hoodies, blue jeans, tennis shoes. Here at the bar, away from Annette’s show, I can see all of his features clearly in the harsh, fluorescent lights bouncing off the bottles of liquor. I’m sure he can see all mine just as well. It’s refreshingly intimate, for a hole in the wall.

            “Do you really think so?” I ask, nodding toward his button.

            “What?” he says. His attention elsewhere, not on the show but somewhere above it.

            “That all cops are bastards.”

            “Why you’re not one are—” he interrupts his own speech to look at me, really look at me. He scrunches his face in a way that makes him boyish, cute even. He’s contorted it such that I can’t imagine it’s actually conducive to thought, but suddenly he says, “Wait a minute. You’re that detective, the one who caught the Cloud Killer.” He’s all sweetness and light now.

            “That’s me. My fifteen minutes of fame and I couldn’t even get a killer with a good name.” It had been my first big case. I was on the news. I’m certain Oliver, the surfer hunk from LA behind the bar hadn’t moved to Pittsburgh yet. While the whole drama did gain some national attention, it would seem that my newest preoccupation had done his homework on me.

“I’m sorry, man. I do believe in systemic racism and police brutality and that something needs to change, but I don’t think you personally are bad.”

            There’s still no indication he recalls my name. A fact that would have irked me three weeks ago when our only interactions had been me unsuccessfully trying to flirt. But I’m playing a much different game now.

            “Name’s Hunter,” I say, “and I’m just giving you a hard time. Truth is, I think all cops are bastards too.”


            “Sure. To be fair, I think all people are bastards too.” He looks at me confused, so I continue. “I’m not suggesting we’re all evil. Just self-interested.”

            He considers this. “But everyone can’t be objectively bad.”

            “Of course not,” I say. “The idea of bad is subjective anyway. I’d rather admit to being bad while striving to do good than do things that are universally acknowledged as being bad, like stealing or murder. Even with those we could likely come up with scenarios where our actions are at least subjectively good.”

            “Do I need to cut you off? I’ve never heard a cop rationalize murder before.” He’s no longer just sweet; he’s saccharine. The playful way he asks if he needs to cut me off does a number on my stomach. I try to act cool.

            “We do it all the time,” I say and point to his button again. “But as long as there’s a death penalty, it’s not just the cops doing the rationalizing.”

            “Okay,” he says, getting into the discussion, and I really wish I didn’t have ulterior motives because this is starting to feel flirtatious. “What about the arsons last month? I can’t conceive of even one reason anyone would think that was subjectively good. I mean those fires killed what? Three people?”

            “Four,” I say and then I’m stunned to silence. All the verbal foreplay I had imagined—even rehearsed—to get him to talk about the fires and here he is bringing them up himself. I’m beginning to worry we’re playing two separate games.

            He fills in my silence by doubling down. “I can’t imagine why anyone would do something like that.” Now he’s just taunting me. I can’t say for certain if he likes the idea that I’m really dumb or that he’s really smart, but he’s getting some good mileage out of all his dental work. Not fully prepared at this point, I try to keep my response ambiguous. “I’m more of a ‘how am I gonna catch him’ than an ‘oh how could you!’ type of guy.”

            He leans in close. “And how are you going to catch him?” I can smell his cologne and even the hint of mintiness off his breath. Bottle it all up and it’d be called “Ocean Lodge.” I can only hope that my entire demeanor is that icy when I say, “Don’t worry about that. I already have.”

            The bar goes silent. The bartender and I will not take our eyes off each other even though the lights are dimming. My periphery detects the spotlight now shining down on Annette. I’m sure she looks gorgeous, but I’m a tad irritated with what I know is coming next. Then I hear her voice from the other side of the bar, patrons heading back our way because the exciting part of the show is over. “You do not do. You do not do. / Any more, gumshoe…” When she switches out the words black shoe for gumshoe in the opening lines of Plath’s poem, I know she’s speaking directly to me. She knows no one else will notice she’s changed the words. She’s somehow sensed I’m treading on thin ice.

            I place a twenty on the bar. “Looks like I’ve got to hit up the ATM,” I say. “I’ll see ya around.”

            Then he winks at me. I turn around and smile, a huge, uncharacteristic grin. The giddiness of courtship is taking over. I try not to think about the breakup.


If I’m being honest, I shouldn’t have figured it out. Or at least not the way I did. If life were a game and my cracking the case only came down to a tally in the win or lose column, then this would be a win, but not one I was going to feel particularly proud of.

            First, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I usually frequent Aunt Elijah’s, a bar in Regent’s Square, the one with drag nights and the cute bartender who’s mostly straight but sometimes goes home with a lucky patron. I never got lucky, but he also set people on fire so you could say I dodged a bullet.

            Then we had a small lead on the first arson. A neighbor said she’d noticed a strange vehicle in the days preceding the incident. Unfortunately, that only got us a dark four-door sedan and a partial plate, but it was a start.

            Finally, the big break came. Or in this case the clue that both solved everything and made me feel completely powerless, like going to put in the final piece to a jigsaw puzzle only to realize your fingers are missing. After the fourth arson, and death, a new witness produced a sketch of a person of interest. The media in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Police Department distributed the photo all along the three rivers. Our own pyromaniac was not going to get away with it. Problem was I recognized that face instantly. Probably because I thought he was hot and had been spending my off hours when not worried about the arsonist wondering how I was going to get this guy to come home with me and light my fire. Life’s funny like that.

            Obviously to any rational person all of that taken together would seem like too much of a coincidence, and I was no exception. Until I saw Oliver after the photo was released. He’d cut his hair. Our very own LA surfer dude had cut off his locks and now, even though the black-and-white artist’s rendering was pretty vague and looked like most crazy white men who would hurt people, he didn’t look anything like it. Except for the ears. I tend to notice people’s ears first. I guess I have a thing for them. The important part is that I recognized him, and if our bartender did have a side hustle as a firestarter, then the witness had nailed the ears. The hair too for what it was worth. The rest a tad too Picasso-esque for him to get caught by anyone else probably. Like I said, life’s funny like that.

            So I ran his name. Oliver Kovach. 28. Drives a 2010 BMW 335i. Four Doors. Black. One letter and one of the two plate numbers matched. One didn’t. But the witness had given us a 0 where Kovach had an 8. It was good enough for me. And it was good enough for my boss to order round-the-clock surveillance. The arsonist we were after had done four fires in about six months, the last two being three weeks apart. So we waited. And waited. And waited.

            Then a fire, a huge one, in Glen Hazel—while two rookies were camped out in front of Kovach’s place. So it couldn’t have been my guy. No deaths though and that bugged me, big time. I expressed my concerns to my superiors, but no one would hear it.

            I explain all this to Dana Noll, who moonlights as Annette Fairness but should have called herself Nana Doll, while we split a crunchy roll off the center console of my F-150 outside of Kovach’s place the day before he will debut “Daddy” for the second time.

            “So what you’re saying is there’s a good chance he’s innocent and you just want to spy on him?” Dana asks. He wipes away a spot of orange mayonnaise from the corner of his lip with his pinky.

            “No, I’m saying there’s a good chance he’s guilty and no one will listen because it sounds made up. All the fires take place within a two-mile radius of his house. He looked like the sketch until he cut his hair, and yes, I’ve tried posting it around the office with the hair gone, and that worked for maybe a day. He drives a dark four-door sedan and the partial plate matches. Sorta. He’s the freaking duck,” I say and slam my hands on the steering wheel in exasperation.

            Dana seems unimpressed by my passion. I suppose I may have been trying to oversell it with the tantrum. “Okay, I get it. He’s your trout in the milk. But it’s been, what, three weeks since the last fire? Maybe he’s stopped,” Dana says. “Even if it is him.”

            I shake my head. “He won’t stop. But I’ve spent every waking moment I can tailing him and nothing.” Honestly, I’m running out of steam, and hope. “Thanks for coming with me tonight by the way. I’m glad someone believes me.”

            “First, I don’t believe you. I believe in you. There’s a difference there I’m not sure you’re capable of grasping right now. Second, this is my new dissertation. No matter what happens, the moral and ethical implications of everything connected with this case and you are fascinating.”

            “Thanks,” I say, mockingly. “I thought you liked me.”

            “Let’s just say this is more business than pleasure. You’re easy enough on the eyes, Hunter, but, Jesus, can you imagine? We’d be a walking advertisement for homosexual normalization. Oh, Hunter and Dana? They’re the gay starter model. Perfect for the queers wanting to play house.”

            Before I can respond, Kovach takes a bag of trash out to his dumpster. “You think we should steal it?” Dana asks.

            “What? His garbage? You think we’re going to find matches or something?”

            “I don’t know? Don’t you guys normally do that sort of thing? Maybe he’s shredded evidence, and we can tape it together over takeout and chardonnay.”

            I laugh and grab another roll of sushi between my travel chopsticks. “If I thought that bag had shredded bits of paper and you’d come over to my place and get drunk trying to put them together, I’d dive into that dumpster in a heartbeat.”

            “I guess it isn’t meant to be then,” Dana says and adjusts his seat so that he’s lying back. He puts his knuckles to his front teeth. “So having exhausted all the cliches, what’s the next move, detective?”

            “I think we’re going to have to play house,” I say and pop the last roll into my mouth.


The plan wasn’t airtight. No fourth-and-long plan ever can be. While I lived in an apartment building in Squirrel Hill, I had recently purchased a tiny cabin just east of Derry near Laurel Ridge State Park. It wasn’t much, but I had wanted someplace to get away. Turned out having a second property is a lot like having a pool—you want it until you have it and then you just have to keep it up. In the case of a cabin, the latter part is quite literal.

            “He won’t attack me in the apartment. His fires appear to be more intimate than that,” I told Dana after we left Kovach’s place for the evening. “But he might try if I’m at the cabin. It’s isolated and virtually made of kindling.”

            “And why should he attack you?”

            “Because tomorrow night, I’m going to let him know that I know what he’s done.”

            “And that’s going to make him set you on fire, why? I understand that you think he’s a psychopath, but if he’s stopped, why would he risk getting caught?”

            I had considered this. I’d even contacted a friend at the Bureau who worked in behavioral sciences. “From what I’ve been told, arsonists have a few distinct motives. We can safely eliminate a few just by the victimology alone. These aren’t likely to be cases of revenge, since there’s more than one victim and they don’t appear to be related, nor are they cases of destruction for its own sake, since there’s a homicidal component. Of the big ones, that leaves some sort of tension relief or attention-seeking behavior. Either way, I think I can prod him into action.”

            “And what am I supposed to do besides watch?”


            “Excuse me?”

            “In all the prior cases, he used an accelerant to get the fires to burn hot. Gasoline primarily, some special mix. I need someone to watch over my house at night. I’m willing to be bait, but I don’t want to be a meal. He’d likely try to catch me unaware, and as much as I’ll be ready, I need someone to watch the house.” Dana looked skeptical. I’d never been able to convince him to go out to dinner with me; I wasn’t sure what made me think I could get him to watch me sleep.

            “Hunter, I’m worried about you. What if this is a wild goose chase? You could just be harassing some poor straight guy, and while I find that perversely appealing, I want to be cognizant of the line between having fun with you and stalking someone.”

            “Listen, at least this way we’re moving to watching my house.” Dana still had the skeptical look on his face, but it was mellowing. Pity might not get me a date, but it might get me this. “How about seven days. You watch my house for seven days, and if nothing happens, I’ll pack up and move back to the apartment and stop the stakeouts.”



            “Okay, but only if you pay my next month’s rent. I need some new makeup.”

            “If this works, I’ll give you anything you want.” And I meant it.

            “In that case, let’s go home and get ready for the big day tomorrow. You need to rehearse.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “If you want this guy to release his tension by setting your house on fire, then you’re going to need to come up with a script. You’re pretty good at coming on strong and looking handsome, but if you want to compel him, and I mean really mesmerize him, into potentially getting caught, then you need to work on your foreplay.” Dana gently touched the stubble of my cheek with the back of his hand as we drove down the road. The gesture was so unexpected I took my foot off the gas for a moment. “You’ll need to do this, without touching him.” He leaned in closer and whispered in my ear, “Get him to talk about the fire because he needs to. He does need it, you know.”

            The engine revved as I placed pressure back on the gas. Dana lurched forward away from my ear. “Okay. Okay. I get it. I need to be seductive bait.”

            “That’s my worm,” Dana said and told a story about Kierkegaard all the way back to his apartment.

            While I was annoyed, he interrupted me the next night, he said he could sense things weren’t exactly going to plan. “You had that ‘coming on too strong’ look,” he said. We were in the back room. He was getting out of drag and I was giving him a hundred bucks. “The one where your jaw clenches. It makes your face handsomely angular, but it does funny things to your brain.” He took the money and put it in his backpack. I couldn’t help notice the school books. He caught me spying. “If I’m going to sit out in front of your house all night on some half-cocked, unauthorized idea of a sting operation, I’m doing homework. Besides, I have a plan.” He handed me a pair of walkie talkies. “I’ve rigged this one up so that when you’re ready to call it a night, you can keep the button collapsed and it’ll act like a baby monitor.”

            The first night was anticlimactic.

            The second and third nights, I couldn’t sleep and would just talk out loud to the walkie, knowing Dana could hear me.

            The fourth night I smelled the gasoline.

            Oddly enough, I didn’t recognize it right away. The odor in the air didn’t permeate the room exactly. It lingered faintly like a perfume, and smell being one of the best triggers for memory, it reminded me of afternoons with my grandpa on his farm, his hands always smelling like gas. Those crucial seconds meant I didn’t notice the figure sitting in the recliner I had just walked by. The figure that hit me in the back of the neck and forced me to the couch.

            I didn’t recognize him for a minute either. The figure before me had covered himself head to foot in some sort of jumpsuit that looked to be made of gauze, but it shined, oily and slick. Even the head was covered. Only his eyes remained and they were Kovach’s alright. Aquamarine. Distracting.

            Though I couldn’t see his mouth, I could definitely hear him speak. “Stay there on the couch. Don’t make any moves. Or poof.” The last bit he said while producing a Zippo. I couldn’t even conceive of what moves I was going to make anyway. We’d just come back from grabbing a bite to eat and because I didn’t win the Junior Allegheny Riflemen competition when I was twelve, I tend to leave my weapon at home when not on official police business. The only thing I had was the walkie, and I hadn’t enabled it to be one-way yet. As if reading my mind, Kovach said, “And toss over the walkie too. Let’s not involve the little lady just yet.”

            “If you use that, we’ll both burn,” I said, but he just laughed and I began to process why he might be covered in goop. He pulled down a pair of googles I hadn’t noticed from the top of his head. “Maybe, but I’ve had a lot of practice. Out in LA, I did some stunt work. There’s all sorts of ways to protect yourself from fire if you have a plan.”

            I didn’t want to start panicking, but the disadvantages of the situation began piling up in my head. “If you do this, they’ll know it was you.”

            The monster Kovach had transformed into in front of me nodded his head. “Sure. Sure. Except not after this sole survivor explains how you and the little twink outside kidnapped me to frame me, to prove yourself right. You’re obsessed and everyone knows it.”

            “Dana doesn’t need to be any part of this.”

            Kovach yelled back, “Dana became a part of this when you parked him outside. He’s complicit because you involved him.”

            He had a point. None of this was by the book, but I knew I had to keep my head clear. I had to keep him talking. For Dana, I needed to not come on too strong just this once. If I could keep Kovach talking for a while longer, maybe I could come up with an escape plan—or at least warn Dana not to run in when he saw the fire.

            “But why? Why the fires?”

            “Because they’re beautiful,” he said in a tone suggesting I was an idiot. “If you only knew what it was like to watch a whole life burn, not just the body, but all of the possessions. It’s quite something. And now, you can experience it firsthand. It might be beautiful from your vantage too. I’ve never tried it myself.” He lifted his hand up and lit the wick of the lighter. The flame danced in the drafts of the cabin. Before he could drop it however, Dana yelled, “Hey, asshole,” from the back door of the cabin. Followed by, “You bulletproof too?” He held a gun on Kovach, who was turning in his direction as Dana fired at the lighter. The bullet impossibly missed the lighter by millimeters but extinguished the flame. However, in the time it took us all to collect our thoughts and breaths, the flame had reignited on the fluid-soaked cotton of the Zippo. It hadn’t gone out; it had just gone down.

            Before either Dana or I could react, Kovach dropped the lighter to the floor. A line of flame painted its way toward me. I knew the couch was soaked, so I stood up as quickly as I could. Oliver Kovach’s advantage over his victims was that he was fireproof. If they tried to move, he could just hold them down for mere seconds before the pain of being burned alive would shatter any resistance. I’m sure that was part of the appeal of his game too. And I undoubtedly would have asked him had Dana not shot him as he ran toward me. The bullet took Kovach down while a line of flame danced up my back. Some of the accelerant must have transferred. Dana screamed at me and ran in my direction to get me out the front door. Before we were all the way out, I saw the flames licking the body on the floor of my cabin, and for the briefest of moments, I understood what Kovach had been talking about. There really was a certain beauty in the flames.

            I didn’t have time to ruminate on any of that though before Dana threw me on the ground and stamped on my back. The chilly night air and the smell of fire once again reminded me of the farm, the summer nights, the bonfires and hot dog roasts. I laughed until I cried.

            I’m telling all this to the new bartender at Aunt Elijah’s. He’s cute in that straight naive way the bartenders around here seem to be. He’s not LA though. He’s Pittsburgh all the way through—dark tousled hair, pale skin, and an accent that sounds like he’s perpetually irritated by something. Annette’s on stage, and she’s just started Stevie Nicks’s “Rooms on Fire.” I have no idea how she queues up her stuff so perfectly, but I can’t help imagine she’s doing this one for me too. Another reminder to slow down. I’m thinking about this when the new bartender asks incredulously, “But how did Annette know to come in when she did and where did that gun come from?”

            I answer the second part truthfully. “Annette won the Junior Allegheny Riflemen competition when she was twelve. Still carries a gun. Not sure which philosopher she uses to justify it, but I’m sure she’d give you an earful if you asked.” The first part I decide to lie about by omission. “And she said she noticed something was wrong and went to check it out.” In truth, I had asked her the same question. To which she had responded, “Hunter, I’ve told you before that you’re boring and predictable. That’s why I like you and why I won’t go out with you. In this case, it saved your life. Once you didn’t drone on and on into that walkie within ten minutes of getting in the door, not to mention not turning on your porch light, I knew something was wrong and I went to see what.”

            “That’s amazing. And to think that no one believed you. Too bad about your cabin though,” he says. “I love the outdoors.”

            “Great. You’ll have to come check out the new one then,” I say because while the old one was a money pit that I regretted getting into, the new one will be all new construction with a firepit out back, if I can stomach one by then. When you’re certain a firebug might be onto you and you’re doing your damnedest to trap him, you up the coverage on your properties and put your collectibles in storage. Perks of the job.

            “Definitely,” he says and goes to take another drink order at the end of the bar.

            Annette’s moved onto a new song, and I decide to hit up the ATM anyway. I join the dancers up front while she does her number. I sway to the music, careful at first not to bump too close to anyone, but then I see Annette giving me this look of surprise and utter satisfaction.

            I notice all the bills and hands in the air, and I see the beauty here too. Annette pulls me up on stage and to my surprise I feel like I know how to move because she’s leading me.

            I haven’t felt this light in months.

            I feel on fire.

D. M. Dunn (he/him) works as a publishing director in Bloomington, Indiana. He’s currently pursuing his MFA in fiction part time. His most recent publication, Sonnets from the Erodian #1, can be found in the YouFlower/YouFeast anthology. Find him on Twitter @dmdunnwriter.

My Siblings Make Dinner at Mom’s by Kristin Kehl

I dreamt my teeth fell onto the tile

floor, my jaw clenched closed

so you took a crowbar to my


chapped lips, my tongue shriveled

into a salted snail or I guess now

you call it escargot. It’s funny


how cooked things change names.

If I were baked into a quiche, would

you stand in line at the courthouse or


at the DMV & rename me a delightful

dish, a recipe to pass down to your

grandson in law? Surround me


at the next family dinner, at the dining

room table with wobbly legs. Pull me

apart with a fork. Make sure I am well


done. Brag about the hours spent

in the kitchen & when asked how you

made me, give a speech, something


like, step one: break the teeth.

Kristin Kehl is a senior at Florida State University, graduating with a degree in Creative Writing. She has work published in the Kudzu Review and forthcoming in Cat Family Records. Her work explores the transience in the intersections of identity and the forming of it. She hopes to pursue an MFA in Poetry in the near future. 

Stained by Death by Thomas Walrod

Mirror smashed in the center of a bathroom                                                                                                                  stall that placed its shards                                                                                                                                                    deep within my fist.


A mixture of blood and sweat                                                                                                                                             flowing from the palm of my                                                                                                                                            hand that feels,                            nothing.


Frantically pummeling the broken                                                                                                                                    glass to rid the image of the person                                                                                                                                  who has done nothing.


Nothing to stop those he loved escape                                                                                                                              this world over an exact three year                                                                                                                                 episode of his life.


My hands filled with his glassy reflection                                                                                                                                     piercing deeper as the pulse of my                                                                                                                       heart  slowly                  stops.


I             a grown man                    in fetal                                                                                                                                         position.                            Wanting                                                                                                                        to feel the love               of the lost.

The bleach took away the blood                                                                                                                                      but his initials in blood can still be seen.

Thomas Walrod is a High School English teacher from Redwood City, California.  He graduated from Regis University’s Mile High M.F.A. program in Creative Writing in January 2020.  His favorite books to teach are: The 1818 Version of FrankensteinCloud Atlas, and As I Lay Dying.  

The Hematoma by Arien Reed

I asked them with their annelidous hands

To take my breasts away gently as gauze

To leave me with only sunken wounds

The size of two saucers across my chest

And so I came out two days later

With one green and yellow flattened flesh

But one even bigger breast

The cure for surgery is more surgery

And complications only happen to good people

But no matter how many times you say it

As you grasp and press the giggling mass

I’m not sure if I’m good people

Or more a jagged path of open mistakes

But my drainage bulbs are half-filled hearts

That almost fill my husband’s hands

Their tubes purple-red as the sharpie

Bruising my name, your name, and allergies

Across the scalpel-bright whiteboard wall

And where yesterday I held a handful of flesh

I now hold a numb nipple and a cavern of blood

While in my other, a pen I can barely touch

To the line below waived warnings

I again only pretend to read

The Tramadol buzz rising, my limbs lowering

And still I smile and I’m sure—because of it—

This was never, can never, be a mistake

Arien Reed, a queer, Baha’i, invisibly disabled pterodactyl, holds an MFA from National University and co-founded, and is currently the president of, the LGBTQ Allied Staff and Faculty Association at Fresno City College from which he flies from rafters to screech at homophobic velociraptors. Ze is also the lunatic left in charge of the free “Fresno & Online Writers’ Workshops” which can be stumbled upon on Eventbrite. Their chapbook “The End” was recently unleashed on the world by Roaring Junior Press, his unpublished collections have been finalists for the Kore Press, Grayson Books, and Press 53 poetry prizes, and zirs ravings and scribbles have somehow found their way into Oberon, Florida Review, Sonora Review, High Shelf Press, J Mane Gallery, Allegory Ridge, and others. Their descent into madness can be witnessed on FB or IG: @arienreed 

Dear Friend, Where Are You by Nia Hall

Dear Friend, Where Are You?

6/12 Scooby’s been missing for a week now. He always wanders off, but this is the longest  amount of time that he’s been gone for and we’re all starting to get a little worried.  The last time I saw him, we’d been picking random herbs and flowers out of his  grandmother’s garden for her to use in one of her healing rituals. Scooby had gotten distracted at  one point and had started picking seeds from the Morning Glory plants that lined the white,  picket fence bordering the garden. He’d worked quickly when he’d done it, sweat pooling at the  nape of his neck, his dark, black hair frizzing up from the humid, summer air, giving him a slight  afro. Once he had finished picking all that he could, leaving a medium sized patch of the flowers  untouched, he’d ground the seeds up and had placed them in water to soak for the remainder of  the day. 

Later that night, after we’d gathered everything on his Grandma Rose’s healing list, we  ingested the seeds and wriggled our way underneath the crawlspace between the back porch and  the house. I’d felt my way around, in the soft soil below me, searching for something. Scooby  did the same. After about a minute, my hand came into contact with something metal and  cylindrical, and I pushed the button on the side of it up.

“Let there be light,” I’d said, as the space beneath the house became suddenly  illuminated by the glow coming from the flashlight, now in my hand. 

Scooby smiled, and I led the way under the house. Once we’d gotten to the point  underneath the house, where the Earth dipped beneath us, we sat up. The space below the house,  had already been set up with sleeping bags and a quilt underneath them. Scooby brushed the  day’s dirt off of them and lied down on one of the bags with his head resting is his hand. He was  still smiling.

“What are you smiling about?”

“We’re about to be so high, soon, Star. Just wait.” 

“How do you even know it’ll work?”

“Because I read about it in one of Mama Rose’s books. Duh.”

“So what, we just wait?”

“Yeah, we wait.”

And so we did. 

6/13 I don’t remember what happened after the trip. I don’t even remember if we did actually  end up hallucinating from the seeds of the Morning Glory plants. Every time, I try to recall what  happened, I only see the image of Scooby’s face and the palm of my hand, cupping his cheek.  Then he fades away. 

6/14 Last night I woke up in a rush, sweating, heart racing. I think I might’ve screamed, because  Grandma Rose came running into the room. His room. She told me, “It’s okay, child. It’s okay.  Just a bad dream. Just a bad dream is all.” She’s been letting me stay here, while they search for 

him. I’ve spent a lot of time in this room before, but somehow it feels foreign. The air a little too  sticky now, the sheets a lot scratchier than I remembered. At least the pillow still smells like him,  like mahogany and fresh soil. 

My parents are gone per usual, so I know that there’ll be no one at my own home to miss  me. I know Grandma Rose is scared and, to be honest I’m a little scared, too. This isn’t like him  at all. I hope he comes home.

6/15 Today, Grandma Rose tells me that maybe writing letters to him will help me to deal with  him not being here. I think she also hopes that it’ll help me to remember what happened the night  before he went missing. I’m not sure how I feel about writing to someone that I feel should be  here. Someone I feel never left. I think it would make him being gone too real and I’m not ready  for that yet. It’s only been a bit over a week. He’s going to come back.

Dear Scooby, 

I really miss you. I don’t know what to say in this letter really. Grandma Rose said that  this is a way to help me cope with you not being here. She misses you, too, of course. I mean,  how could she not? You’re her only grandchild. 

Lila visited me today too. She told me that she had something important to tell you  whenever you come home. She said that she knows you’ll be home soon, because you couldn’t  leave her without saying goodbye. I don’t mention that I didn’t get a goodbye either. I think it’d  be insensitive to say something like that to your grieving girlfriend, but I’ve known you longer. I  knew you first. Still, it’s kind of odd of you to not say goodbye to either one of us. It’s even  stranger that you didn’t say goodbye to Grandma Rose. I thought we were all your “favorite  girls”.

Love Always, 


6/16 Grandma Rose suggested that we go on a walk to clear our heads, to get some fresh air. On  the walk, I saw his face everywhere I went. He was in the clouds above me, etched into the bark  of the trees, in my own reflection in the lake. 

Dear Scooby,  

Do you remember the day that we gave you that nick-name. You, Lila, and I had been  sitting in the garden smoking pot. We’d all skipped school that day to celebrate you getting the  new job at the plant nursery, at the edge of town. Even Grandma Rose had made us a huge  pitcher of sweet tea that morning, after doing a cleansing of the house with sage. 

We were so happy then. There was a sense of togetherness between all of us. That was  before you and Lila had started sneaking off to be on your own, just the two of you. Before you  two started whispering sweet nothings into each others’ ears and giving each other small pecks  on the lips, that you thought were too quick for me to catch. But I noticed. I always notice you. 

But anyway, you’d gotten so high that day that you couldn’t feel your toes. At least, that’s  what you’d told us. You kept laughing at all of our dumb jokes, especially at mine. At one point,  you’d gone inside to get a snack. You’d been taking a while, so we went to go check on you.  When we found you, you were lying on the ratty, old couch in the den. You had a box of snacks  resting on your chest. The label read: Bakery fresh, blueberry muffin dog treats. The box was  empty. Lila and I started laughing hysterically. I asked if you’d eaten this whole box just now  and you smiled, the big, dopey, ear-to-ear kind of smile you’re so famous for around town. The  smile that, no doubt, had gotten you the job at the nursery. “You know these are dog treats,” I’d  asked you and you grinned even wider. “They were really good,” was your hazy reply. From

then on out, you became Scooby to all of us. I guess we could’ve gone with Shaggy, but I don’t  think it would’ve stuck as well. 

Please come home soon. 

Always and Forever,


6/17 I woke up in the middle of the night again. In my dream, he was lying motionless, in a pool  of his own blood. I kept shaking him, trying to wake him up, but his eyes remained closed. His  skin was cold to the touch and drained of all color. 

“Please, Scooby,” I cried to him. “Please, please, please. Wake up.” 

Dear Sam, 

Can you tell how desperate I’m becoming in your absence? This is the third letter I’ve  written to you. I’m not sure if you’re ever going to get to read them. I’ve missed the way your  name looks on paper. Not Scooby, but your actual name. Samuel. S-A-M-U-E-L. 

Lila told me that she’d seen you the day that you went missing. She was practically  bragging about it all over town. She said that you’d confided in her right before you left. That  you told her something you’d never told another soul before. Not even me. She told me that  you’d sworn her to secrecy. She had that stupid smirk on her face that she always has when she  knows something someone else doesn’t. You know the one. Lila can be such a bitch sometimes. I  don’t know why you’d tell her something that you couldn’t even tell me, your oldest and closest  friend. I feel like she’s lying.

She also told me that she thinks you’re dead. I hit her when she said it. I don’t even  remember it. Hitting her. All I know is that right after she said it, she was clutching her bleeding  nose and my hand hurt like hell. Then she told me something worse. She told me that she’s  pregnant. I think that I might’ve blacked out again when she’d said that. She said that the baby’s  yours and that she wants to keep it. Did you know, Sam? Why didn’t you tell me? Is that why you  left? Is that why you left me?


6/18 All of the letters I wrote are gone. I can’t find them anywhere and I know that I left them on  the desk in Sam’s room. I looked up and down the house and couldn’t find them. They’ve  vanished. I asked Grandma Rose if she’d seen them or had put them anywhere and she told me  that she hadn’t. It’s so weird. I could’ve sworn that I’d seen them yesterday. Hopefully, they turn  up tomorrow. 


I’m still searching for the missing letters. I even phone Lila to see if she’s taken them out  of spite, to get back at me for hitting her. She tells me that she doesn’t know what the hell I’m  talking about and to leave her alone. “I love him, too,” she cries to me through the phone, and I  hang up before she can utter another word.

Grandma Rose has gone out for the day, and she said she’d check in with the post office, to see if she’d accidentally taken the letters there. I don’t know what she would’ve done at the

post office with unaddressed letters, but I think she feels better not being at home, surrounded by  so much of him and not actually him. I understand the feeling. 

I step outside, to soak up the sun in the back yard. I haven’t been out here, since he went  missing. This was always his place. It feels strange, him not being here. Right now, we’d be  drinking sweet tea on the porch, listening to the sounds of the birds chirping in the trees. I think  of all the great memories we shared out here. I think about the nights we’d spent stargazing  outside, and then we’d crawl beneath the house to have sleepovers in the sleeping bags and talk  about the dreams we had for when we got out of this town. 

I don’t know why or how I got there, but I’m under the crawlspace, looking for the  flashlight, like I have a million times before. There’s a foul smell coming from underneath the  house. My hand brushes over something flat and smooth, but I don’t know what it is. I keep  feeling for the flashlight and finally my hand connects with metal, but there’s also something  caked onto it. Maybe dirt. I push the on button up, and see that there’s a reddish, brown  substance that’s dripped down from where the light shines out to the base of the flashlight. It’s  hardened. I look around me and see what my hand brushed up against at first. It’s one of the  letters. I shine the light further and see another letter ahead of me. I follow it and the smells gets  worse. I think I might faint. Once I get to the third letter, where the sleeping bags and the dip in  the Earth are, the smell is suffocating me. I think I might throw up. My head starts to feel light  and suddenly, all of these thoughts race in: 

I remember his lips on mine, then

 yelling. No, not yelling. Fighting. Crying. I’m beating on his  chest. Him. trying to calm me down. “WHY?”

 “WHY?” “WHY?” 



 You?” “How could you do this to me?”

More screaming. “Don’t. Touch. Me.” Rubbing my palms against my thighs,   until they burn. 

“I love her,” he says. “I love you, too,” he says. No. no. no. no. no. no. no.  “NO!” More crying. Shaking uncontrollably. 


 “I’m going to marry her.” Silence. The sound of metal 

connecting with bone. More silence. Crying.   A million apologies. 

 “I’m sorry, Sam. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry. Please, forgive me. Please Sam, wake up. Wake up. Wake up” 

 My palm pressed to your cheek, cupping your head in my hand.   

I close your eyes and wrap you up in one of the sleeping bags, gently rocking you in my  arms, the letters scattered on the ground around us.



Nia Hall is a 24- year old, born and raised, Houstonian. she attended Stephen F. Austin State University, where she studied dance and minored in creative writing. There, she found her love for writing poetry and later her love for short stories. 

Nocturne by Rivka Nomberg

My flashlight calls out to the lunar eclipse

like a lighthouse.

This is the field where I set sail.

My carrots have gone rabid,

Tall and thick-armed, ugly.

They keep company with the extinct

sunflowers, once mammoth;

the birds have pecked out all their eyes.

Night gardening is another thing.

The black sky has no answer for me;

it is all soil and squall tonight.

A storm-seeded tree is pirating the boxwood –

its ovate leaves, swords, cutting out the center,

eating the heart.

It is not skimming like the palo

verde pushing up the mailbox.

It is not arching like the sextant

vigilant mesquite.

I pace the deck, worried about the invader’s

intent, its careless spatial relations,

pointing toward my only remaining gourd,

an innocent hand.

The dry air decries any monsoon; it’s going to be

another killer.

Rivka Nomberg comes from a family of Yiddish writers and organizers, physicians, Talmudic scholars, automobile mechanics, and woodworkers. Her interests include raising children, gardening, cooking, love, and medicine. Her poetry has been or will be published by the Beautiful Cadaver Project Pittsburgh, Swimming with Elephants, the Ember Chasm Review, Write On, Downtown, the West Trade Review, Common Ground Review, Thuya Poetry Review, and Glosses, the Stanford Undergraduate Literary Journal. She lives in Arizona.

Consonant by Cassandra Leone

My head has been replaced 

with blue hydrangeas & I think 

acid-panicle thoughts. Mark edges 

of sounds but—I’ll never be 

a vowel. Irreversible shapes are 

everywhere. Some would call this 

perfect desire: hair sharply parted 

at the nape of the neck. I know 

this much. We sound 

the same, like a pun. & sometimes 

I see people smiling in cars (I’m not 

in control of my fate). But I know 

perfect desire. My sexuality was 

awoken watching a lean, curly-haired 

man transform into a giant 

fly. In the right light 

a scab can look like 

an amethyst. Someone might 

even compliment you 

on your piercing. I once saw 

a cottontail rabbit chew through 

the trunk of AEIOU. It fell

in a shower of purple

blossoms. Can it be 

true? A rabbit’s teeth 

never stop growing? If it comes 

down to it, I’ll eat the sound 

out of your mouth.

Cassandra Leone is an MFA Poetry candidate at UC Irvine. She is originally from the Bay Area in California, and completed her undergraduate degree as a ‘non-traditional student’ at Smith College in Massachusetts. Her poems have been published in The Roadrunner Review and The Milvia Street Journal. Additionally, she’s self published two limited edition letterpress chapbooks at Smith College’s Apiary Press. She’s been awarded the Lynn Garnier Memorial Award for poetry, the Nora Folkenflik Award for Excellence in Poetry, and the Academy of American Poets Prize. She currently resides in San Diego with her boyfriend and pet rabbit.

Life of Birds by Hayley Stoddard

art by
Shaueel Persadee

The Morrigan is the pagan Celtic Goddess of war, death, and magic. Known as the Phantom Queen, she was a shapeshifter who often took the form of a raven or crow. – Unknown

I wonder what she would think

of all the black birds that have gathered to settle

on my neighbor’s house across the street

on this gray, blustery Sunday in September.

Are they the harbingers of some shadowy message,

carrying the fracture and mystery of their ancient mother

in their feathers, these pagan changelings of magic and prophecy,

who delight in the gathering of a menacing horde?

Or are they untrained, undisciplined civilian birds

living a thoughtless life, unaware of their heritage,

their schools swirling in black swaths across the sky

never considering how accidentally ominous they seem to us?

Perhaps they live ignorant of their own mystique,

not knowing why they feel an urge to sit on the house

of the next person to die, unintelligent and unbothered,

just living the life of birds.

I wondered this outside while taking the garbage cans out

walking cold concrete with no slippers as the wind

raised goosebumps on my forearms, waiting

to be delivered some message from an age long since past.

Hayley Stoddard lives in Colorado, and is currently pursuing a Bachelors degree. Before returning to school, she worked as a medical caregiver to disabled children and to the elderly. She began writing at a young age, and has been inspired by such writers as Billy Collins, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Anne Lamott, Mary Oliver, and Leonard Cohen. Her work has been seen in Parley Publishing, Oberon, After the Pause, Eris+Eros, and Beyond Words Magazine.

Orchid by Audrey Colasanti

art by
Kyla Flanagan

Button Eye Poetry Contest – Winner

your velvet lips

capture bumblebees

between their folds

you are a silk vagina

with teeth

a pair of dutchman’s slippers

a pouting purse

you thrive in inhospitable peat bogs

the kind that suck away rubber boots

& can drown a python



duels have been won

& lost

over you

men have gone mad

in search of you

a single flower

such power

you freak of flora

witchy thing.

Until recently, Audrey Colasanti has been a closet-poet, writing often but hesitant to submit her work for review. Under the encouragement and tutelage of poet, Danez Smith, Colasanti now has a much-anticipated manuscript – ‘green’ – to be published by The Black Spring Press Group/UK, 2021-22.  

Colasanti has been shortlisted for the Anne Sexton Prize For Poetry and the Sandy Crimmons National Prize.  She was also a semi-finalist for the 2020 Walt Whitman Award/Graywolf Press and long-listed for the Poetry Society 2020 National Poetry Competition.  You can follow her at

Pickleman by Remi Seamon

art by
Sean Benesh

button eye fiction contest – winner

A generator, a travel stove; canned things, an old mattress, the single picture tucked into a drawer where you can’t look at it ever not even accidentally; you don’t need much. Four walls, floor and roof all meeting at right angles, no leaks. It takes less than a day to move in friendless and fill the place with necessities while silence teems inside you like fish. You tell yourself the smell of vinegar which haunts the place must be some quality of the earth.

At first you are busy, very busy, and work hard at this – your business. And you learn it’s not silence, these woods full of skeeters (the biters) and rustling things, a deer who keeps returning. On the third week you open your laptop, select every email just checking in, and delete. And close your account. You switch on the light. You switch it out. You stop shaving, you flip the mattress, you shovel the drive, and spread salt, and beat back branches and pull out weeds you cover seeds carefully you rake leaves, and then you do it all over again. (You think of him; you think of him.)

One day when tugging a reluctant carrot out of its bed, you think you hear the crickets rub their legs into a word. You haven’t slept well and tug restlessly at the fist-long beard, a bad habit, standing still with the carrot earth-warm in one hand while you look for the cricket who learned to speak like him. In your hand the carrot shrieks, held painfully by its roots. Apologize.

One day your bad hand seizes up and scatters salt everywhere. A rat travels diagonally across the room leaving feet behind, like a child’s hands in paint. You forget to sweep it up. In the evening the deer returns so you tell her about your day, the rat, and she watches you with eyes made of glass, she doesn’t care about your salt, your carrots, she’ll eat them anyway. In the dark you deliver dramatic readings of The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar and wait for someone to speak. The silence turns in on itself, snake-like. Eating your words. You sour.

(He crouches on the ceiling coloring outside of the lines. He listens to you.)

One day a hurricane comes and snaps trees to prove it can while you sit in the bulging dark with a tin of lukewarm beans. In absolute black you fumble with a match saying fuck, fucking fucker and it snaps like a tree in your hand the instant it strikes because then, then you see him – his shape in the darkness holding still. The crashing rain. His large, rain-filled eyes which watch while he sits with his knees in his chest fingers in mouth because he doesn’t like thunder, even after you told him it was just God farting. Even now you won’t look him in the eye. Water seeps in under the door. Briny. The soles of your feet are wet. And you know, you know he wants to crawl under your arm, into your lap, he wants you to stop the weather to prove you can. It’s terrifying. The storm passes and he’s gone.

But the crickets speak. The carrots shriek. The water stays. And sometimes, if you hold until your breath becomes a statue you see his shoulders hunched in the corner, like someone sent him there for crying.

Goodnight Mr. Moon. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The Gruffalo and Where The Wild Things Are, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The librarian asks how many kids you have. The floor glistens.

He doesn’t like it when you drink, won’t even watch through the window so you try and save it only for nights when your hearts bursts into a bouquet of cockroaches and nothing else will drown them. Kicking bottles under the sink the next morning his eyes gleam reproachfully. Around your ankles, the water shifts. (The yelling. The smashing things and booze breath she yelling back, he in the next room stiff ceiling-staring awake.) You can’t remember.

That night you wake up and hear hissing gas, the stove flickering a blue ghost stretching out the tip of its tongue to lick the dish towel. You leap to turn it off and frowning return to bed, you’re losing it, have to be more careful. You fall asleep tasting salt. The water swells and submerges the mattress, you punch your sodden pillow and turn over. From the corner he sees, scowling.

You have four dreams in a row: at the beach you show him a jellyfish and he holds your head underwater until the bubbles stop streaming. While you fumble for a foothold on the rocks and find air instead, he lets the rope slip and the ground drives up into your skull and it cracks everywhere like a nursery rhyme, he wraps fishing line around your neck and pulls until your eyes flop out. He summons the blue ghost to the stove. You lie on the mattress, paralyzed.

And when you twist out of sleep like a fish yanking off a hook while you decompose your dinner, the water rises around your waist. He rocks in the corner watching belly swollen famished, nails or are they talons digging into bone his black eyes scared or angry or both you can’t tell, you can’t hold his hand. Not with talons. Not ever. Your skin puckered and remembering the machines wired into the circuitry of veins nothing could keep him alive you can’t remember you can’t remember his small and already stiffening body – the head which you held struggling with a razor shearing away the illegal hair because no one goddamnit not anyone was gonna call your son a sissy while eyes red knuckles puffy he sniffed. And held still. The water around your shoulders, there were good things. He shows you his pointed teeth his shaved stubble egg head and scores red lines down his spindly legs. There had to be good things. This head plastered in down pushed out of all that goop and screaming and yes you thought wow but mostly yuck…. How the days came after that, wrestling with diapers and bills and the way he screamed and you looked at her and she looked back hysterically, helplessly… (Climbing around your mouth press lips he can breathe underwater vinegar thing, you suck salt out of your teeth yank hair) In the yard where everyone performed their grief when you forgot your lines your cues and wandered around, ate twelve chicken wings and sucked the barbecue sauce off your fingers each time and then lost it all to the unyielding basin, this was a tragedy. Which was what everyone told you, your walking around smelling of puke and sadness in the suit you wore to your wedding and divorce and – so it had to be true. The tragedy.

Like a lid coming off a swift pop and then no house no him no horror. Only the trees, the salt trickling back into the earth, and you – pickled thing – alone in the fallen leaves.

And you remember his face…. a hot thing, his puppy fat cheeks and mouth filled with gaps, his eyes which were brown and ordinary and sometimes like a cow’s. The way you held his hand, his bitten nails, the blanket you drew to his chin and love you left on his forehead, your son. You say his name. His name and stand up.

You walk into the softening dark.

Remi Seamon is a student who spends her time split between Cambridge, England and Seattle, Washington. She received an honourable mention in the Foyle Young Poet of the Year award and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Unlost, Clementine Unbound, Rat’s Ass Review and streetcake, among others. She considers her greatest inspiration to be her dog.