The Slope of a Line

So many mistakes. The heaviest of them rests on Rattle’s thighs and flattens its palms atop his chest. The rush of the freeway nearby surges through his veins. He once raged down Route 23 at criminal speeds. He was sinewy and strong then, steering the straight line. read more

Significance of Planetary Flatus and two other poems

Significance of Planetary Flatus

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Evidence that methane emitted by the single-celled Methanoscarcina caused the largest mass extinction on Earth.

It is called The Great Dying.
250 million years ago
(only seconds in Earth’s long day)
90 percent of all species perished.

It’s blamed on gas.

Eon’s amnesia hides certainty,
yet experts say our verdant Earth
was broiled and poisoned
by these likely suspects:

1. Methane clathrate,
known as “fire ice”
(hat tip to Robert Frost).

2. Massive volcanic eruptions.

3. Asteroids slamming into
shale deposits, instigating a sudden
Permian-Triassic fracking.

Now, research incriminates
one-celled Methanosarcina.
It bloomed across oceans,
converting marine carbon
into so much methane
the weather broke.

You who insist humans
can’t change the climate,
consider this microbe.
It waits on the ocean floor.
It waits in your convoluted guts.
It asks you to remember.

Last time
our blue green world
needed ten million years to recover.

Too Little

Nose pressed in tiny squares
against the screen, I watch
casual laughing gods
walk home from school.
I envy their long legs
and glossy notebooks,
their unseen powers
to unlock
words from shapes,

My sister drops A+ papers
and library books
on the speckled Formica table.
Asks me how many times
a butterfly flaps its wings.
Tells me I’m wrong.
Eats two cookies.
Announces we’re made up
of tiny things called cells,
made up of tinier things
called atoms,
also made of what’s smaller.

The kitchen walls stretch
to galaxy proportions,
the table a raft among stars.
I hold tight to my chair
and concentrate,
keeping my short legs,
my clumsy fingers,
the balloon of my body,
from dissolving into bits.

It’s Easy To Write About What’s Holy

Lavish the word “pure”
on a shopping cart upended
in a hot asphalt parking lot,
metal sparking sun-glints
as one wheel turns in the wind.

Describe the sacred in a man’s hands
cracked and gray against a black steering wheel.
The way he eases his taxi
around teens ambling in the street,
slows to let a car in his lane, a saintly image
you might juxtapose
with angry rap muttering from his radio.

Write about your newest purchase,
a costly down comforter stuffed with feathers
you hope haven’t been torn from a goose
condemned by her softness.

Next apartment over, a baby is wailing again.
You’ve seen him slumped in a stroller,
a limp grocery sack with newborn eyes.
Some days he cries for hours,
a wavering high volume siren.
You could use his tears as a metaphor
for this spoiled paradise,
where cruelty is for sale
and greed fouls the planet’s blessings.
Write about how hard it is to know this
and still drink good wine, laugh
with friends over dinner, pray
your submission is published.

Maybe writing about God eases your pain,
makes sense of the baby’s suffering,
heals a world just a shadow away from peace.
Sure, you could walk next door,
knock, offer to hold the baby,
bring dinner, say,

“It sounds hard for you right now.”
Easier to put in earbuds,
turn up the music, open your laptop
and write
while just past the wall you suspect
another of God’s infinite disguises
keens at your apostasy.

Laura Grace Weldon lives on Bit of Earth Farm where she’s an editor and marginally useful farm wench. She’s the author of a poetry collection titled Tending and a handbook of alternative education, Free Range Learning. Laura has written poetry with nursing home residents, used poetry to teach conflict resolution, and painted poems on beehives although her work also appears in more conventional places such as Christian Science Monitor, J Journal, Literary Mama, The Shine Journal, Red River Review, Dressing Room Poetry Journal, Shot Glass Journal, Rose & Thorn Journal, Iodine Poetry Journal, and Pudding House. Connect with her at lauragraceweldon.com.

The Familiar

He’d put his two hours in, hard labour, perspired, moaned, and swayed, but when he went to his desk for his reading glasses, so he could read the paper, they were nowhere to be found, even though he looked everywhere three times (they were in his shirt pocket – Alina would have found them); frustrated, he took his beige windbreaker and driving cap and went for a walk. It was Saturday late morning and the sun was shining. Negotiating the ascent to Castle Park, he bethought himself he should get a dog – he seemed the only pedestrian not trailing behind one. Not that he’d have the heart since old Dentulus died. It would be a disloyalty. The park was spread over a rise beside the banks of the Fraser River. There was a cement-ringed pond at its centre where young boys sailed boats, facsimiles of battle ships and sail boats and tugs, generally of the store-bought variety, though a few were homemade, out of Popsicle sticks, cardboard, paper. He was amused to witness the launching of such a one with “Helen” crayoned on its bow.

This man, Albert Prescott, had recently described himself as “begrudgingly sexagenarian.” He was a lanky man, generally thin; long salt-and-pepper hair protruded from under his cap, though the hidden crown was bald. He was starting to stoop a little and his vision was blurring. The sun reflecting off pond water made him squint. He departed to follow the meandering path to the crest of the first rise. There was a bench, with a perspective of the river, where he and Alina liked to recoup.

He was there when his phone rang. His brother, Del, was calling. “Whacha doin?” he asked.

“I’m in the park,” said Albert. “I’m taking a walk.”

“Is Alina gone?”

“I took her to the airport last night. She’s in Montreal now, with Hanna.”

“That’s tough about Hanna’s husband.”

“Yes. Alina says she doesn’t know how Hanna will cope.”

“She’ll manage.”

“Do you know, this morning was the first time since Alina and I were married that I’ve woken alone?” Then Albert regretted saying it; his brother was a widower.

“That’s what, thirty-eight years? Listen, we should do something. A movie night, or a pub. We haven’t done something together – just you and me – for ages. Let’s have some fun. Maybe hire us a couple of them escorts.”

They both laughed.

Albert puttered. Watered the garden. He’d resolved nothing would suffer in Alina’s absence. The lilacs she’d planted were prospering. He decided to cut the grass. They’d recently purchased an electric mower – no more cables for Albert, wrenching muscles in the shoulders and back. One might suppose nothing was new at this age, yet Albert was discovering hitherto-unknown sources of discomfort, so that in fact one could say life was a constant series of fresh challenges. An unravelling, to be sure, but also an evolution. Experience helped. The mindset was key.

Newlyweds had moved in next door. The young bride – her name was Jasmine – guided a Lexus convertible into her driveway while Albert pushed the mower back and forth. She got out of the car and called something out to him. Albert shut off the engine.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Hi there! I’m reading your book. Alina told me about it. I found a copy in the library.”

This was always embarrassing. “That’s fine, my dear. How are you liking it?”

She came over to him, tall, fresh, attractive. “It’s kind of philosophical. I may have to get you to explain some things.”

“I’m sure that would be very dreary for you.”

“When does Alina come back?”

“We’re not certain, at this moment.”

“Well, if you need anything just ask. I promised Alina I’d look after you.” Her smile bright, exposing the whitest of teeth.

He spent the afternoon in the hammock, reading, his concentration diverted by the occasional buzzing wasp. There was a nest in the grapevine growing over the trellis; Albert was maintaining an uneasy truce with it. The previous summer he’d decimated, with a jar of sugar water, a similar nest. The process had taken several hours and after he’d had to dispose of the dead. In response, over the following two months Albert had been stung a dozen times. This summer, when the nest reappeared, Alina advised him to leave it alone. She’d never harmed a wasp, she said, and she’d never been stung, though she spent far more time in the garden than he did. Albert followed her counsel and the results so far were fortuitous. He’d only been stung once – albeit right on the ass – when he’d inadvertently sat on a wasp.

Lying in the hammock, his eyelids grew heavy. When he closed them the first image to arise in his consciousness was Jasmine, in her long gypsy skirt, the kind Alina used to wear when they’d first met. Despite his embarrassment, he was pleased his neighbor was reading his book. Thanks to Alina, of course. Jasmine had found the copy in the local library because Albert himself had donated it. The novel hadn’t been a success. Though he wouldn’t call it a failure – his teaching position at the college had been secured in part on the strength of its publication. He’d desired the book’s success not for himself but for Alina, who had supported him over the three years it had taken to write it, and there had been hard times financially. In fact it had earned little enough recompense in those terms. But Alina had read it, it had made her cry, and so from Albert’s perspective the effort had not been wasted. To be justified, he maintained, a book needs but one appreciative reader.

Eventually he drifted off into sleep. When he woke it was late afternoon. He struggled out of the hammock and went into the house. Alina had promised to call, but no doubt she had her hands full. He took a Tupperware container from the fridge and emptied a portion of chili into a pot. As he sat down to eat, his phone rang. It wasn’t Alina, it was Del. “Whacha doin’?” he asked.

“Eating”

Del grunted. “You feel like doin’ something?”

Albert considered for a moment. Things felt out-of-focus, off-colour, he didn’t know what – the tones were all wrong. “No,” he said, “maybe not. Maybe I’ll stay in, read Finnegan’s Wake. To tell the truth, I’m feeling a little unmotivated.”

“Lazy, you mean.”

“Lazy, yes. I’m good, might turn in early. Maybe during the week, or next weekend, we could get together. Alina’s sure to be back by then.”

“C’mon, bro,” said Del. “When’s the last time you had a night out with the boys? You know my neighbour, Eddie, the mechanic? I told him you and I were about to paint the town rouge, and he was like, ‘Count me in, neighbour.’ Tell you what – remember that pub downtown, The Cat and Fiddle? I took you ‘n Alina there once, it’s a good place, good music, our kind of people. I already told Eddie we’d meet you there; you can’t say no now.”

“Alright, Del. Alright. Since you’ve gone to such bother. I’ll meet you at the Cat & Fiddle. At what time?” He looked at his wristwatch. “Seven?”

“Too early. Let’s make it seven-thirty.”

When he finished eating Albert emigrated to the couch. He started watching a ball game, a dull no-hitter, and after a half-hour he shut the set off. It had returned, the disorientation he’d experienced earlier. Perhaps he was wrong to have accepted Del’s invitation. He called his brother, on the land line – Del had no cell phone. There was no answer.

“I’m free,” thought Albert. “I can do whatever I like.”

He decided to go to the pub. It was Saturday night and people were being sociable; he should too. Albert called a taxi. Then got his beige windbreaker and driving cap and waited for the cab to arrive.

There were two levels to the pub, and upstairs on a small stage a duo playing acoustic guitars was singing “Margaritaville.” It was 7:40 and there was no sign of Eddie and Del. Albert ordered a pint. He listened to the music and tapped his foot. After a minute he realized the performers were not entirely accomplished. In fact, they were clearly struggling. The few patrons on the upper level began to move downstairs, until Albert was alone. He couldn’t leave; the singers had their eyes on him. Mercifully, after a frightening rendition of “Hotel California,” they announced a break, and Albert was able to move downstairs.

Where was Del? He took a seat at the bar, the only one available. Everyone around him seemed to know everyone else. Albert finished his beer and ordered another. He eavesdropped on the conversations around him, turning the occasional phrase over in his mind, considering it as dialogue in the mouths of one of his characters. Then his phone rang.

“Albert? Del. I’m callin from Eddie’s cell. Bad news, bro.”

“What’s up?”

“We’re stuck on the freeway. Eddie’s car broke down. It’s no problem though, he’s got a buddy, a tow truck driver. But he says it’ll take an hour to get here.”

“An hour?”

“Traffic’s bad. Just hang tight, bro, we’re on our way.”
But after fifteen or twenty minutes passed Albert received a second call. “Me again,” said Del.

“Looks like this is gonna take longer than I thought.”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s Eddie’s buddy, the tow truck driver. Seems he’s locked his keys in the truck. The Slim Jim kit’s in there, too.”

“You know, Del, I may just call it a night.”

“Don’t know how long we’ll be. Don’t worry though, we’ll get there.”

He would finish his beer, Albert decided, and if Del hadn’t arrived by then he’d catch a cab home. The world was off-kilter, tilting towards the ironic. Perhaps it wasn’t even safe.

There was a young woman at the bar, she’d been speaking to a man with a cleft chin but he got up and left and after a while she addressed Albert.

“Don’t zink I’f seen you herre beforre,” she said. She was a slim pretty blonde with a heavy accent.

“I’ve been once or twice,” Albert said. “Usually with my wife and my brother.”

“So?” queried the young woman. “Your vife, vere is she tonight?’

“She’s with her sister in Montreal.”

“I see. So ven zuh kit’s afay, zuh mouse vill feedle, no?” It sounded as if her tongue were stuck at the back of her throat.

“No,” said Albert. “But that’s very clever. Where in Russia are you from?”

“Ah, I’m zat obvious. I im from Petersboorg.”

“I’ve been there. Post-Perestroika. The Hermitage. The promenade along the Neva.”

“Actually,” said the young woman, suddenly without a trace of accent, “I’m from Saskatchewan. I guess my accent is pretty good, huh?”

Albert laughed. “Young lady,” he said, “you’ve been pulling my leg.”

She smiled broadly. “Hope you aren’t offended. I work here, just finished my shift. I’m only a part time barkeep, though. Full-time I’m a student.”

“I’m a teacher,” said Albert. “Are you a Drama student?”

“Hey, you guessed right. I was practicing my Olga accent. From Three Sisters.”

“Chekhov.”

“Have you really been to Saint Petersburg? Or are you like me, just another barroom tale-teller.”

“No, I’ve been. A beautiful city. But sadly in decline, when I was there.”

“Fantastic! I’ll travel someday. Have some adventures.”

“You should. I met my wife while travelling.”

“Where? In Saint Petersburg?”

“No, in London. Earlier. I spent the first half of the 1970s traveling and working in Europe. I was in London as I’d run out of money – I was looking for employment, and it was the best place to do so quickly.” Albert paused. “You know the expression, under the table?”

The young woman nodded her head. “Uh-huh, yeah.”

“Okay. I got work doing what you’re doing – a barkeep, as you say. Of course, being a young man then, and abroad, I’d already fallen in love. There was a young lady, I didn’t know her name, who came to the pub I was working at to sell roses to the customers. One look at her and I knew. I vowed to introduce myself the next time she came back. Only there was no next time. You know how it is with that kind of work; I suppose she found some more lucrative employment. I was staying in an Earls Court youth hostel, forty bunks to a room, snoring and belching and farting all night.”

“And that was just you.”

Albert laughed. “One night the police came in and arrested someone. He had a gun in his suitcase. When I got the bartending job, I decided to find better accommodations. I’d made a friend at the hostel, a Punjabi fellow who was planning on studying Business in London, and he suggested we hitch our wagons together. So we set about the disagreeable task of flat-hunting, with a fixed budget in mind, and I’ll tell you, we must have seen half the horror-houses in London. I particularly remember one dank basement, lit by a hanging lightbulb, with a Cockney slumlord showing us a shared bathroom, a blood-stained shower curtain, fungus on the walls. It was so disheartening I laughed, but my friend wanted to keep looking, he pointed out there was only one address remaining on our list. It was in Fulham, on North End Road, a ground-floor suite. The house had been subdivided into separate living quarters. Three Polish girls – working girls, we were informed, very quiet – were living upstairs, while a Spanish couple occupied the flat below. The rent was more than my friend and I had agreed upon, but this was the first reasonable place we’d seen, so we took it. The next day we introduced ourselves to the neighbors, and would you believe it, one of those Polish girls was my rose-selling beauty. Consider the odds. I knew at that moment we were fated to be together. And we are, thirty-eight years later.”

“Wow. That’s so romantic.”

Albert nodded. He’d talked himself into a reverie. He thought now it was time to leave. He was a little drunk, both happy and sad, affected by the soporific of beer and the sting of missing Alina. He wanted to surround himself with the familiar. He thanked the bartender for her enjoyable company. A taxi took him home. In the warm dark of the back seat, he closed his eyes. When he did so, Alina was there.

Guy Wilkinson is an instructor at the English department of Langara College in Vancouver, BC. He is the author of a monograph, At Work and Play: Philosophy and Parody in the Novels of Witold Gombrowicz (Lambert Academic Publishing), a children’s book co-written with his daughter, The Blueziad (Paraguas Books), and a collection of short stories, Home Invasion & Other Stories (Booksmart).

Three Poems for Lit Break

Centipede

If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.
—E. O. Wilson

I met its acquaintance lifting boxes, thick

with dust, that hadn’t been moved for years,

for the purposes of readying the books

for a donation and a sale.

Its size puzzled me: the exaggerated length

of it, its many legs looking more like hair

than the paired pins that support it, segment

to segment; waddling more as does

a skunk would than any insect I had seen

ever does. However, I respected

its dimension and what I assessed as

apparently its age, and from that first time

it regarded me, knowing that I was not

one of its persecutors. Although I occasioned

to see its activities, bolting from one dark

corner of the bookstore to another,

toward the end of the day, perhaps, after

a reception, which might have included

cheese and crackers, or bruschetta

and red and white wine, convinced I

would never witness its covert movements

in broad daylight. Such as that is,

one late mid-winter morning, while

at my desk in the office next to the café,

I turned my head to the right, as if

on cue, and saw through the open door

that it was streaking, most of the length

of its body, hurled upward

and forward, as if it were, perhaps,

screaming, as it lunged underneath

the table of baked goods, and into

the metal baseboard heat cover.

It had chosen a time when the rush

between classes had dissipated,

when I couldn’t help but consider its

enormity and the leftover pastries—

the cinnamon buns,

fruit Danish, oatmeal

cookies, and varieties of Biscotti—

that I would admonish

the student staff to cover

with Saran or to replace the tops

of the clear glass jars,

to deduce that the size

of the centipede may have been

in direct proportion

to its gluttony for glazed

icing, pearl sugar, and marzipan.

Offering Guidance

for Karen Olander

The thought does occur to me that whatever

discipline or life you choose, or that you find

intrinsic to who you are, there is challenge, and

then not only just challenge but sheer obstacles

block the path, through which you must

circumnavigate, or blast right through. No artist

or writer, nor human being ever born into this

world, ever had a clear path to the mountaintop.

There have always been jungles to traverse,

forks in the path that must be discerned

as to which to choose, the roar of tigers around

each bend of the circuitous summit trail,

marauding brown bears prowling near the froth

of the falls, and then the rime-slick cairns near

the very peak itself. Aesthetic ascension is no

different from athletic achievement,

the metaphors being apt for one another.

Where lies the actual nascence of the spiritual realm

therein, since in the very ascent up this

precipitous mountain we always risk everything,

since there is nothing gained if we don’t.

The perils of moving forward are far less than

not embarking on the trek at all. Through this

ardor, we slough off the skins of naiveté and

innocence, and molt into the spiritual beings we

really are, possibly creating a work of art worth

the attention and respect in offering guidance

apt for all others who come along this way.

The Swist

The Swist is a brook. As child, the name

was often intentionally

mispronounced by classmates who would

also insert the word cheese after rending

the air with hyperbole. As a grown man,

particularly women, on a date, would

rhyme Swist with Twist, and then say, Just

like Chubby Checker, right? Often enough,

I have needed to have to speak each

letter of it over the phone to a Customer

Service Representative, enunciating

the letters twice; only to hear, Yes, Swift,

repeated back to me, the consternation

rising in my pulse and shooting right

through the top of my head; my ire

surfacing through my repetition, once

again, of the four consonants protecting

that one vowel in the middle, with

the sinuousness of the soft consonants

providing a rush until the final hard sound,

as in following a straightaway before

a sudden meander. The Swist rises in

Rhineland-Palatinate at 330 meters

above sea level on the Eifel. The brook

is nearly 44 kilometers long, and in

North Rhine-Westphalia it joins the mouth

of the Erft. The Swist flows through

my veins, as readily as it tumbles into

Swisttal, a municipality; and its rush

may be heard in Meckenheim and

Flerzheim, which is considered to be

a berg of the town Rheinbach. It is here

that there are cycle paths along

the edge of the brook, where lovers lie

in the grass and children play among

wildflowers. The Swist also gives

its name to the town of Weilerswist.

The source of my namesake is

found at the northern edge of the Eifel.

Considered to be the longest brook

run in Europe, the Swist may explain

why I find healing in moving water.

Wally Swist’s books include Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012); The Daodejing: A New Interpretation, with David Breeden and Steven Schroeder (Lamar University Literary Press, 2015); and Invocation (Lamar University Literary Press, 2015). His poems have appeared in many publications, including Commonweal, North American Review, Sunken Garden Poetry, 1992-2011 (Wesleyan University Press, 2012), and upstreet. Garrison Keillor recently read a poem of Swist’s on the national radio program The Writer’s Almanac.

Coyote Creates Man

The bell above the door jangled when the couple entered the gift shop, the man and the woman blinking against the sudden absence of sunlight. Their eyes were slow to adjust to the peaceful dimness, pupils slowly dilating until the shadowy blobs mutated into discernible shapes: a shelf of history books and guides, a spinning rack with glossy postcards, the teenaged clerk slouching behind the counter with his dark eyes dancing sleek across the pages of a comic book. read more

Candle

Jongdae didn’t cry when his mom died. He didn’t cry during the entire funeral, no matter what anyone might think of him for it, and he doesn’t cry when he gets home after the third and final day. He goes to his room and loosens the tie on his neck, pulling it off and tossing it aside. It bothers him that he can’t remember if his mom or father bought it for him.

He rolls up all his belongings the way Sehun’s flight attendant noona taught him so he can fit the maximum amount of belongings in a small space.

Lying on the ground on his back, he rummages underneath his bed with an arm that barely fits between the bed frame and wooden floor. Once he finds the envelope taped there, he rips it off and counts the money. It’s partially the money his mom slipped him without his father’s knowledge, but it’s mostly money he earned at his part-time job as an errand-runner.

Even on the most bitingly frigid nights, he wrapped his scarf around his nose and mouth and took his boss’s scooter to deliver dry cleaning to a lady who lives in Dongdaemun. Even when it rained like someone was pouring buckets of water on his head, he rode the scooter all the way to a studio in Apgujeong to deliver fried chicken to K-Pop stars.

He smacks the money against his palm and slides it back into the envelope. It should be enough to get him a cheap rooftop apartment. And then—and then what? He’ll think about that later—once he’s out of here. He hides the envelope in his guitar case before slinging his Gibson onto his back. He tucks the phone into his pocket but rethinks it and tosses it onto his bed.

With a last look around, he steps out and passes his parents’ room on his way to the apartment door. The sandalwood smell of his mother’s perfume still hangs in the air.

He heads toward the stairs, about to jog down as always, but his feet stop at the top. He presses his thumb against a maroon stain on the railing. He tightens his grip as he keeps going so he won’t fall. Even though she didn’t fall, Jongdae releases his breath at the bottom of the stairs and turns to the left, through the hallway and toward the parking garage. A light buzzes and flickers overheard as he unlocks his bike.

“Where are you going?” He stops and turns. His father stands there, looking every bit the grieving husband from his rumpled suit to his askew tie.

The next moment happens so quickly Jongdae has no chance to process it, but he sees it slowed down, somehow—his fingers curling into a fist, arm pulling back. And then he feels his knuckles against his father’s nose and teeth. Jongdae’s guitar thuds against his back, the twang of the strings echoing discordantly through the garage. Time returns to normal, and his father tumbles back into a row of bikes, knocking them over like crashing dominoes. Jongdae swings his leg over his bike and keeps his foot on the pedal as he watches his father straighten up.

“You ungrateful little brat!”

Up close, his father’s face is bloated from soju, his nose already swollen and purple. Dark blood trails from his nostrils onto his philtrum. Jongdae feels emptied out. He has nothing to say, so he hooks his duffle bag on the handles and turns the bike, ignoring his father’s shouts to come back.

The air is balmy. He takes his right arm off the handles and touches his smarting left knuckles, testing for broken bones. He’s used to taking punches and blocking them, but he isn’t used to dealing them. He moves his hand off his knuckles and slides them up to the black band circling his bicep over his suit jacket. It signifies that he’s the first son of the deceased and also a symbol of his sin in allowing his parent to die.

Headlights glare, and he’s five years old, the sunlight fierce in his eyes as he runs his fire engine over the stone path in the backyard where his mom is pulling weeds. She rubs her back and grimaces. Little Jongdae sees the sweat on her forehead, but she smiles when she looks at him. He knows the hyung who owns this house is rich and sees the hyung’s mom wearing pretty dresses and always having her hair permed. Little Jongdae learned that word from the rich hyung—“perm.” He flies his fire engine in the air. One day his mom will live in a house like this and wear pretty dresses and have her hair permed.

Jongdae releases his other hand and holds his arms out, feeling the warm air resist against him, feeling very solid and real. He leans forward, gripping the handles.

It’s late, but there’s still life on the streets. Businessmen sit on stools and drink
under pojangmacha tents, laughing loudly and raucously. Street vendors still sell sizzling meat and rice cakes so hot the spices makes Jongdae sneeze as he whizzes past. High school students, still in uniform, head home from after-school tutoring and college prep programs.

That reminds him. He needs to find Sehun and Jiyong and let them know he’s
okay. But right now he needs some air first.

So he goes to Sora’s house. She was at the funeral yesterday, the only girl who gave him the space he needed when others were trying to dote on him and take care of him. Others might think she isn’t the prettiest or smartest girl in his class, but to him, she’s a spark.

He hops off the bike while it’s still moving and lets it fall to its side. The duffle bag tumbles off. He looks up at the brick wall surrounding her house and kicks it with his shoe to test its stability. He uses a jutting brick and the wrought iron gate to hoist him up.

Jongdae thinks her room is on this side and her parents’ room is on the other side, but isn’t particularly bothered at the thought of being wrong. He doesn’t feel much of anything at all right now.

His legs dangle over the wall. He sets the Gibson carefully on his lap, spreading his bruised fingers across the frets. He tests it, tightening and loosening the strings until it sounds right. Releasing a breath, he begins to play one of the songs he’s written. He isn’t sure how to connect the chords and notes so he just strings them together. He knows it’s both messy and charming.

Jongdae is lost in the music, feeling his voice rumble in his throat, when the window opens. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees her lean out, the warm breeze lightly rustling her hair. He recalls the press of her soft lips against his, the taste of strawberry milk. His first kiss and his first love.

“Look at Romeo here.” Jongdae stops playing and looks down to see Jiyong grinning up at him. Sehun is there too, straightening Jongdae’s bike and nudging down the kickstand. Both of them are still dressed in their high school uniforms, just as they were at the funeral.

“He likes you,” Jiyong calls up to Sora, cupping his mouth for dramatic effect. She glances worriedly back into the house and then smiles down at Jongdae. Even from the distance, he can read her dark eyes. She looks charmed, but also sad on his behalf. Suddenly he can’t stand to be here any longer. He zips away his Gibson and hands it carefully to Sehun before swinging his legs over and leaping off the wall. Jongdae waves to Sora, who blows him a kiss, and gets back on his bike as his friends do the same. He doesn’t ask how they found him.

They know him just about as well as he knows them. “Running away?” asks Sehun, holding Jongdae’s duffel bag out to him.

“It’s about time,” Jiyong says jovially, pedaling faster and leaning against his
handlebars.

Jongdae and Sehun follow behind him. They bike as they always are—three
points of a triangle with Jiyong slightly in the lead.

It’s been this way since Jiyong was the only one crazy enough to take under his wing quiet Jongdae, who just wanted to keep to himself, and cold Sehun, who had no interest in making friends. Only Jiyong could have untwisted them into this Jongdae, who will do anything for his friends, and this Sehun, who cares more than anyone possibly could.

Jongdae’s mom liked Jiyong, despite his penchant for getting her son in trouble. She called Jiyong a burning flame, and although Jongdae would laugh at the time, he secretly worries about how much longer Jiyong can burn so fiercely. Jiyong is the brilliance, and Sehun is the warmth. Jongdae knows he has a part too, but he isn’t quite sure what it is.

They end up at a park beside Han Kang. Casting aside their bikes, they sit on the grass, watching the lights of Gangnam reflect off the water.

Jiyong whistles, grabbing Jongdae’s hand and pulling it toward him. “Look at this. I hope that man’s face looks worse.”

“It does,” Jongdae says, surveying the bruises. Jiyoung laughs delightedly and kisses the bruise.

On the left, Sehun tugs at the black band and lets it snap against Jongdae’s bicep.“Why don’t you take it off?”“I don’t want to.” Jongdae covers his fingers over the punitive band. On the other side, Jiyong fidgets before taking out the Gibson.

His fingers move absently, finding minor chords that mirror Jongdae’s mood. Jiyong’s fingers make magic without effort. Jongdae spent several years studying his technique until he realized the glaringly obvious answer: Jiyong just doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about sounding good or about trying. He finds his mood and goes with it, letting it out in its rawest and realest form.

“You didn’t let her die,” Sehun says out of nowhere.

“I might as well have,” Jongdae says, folding his hands together and leaning his forehead against them. “I didn’t protect her.”

Sehun sets his elbows on his knees and leans forward, talking over Jiyong’s whimsical music. “She was your mom. It was her job to protect you, not your job to protect her.”

“Your mom tell you that?”

Sehun is quiet for a moment. “Yes. She said she would have wanted to die rather than let me die. She’s sure your mom must have felt the same.”

“Oh really?” Jongdae says flatly. “But your mom never had to make a choice like that, and she never will.”

He remembers the feel of the knife in his hand, testing it along his finger so it left behind a stinging thread of blood. He could have ended it long ago but he never had the courage. According to Sehun and Jiyong, he doesn’t have the murderous intent.

They were the ones who found him, who took the knife from him and held him back until he collapsed into raging tears he wouldn’t let anyone else see.

“Because my dad walked out when I was a baby,” Sehun says quietly.

Jongdae’s lost count of the number of times he’d begged his mom to run away. He thinks of Sehun’s flight attendant noona and the way she lives everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“I wish my dad had walked out on us,” Jongdae says.

“Gentlemen” Jiyong says in English, palming the strings so they stop vibrating. He continues in Korean, “Let’s not fight, okay?”

Jongdae ignores him, turning back to Sehun as something occurs to him. “Your mom knew?”

Sehun keeps his composure, ripping out a few strands of grass and tossing them toward the river. The light wind carries them to Jongdae instead. “She guessed.”

“And she didn’t do anything to help,” Jongdae says with a nod.

Once Jongdae entered middle school, he was the one with his arms around his tiny, frail mom, absorbing his father’s anger for her. He used to ask her all the time, “How did you get stuck with someone like him?”

She would pat his cheek and say, “I’m thankful because otherwise I would never have had you.” As he grew broader and taller, his mom seemed to shrink and grow frailer still. He was sure if he made a circle with fingertips of both hands touching, the circumference would be greater than his mom’s waist. He had wanted to be a wall for her, but he should have tried to be a rope instead.

“Your mom wouldn’t admit anything was wrong,” Sehun says. “How could my mom help her when she refused to accept any help?

”You could have tried harder. But even in his mind he knows how unreasonable it is. And it won’t change anything.

“Jongdae-ya, you don’t need to feel guilty,” Sehun says.

“So you can read my mind now?” Jongdae says, but there’s no real feeling behind his words.

Jiyong sets aside the Gibson and digs into the pocket on his blazer lining. He shows them the pack of cigarettes with a smile as he pulls one out and clamps it between his teeth. Sometimes Jongdae thinks Jiyong’s intermittent smoking is just way to rile his friends.

“I got a 30 year old noona to buy me these,” he says, finding his lighter. “She was pretty, and I told her so. She didn’t even need me to ask for the cigarettes. She offered.”

“See, my friends, 30 year old women are the best. Still young, still beautiful, but they’re insecure. They desperately need to know people think they’re pretty.”

Sehun snorts. Jongdae shakes his head. Jiyong lights the cigarette and takes a deep breath, blowing smoke into the air above them and blotting out the stars they can see. Jongdae wrinkles his nose at the smell.

“You know those things will kill you,” he says.

Jiyong smiles and shrugs. He switches to English again. “Live fast and die young.”

He clicks the lighter shut, snuffing out the flame.

“Death might be a joke to you, Jongdae says, “but how do you think we’ll feel when you’re gone?”

Jiyong raises an eyebrows and looks to Sehun, who shrugs and says, “Sorry, Jiyong-ah. I agree with him. Plus, it’ll make your teeth yellow.”

“Death doesn’t sound so bad,” Jiyong says.“My mom’s funeral was tonight.” Jongdae’s voice is a razor.

Jiyong shrugs one shoulder. “To be honest, I think dying was the best thing your mom could have done for you.”

For the second time that night, Jongdae throws a punch before realizing it. The cigarette is propelled from Jiyong’s mouth like a rocket to lie smoldering in a patch of dirt. Jongdae can’t stop his attack now that he’s started. Fury he didn’t know was pent up inside of him cracks against Jiyong.

Jiyong’s teeth tear open Jongdae’s bruised knuckles. Sehun grabs Jongdae by the shoulders and hauls him back. Jongdae struggles against him but feels his energy deplete quickly. Jiyong straightens up, and without a moment’s pause, punches him.

Jongdae’ back thuds against the grass. His lungs lose the air they’ve been holding. He shakes his head to clear away the spots and looks up at Jiyong, who runs his tongue over his split lip. His face is a mess, eyes chaotic.

“The only reason you’re this mad is because you were thinking it too,” Jiyong says quietly. He spins around and dashes off. Sehun lies down on the grass beside Jongdae as if nothing just happened.

The worst part is, Jiyong is right. By dying, Jongdae’s mom set him free. His life centered on two things: staying away from his dad and keeping his mom away from his dad. Jiyong is right about the other part, too. Jongdae feels…relief. He doesn’t have to stress about anything happening anymore because the worst has already happened. He doesn’t have to be chained to a man he hates and fears.

He touches the black band and forces himself to remember his guilt.

“Maybe…Jiyong isn’t entirely wrong,” Jongdae says, suddenly thinking of the knife again—the way it gleamed, the way Sehun tore it from his grasp.

“I could have freed myself long ago if I had the courage to take control and use that knife.”

“You aren’t a killer…but he is, isn’t he?” And it’s in Jongdae’s mind again—his mom at the top of the stairs, his father striking out in anger, his mom trying to find her balance but slipping and banging her head against the railing.

He feels the gust of air from her flailing arms as he tried to grab a hold of her.

“It was because she ordered the wrong kind of chicken,” Jongdae says. It never takes much to set off his father, and only Sehun and Jiyong know the extent—the bruises on Jongdae’s chest, the broken ribs. They have always been the ones patching him up so none of their teachers would find out.

The teachers think he’s a delinquent, getting into after school fights. Sora always begged him not to get into fights, getting angrier and angrier when he responded with stony silence. He knows she suspects, though. She must know there’s something that doesn’t add up, but as long as Jiyong and Sehun don’t say anything, there’s nothing she can do.

“I kept telling her we should run away,” Jongdae says, “but she kept refusing. She would say, ‘How can we separate you from Sehunnie and Jiyongie?’”

“She was right,” Sehun says with a small sideways smile. “Jiyongie and I would be a mess without you to hold us together.” Jongdae laughs wryly.

“Stay at our house, Jongdae-ya.” Sehun tucks his hands under his head.

“I’m getting a rooftop apartment.” Jongdae sits up and carefully puts away his Gibson.

“Until you get it then,” Sehun says. He doesn’t say the words but he doesn’t have to. I can still help save you. Jongdae lies down again, and they just look up at the hazy sky.

“What a precious picture,” Jiyong says breathlessly as he returns. The space between his upper lip and gum is packed with cotton, blurring his speech. There’s a black plastic bag swinging in his hand. He takes out the cigarette packet again. Jongdae takes a sharp breath, his disbelief congealing into anger. But Jiyong drops the packet on the ground and stomps on it, grinding his toes into it.

“There,” he says, back to his state of manic calm. “We’re brothers, right?”

Jongdae watches Jiyoung warily and finally rises to his feet, patting his friend on the back. Pain reverberates through his hand. Clocking his reaction, Jiyong takes his hand and wordlessly gives the bag to Sehun. Sehun stands there like Jiyong’s assistant, handing over items as Jiyong administers stinging antiseptic to Jongdae’s cuts and wraps them with a bandage. These are parts the three have had to play over and over again.

“Jiyong-ah, what are these for?” Sehun says, pulling out three sparklers.

Jiyong shrugs. “Just because.”

He flicks the lighter and lights one. He holds it over Jongdae’s head so sparks like minuscule meteors rain down.

“Today you are free of your burdens,” Jiyong says.“My mom wasn’t—” Jongdae starts as Sehun lights another sparkler.

“Today you’re reborn as Jongdae who can finally be a kid without responsibilities,” Sehun says, holding the sparkler right next to Jiyong’s.

Jongdae hesitates and then lights the third sparkler, holding it in the air. “Today…I’m absolved.”

Still holding the sparkler up, Jiyong gets on his bike and rides alongside the edge of the river. They can hear him whooping from where they stand.

Exchanging grins, the two of them get on their bikes with Jongdae pausing just to get his Gibson on his back. As always, they try to catch up to Jiyong, hands off their handles, holding their sparklers high. Jongdae can just imagine how they must look to strangers—tall and handsome and young, all with cutting cheekbones, two with double eyelids, and one with dimples.

Their faces are peppered with bruises and blood. Their button-up shirts hang wild and untucked. The elbows of their jackets are dusted with dirt, while the knees of their slacks are wet with grass stains. The sparklers create ribbons of white-gold light behind them that mimic the curves of the river. They look like the world is unfolding for them. The slightly stronger river breeze unties the black band and sends it careening off into the darkness behind Jongdae, but he doesn’t stop, doesn’t lower his arm.

There’s so much he should have done for his mom, and there will be more than enough time to dwell on it later and to fall prey to his guilt. But for right now, he’s alive.

Jiyong and Sehun fall behind him, making him the leading point of their triangle this time, and Jongdae finally sees it. If Jiyong is the brilliance and Sehun is the warmth, Jongdae is the candle that houses the flame.

I prefer to write under the name Teji Reve. I live in California. When I’m not writing, I can be found dancing hip hop in San Francisco.