Kevin Kim

Today is Friday. Which means it’s a pool day. Which means fifty hyperactive and loud kids running around the USC aquatics center. Which means fifteen stressed and watchful leader chaperones. Which means I supervise Iajai, as usual.

It’s funny. I live thirty minutes away from this part of the city, but it might as well be a different place entirely. Growing up in the safe suburbs of Los Angeles, my dad always warned me about those parts of the city. “Careful when you go down there,” he’d say. “There’s gangsters everywhere.” Now I’m walking around south central, working with kids at LA Art Project. And sure, the gang activity is real. We fall asleep to the sound of helicopters flying low over the city. But then you make the smallest action—like taking them to the pool on Fridays—and the kids’ faces light up. It’s all you can think about, those faces and the city.

When we first start going to the pool on Fridays, Iajai hates swimming. His mom drops him off, tells us she wants him to learn how to swim. We tell the kids the rules and they all break, running off to the pool. Iajai stays with me. He’s small, but don’t let size fool you. The kid’s a little daredevil. But today, with the pool, he’s real hesitant. He edges up to the pool ledge, dips his feet in. The water is cold. He freezes. “I’m not going in,” he says.

“Aijay, come on,” I say.

“No.” He stands stiff and still on the edge of the pool.

“Come on, Iajai. Come on. I’ll hold you,” I say. I hold him. We walk into the water in slow steps. He starts giggling cause the water’s all cold. Even as I hold him while he makes swimming motions, I can tell that the hesitation is gone. That even though he’s afraid, he knows I have him.

Iajai lives in a house primarily for single mothers raising kids by themselves who are trying to find work. Out of all the people living in this house–his sister, his mom, the three other women, their daughters–he’s the only guy. Occasionally, the landlady’s son will drop by the house. But you can just tell  there’s not a single male figure in his life. He’s grown up with that. Could be why he gravitated toward me.

His story isn’t that atypical. A lot of the kids have a similar one–kids being raised by a single mother, seeing their dad only a few times a year. There’s a missing part of the equation. There’s no male figure. And the male figures they have are the ones who loiter outside on the porch, drinking and smoking. We’d see them there everyday. From eight in the morning to eight at night, they sit on their porch and drink beer. Even though young kids live with them. We go out, we come back hours later–they’re still planted there. One day, we approach them and ask if their kids want to come to our day camp. It’s three of these older men and a girl around our age—maybe nineteen or twenty—leaning against the porch.

“What do you guys teach them there?” one of the men asks.

“Kinda everything,” I say. “You know. We have arts, little science projects, reading.”

The man lifts his cigarette to his mouth. He points it at the girl. “Hey, you’re stupid,” he says. “You should go to that thing, too.”

She rolls her head away. “Whatever,” she says. You can tell she’s calloused about conversations like this. It’s a symptom of the city, the lack of motivation. The kids don’t have motivation. They don’t know how to dream.  These are the realities that they deal with. There’s no space for dreams.

One weekend, our team invites our parents up for the kids to meet our families. My dad can’t make it, so my uncle and his family comes instead. And even though it’s not my dad, when I introduce the kids to my uncle, I can see it somehow in their faces—the jealousy, the incomprehension. “Oh,” they say. Their faces fall. They slip from hyper-excitement to apathy. And when one of my teammates’ dad pulls up with a huge ice cream truck and tells the kids they can pick whatever they want–anything at all–you can tell it’s a foreign concept. They’ve never seen anything like that before.

Consistency is what they don’t have, and it’s the very thing they need. In so many different ways. There’s a nine-year-old kid who, at the beginning of the summer, reads at a five-year-old reading level. By the end of summer, his reading shoots up three levels—just from us saying, “Come on, you got this.” Three or four words a day to one of these boys completely changes how they view life. Just by saying “You got this, dude.” It’s the smallest little things—things that don’t even mean much to me, that I don’t even realize. In only six weeks, my presence had a real change on them. And I don’t know what that means as far as my own future. I always saw myself as a suburb boy, taking over my dad’s law firm, living where my family lives. But now I don’t know how it all affects the plan. Yet holding Iajai—this means something. It changes something, though I’m not quite sure how yet.

So today is Friday. One of the last pool days of our summer day camp. Iajai is all confidence now, all daredevil. He walks up to the edge of the pool without any hesitation.

“I’m gonna jump in,” he says.

“Okay,” I say. “You jump, I catch you.” I wade into the water and hold open my arms. He leaps in with broad jumps, swiveling backwards. His grin splits his whole face. He jumps in over and over again, and I catch him.

We get out of the pool. He’s such a small kid and the water is so cold, he shivers all over. I pick him up and get a towel around him.

“I hope you have many sons,” one of the leaders says to me.

When I walk Iajai home, I ask him how the last day was for him. “Did you have fun?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says through his smile. “Thank you. Thank you for saving me when I was drowning.” And then, without saying anything else, he runs off. Runs home, opens the door. Probably hasn’t thought about it again. But I still am. I’m thinking about those men with the porch lined with beer bottles and how three or four small words can brighten a face. I’m thinking of how this doesn’t fit with the neat plan and how I still have a lot of questions. But I am also thinking about that moment, when I was holding that small kid all cold in his towel—it seems to offer more answers than anything else.

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Jon Bryant

I was in seventh grade when the flood came. My family lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a city surrounded by mountains. The mountains enclose the city into a valley. So when the flood comes, the water drifts down the mountains and stays there, stagnant.

Every year, summer is monsoon season for Thailand. It rains nonstop. When it rains, it isn’t a light drizzle–it pours. Even after the rain stops, that after-rain scent pervades the whole city.

This particular year, we get news that there’s too much rain in the north. The dam is starting to overflow. We are told that the government, out of their wisdom, has decided to release all this water that will travel down the river and into Chiang Mai. The Ping River divides the city. It’s the kind of river that sewage empties out into, and you can tell by its brown discoloration. People joke about dead bodies floating around in it—but who knows? There could be truth to it, for all we know. The entire day becomes a waiting game for this water to travel downstream and flood from this nasty, brown river. My parents buy sandbags to put in front of the door, some tarps, some tape to block out water. But for the most part, we wait.

It comes so quickly, some people don’t even realize what is happening. I’m playing soccer in my front yard when it starts. The water begins to seep out of nowhere, springing out of the cracks in the ground. When I go inside, we begin moving everything upstairs—couches, furniture, valuables. The flood is coming.

I see a cockroach scuttle across the floor. That’s pretty normal. But then I start to see a few more, crawling. Soon, it’s a noticeable amount.

“The sewers are overflooding,” my mom says. “The cockroaches are coming up.” We stand outside our downstairs bathroom with only three canisters of bugspray. When we open the door, hundreds of cockroaches burst through the drainage pipe and flood the house. By the end of the spraying, the trampling, our floors are covered in a mass of cockroach carcasses, laying upside down.

The water keeps rising. The water seeps up to the point where cars start to get water in their exhaust pipes. We have to go upstairs and shut off our electricity. In Thailand, the weather is hot year round, but especially during the rainy season. Your shirt sticks to your back because of the humidity and sweat. We are without electricity, crammed into our upstairs space—our family and a few family friends who live outside the city. We can’t do anything, can’t keep ourselves busy. So we sit together, talking and sweating and waiting. Car alarms begin to go off because of the water filling exhaust pipes. Some people get up to stop the alarm. They look downstairs and see the water, shin-deep—with something floating in it.

“Oh, that’s right,” my mom says. “I manuered the lawn yesterday.”

So there’s this manure floating in our house now. The water’s about a foot and a half, maybe two feet deep, and the rising water causes one of our cabinets to fall. Shatters all the glass. We wear shoes downstairs to avoid cuts and infections. That night, we sleep upstairs in the heat around candlelight.

The next morning, we plan to move toward a part of town where there’s higher ground. We put our dog in a large bucket and drag him through the water of our house, the roads. The water reaches our knees. We sleep in a hotel until the water recedes enough and we can pump out all the water from our home.

After the flood begin to recede, a thin line marks the walls where the water rose. It borders all around our house. Outside, the roads are covered with water. People float through the city streets in small boats as a kind of canal system. Even after the waters recede, we know it won’t be the last flood. The river will eventually flood again. It continues to. We wait.

Dane Stevenson

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is a city that knows despair. I lived there; it’s a small country on the border of China. It’s a former Soviet country. The Kyrges people are farmers by nature and mobile—they tend to move from place to place. Putting them in a city is like taking the spirit out of them, and you can tell by the city. The city falls apart; All of the infrastructure is decrepit and made of cement and breaking down in pieces. The greed and avarice of the people up high suck the life out of the people below: unemployment is a quarter of the population. People starve to death everyday. Some die of cold in the winter because heating is unaffordable. If you want see the life of Kyrgyzstan, you have to get outside of the city. But in the city, the despair is obvious and unavoidable.

One night around Christmastime, I agree to drive home my girlfriend at the time. She’d come over to our house and stayed late, baking in our kitchen. It is midnight. My brother agrees to go with me—driving alone in the city is an unsafe idea. We climb into the minibus, the kind of car whose quirks manifest themselves in the small things, like the missing passenger side mirror. We begin the drive home in the dark of Bishkek.

Only half of the lights in the city come on. There’s only one street that’s really lit—Jurbeckjoyee. We begin driving across this overpass—it’s the only overpass in the whole country. I shift over a lane.

“Dane, you just cut someone off,” Brian says.

“I did?” I check the right side of the car. I see nothing because of the missing right mirror. Someone must have been coming off the ramp, and I didn’t even notice that I’d cut them off. I don’t think much of it. I keep focusing on the road in front of me.

Suddenly, a little car pulls up beside me on the road, matching my speed. They roll their window down—a strange behavior. I roll down my window.

Ashtor?” I say. “What’s going on?”

The man in the passenger seat unleashes a flood of profanities in rushed, blunt Russian. I can’t understand a word he’s saying, but anger doesn’t need language. He was livid—more than the situation warranted. I’d only cut him off, and it was unintentional. He practically froths at the mouth. I look, and when I look at him there is something strange. I keep driving and I look back into his eyes—it is like he isn’t there. He isn’t drunk. I know what drunk people look like—there’s tons of drunk people in Kyrgyzstan. I know what high looks like—he isn’t high. His body is animated and alive with movement, but his eyes are dead like they’ve lost the light of life. It is something else, something more.

“Sorry, sorry,” I say. I roll my window up to quietly end the conversation, if you can call it that. The little car speeds ahead to pass us. It pulls in front of our car—and then it begins to slow down. Okay. I slow down, I slow down. Our cars crawl at the speed of five miles an hour. So I maneuver around the slow-moving car. It happens again, the little car speeding up and around me and slowing to minimal speed. I’m not getting road rage, but this is a little irritating.

Our slow procession comes to one of three lights on this street, a red light. Both cars stop. They can keep going as slow as they like, I’m just driving her home. We sit at the red light, waiting behind the small car. Then their passenger door opens. A man gets out and slowly starts walking back toward us. He has a crowbar in his hands.

“Shoot,” I say. “Not staying here.” I throw the car in reverse, back up, and zoom around him through the red light. The man slides back into his car and they speed off after us. Our minivan is no match for their small car; in no time, they catch up with us, looking at us through their side windows. They get right near the driver’s side, a little bit ahead of me. Then closer and closer. We swerve a little to the right. They start edging me off the road.

“Not good.” I slam on the brakes suddenly and zoom around on the outside of them.

Now in Kyrgyzstan, calling the police is not an option. For fifty somme, they’d assist these aggressors. There’s no one to call. I’m running away in this van and I’m beginning to get a little nervous.

Our cars reach a red light. We stop, and this time both of the car doors open in front of us. They get out, both tall against the dark. One of them is dressed in army gear. They each have a crowbar in their hands. Thoughts are fragmented and fast. Red light—people coming toward me. Red light—no traffic—go.

The car chase ensues. My only hope is that we have a chance of losing them. We rush quickly down the main street—and this is where I make a bad decision. I leave the only lighted street in Bishkek. I see a street off to the left that I recognize, so I turn left and slide my car in the dark alleyways and side bypaths of Mishkev Urban Center. As I zoom along, I see a side street that seems familiar. I turn into it. It becomes clear that don’t know this place at all. There’s shabby apartment complexes that form a c-shape, a thin road, and a small shed. A padval—a hybrid between a park and a concrete dump—is in the center of apartment complexes. I pull into the driveway, backed into it so we can be ready to leave at any minute. Our car is surrounded on all sides: the back of my car is to the shed. A fifteen story concrete building rises to my left. A ditch and stand of trees sit off to my right. In front of me is one-cars worth of space for going in and out of this padval—and this is where I make my second really big mistake.

I don’t turn the lights off. There’s no lights in the city, and I forget to turn my headlights off. I basically announce our presence to these aggressors. We sit there when they arrive. They pull into the driveway and instead of pulling straight in, they pull in sideways so they can block us, so there’s no way out. Their car doors open, and you can see the figure in military clothing moving out of the car door.

I’ve been nervous before. I’m not of the temperament to get scared. Scared is not something that I do. But terror is a completely different feeling. And terror has had, for me at least, nothing to do with my own personal safety. I could see it all happening, what is about to occur. These men are going to rape my girlfriend and kill my little brother—and there is nothing I can do. It is two on one. They have military training. I have a steering wheel lock as my weapon. I am completely helpless.

We begin to pray, “Oh, God. Save us.” The guys get out of their car, loose and confident. Start swaggering toward the car real slow-like with their crowbars. One of them pulls out a billy club.

“Oh, God. Save us.”

Just the last minute, I have this crazy idea.

I look over to the right near the stand of trees and see a thin sapling. I rev the engine. The guys stop. We have one shot.

I slam on the gas pedal and cut right and barrel over the small sapling. The car slams through the ditch. Two of my tires pop. The minivan is thrust over and lifted to the other side of the road. I shift down to the lowest gear. I drive away as fast as I can in my lowest gear and two blown wheels. I manage to pull the car back onto the main street, back into the light. It is only a matter of time before they catch up to us. God God please please please.

The next few hours are a blur of motion. We rush to the American embassy to hide out there, only to find that they can’t keep vehicles outside of the building until 8am. We stall, waiting and waiting and waiting out front of the embassy. We can see them driving past the entrance to the embassy, circling like hawks. They had us trapped. They were waiting for us to come out.

We breathe hard and fast. The adrenaline streams through me. It’s past one in the morning. We wait and wait and wait. Finally, after an hour after we pull into the embassy, they take off. Disappear into the dark streets. My girlfriend’s nervous father comes to meet us. He helps me fix the wheels. Lifting heavy things, turning cranks, the manual labor of working with hands—there is nothing more therapeutic after being completely terrified than lifting heavy things.

I’m not scared of dying. But I am scared—I was terrified—of what was going to happen to the people I love. You’ve never experienced terror until you’re helpless to protect those you love.

I have nightmares every night for a month. Terror is not an emotion that leaves quickly. It has to be drained a little bit at a time.

One night as I was praying, I have a dream. I see it all—I see us, helpless in the car again. I see the men walking toward us. But this time I see the spiritual realm—the demonic hosts pictured as a swarm, clinging to the car, clinging to those men, prompting them on, whipping them on, stoking their frenzy. And I see three angels, tall and massive, one for each of us on our minivan. The angels lean close and whisper encouragement to us: come on, you can do this. Get out of this. We’ll be okay. I see myself praying that same prayer: “Oh, God. Save us.” And then I see it, faintly. A small glow from my chest. A small voice speaks from within that center. I hear the words for the first time: “As long as you’re with me, you’ll be okay. I will protect you. I will protect those you love. Turn on the car. Drive through the trees.” I see myself, hand on the wheel, foot pressed down to pedal, the car moving through the trees.

That night, I sleep—dreamless and sound. The nightmares never come again.

Kurt Andres

I have few fears in the world. Nothing in the world really seems to phase me. But something about lightning—it gets me.

I’ve been almost killed from lightning six different times. The first time happened when I was a little kid, when it started a fire in my house. The second time, lightning struck the tree I was standing beneath. It was horrifying, when it hit the tree and the tree when it split and all the bark peeling from its trunk. I was only six or seven. Third time, I was out fishing and lightning struck the water I was on in a catastrophic flash. My ears were still ringing after the strike. Fourth time, I climbed Mount Volglesang in the Sierras when we got caught in a lightning storm. We camped out for two days trying to wait it out, but it kept hammering us with lightning, the kind where the sound of thunder precedes the flash, the kind that rumbles with the lightning. That time, three trees at our campsite were struck. One tree exploded, the bark dispersing everywhere and a black line forming down the trunk where the electricity flowed. One tree split. It split from the inside and kind of curled out. The last one survived. Fifth time, some coworkers and I tried camping out on Pusch Peak. We were not only almost struck by lightning, but also sleeping among snakes. At two in the morning, we begin the trek down the mountain. It’s interesting, I identify lightning with very specific stories and people and incidents. It’s almost like I’m magnetic to it.

The sixth time was a month or so ago. My dad and I decided to clear our heads and go backpacking for ten days in the mountains of Colorado. We pack all our gear and buy cargo tickets, taking a train into Colorado. It’s in a remote part of the mountains—so remote that the only way to reach it, you have to leap off the train like hobos and walk around in the freaking desert in order to get there. It’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s not a soul in sight.

So we go ten miles in to this place called the Chicago Basin. It’s a climber’s Mecca. It’s the place you wanna go when you wanna climb big mountains. It’s at over 11000 feet of elevation. Most people get altitude sickness there. We wake up the next morning at 3:30am to avoid the lightning storms that roll in at noon. It’s a well-known fact: get off the mountain before storms come in. We start going up real early the next morning. We’re climbing, we’re climbing. At only 8:00am, we already start to see some storms build around the mountain. We keep ascending the mountain and the clouds continue building in an ominous premonition. We take turns asking, Is it worth it? Should we summit? But by now, the fever’s kicked in. The fever of summiting the peak, the fever that you came all this way and you’re gonna get to the top. We keep going, we keep going, we keep going. We push to the top as hard as we can.

And we do. Just as we make it to the top, we look down. We watch it happen—the mountains enclosed by clouds pulsing with lightning. It’s surreal. You’re on a peak above the clouds of lightning below your feet. You’re safe from the storm. And usually lightning comes at you or comes down from the sky or above us, but we’re watching it coming up to us. It’s rising as the mountain lifts the storm toward you. It’s coming. You can’t hide anything. You can see the flashes in the clouds and you’re on slick granite rock and have been for the past six miles. You don’t wanna be on the very peak when it hits. We turn around. There’s no other option. You have to go back down through the storm.

We turn and descend through the storm. As we move down, our hair sticks up from the amount of static in the clouds from all the lightning. Our watches, our metal items begin to vibrate like crazy from the air, charged with electric energy. There’s nothing to ground the electric charge of lightning in the clouds, so its just clouds full of lightning and a million volts loose around you, so there is nothing to do but hunker beneath rocks and wait it out. It was wild, that lightning looped around our heads.

We made it out alive. My dad went into a little bit of shock. He was feverish from working it so hard. Had super bad chills and was shaking. We got to base camp and pass out at two in the afternoon. We slept until evening, muscles weary.

Strange things kept happening to us. We get up to use the bathroom, and seas of mountain goats flock around us, licking the rocks coated in urine because they’re so deprived of salts; salt drives the mountains. My dad wakes up to find a porcupine lurking outside of our tent. One of the days while lead climbing, a huge sheet of granite breaks off and barely misses my dad.

Six days after the storm, we hike to the top of Mount Sneffles. We rise at three in the morning when everything is still dark and hike in the arc of our headlamps. By the time we reach the top, it’s clear sky, no storms. The lightning storm that rolled in a few days prior cleared it up; that’s one good thing about storms. At 14,150 feet high, you see the states spread around you in a panoramic, flattened view. We sit at the top, my dad and I in solitude. From our clear view, you can see the storms building and enclosing landscapes in the far distance. In the distance, we watch storms drift from one side of the horizon to the next. We follow them, watching.

Tori Albarracin

The day he moves out, it snows. I remember it snowing. My dad goes to get the U-haul truck and pulls it to the front of our house. Our mom tells him she’ll help him pack and sends my baby sister and me to our neighbor’s house, a sweet older woman who lives in the house across from ours.

Let’s do makeup, she says. Let’s do fun stuff. And we did. She keeps us busy, but the whole time we are aware of what is happening. That this is a distraction. That our mom just doesn’t want us to be in the house while she helps him fit everything into boxes. That it is snowing, and the snow begins falling harder and harder. It snows in heavy sheets until there’s a fine layer on the ground.

As a child, I needed a lot of reassurance—still do. But especially as a child. For example, I had the exact same routine for bed every single night. First, I organized all fifteen of my animals in a special order so they surrounded me and I was right in the center. Then my mom would read me a bedtime story, often the same book—I loved The Boxcar Children—and she tucked me in. And then we’d say goodnight the exact same way every night, scripted out for us. My mom says, Goodnight my angel, I love you. And I repeat back, Goodnight my angel, I love you. And she says, Sleep well, sweet dreams, and I say, Sleep well, sweet dreams. We blow kisses, and I say, Stay in there and keep the TV on low, and she says, Have good dreams and relax, and I say, Don’t let the bedbugs bite, and she says, You either, and I say, Okay, I love you, and she says, Okay, I love you, and I say Goodnight, and she says, Goodnight, and then we blow kisses again. Every single night. The exact same way.

So ever since I could formulate a coherent sentence, I made both of my parents promise me one thing.

Do you promise not to get a divorce? I ask. Do you promise? Do you promise that you won’t get a divorce?

Yes, my dad says without hesitation.

My mom is quiet. She could never say yes. Ever.

Mom, do you promise? Do you promise that you won’t get a divorce? I ask again.

No, Tori, I can’t promise that, she’d say.

Mom, just promise me, I’d say.

I can’t promise you that, she says.

Mom, just pretend.

And she says, Okay, Tori. I’ll pretend. We won’t get a divorce.

My dad says yes every time. Dad, do you promise not to get a divorce?

Yes, he says.

Dad, shake my hand. I put out my small hand. Shake my hand and promise that you won’t get a divorce. He puts his hand into mine and shakes it.

Why do you always ask me that? he asks.

Because, I say. Because, Dad, you’re not allowed to get a divorce.

The question, don’t get a divorce. It probably came from the fact that I feared it would happen. I remember in my first grade class, a little girl’s parents divorced and she could never stop crying. I did not want that to be me.

But I was also a perceptive child, and though I don’t remember specifically the dynamic in our house or how my mom reacted to the affair or many different things, I could sense things in our house were broken. Like how my dad had been sleeping in our spare bedroom before he moved out. Or how he was not very kind to my mom. Or how I knew to stay away from him when he was in certain moods, and on our last family vacation together, I had to stay away from him the whole time. It manifested in small actions.

At 10:30 in the morning, my dad knocks on our neighbor’s door. My baby sister and I go out on to the porch. He picks up Bella, who is barely even one, and tells her goodbye though she doesn’t understand what is happening. He looks at me.

Bye, Tori, he says.

Bye, Dad.

And before I know it, we are ushered back into the house and he is in his truck. I go into my neighbor’s bathroom and peek through the blinds at the snow and the small dot of his truck as the engine starts up. I watch him drive away until the tears blot out the small dot of his truck. You lied, I say. You said you wouldn’t and you lied. That was my biggest thing as an eight-year-old. You lied to me. You broke my trust, you said you wouldn’t and you did, and you’re a liar.

It is hard at first in the house with all the memories. It clouds my whole life. My third grade teacher, the one who sings Aretha Franklin in class, takes me aside one day, gives me a notebook, and tells me that whenever I need to leave class and write in this notebook, I can. I say okay, but I never write in it. I was one of those kids that suppressed it all. My mom was upset and hurt. It is all she can do to put food on the table, and there are some nights where I put food on the table. Sometimes I walk into the garage and find her throwing a baseball against the wall as hard as she can.

One night, I wake up to Bella’s crying. I don’t wake up usually—I sleep like the dead. I hear them in the kitchen, my mom and Bella both crying. My mom is speaking quietly to Bella, begging her. Please stop crying. Please be quiet, please. My sister won’t stop. I get up and roll out of bed. I walk into the kitchen. My mom stands, Bella locked into her arms. I reach out my hand and place it on Bella’s tiny back. She stops crying immediately.

Why can’t I do it? she says to herself. Why can’t I do it all?

Mom, I say. No one can do it all.

My mom looks at me.

Do you need me to rock her? I ask.

No, honey, she says. I can do it. Go back to bed.

But I stay. We stand there in our kitchen, the three of us. We stay up and rock Bella until she falls back asleep, until we are all three quiet.

Rebecca Rhym

Jack Hayes was a typical seventh grade boy in every way, from his swooshed boy-band bangs to his slightly chubby build to his “funny sense of humor,” in that seventh-grade stupid, not-so-funny kind of humor. We dated like typical seventh graders—meaning we held hands and awkwardly avoided talking to one another. I dated a lot of guys in middle school, so he wasn’t anything too special. But I liked his eyes. His eyes were different, pretty and blue.

After class one day, he pulls me to the back of the school. I already know where this is going.  People already talking about it, the gossip traveling from locker to locker. The only thing that travels faster than hormonally-charged body odor in middle school is gossip.

“Listen, I wanna talk to you about something,” he says. I already know exactly what it is. I know the whole story. But I pretend. Instead I say, “Okay. What is it?”

“It was a dare. Okay? I was dared—know that.” He tries to justify it—that they were riding the bus back from the youth group retreat and playing truth or dare and he was dared to kiss this chick so he did, he did it, but the only reason why he did was because he was dared and everyone knows you can’t get out of a dare, so he did it. While he’s working his mouth at a rapid pace, I stand and nod and think about how different this version is from the one I’d heard. That he didn’t actually get dared. That’d someone else had gotten dared and they chickened out, so he volunteered, the saint.

Finally he stops talking. He flips his swooped bangs out of his blue eyes. He takes a step closer. “But—I love you,” he says. It’s the first time he says he loves me. His voice cracks a little.

And then he suddenly leans his face in. Really close. What the actual fuck right now. His chubby face is so close, all I can see is his face and I can hear him breathing loudly. I blink, and all of a sudden his lips are on mine.

I hadn’t kissed anyone before, but I know it isn’t supposed to be like this. His breath suffocates me with the odor of burnt rubber. His mouth puckers and slobbers. I hear him salivating in the back of his throat. It’s still engrained in my memory.

A car horn in the distance. I pull away. “Bye,” I say. “My grandma’s here.” I turn around and sprint to the van.

My grandma is in her own world when we drive back to my house, but I just sit with my head in my hands and cry. I probably had imaginings of my first kiss—I thought it’d be romantic, or average at the very least—but I did not think it’d be that. I sit in the car and cry, not because he cheated on me with some other girl in the back of a youth group bus, but because that was my first kiss, and it was bad, and I knew it. I wipe my mouth. I can’t tell if it’s my tears or the saliva of my seventh grade boyfriend still moist on my lips.

Kayla Slagter

Every night when we lived in Germany, I’d fall asleep to the same narrative. I live in a suburban cul-de-sac in a massive, white house. Next door, our horses graze in an open field spread in our backyard. My best friend lives in an identical house next to mine, and a thin rope connects our two facing bay windows. We string notes down the rope to one another. Every night, I fall asleep in a room with its slanted ceiling and wide bay window. And that’s how I’d fall asleep—the wanting of America.

Our duplex was tucked into a cul-de-sac, but the fact that it was an American base in Germany made it less idyllic. We lived in a duplex with a small square of backyard, but it wasn’t ours. In the military, three years is the maximum time for occupancy. We couldn’t paint the walls. We might have been able to nail things, but you couldn’t completely settle in because before you know it, everything is in boxes and that familiar feeling of leaving settles over you again. There was a playground my dad built around the corner of our house and every night, I planned my escape. I’d sneak out of my house to run in the night wind, moving toward the swing set. I’d swing as high as I could, pumping my legs until the ground lifts up from underneath me and I can see over the walls of the base, the walls that separate us displaced Americans from our German neighbors, so I catch a glimpse the distant and western horizon of home.

This is the first time I am traveling to the states, and this is the first time we are traveling without my dad. He is herded onto a base in Iraq; my mom herds my sisters and I onto the C5. Picture in your mind a plane with only ten narrow seats and no windows. A pilot comes down the aisle and instead of airport salted peanut packets, he gives you earplugs and says he hopes you enjoy the flight. When we are in the air, I get out of my seat and go to the far back corner of the plane. I lift the tarp that separates our compartment from the rest of the plane. I peer in the crack and vast rows of tanks, solid and looming, stretch into a vanishing point of the plane’s tail.

The first I do when our plane finally lands, I bend down on my knees and embrace the cement. America is made up of broad, cement squares. I build Germany in my memory as cobbled brick roads. Curbs of streets, huge, sprawled sidewalks—this is America.

America is everywhere. America is the house my cousins Molly and Alex live in, an old, almost-tacky suburban house curved into a cul-de-sac. America is their open field of space that could’ve swallowed our small backyard a hundred times over. America is several generations—my aunt, my cousins—growing up their whole lives in the same house. America is the penciled marks of height inching up the doorpost over the years, and knowing that is what I want more than anything.

“Kayla,” my sister Jenna says, “you’ll have these things. You’ll just be in Germany or Spain or France when it happens.” But I wanted America as my home. I wanted my cousin’s life. America is my cousin’s looped crowns made from daisies and fists of cookie dough clumps covering my Flavor Freeze milkshake and walks across the street to get doughnuts, still warm.

I wanted a newer definition of home. I had a home, but it wasn’t the one I wanted. Even in third grade, I knew the American dream, and I wanted that.

When we moved back to America years later, it was the loneliest year of my life. I was entering sixth grade and did not know a soul in my school. My oldest sister moved onto college. America, once a warm and ethereal dream, now crowded into a new landscape where I had to start over, to feel out this foreign topography.

I’m learning that home is something that you’re always moving towards. Even right now. It’s never exactly where you’re at, but something that’s always developing and changing. That is a beautiful thing, that space of incompletion, having that missing piece—the knowing that we are not complete here, and the knowing that someday it could be.

Hannah Hamilton

I remember the suns most vividly. The topography of Zambia constantly changes—there’s rivers and deep woods and fields of tall grass. We go into the trees sloped like overgrown bushes and search for animals hidden in their branches. But the suns—nothing does it justice. The dust particles in the air and the sun reflecting off them create these oversaturated colors—wild blues and rich clouds and suns ripe like egg yolks.

The hotel we stay at is in the center of a nature preserve, so we are folded into the animals’ natural habitat in a surreal, dreamlike eden—elephants that roam the lobby in slow gaits and windows that open toward huge hippos and monkeys that play dress-up with your clothes left carelessly on the front porch. One morning, I leave my sweatshirt on the balcony; the next day, the maids find it laying on the opposite side of the camp, carried away in the monkey’s grasp. We spend afternoons in the middle of an open space enclosed by wide, green hills, the animals moving in a loose loop around us—hedgehogs and antelopes and hippos wading knee-deep in a river. Yet the creature I wanted to see most was the one we hadn’t yet seen—lions.

There’s this picture of me when I was a little girl, when my mom called me Cheetah girl—back before Cheetah Girls was an item. I’m decked from head to toe in cheetah print, from sock fringe to scaves. I’ve always been drawn to big cats—ocelot, panther, leopard—but especially lions. They’re intense predators, yet these very beautiful creatures; it’s this paradoxical mixture. Over the course of the week, we catch glimpses of big cats. Our car drives slowly by a leopard lounging in a tree—and it vanishes in a blink.

On the final night, we beg our guide to let us explore after hours. He’s an old African man with a wrinkled face and a wide, feather headdress. He finally agrees. Our square range rover climbs over the rough terrain and we shiver from the cold air moving over us. During the day, the air spreads hot across the plains, but at night, the darkness sucks away the heat. Our car clambers over the dirt paths and we pull into a clearing.
“Everyone, be quiet,” the guide says. “Be quiet.” He cuts the ignition. He flips on the headlights.

In the sharp crescent of our car headlights in the dark of the clearing, we see a lump of fur at the peak of the hill. He moves slightly, lazily shifts over to his other paw. It is deceiving, this lazy pose; our guide reminds us of this. He has wild stories of people getting courageous and climbing out of the jeep toward a lazy lion—and suddenly the lion changes. Reacts in a nanosecond. Kills in an instant. That instinct is there.

“At the end of the day, they’re still wild animals. And therefore unpredictable.” The guide’s eyes never leave the still lion.

The lion rests his mane on his forepaws. When he moves suddenly. He rises, lifting his head and spine until his body fills to his full stance. He lifts his head and roars.

A roar is unlike any other sound you’ve heard or imagined. It’s not loud enough to pain your ears. It consuming, the way it strikes fear into your bones. The sound is textured, a rich bravado that starts off rumbling and keeps building and before you know it, the deep roar comes up under you and has swallowed you whole. He roars. He begins moving. He lazily saunters toward us, the way people groggily drift out of their beds in the early haze of morning. Everyone has shifted toward the opposite side of the jeep, but I remain where I am, frozen and mesmerized. He moves toward my side of the car, moving in a constant and unbroken pace, until he is ten feet away from me. I turn and look at him. We are face to face, eyes locked.

“Don’t move,” the guide says quietly. “When you interact with a lion, you must be still.” Inside, my limbs are static from adrenaline and exhilarating fear, but I don’t move. I am stone.

Nothing moves. In this moment, it is just the lion and I, staring at each other while everything in the universe is still and silent, holding its breath and watching us. I hear a body shift beside me, but my gaze doesn’t move from the lion’s eyes. I cannot look away because I know that at any second this could change—I know that this is a rare and intense moment, and even a small movement of my hand could change things for me and everyone in this car, one swift lunge and he is in the open frame of this jeep and the breath is gone from our lungs. This moment is one where each second has a weight, where there is somehow intimacy and unpredictability and fear that fills the space of this silence, this stillness. There is something in me that won’t let me look away. Maybe I am caught up, but he is looking back at me. His eyes—they are a wild yellow-green.

We stare at one another. He raises his muzzle slightly, then lifts his head and roars again. I feel the sound sweep under me; it quakes in my bones and spine. He turns his back to our jeep and starts a slow path toward his perch. The driver quickly switches on the ignition, pulls away.

On the way back, the static energy and quiet has built up so much in our bodies that we scream and break the stillness, but the guide is shaken up. “That doesn’t happen,” he tells me. “That doesn’t happen—especially in the middle of the night, when things are so unpredictable. You’re lucky if you even see one far sighting of a lion. But that close of an interaction—the way he stared—“ his voice breaks. “You’re lucky,” he says.

Everything in us and around us is rushing, the air tunneling over us in cold, clear sheets. In the dark, the wild things rove. I look out to my side and it is black—pitch black, so dark you can stretch out your hand and watch the darkness fold over it. But out of the dark and solid shape, our headlights cut sharp arcs of light. Look forward, and in the dark brush, you see them. Hundreds of them, yellow and glinting and waiting in the lights. Eyes, wild, staring back at you in the dark with a curious and unflinching gaze.

Elena Miles

In the memory, I’m in third grade. The clock reads 9:06 am. I look at my green folder because we are about to go to art class when they call my name over the intercom. Elena Miles. I am the third name to be called over the intercom this morning. Two kids had already been picked up early.

Something is strange. I stand on the curb next to the other two kids in the clear sun. I think it must be a dentist appointment, or something else that I’d forgotten about. But a van pulls up to the curb and a woman who is not my mom opens the door for me to get inside. It is the German lady who lives next door. She is crying and she tries explaining things in broken English, but I don’t understand what she’s saying. The ride home is quiet and long.

Home is quiet, too. All phone lines are jammed, with those calls getting lost and intersecting all at once. My mom and neighbor stand before the front window that looks out into the street and cry. They hold hands tightly and stand in the dark room for hours, watching the window and waiting. The only sound is the constant drone of the television, with that same clip of the thin trail of smoke and the wild explosion when the plane hit and people, small as flecks of ash, leaping off the building over and over again. We wanted to ask what was happening, but we turned to their adult faces and they wore the same shock, same incomprehension. There are no answers to this situation, not even words. So we just keep waiting.

When he comes into view, my mom sinks to her knees. This action is small; he has made this path every day, walking down the sidewalk, up the stairs to the front porch, the hand on the front door. But this is one less unknown thing in a place of all unknowns.

I remember pieces of what happened after. An unsettling quiet stayed after the attack. School was cancelled for a week, but there was no celebration. If you drove past the Pentagon, you could see the place where the plane hit and the ash crowded around the foot of the building. But what I remember most vividly were the flags. They bloomed up like carnations across porches in perfect rows down the street, one by one. For which it stands–it is standing still.

Nathan Hadley

About the time I began visiting that tree, I heard this story about a monk. He was instructed by his elder to scale this mountain everyday with a pail, and there, at the peak, he’d water this dead tree. Nonetheless, the monk obeyed him and, everyday, he’d summit this mountain to water the tree. And the story goes that eventually, the tree budded.

I was already going to this dead tree every day. The tree was noticeable; it was a massive tree circumferenced by marsh. Pieces of the bark remained on the branches and trunk, but most of it fell off, revealing only the bare, smooth underbark. I liked the concept of the story. It was illogical, and that’s what drew me to the idea. I liked the idea of creating space for that ritual in my own daily routine. I gave myself the responsibility of going to this tree every day with a bottle of water, praying to God for its resurrection, and watering it as a practice–a discipline–to increase my faith.

The ritual transformed into something significant, restful. The time of day that I’d go would vary—sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes in the dark, close to midnight, sometimes in the morning when few things were awake. It was a Sabbath from the rest of the day, a space where I could re-center myself and step beyond the scope of things for a moment. The orientation of the ritual began to shift, too. As I was praying for the tree, I began praying for people—family, friends. Prayer became tethered to a bodily, tangible presence, and I think we need that sometimes, perhaps more than we realize.

Strange things happened during those following months. Once, when the marshes burned and smoke lifted out of the ground in small plots, I buried a dead meadow mouse beneath the tree. I marked a stick in the ground where it rested. Another time, while leaning against a log underneath its branches, a huge slab of the remaining bark split off from the trunk. I wedged the slab between the log and the tree and it made a perfect seat—it was like a gift from the tree.

The tree never budded. I believed the budding could happen, but I did not come to the tree everyday with expectation. Nothing significant changed about the tree. Eventually, it was the ritual that evolved. I began the project with the intent of increasing my faith, but I don’t think it increased my faith substantially. But perhaps that is because faith is something that grows slowly, and because faith is a hard and folded thing, and because faith is just as much about the act as it is the fruit. That process of becoming familiar with something, that closeness of knowing, all the loose things that feathered from tangible manifestation–that is where its worth rests.

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