Literature is not like fine wine

Literary magazines are not very popular these days.

That might seem like bad marketing in the pages of a literary magazine; it doesn’t reflect the sort of positive self-promotion a PR firm might recommend. That’s because we are a literary magazine and don’t make enough money to hire a PR firm that could stop us from talking about this.
There’s a tension, not just in literature but in other art like movies and music, between “pop” creations and highbrow art. One the one hand there are the action movies, the thriller novels, and the shallow songs with a contagious beat. On the other hand there are what are often called “indie” movies, books and films that have small, devoted and almost always insufferably snobby audiences.

On the one hand, fans of pop art seem to feel that if they don’t get an adrenaline rush, a shot of pure entertainment, it’s not worth their while. And art snobs seem to feel that if bands or writers make it big, their art must not be very good. Otherwise, why would so many dumb ordinary people appreciate it? This may be one reason why, if an indie band becomes successful, it is invariably accused of “selling out,” and its fans go find another band with an exclusive group of fans who are the only ones who “get it.”

On the literature side, it sometimes seems that the most praised works of writing are those that are dense, difficult to understand, and have almost zilch entertainment value. The characters are unlikable, their adventures are uninteresting, and the genius of the piece is bound up in the “lens” through which it views the world; the artists and their uniqueness then become the focus. This is not objectionable to the artist, of course, but it can be very boring for everyone else.
It seems that artists have lost their way. On the one hand, we have immensely talented people creating works that are technically very skillful, but not really that appealing or interesting (think John Updike). If a piece flops, it’s convenient, and less painful for the artist to blame the audience. Those poor plebes — I’m just too good for them to appreciate.

And on the other hand we have works that are thrilling and catchy, but not skillfully done (a good half of everything you’ll find in a bookstore, by a generous estimate).

We’re all used to the movie critics who slam films that don’t meet their high standards but inexplicably draw huge crowds. Maybe these critics would get more respect if they also tore apart works that are technically well done, full of artistic genius and soul, but virtually unwatchable.
Great art does not have to be popular, of course. There are many reasons for a creative work to never become famous — the editor wouldn’t publish it, the agent didn’t think any radio stations would be interested, the artist kept it in her attic and never tried to get it published, and so on. But some art deserves to be unpopular.

The artist’s goal should be a creation that is skillfully done, interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful. If the Sacred Cow and other literary magazines publish such pieces, we might be able to stop moaning about how nobody likes good literature anymore.

After the Worms Destroy the Skin

By Andrew Sharp

Richard Magee had sometimes wondered what it was like to die. But when he actually did, during what he had thought was going to be the middle of his life, his mind was too clouded to analyze and understand it. Does anyone know the moment he falls asleep?

They’re going to be celebrating the Fourth of July, and I’ll be gone, Richard thought as he lay in the hospital two days before he died. Thinking was about all he could still do. Without the ability to act on his thoughts, he felt increasingly as if he were living in an imaginary world, his bed a tether that kept him from roaming as far as he wanted to.

Yesterday, he had been worried about paying the gas bill, whether he could talk his wife out of a European vacation, whether he’d get caught for fudging his time sheets at work, and whether the Phillies’ pitching was really this bad.

He’d been looking forward to watching the fireworks this weekend.

Now he was watching the ceiling in the hospital, and it seemed likely the fireworks would go off after his grand finale. This was not a morbid gut instinct. He had heard the doctor tell his family the end would be soon. That was a relief. He wouldn’t want to linger on for years asking for more pain medication with eye blinks. They kept asking him if he understood, and he blinked at them, and then they still talked as if he wasn’t in the room. Why don’t you ask me if I feel horrible and want to die? he thought. I’ll blink yes for that.

And where would he be, while everyone watched the fireworks? He used to think that life must go on in some way after death. He had been raised believing in God, and had taken comfort in the chance that, assuming he got a passing grade after his expiration date, he had more future than as a skeleton in a coffin.

But that hope had gone down with the loss of all hands years ago. He saw the random disaster that destroyed innocent children and saintly grandparents alike, while criminals enjoyed wealth and happiness. He learned how hurtling space rocks changed the futures of entire planets with chance impacts. He grew to accept the hard scientific understanding that consciousness is just a complex organic computer program. Religion, he realized against his will, was a masquerade. It was useful in that it gave color to the lives of ordinary humans, a structure to order their short lives around, but it was not a truth that provided real hope. Despite all the prayers, struggles, and faith, the pious were just nasty ordinary people underneath. There were no miracles.

He remembered the day he finally knew, against his will, deep down to his very core, that when he prayed, no heavenly being heard it. That his father was not “safe in the arms of Jesus” but very literally becoming a worm, or rather a worm’s feces, his atoms redistributed to the eager benefit of the life that was still lucky enough to be squirming.


The doctor was right. Richard’s last day did not procrastinate. He recognized it when it came, and knew the light streaming in through the cracks in the curtains was his last sunrise, which he had missed because he was flat on his back. He watched the light crawl up the opposite wall, and he breathed disinfectant fumes instead of the foggy morning air that was a few feet away on the other side of the drywall and brick.

Death stripped away sentimentality like a nest of beetles. For the victim, anyway. His wife and two of his children were gathered in the room, ready to send him out with tears and ceremony.
He wished they would just go to work like usual. They would die too; why make such a fuss about his passing and waste the time they had left? This sentiment was too complicated to blink, so he let it be.

It became hard to form thoughts. He knew his wife was holding his hand. His chest hurt, even through the drugs. There was a baseball game. A bowl of oatmeal. A commotion on a highway with yellow stripes, and he was tripping on something. Wings flapping. He was falling. A weight pushed down on his chest and he tried to grab it and push it off. He worked to remember something important. Then he felt as if he were in tiny pieces, specks spread far, spread everywhere, a great horrifying gap, too much distance, too much space. Everything was a mist that was rushing inward, growing tighter and more solid. His perception was not a thought, but a restless knowing, like a dream during sickness.

Something is pushing all over my body, he thought. The weight. Then he knew what he had been trying to remember. I’m dying. I don’t want to die.

He fought to breathe and tried to thrash his arms. No one came to help. Suddenly the weight gave way and he sat up, gasping in breaths of air. He was up to his waist in black, leafy dirt in a patch of ferns. A mosquito whined at his ear and bit his neck. He crushed it.

He brushed a long tendril of moss out of his face and looked around.

“Christ!” he said.

The Walkers

By Ben Herr

Tree spinI crouch between two holly bushes, breathing heavily. My hiding spot is nestled between two houses within the sprawling development I’ve spent this wild night in. I may not be in the best hiding place, but at least I can clearly see the only two ways to get to it. The coast is clear on both, yet I can’t escape the feeling of being watched. But it’s probably just paranoia. As much as the movies love the jump scares and surprises, they never capture the feeling that every bush, corner, tree, building, or garbage can hides a nemesis. At least, not to the level you actually feel it when you find yourself dead center in the first known, real life zombie outbreak.

I hear the dreaded music again, and I hit the deck, scooting as close to the wall as I can. I can picture what is coming perfectly, for I’ve seen it at least a dozen times tonight. Yet I feel the need to get another look, that somehow, this is also the first time. I crawl along the wall to the house’s front corner and crouch behind another decorative holly, peering around the corner to get a better view.
The well-paved, marking-free road is empty, but not for long. As the tinkling music box tune becomes more audible, he rides around the corner. It’s one of what I call pipers. The zombie pedals a rickety bike around the community, ever so slowly, and ever so unsteadily, an old music box playing a repetitive, eerie tune from the basket in front. The music is accompanied by a mild chorus of growling from the ever growing crowd of walkers not far behind. The music seems to draw them together; avoid the pipers and you can avoid the zombies, I’ve learned. But I notice a hobbling figure come out of the darkness on the far side of the street to join the crowd. My heart pounds as I twirl around, having forgotten to check behind me. There are still more out there who haven’t yet joined to packs.

I think about how I got stuck in this disaster. I suppose it’s no different than Little Red Riding Hood. A simple trip to Grandma’s house landed me in great peril. And now I’ve been running around for hours, lost and disoriented in the development, unable to find a way out, and turned back by a piper whenever I get close. Perhaps this is why I can’t shake the feeling of being watched.
With the pack almost even with my hiding spot, I realize it’s time to get out of there. I scurry to the back of the house and scan the terrain. A joint system of back yards, with the next row of houses about 50 yards away. An old shed stands about halfway through the open space. I’ll make it there first.

I take a few more breaths, then dart to the back of the shed. My head goes on a swivel, looking to see if I drew any attention, but the night remains still. I creep to the front of the shed, ready to run to the next row of houses. I take a few breaths, trying to keep my breathing quiet and under control, when the shed door flies open, slamming into my forehead, and a growling zombie stumbles out.

“Why was there a zombie hiding in a tool shed?” I wonder, losing precious moments as the creature closes the few paces separating us. I frantically backpedal to stay out of reach, creating enough space to turn and run. Yet as I turn, my feet tangle and I start to fall. My head turns forward just in time to grab onto the tire swing directly in front of me. I hold on as I swing forward, then start to spin as gravity pulls me back. I’m heading straight for the zombie. Fortunately, the swing rotates my legs forward, and I’m able deliver a strong kick to the thing’s chest, knocking it down. I let go and drop to the ground.

For the first time, my thought is not to flee, but to fight. Though I have nothing to fight with apart from the tire I regain control of as I stand up. The zombie is coming back. With no other option, I push the tire over its head and down around its arms, forming more or less of a straight jacket. Then with a strong shove, its feet leave the ground and it starts swinging back and forth. I give it a strong kick to add a spin to the zombie pendulum. Inspired by the weak growl that escapes its lips at the peak of each swing, I take mental note to patent an idea for an undead grandfather clock.

I’m not sure what to do with the zombie now. This is the first one I’ve encountered and dealt with, instead of simply running away. I haven’t yet considered the ethics of killing a zombie. I don’t even know what’s making them zombies. Virus? Supernatural miscue? I think of the pipers. Hypnosis? I understand nothing of the situation, nor can I formulate any guesses that make logical sense. The whole situation reeks of an elaborate explanation that will never be made clear.

I figure the zombie won’t be going anywhere soon, especially if zombies are still affected by inner ear function, so I decide to check to the shed for anything useful and leave poor creature in its swinging prison. I am surprised to find a well stocked tool shed. Rakes, hoes, shovels, sledgehammer, pickax, screw drivers, crow bars, hedge clippers, machete, rope, weedwhacker, and chain saw. My hand hovers ironically over the chain saw for a few moments of consideration, before I pass over it and choose the pickax.

After dashing away from the shed and the immobilized zombie, I find a dark corner to hide in. I spend some time trying to retrace my steps, trying to regain a sense of direction, but I am irreversibly lost and confused. The roads loop around too much and end in too many dead ends to make any sense of where I have gone. What was a large housing development before now seems like an endless jungle of identical buildings, with legions of chiming pipers patrolling the paths. There is but one option: Keep going. I look around once again, searching for the invisible pair of eyes that I keep sensing, but see nothing.

Pickax over my shoulder, I move forward, now more deliberately, trying to track where I was going and where I had come from. For the next 10 minutes there was neither sign of life nor unlife. I follow roads, cut through properties, and double back when I suspect I’m going in circles. But I still feel no closer to finding my way out by the time I see another piper.

This time, I see them even before I hear them. A massive pack is scattered along the road in front of me, walking from my left to my right. The piper is already so far past, he disappears from view shortly after becoming visible to me. I think through my options to go back, but it is a long way. I would try to wait it out and let them pass before I keep going.

I drop to the ground and crawl the remaining 30 feet from my vantage point in a cluster of trees to the nearest house, ending behind the glass-enclosed back porch. I then follow it to the back corner where I can watch what is happening without risking much visibility. From my spot, I watch them file past like an unending row of stumbling ants. Again, I wonder, what were they? Was there anything human left? Were they animal, lower than animal, or still almost human?

A twig snaps behind me, throwing my heart into a frenzy. Involuntarily, I spring up and spin around. I am frightened by one thing, and terrified by another. I am frightened by a lone zombie hobbling toward me, no more than 20 feet away. I am terrified, however, by the sound of shattering glass. The pickax is still over my shoulder when I spin.

Surprisingly, the lone zombie stops in its tracks. Startled? Scared? Or just distracted? I am frozen, still tense, still kicking myself for blowing my cover. I sneak a glance over my shoulder. The parade has stopped following the music box and has turned off of the road and toward the houses, approaching in a wide, sweeping wall. Going forward, or even sideways, is no longer an option; I have to, once again, turn back.

But the lone zombie still stands in my way. I would do my best to make quick work of it, but we seem mutually frozen. It stands there, staring at me, looking almost uncertain, and I stand still because I don’t understand why. I look into its vacant eyes and see nothing flicker, no gleam of humanity as I had hoped. A few moments later it again starts forward, coming for me with a growl. I lift the ax and give it a broadsided blow, knocking it off balance enough to run by.

It doesn’t take long before I have once again put good distance between myself and the zombies. I no longer have a plan for where I am going. I no longer feel I can do anything but aimlessly wander. I can only think about what is really going on, and about that lone zombie. It looked completely unlike a human, yet did not look completely brainless and dead. It looked somewhere slightly in between, or at least, like it was battling to become so. What was it?

For that matter, what am I? How do I know I am fully human? I think of the events of the evening. They seem far from sane. I look at the pickax in my hand. I have ended up with far from the most practical weapon from the tool shed. Had I made the selection because it seemed awesome, or was there some unknown factor in the decision? I think of how I was seemingly blocked at every turn in my attempt to escape from a place that makes a corn maze seem like Alcatraz. Either I am the unluckiest of unlucky survivors, or I am doing, thinking, or perceiving something wrong. So something, perhaps, is working to keep me in.

What did the movie characters do? When things went wrong, they always found a way or a reason to keep going. But this brings another thought to mind. In the movies, they often have the same pop culture knowledge of zombies as the real world. They reference the knowledge of zombies, but act as though they are seeing them for the first time. It seems scripted to us, the viewer, but seems real to them.

I think again to unshakable feeling that someone or something is watching me. I realize it’s not just the fear that zombies are near that I just don’t see. It’s something bigger. The puzzle pieces fall together. Am I just a character being written, or more likely filmed, into existence?

The Nations Underfoot

By Andrew Sharp

Two books have greatly shaped my thinking about the history of the United States, and they vary wildly in style. One speaks in barely suppressed rage, and the other calmly analyzes.

The calm one is “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” by Charles C. Mann. He examines new scholarship that contradicts the story about how the “New World” was lightly populated by roving “savages.” Instead, Mann reports, it was full of established agricultural communities, permanent settlements, and highly advanced cultures.

The enraged book was “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” a horrifying (if sensational) account of how the last few of the North American native cultures were exterminated in the West. It’s full of stories of greed, lies, betrayal, and cold-blooded murder that often amounted to genocide.

If the Americas were not wilderness, then “settlement” is the wrong word. In the interest of accuracy, we need to use the word “conquest.” And then we need to confront the way in which that conquest was done, and ask if some justice is overdue.

While “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” certainly has a sensationalist slant, painting the white advance with as black a brush as possible, it contains a great deal of uncomfortable truth, along with an invaluable telling of events through the eyes of the conquered, not the conquerors.
You could argue that the U.S. war on American Indians was bad, but it might not have been quite as bad as the book says. If saying that theft and murder were exaggerated helps you sleep better at night, by all means dismiss this book. But that doesn’t work for me.

A simpler way to examine the issue is to ask yourself, “Would I switch places with these people? If my ancestors were the original inhabitants, would I be pleased that things turned out as they did?” You can nit-pick over some of the generalizations made by historians sympathetic to Indians, but to argue that whites had a right to all the land they ended up with is not sober historical analysis. If you’ve never read the Cherokee appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to avoid deportation from their lands, I recommend you take the time.

The United States has held itself up as a “city on a hill,” an example for the world to see. It’s no wonder, then, that we have had to gloss over our history.

Henry Whipple, chairman of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the wars with the Sioux, summed it up well.

“I know of no other instance in history where a great nation has so shamefully violated its oath. Our country must forever bear the disgrace and suffer the retribution of its wrongdoing. Our children’s children will tell the sad story in hushed tones, and wonder how their fathers dared so to trample on justice and trifle with God.”*

The scope of the injustice perpetrated calls for more than regret and apology. It calls for practical steps to make restitution as much as possible. Although cultures cannot be unmurdered, things that have been stolen may be returned. Why do we return art and jewelry stolen by Nazis but not return Indian land? World War II occurred only decades after the Indian Wars.

Far from being comfortably buried in the remote past, the defeat of the American Indian occurred in the late 1800s, decades after slavery had been abolished. Apache warrior Geronimo died in 1909 (a year after Ford began manufacturing Model Ts). Red Cloud (Oglala Lakota) died the same year. Scattered armed uprisings continued until 1924. To put this in perspective, my grandparents (most still living) were born in the 1920s. There are still people alive — albeit very few —who were born while Geronimo was still living. My father remembers visiting an elderly woman who had gone out to the West on a stagecoach around the time of the Western Indian wars.

Many American Indians today live marginalized on small reservations, a sort of glorified cattle corral, where they have no real chance to rebuild a nation (or sovereign tribe) in any dignified sense of the word. You can argue until you’re blue in the face that it’s their fault if they aren’t making meaningful lives for themselves (many of these arguments are encores of “drunk worthless savages”). But would you be happy if your people had the leftovers?

Any honest attempt at genuine restitution is likely to be very painful, as is only natural when attempting to redress great pain. It will also be complex and difficult to sort out.

But it’s past time to start.


For You, if Narnia Was the Land of Your Birth

By Ruthie Voth

if you,
when taking a friend to visit your childhood home,
have to lead them through
a wardrobe door,
or together slip on a pair of rings
and jump into a puddle

if you’ve stared at a painting,
willing the waves to splash off the canvas
and onto your face
if it wouldn’t surprise you to come face to face with a lamb,
wading knee deep in lilies,
speaking to you
with the music of the lion in his voice

if you’ve found yourself crying behind the gym,
too worn down to even hope for an escape
from the voices playing in stereo inside your head
if you’ve longed for a warm breath
to blow the world away from you
and carry you … safely … home

if you’ve run to the end of your strength
before slowing to walk
beside one who has waited long for you
or if you’ve chosen to follow
a leader who (not safe, but good!) will show you
little more than his shadow

then maybe
you also know this feeling of not belonging,
the realization that you were created for more
than this horizon-bound earth has to offer
maybe you also will be eager to step past the cover
and past the title page
to “Further up and further in!”

May 2012

Deep in the hills of southeastern Kentucky, Ruthie and her husband raise their four children and run a Bible camp. Sometimes, in the aftershock of the busyness, her mind clears enough to blog and write a little poetry. 

Tornado! Or, a Boy Gets His Chance


By Hans Shenk

O, do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks! Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. But you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.
— Phillips Brooks, “Going Up to Jerusalem,” from “Twenty Sermons,” 1886

The day that first set Caleb Peckerman on the long road to adulthood began much like all the other field trips the freshman class had taken: Mrs. Hunning, their homeroom teacher, scrambling to make sure that everyone’s permission slips were turned in, that everyone had lunch money, and that everyone was on the bus, for the ride to the farm.

Caleb spent most of the ride half asleep, staring at the passing suburbs, while cliques carried on all around him. He spent most of the farm tour staring vacantly at animals, daydreaming and drawing circles in the sawdust-y dirt with his sneakers. Throughout all of it, whenever he thought no one was looking, Caleb watched Harper Flegel.

As the fog of a long night of video games and caffeine cleared on the bus, he’d watched her laughing with her softball teammates, sunlight shining on her teeth that were straight without braces, white without bleach. At the farm, he watched her pet the horse and shrink back laughing and wrinkling her nose when it bared its teeth.

Caleb watched her lean against the horse’s fence with the other softball girls, craning to hear the things the handsome tour guide was saying. She was leaning forward, eyes sparkling, anticipating a laugh. Watching her, Caleb’s chest burned with a weary melancholy. All he wanted, he told himself, was to feel the focus of her sun-like glow on his face. To perform some act of valor on her behalf, or to drift into her social sphere and showcase a sparkling wit, anything. All he needed was a chance, to capture her gratitude, her admiration, or just her attention, for a moment.

He sighed, and kicked dirt through the circle he was drawing with his toe. A cloud, borne on strong spring winds, slid effortlessly across the space between Caleb and the horse enclosure, covering the yard in shade.

By the time the tour wound to its conclusion with a “special farm lunch” in a refurbished red barn, the sunny morning had been washed away by sheets of rain. Fluorescent lights hanging off of rustic rafters shed a cold glow on wooden picnic tables. On one end of the cavernous room, cattle stalls had been replaced by a steel-and-glass cafeteria line. The opposite wall was untouched save for educational murals painted on the bottom half, where cows and horses offered advice and facts in cartoon word-bubbles. The side walls of the room were 10-foot-tall sliding doors. The doors on the windward side were pushed shut to keep out the rain.

Lunch was almost over. Some kids were still finishing up their straight-from-the-dairy ice cream, but most of the class was sitting in circles around and on top of the tables, trying to yell to each other over the roar of the storm.

Caleb was sitting alone, close enough to the open doors to feel errant patches of mist. Harper had disappeared — he guessed she was using the restroom —so he was watching the storm, instead. Outside, he could see small branches whip off of the trees in the yard and go whirling away into the maelstrom. The trees themselves bowed and churned in a greenish twilight.
The lights flickered. In his mind’s eye, Caleb was wrapping an arm around Harper’s shoulders as she stared terrified into the storm. He was telling her that it would be alright. They would outlast the elements, they would be fine…

“CALEB!!! CALEB!!!” A hand on his shoulder roused him from his daydream. Mrs. Hunning was grasping at him and bellowing, “CALEB, THERE’S A TORNADO ALERT! WE’RE GOING TO THE BASEMENT IN THE FARMHOUSE.”

Caleb blinked, nodded, and got up. Everyone else was already neatly lined up, walking back past the cafeteria line and into the kitchen. Some of the kids were whispering to each other and giggling, but most were silent and pale. The lights flickered again as Caleb and Mrs. Hunning trotted after the rest of the class. From outside, Caleb heard metal scraping and crashing. Ahead of him, the other students walked in tight, tense rows. They passed into a hallway behind the counter, and the storm became a muffled booming, like heavy machinery in another room.

The class, kitchen staff and chaperones were pressed together against the linoleum walls, and the dirty fluorescent lights made them look like horror movie extras. The tour guide from the morning was standing at the front of the line, his hand on the knob of a door to the outside.

“Alright,” he said, over his shoulder, “When I open this door, I need you to try to stay in your lines, but I need you all to run straight ahead to the house. Don’t walk, run. OK? Stay together as much as you can, but I need you to keep moving.” He stared gravely at them. Someone in the line snickered.

“Hey! This is serious. OK? OK. Ready?” He said, turning the knob.

“What’s going on?” asked Harper, appearing behind Mrs. Hunning, brown eyes wide.

“Ohmygod. Harper. We almost forgot you,” said Mrs. Hunning. She turned back to the door, her face white, skin taut. “Wait!” she screamed, pushing past Caleb, and waving a hand at the tour guide, “We haven’t done a headcount!”

It was too late. The door was flung back on its hinges with a splintering crack, and the tour guide charged out into the storm. Then the whole line was moving, stumbling toward the door.

Mrs. Hunning had pushed ahead of Caleb in her attempt to get a count of her students, and now the motion of the crowd carried her out in front of him and Harper. Acting on a foolish sense of chivalry, Caleb stood aside to let Harper pass. She stared at him, confused, and also standing still. Then she said “OH!” and ran.

The delay had been no more than a second, but already, Mrs. Hunning was gone. Caleb and Harper were alone in the hallway.

He was watching her when it happened. A gust of swirling wind swung the door back violently, just as she crossed the threshold. Harper yelped in surprise, and tried to throw herself out of the way, but the door slammed with a sharp crack, crushing her ankle against the frame. Caleb was too close to stop. He careened into the door, and toppled over Harper out into the storm.

It hit him with a howl. The wind was pushing him down, tearing at him from all sides. The rain stung his skin like hail. He had landed staring up into a sky almost as dark as night, lit with a sickly green. He rolled over, and looked back. His fall through the door had freed Harper’s foot, and she was beside him on the ground, curled around it, shaking.
“Harper!” Caleb struggled onto his knees and crawled to her. She was holding her ankle, eyes wide, lips twisted down in pain. She tried to get up, and toppled back down. A metal barrel went clanging past them, end over end like a Pepsi can.

“Hey!” she screamed, from 6 inches away, “Get me up! Get me up!” She grabbed his shoulders, and as he straightened up, she lunged up onto her good foot, the other hanging awkwardly. Caleb turned toward the house. It was shut up, and dark. He took a heavy step forward, into the rain.

“No,” said Harper, her lips on his ear, “I can’t make it that far. Get in the barn.”

Caleb hesitated. Harper pivoted on her foot and drove her weight against him. “Get in the barn!”

They stumbled back into the yellow hallway. Harper hopping along, her arms wrapped around his shoulders. Caleb was trying to think of ways to get to safety, and of things to say to impress Harper.

“Close the door.” Harper gasped, letting go of him and falling against the wall. The lights went out. Behind Caleb the wind slammed the door again.

“Never mind,” she said, “Oh, god. My ankle.”

Outside, the thunder and wind had gathered into one roaring voice, growing ever louder. Lightning danced like a strobe light across Harper’s grimace, and there was another crash from outside. She looked up,

“We’ve gotta find someplace solid,” she said. Caleb nodded. His stomach was twisting, and icy trails of rain were rolling through the small of his back.

“Let’s go,” said Harper. She lurched away from the wall, put an arm over his shoulder, and they hobbled back into the heart of the barn.

When they reached the cafeteria, the massive sliding doors were clattering angrily against their runners, and rain was whipping in through the doors that had been left open. Caleb stopped, standing beside the cafeteria line. Steam was still curling up from the dishes. He couldn’t comprehend that three minutes ago, he’d been staring out those same doors, lost in thought.

“There might be a closet or something in the kitchen!” yelled Harper. “There’s no way this room is safe.”

Her hands tightened on Caleb’s shirt. He nodded, annoyed at himself for not having thought of it first. They started sideways, past the counter and into darkness of the kitchen beyond. Caleb fished out his phone and by its pale glow they found a sort of janitor’s closet, next to the refrigerator on the back wall of the kitchen.
With a bang, one of the sliding doors on the windward side ripped away from its runners in the cafeteria behind them. Cold, wet wind came shrieking into the barn, grasping at them like the fingers of ghosts.

Harper pulled open the door of the closet with her free hand, and Caleb used his to throw the mops, brooms and bucket out into the middle of the kitchen. They tumbled inside, and Caleb reached up and closed the door behind them.

It was dark, and eerily quiet. Caleb tried to swallow his loud breathing, and failed. He was wet and gasping, and his legs and shoulders ached from supporting Harper’s weight.

“Gosh,” she said, laughing, a little hysterically, “it’s crazy out there. Do you think there’s really a tornado?”

“I don’t know,” said Caleb, “That’s the worst thunderstorm I’ve ever seen, at least.” He checked his phone. There was no reception.

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait it out, either way,” said Harper.

It suddenly occurred to Caleb that their legs were tangled together on the floor. Embarrassed, he pulled his back, brushing against her ankle.

She gasped, and flinched away.

“Oh, sorry, sorry,” he said.

“It’s OK. I’m OK. It just hurts,” she said. For another moment, there was no sound but breathing, then Harper said,

“I just hope I can still play softball.”

“Yeah. Yeah,” said Caleb, trying to think of something to say. “You really love softball, huh?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I guess so. It’s just … what I’ve always done. It’s what all my friends do. I dunno.”

She let out a long breath, deflating in the dark,

“Is it —” started Caleb, but before he could finish, Harper stiffened,


She reached out in the dark, and grabbed Caleb’s shoulders again, dragging him close with the strength of sheer terror. A noise was pulsing through the walls. It was like a roll of thunder, a roll of thunder that never ended. Harper curled into a ball, her arms locked around Caleb’s shoulders like vises, her face crushed against his chest, sobbing in fear. The noise rose on all sides, deafening, all-consuming. Caleb braced himself against it. The sound grew louder. Suddenly, he was cold, unimaginably cold. His breath caught. The air was gone from the closet. I’m dying, he thought, This is it. This is how it feels to die.

The noise, and the cold and his fear blended together into a white pain that spread his whole mind and body, driving out conscious thought. He forgot where he was, or what was happening. He was alone, impaled on the point of a pyramid, suspended on the peak, and a howling malevolence was pushing him over, and down into an edgeless void. He was slipping, slipping, down into oblivion, into a darkness that had no borders, and no bottom. The noise drove him downward into nothing.

His eyes opened, and he saw a slender ray of light, shining on dustmotes. The noise was gone. Before he remembered himself, before he remembered his name, well before he remembered anything he’d ever felt about Harper, he felt two things: a terrible pain in his back, and a joy welling from the profoundest depths of his chest. He was laughing, and crying, all at once, for the beauty of the needle of light and the glory of the pain in his back. He moved his head sideways, and the light fell across the face of a girl, pinned beneath him.

“Harper,” he said. He could not believe how beautiful she was. How the ray of light penetrated just beneath her skin, and made her glow from inside.

“Harper,” he said again. Now he felt himself filling up the corners of his body, returning to life. He said her name gently. Her eyelid fluttered.

“Harper,” he said a third time, struggling a little to find the air to speak.

She looked up into his eyes. Hers were rimmed in red from tears.

“Good morning,” he said. He wasn’t sure why he’d said that, “I’d move if I could, but I can’t.” He coughed a little, and it hurt. He drew in another breath, working hard.

“Are you OK?” she asked, staring up.

“No, no I don’t think so,” he said, slowly. “My back hurts a lot.”

Only when she moved them did he become aware that her arms were still wrapped around him. She ran one hand slowly down his back and stopped just above the center of the pain.
She swallowed hard, and spoke in a small voice.

“There’s something in your back.”

“Like, stuck in my back?”

Harper swallowed again,


He didn’t know what to say. Nothing in the first 15 years of his life had prepared him for this. It occurred to him that she would see that he was crying, and he wanted to make sure she understood the reasons.

“I’m not scared,” he said, abruptly, almost angrily.

Harper blinked.

“I was,” he said, hurrying, trying to fit the words into one painful breath. “I was scared when the tornado hit, and I thought I was dying. But now, I’m not scared. I’m, I’m just glad to be alive.”

Harper nodded, but he saw that she was biting her lower lip. His shirt was still damp from the rain, but a new warm wetness was trickling across it. Crushed up against Harper in the crumpled ruins of the closet, breathing laboriously in the darkness, Caleb felt such elation and clarity that he knew he was dying. No one could feel this way, and then go back to normal life. He must be dying.

“I’m not scared!” he said again, “Because death is just an edge. You know? Everything has edges — I’m only scared of empty space, with no edges. That’s all I’m scared of.”

“Caleb,” said Harper, “Caleb, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Harper,” he said, “Harper, you have to understand. You have to remember.”

“Remember what?”

“All of it, Harper! All of it.”

“Caleb, you’re scaring me,” she said. Her eyes were welling up again.

“Don’t be scared.” he said, “Don’t be scared. Death is just another edge.”

Caleb’s euphoria was mingling with light-headedness. He still felt as though he understood, and saw everything, but the particulars of the moment were starting to swim.
Everything was dark, again. He couldn’t tell if the shaft of light was gone, or if his eyes just weren’t working. He’d been trying to hold himself up so Harper’s head wasn’t pinned against his chest, and now he found that he was resting on her forehead again. Even through his shirt, her skin felt warm, almost hot. He shivered.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said, and tried to straighten up, again, but found himself sinking down.

He was ambling down the bank of a clear, green river. I’m dreaming, thought Caleb, I’m falling asleep. At a time like this.

“Harper,” he said, swallowing twice. His mouth was so dry. “Harper! Hey, Harper,” he said, into the darkness.

“Hey, I just, I want … I just … I used to think that if, if sometime, for some reason, you and me were, if we were trapped together, then — I just wanted to be cool, and brave.”
“Sorry,” he said, “Sorry, I’m not making sense. Look, just so you know, I would’ve given anything to get trapped together with you. I thought that if something, if something like this happened, that I’d, that I’d be brave, and I’d save us, and we’d just wait it out, and we’d be OK, and you’d … you’d ….” He ran out of air. He drew another breath in, struggling to fill his lungs,

“Look,” he said again, “Look, just so you know, I think you’re beautiful, and you’re smart, and you’re brave, and you know, you know …” he stopped, and closed his eyes, and when he closed them, he could see the river again, and now it was up past his ankles. He knew it wasn’t wide, but the far shore was dark, and hidden from him. He felt a sudden desire to cross.

“You know,” he said, “I can’t be the only one who thinks that.”

Harper said nothing. Caleb couldn’t tell if she was trembling, or if it was just the ripples in the river, gently shaking him as he waded out into it. Suddenly, as though from far away, he saw the shaft of light again, and heard Harper say something in a deep, garbled voice that he couldn’t understand.

Caleb cracked two ribs, suffered a concussion and lost between 25 and 30 percent of the blood in his body. For two days, he drifted through dream worlds and fog, and when he came to himself again, his survival was already old news. He and Harper appeared on only three front pages, all local, and were mentioned on two regional television programs.

Each time the media inquired, Harper told the same story: she was late catching up to the class; the door slammed on her and broke her ankle. She told the reporters how Caleb had stopped to help her, how he’d carried her to the closet, and protected her with his body, and it had almost killed him. She said she didn’t blame the tour guide or Mrs. Hunning for leaving them behind, and she didn’t think it was right that they were both losing their jobs because of it. She said she was looking forward to when Caleb woke up, so she could thank him properly.

Shared trauma often forges a lasting bond between survivors, who have known each other in states of mind and extremities of situation that reveal secrets the closest friend or loved one cannot hope to discover. But circumstance is a careless craftsman, and the weld is haphazard. The ties we didn’t choose often take on shapes we wouldn’t choose.

When Caleb woke, he found that he and Harper could not make eye contact without a deep understanding passing between them. But then, he also found that every time he met her eyes, or heard her tell the story, he was left staring at his hands or changing the channel, or putting the newspaper down. Not once did she mention that she — hobbling on a freshly broken ankle had been the mastermind of their survival — nor did she mention his ravings about death, edges and edgelessness, and not once did she mention, even to Caleb, his last passionate speech. He was grateful for her silence, but even his gratitude made him feel ashamed.

During the week he spent in the hospital after he woke up, Caleb discovered that he could not even daydream about Harper without replaying the tornado. In memory, his few, mild failings that day seemed to him to be the work of a coward, and a madman, and he lay wracked by shame and regret. And sometimes, as he lay, miserable and completely still, he felt the surging energy of life and joy of living pulsing through him, and throbbing in his fingertips. And he would stare at the ceiling, and try to make sense of the anguish and the exultation.

Harper missed the rest of her freshman year of softball because of her broken ankle, and when softball started up the following year, she chose not to participate. For the whole of that school year, she kept a note that read, “You’re beautiful, you’re brave, you’re smart … and I can’t be the only one who thinks that,” taped to the inside of her locker, and especially on days when the softball team was playing, her gaze would linger on it.

At the end of the year, it was the last thing she took down when she cleaned her locker. She read it again, and stood, staring at the empty space where it had hung. Then she took a red sharpie out of her backpack, circled the words “I can’t be the only one who thinks that,” and stuffed the note into her pocket.

A little over a year after his brush with death, on the second day of summer vacation, Caleb was exploring a pile of boxes in his parents’ basement, and came across a box in which his mother had preserved all of the newspaper articles written about the incident. For the first time, he discovered that he wasn’t repulsed by the very thought of reading them. It had been months since he’d last spoken to Harper, and the shame had finally begun to fade. So he took them out, and sat down on the floor to read.

Initially, he was amused by how very different Harper’s story was from what he remembered. And then, at the bottom of the second story, he read,

“I know he saved my life. If he hadn’t been there, I couldn’t have made it inside, and if he wasn’t shielding me, that beam would’ve hit me in the head. I just can’t wait until he wakes up, so I can really thank him.”

He sat and stared at the quote, and then he read the other two articles again, focusing on the quotes from Harper.

When he was done reading, Caleb leaned back against the stack of boxes.

“Oh, my gosh,” he said. “I’m an idiot. I’m an idiot.”

He got up, put the newspapers back in the box, and walked upstairs.

His mother was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a book. She looked up,

“Hey,” he said, “does the library do first-aid classes?”

“I think so,” she said. “I thought I saw a poster about it last time I was there.”

“OK.” He moved toward the door. “I’m going to the library.”

“Alright,” she said, “but the car’s in the shop, so I can’t give you a ride until your dad gets home from work tonight.”

“That’s fine,” said Caleb, “I’ll walk.”