Rat and Roach

Short story winner of the Spring 2021 F(r)iction Literary Contest.

Rat loved Roach, and Roach loved Rat, and if they both loved heroin just a little more than they loved each other, that was a truth they had long accepted.

Rat and Roach met in an alley off Euclid Avenue, in downtown Cleveland. Rat was fourteen, had been living on the street long enough to earn the name Rat. Not because she had ratted anyone out, which would have gotten her shunned or killed, but because she had a rat-like talent for navigating tight spaces and finding valuable things. Food, drugs, warm socks, a place to squat. It was downright spooky, like she had a special sense for where to look. Rat was small, all sharp angles, coiled spring tight. She was surprisingly strong, as more than one asshole creep had found out.

Rat was in that alley because halfway back, behind a dumpster, was an unused grate that led to a tunnel that led to her current hidey-hole. It was a long, narrow space that was in no way welcoming, but like her namesake, Rat felt most safe in the kind of confined spaces others would find claustrophobic, in tunnels and closets, in low-ceilinged rooms, in the voids between walls. She was about to open the grate when she heard moaning from deeper back in the alley. Most nights she would have ignored a little moaning—it was late, the temperature was dropping, and she had a dime bag in her pocket whispering her name. Besides, it was none of her business. Poking your nose where it didn’t belong got it cut off. But she felt the tingle, the almost pleasurable shiver at the base of her skull, that usually meant she was about to find a bag of good apples in the dumpster behind Dave’s Supermarket, or a warm blanket in a cast-off box of trash.

The moaning was coming from a skinny white boy curled up in a fetal tuck, half buried by garbage bags. He was bleeding in several places, including a nasty gash across his forehead. His left eye was swollen shut. Rat pulled the bags off the boy and helped him stand. On his feet he was even smaller than Rat, pale as curdled milk. Rat could see track marks on his thin arms.

Rat did something she had never done before. She brought him into her private space. She made a bed of blankets for him and stayed awake all night watching him shudder and shake in restless sleep, afraid to close her eyes in case he turned out to be a psycho.

In the morning, Rat discovered his name was Roach, that he had been Roach since the day he was born. His mom considered him and his siblings nothing more than insects that ate her food and scuttled around in the dark, and Roach, in particular, was always underfoot. He started snorting her heroin at twelve, shooting up at thirteen. Now he was fifteen, a year older than Rat. He was new to the streets, barely a week in. His mom’s most recent boyfriend had tried to get a little too friendly, and Roach decided to take his chances. He’d been doing okay until last night, when four Cleveland State Delta Sigma Phi frat boys had stomped him good.

That was almost two years ago. Rat and Roach had been together since, squeezed tight in her damp squat. They scrounged for food and supplies together, although Roach did not have the knack like Rat. They begged for money from the suits on the end of the I-90 exit ramp to Ontario. They used heroin together. On nice days they stretched out in the grassy middle of Public Square and watched the clouds scuttle by. Sometimes they socialized with the other denizens of the street who were their neighbors, the junkies and prostitutes and alcoholics, the homeless and those who just did not want to go home. On cold days and rainy days, they stayed in except to score, huddled beneath piles of blankets, telling each other stories. They shared what few dreams they had. Rat and Roach slept together in their hidey-hole every night. Sometimes, when the drugs allowed it, they fucked.

Right now, they were late for a memorial service.

“I told you we should have waited until after,” Roach said as they shuffled hand in hand toward Public Square.

“I needed to get straight for this,” Rat said. “I liked Anne.”

Roach sighed. “Yeah, me too. She was really sweet.”

Anne, aka Raggedy Ass Anne, had been a prostitute. She had come by her name thanks to a bit of misfortune that turned surprisingly serendipitous. She had bleached her hair for years with a foul home mixture, until one day every thin, brittle strand fell out. One night she found a full skein of bright red yarn in a trash can. Maybe because it made her laugh, Anne cut the yarn into lengths with the razor blade she always had somewhere on her body and tied the pieces into a makeshift wig.

Raggedy Ass Anne was born. It turned out johns really went for her new look. At least, until she was entertaining a customer on his boat docked in the Flats when, according to her date, she stumbled and fell into the dark waters of the Cuyahoga. By the time they found her body, any possible hint of foul play had disappeared.

Anne’s friends were gathered near the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument where Padre Pete was getting his preacher on. The Padre had been a real priest once, before he disappeared into the bottom of a bottle. Now he ministered to his street flock when not face down in a gutter. Today he was a little shaky but stone sober.

“Anne was one of us,” he said. “If we are a family, and I believe to the bottom of my gin-soaked heart that we are, then Anne was sister to some of us, daughter to others, and mother to many. Despite a life that was, even when compared to this group gathered here, royally fucked, Anne remained kind but realistic. She did not believe in fairytale endings.”

Pete looked to the sky, his voice growing louder with each word. “The one thing I do not understand is how God, in his infinite grace, could look down upon that proud woman in her ridiculous, wonderful red yarn wig and allow her to come to harm. She deserved a fairytale ending.” Pete finished and turned away, choking back a sob.

He was not the only one wiping away tears. Rat was crying herself. She folded her body tightly into Roach’s arms and stayed there until the tears subsided. Then they said their goodbyes and headed for home.

“Wait. Stop for a sec.” Rat was on the hunt, feeling the shiver even stronger than usual. She had already led them down a side street they rarely traveled, then into a short, dead-end alley. There was some kind of good score nearby, she knew it.

“What is it?” Roach asked. He was annoyed they had taken this extra-long way home but was trying hard not to show it. When Rat was like this it usually paid off.

Rat hushed him with a look. She closed her eyes and spun in slow circles, searching for the shiver. And there—there it was. She opened her eyes, looked at the jumble of rotted wooden pallets piled against the wall. Rat smiled and began yanking away the pallets. Roach joined in, and they soon cleared a space.

Set into the crumbling brick of the boarded-up building was one of the weird, short doors that dotted the warehouse district. The doors were remnants of when the street had been a couple of feet lower. This one was ancient, splintered wood, the paint peeling, the boards wrapped in horizontal rusted iron bands with a rusted iron doorknob to match. A rectangle of never-painted wood showed where a nameplate had once been attached.

Rat reached out tentatively and touched the doorknob. She jerked her hand back from the shock she felt, without knowing if it had been caused by static electricity or something more mysterious.

Roach said, “I don’t think this is a good idea,” but Rat grasped the knob firmly in both hands. It turned with surprising ease.

“Holy shit, check this out!” Rat disappeared through the doorway, and Roach peeked his head in. It was a long, narrow room with a low ceiling of massive roughhewn beams. Eddies of dust swirled in the dim light that filtered down through gaps in the beams from broken windows higher up. The walls were brick, broken in places and patched with plaster over the years. The floor was cement, cracked and heavily discolored. The near end of the room had once had a door that led into the rest of the building, but it was now bricked over. They had entered through the only way in and out of the room. In the corner near the bricked over door was what looked like a large round drain surrounded by bricks and raised a couple of inches off the floor. Great, Roach thought, a fucking hell mouth. So far he was not impressed.

As Roach stepped down into the room he said, “Holy shit, what?”

Rat took him by the shoulders and spun him to face the far end of the room. “Holy shit, that,” she said.

There were hundreds of oriental rugs, stacked and rolled, piled haphazardly nearly to the ceiling. Some had begun to unravel, the backing rotting away, but at a glance many seemed to be in good condition. “This must have been an import warehouse or something, and they forgot about these,” Roach said. He was about to say more, but the look on Rat’s face stopped him cold. Her eyes were closed, her lips curved in a small smile. She looked like she was riding a killer high.

“This is it,” Rat said. “We can cover the floor and walls with rugs, make a nice thick bed. This can be our cocoon.”

“You want to move in here?” Roach couldn’t stop the doubt from seeping into his voice. “I mean, it’s dry by the looks of it, and you’re right about the rugs. But it’s kind of creepy.” The floor drain was giving him an unsettling vibe.

“It feels right,” Rat said, in a voice that did not invite argument. “Let’s get our stuff.”

Roach sighed, and tried to smile. “All right, let’s get our stuff,” he said.

They discovered the rats when they began to move rugs. There were dozens of them, maybe hundreds, dark shadows that slipped away when revealed. They tumbled over each other in their haste to hide, retreating into other parts of the rug jumble. Many disappeared down the drain.

Rat and Roach had rarely fought in their almost two years together, but this—Roach was ready to nope right out of there. “I can’t do it,” he said. “I’ll never be able to sleep here. As soon as I close my eyes I’ll hear their little feet. I’ll see their dead black eyes everywhere.”

Rat crossed her arms. “I’ve shared space with rats most of my life, and they’ve never bothered me. If you leave them alone, they leave you alone.”

“Man, I don’t know…”

“I feel at home here, like this is where I belong.” Rat had a look in her eyes that Roach could not read. After everything they had been through together, he thought he knew her. Now he wasn’t so sure. “This is where I’m supposed to be. I’d like you to be here with me, but if you can’t, you can’t.” Rat turned away then, the conversation over as far as she was concerned. She started to haul another rug off the pile. Roach realized the full impact of what Rat had just said, the matter-of-fact finality of it. He felt tears sting his eyes. If he walked away now, he wasn’t sure she’d notice. With a deep breath, he grabbed the edge of the rug to help Rat move it into place.

Roach had to admit, their new home wasn’t so bad, at least at first. They covered the floor, except for the drain, with a thick layer of rugs, ran them part way up the walls. They used the thickest, most luxurious rugs to make what was, if they were completely honest, the nicest bed either of them had ever slept in. They ran an extension cord to an outdoor outlet further up the alley, which let them power a small lamp and an electric heater, both garbage picked. With the blankets and meager personal items they had brought over, it was almost homey. If you didn’t mind the rats.

Roach most certainly did mind the rats, but he tried to ignore it. The rats were fearless, but generally kept a respectful distance. They seemed curious. They scurried around the space; their tiny footfalls muffled by the rugs. They streamed in and out of the drain (the hellmouth as Roach thought about it) like it was the Greyhound station on Chester. Roach watched them with horrified fascination, and he swore they watched him in return. His sleep was uneasy, comfortable bed or no.

Rat was the happiest she had been in their time together. She smiled more. Her ability to find things kicked into overdrive, food especially, and they were eating better than ever. It bothered Roach that she occasionally shared crumbs with their four-legged roommates, but he kept it to himself. The heroin on the street was currently of superior quality, so that was nice. They fucked more often, and better.

They did not name any of the rats. Rat felt like that would be somehow disrespectful, and Roach didn’t like them enough to get that personal. They did, however, start to differentiate between them. There were three or four large animals that seemed to be alphas, nipping at the others, keeping them in line. And one enormous beast, jet black and sleekly pelted, they both instinctively recognized as female. The rat queen. She, more than any of the others, seemed to always be watching them.

One night in mid-November, as the wind began to bite, Roach wrapped himself in his threadbare overcoat and went out into the dark to score. He came back empty-handed.

“The cops swept everyone up,” he told a jittery Rat, rubbing his hands together in front of the heater. “Every dealer we know, and some of the bosses, from what people are saying. Some kind of big sting operation.”

“Shit!” Rat said. She dug through their stash box. “We’re almost out, too.” Rat shrugged into her own coat and headed for the door. “I’m going to try my luck, see if I can work the shiver.” She was back an hour later, chilled to the bone and nothing to show for it. “You’re right, there’s nothing out there,” she said, eyes downcast, shoulders hunched. “Nobody’s holding. We’re going to need to ration until we can find more.” Her sixth sense rarely failed her, but it couldn’t compete with the Third District Narcotics Unit. The two of them crawled beneath the blankets and huddled together desperately, already feeling it, a gnawing in their bellies that was only going to get worse.

That was just the first of a one-two-fuck-you. Two days later a storm brought freezing rain, coating the city in ice. A foot of snow followed, carried by a northwest wind that howled across Lake Erie from Canada picking up water from the gray chop. Rat and Roach were frozen in at first, what with only the one door. When the hunger, for food on top of the drugs, got too bad, they started to chip away with the door until they could finally squeeze through.

Pickings were slim. Still no heroin, and food was hard to come by. The suits for the most part kept their car windows rolled up at the bottom of the exit ramps, keeping the cold out and their dollar bills in. The dumpsters behind Dave’s were stingier than usual, the produce frozen and inedible, the bread hard. Even the soup kitchen at the Old Stone Church had lost funding and was struggling to feed the parade of homeless chased off the streets by the vicious weather.

A week into the deep freeze, with no end in sight, Padre Pete was found frozen to death in a doorway on West Ninth, an empty bottle in his hand. There was no memorial service.

Rat dreamed she was giving birth. She was naked, sprawled on the bed of rugs, her back hard against their thin pillows, her knees drawn to her chest and spread apart. Her belly was massive. It undulated with each contraction. Even in her dream the pain was indescribable. It felt like each spasm was ripping her apart.

She was surrounded by rats.

They nuzzled up against her, hundreds of them, climbing over each other in their eagerness to be close. The rats supported her arms, formed a roiling pillow beneath her legs. In her dream the rats did not frighten her. She took comfort in their fat, furry bodies, the brush of their whiskers, gratefully surrendered to them the weight of her exhausted limbs. Even as pain racked her body, their touch calmed her.

Between her legs, watching, black eyes glittering, the rat queen waited expectantly. The contractions intensified, one on top of the next. Rat sobbed. She screamed. The sound echoed through the room and doubled back, and the rats pushed against her, they screamed with her, absorbed her pain and shrieked it back out. Rat convulsed. Blood gushed from between her legs, and with it a litter of rats tumbled out. There were a dozen of them, small and slick with fluid, squirming in the gore, helpless, blind and deaf. The rat queen dragged them by their necks, one by one, and nestled them in Rat’s waiting arms.

Rat smiled, the pain gone, at peace with her babies. She kissed their soft ears. She snuggled them against her cheek. The chattering of the other rats became a song of congratulations and welcome, a song Rat discovered she could understand, and she joined in, exultant.

Rat jerked awake. The dream drifted away like sparks from a fire floating up into the dark, leaving behind only brief flashes. A thin light worked its way into the room from the cracks in the boards above, and Rat could see a shape just inches from her face. Her eyes focused, and the shape resolved itself. The rat queen crouched there, nose twitching. Between her front paws was a small packet of heroin.

Rat reached out tentatively, afraid she was imagining it. She almost cried with relief when her fingers touched the plastic bag, and again when the queen rat let her scoop it up. She rolled over to wake Roach up, but three of the large male rats were lined up between her and him. Like sentries. Like guards. She tested them, reached out to shake his shoulder, and one of them snapped at her fingers. The message was clear.

Their stash box has been completely bare for three days. Rat had not survived on the streets through soul searching or introspection. She acted and waited for the smoke to clear to worry about the consequence of those actions. Rat took a deep breath. She crawled quietly out from beneath the blankets, got her works and shot up. Then she crawled back into bed, clung tight to Roach’s back, and rode the high into dreamless sleep.

“What the fuck is going on?” Roach had been throwing up into a bucket all morning. He would have preferred puking down the hellmouth, but he wasn’t sure how the rats would react, and wasn’t anxious to find out. His skin was shiny with sweat even though it was cold enough to see their breath inside the hidey-hole. Rat had gone out and scavenged some day-old bagels from a deli, but he couldn’t keep anything down. His stomach clenched and his skin felt like it was going to crawl right off his bones.

“What do you mean?” Rat said, trying to keep her voice neutral.

“You’re whistling. You’re fucking whistling. Why aren’t you sick?” He looked at her with glassy, fevered eyes, accusing.

“I…don’t know,” Rat answered. She knew it was lame, but it was the best she could do. What was she going to say? Sorry, man, the rats brought me some really good drugs, but I’m not allowed to share them with you. She hadn’t realized she was whistling as she tidied up the place.

Roach stood up on shaky legs, a blanket wrapped around him like a shroud. “You got high without me! Where’d you get the dope?” He took a step toward her and the rats in the room stopped doing their rat things. Their ears perked up. They started moving, with purpose, between them. Roach was too worked up to notice.

“You’re talking fucking crazy!” Rat shouted, desperate. “I wouldn’t do that!” I would. Yes, I would. “Where would I get heroin? There’s none out there!”

The rat queen chose that moment to boil up out of the drain hole, rising on a wave of rats, hundreds of them. They streamed into the room, parted to make way for her, like peasants before royalty. She approached Rat, and dropped another bag of heroin at her feet, then turned to face Roach. They all did, all the rats.

Roach noticed then, realized what was happening. “Rat, what the fuck?”

“I can’t explain it, Roach. It just happened.”

“Can we—”

Rat shook her head sadly. “No, Roach. We can’t. You can’t.” She pointed to the rats. “They won’t let you. I’m sorry.”

“What do you mean, they won’t let me? Is this some kind of twisted joke? I’m pretty fucking sick, am I hallucinating? Tell me this isn’t real, Rat.” By the time Roach got to that last part he was pleading.

“I’m afraid it’s real, Roach. And I’m really sorry.”

“You’re sorry? I’m dying here, and you’re sorry? Fuck you and your rats, you bitch!” Roach lunged for the dope, and the rats attacked. They swarmed, moved like a single organism, sunk their needle teeth wherever they could find purchase. Roach screamed as the rats dragged him down, kept screaming as they attacked him in earnest, biting him, tearing chunks of flesh from his body. The screaming finally stopped when one of the huge black rats burrowed into Roach’s mouth, flattened and worked its way in. It finally disappeared, its tail whipping back and forth between Roach’s bloody lips.

When it was over, when the rats had all moved away from the body, Rat did the only thing she could do. She dragged Roach’s body to the drain, heaved it over the brick ring, and pushed it in. She heard the body bounce on the way down, then splash far below.

Rat used the dope, then crawled into bed and pulled the blanket over her head. She slept. Sometime later she woke to soft squeaking. The rat queen was next to her, prone, surrounded by her new babies. She was licking their wiggling, naked bodies, cleaning them off. Rat watched for a moment, then delicately picked one up and began to help.

Traumatic Memory Removal and the Uncertain Cost of Restoration: A Review of Tell Me an Ending by Jo Harkin

Published March 1, 2022 by Scribner

When I came across Jo Harkin’s Tell Me an Ending, the premise was too intriguing to pass up—four characters deal with the consequences of having their memories removed by Nepenthe, a clinic that has pioneered a memory removal drug. Mei, William, Finn, and Oscar have all elected to be “self-confidential” patients, meaning they are left with no recollection of the removal. Nepenthe comes under intense scrutiny when past clients claim to be experiencing “memory traces,” or pieces of removed memories resurfacing, and the clinic is forced to offer all self-confidential clients a memory restoration. These four characters are ultimately connected by a choice they cannot remember making—to delete a traumatic memory—and a choice they must now make—whether to get it back. The fifth protagonist is Noor, a psychologist working at a Nepenthe clinic in Crowshill, England—the same clinic the other four protagonists once visited, unbeknownst to them. Noor looks up to her boss and friend, Louise, until some strange behaviors make Noor suspicious that Louise may be involved in something sinister at Nepenthe. Readers follow these five characters through an emotionally tumultuous, unyieldingly suspenseful ride toward several shocking endings.

Perhaps both my most and least favorite aspect of this novel is its extreme emotional intensity. I do love a story that packs an emotional punch, but this book was more like an emotional stabbing. Despite the pain, I greatly admire Jo Harkin’s ability to craft complex characters that feel like authentic people. I found it easy to connect with each character, which was why their traumas increasingly weighed on me throughout the novel. Mei deals with a history of depression and drug abuse, leaving her feeling incapable and lost in life. William’s PTSD has led to a lost job, a trial separation from his wife, and worries about losing his children. Finn is troubled by the possibility that his wife may be having an affair with their old friend. Oscar is missing large chunks of memory from his past, and his paranoia about who he is has kept him on the run for years. Harkin’s characters all experience loneliness, sadness, uncertainty, and self-loathing, but also joy, love, and connection. Like many people, they often base their decisions on an emotional instinct. They feel like living, breathing humans, and I believe most readers will find a piece of themselves in at least one of these characters.

Tell Me an Ending alsocreatively explores themes of memory and its connection to self and identity. I appreciated Harkin’s references to philosophy, scientific research, and popular media to put these concepts into a conversation, showing the robust research that clearly went into writing this novel. In one chapter, Mei and her mother discuss the difference between the Lockean and Humean views on self and memory. While Locke proposed that “the self is based on memory,” Hume believed that the self is “. . . a bundle of processes. A collection of associations, learned responses, memories, et cetera. Swirling, contradictory, inchoate. Impermanent perceptions, belonging to nothing”. Moments like this made big philosophical and moral questions more digestible and informed the way I navigated and understood this book. They inspired me to not only look inward at how my past and memories have shaped me but also to consider a myriad of sides to each character’s actions and reactions.

This brings me to another aspect of the novel I admired, which was the exploration and constant presence of ambiguity both in the characters and the practices they are involved with. I believe ambiguity adds verisimilitude to a novel, and Harkin speaks to how almost nothing in this world—especially not people—is black and white. Characters struggle between following morals and rules, such as Noor, who wonders whether investigating Louise’s shady doings will uncover that she is part of a sinister conspiracy, or that she is trying to fight against one. Nepenthe’s success, despite the moral ambiguity of their practices, emphasizes how corporate greed makes this dystopian future a plausible reality. This story is not just science-fiction, but a portrayal of what could happen when a company profits off a potentially dangerous medical practice that preys on traumatized people. Even in a society where this is actively occurring, some people believe in the benefits of removing traumatic memories while others believe that altering the brain is a dangerous and poorly researched practice. Readers see throughout the novel that both arguments have merit and that sometimes the answer is not the same for everyone.

My only qualm with this novel was that I sometimes found myself conflating Finn’s and William’s perspectives, as both are in struggling marriages, and I would have to go back to clarify aspects of each character’s story. It was otherwise impressively easy to stay immersed in the narrative, especially with the suspense carrying me through. Harkin also manages to flesh out five characters with clear voices and distinct personalities. She cleverly weaves their stories together, emphasizing how connected we all are, often without even realizing it. Something all the characters struggle with at one point or another is loneliness as they internally grapple with whether to regain a memory, a past version of themselves deemed too horrible to cope with. Though their circumstances differ, all five characters’ struggles boil down to the uncertainty that comes with being human.

For a book full of people seeking answers, Tell Me an Ending surprisingly offers very few in the end. Some characters may have gained answers about their pasts, but they are still left to cope with their present and to work toward a better future. Harkin highlights the multiplicity and ambiguity of life, forwarding the idea that while many of these characters search for answers, the reality is that many truths—many answers to the same questions—can exist at once. The ending, therefore, lacks a distinct resolution for any of the characters, which I believe adds to the authenticity of their stories. Through hardship and success, life goes on, and we must move along with it. If you’re stuck in a rut, this book might make you even sadder, but it will also open you up to taking a breath, letting go, and appreciating what you have instead of agonizing over what you don’t. I recommend Tell Me an Ending to anyone who enjoys a whole lot of drama and suspense, but also to those looking for a fresh perspective on concepts like life and purpose. I’m not saying this novel has all the answers, but I believe it will be an eye-opening start.

Flashes of Lightning Amidst the Storm: A Review of You Better Be Lightning by Andrea Gibson

Published November 9, 2021 by Button Poetry.

I’ve found comfort in reading poetry for as long as I can remember. It’s a genre where writers rip themselves to shreds and sew themselves back together, often in less than a page and in as few words as possible, which fascinates me as a reader, writer, and survivor of my own trauma. Poets lay their suffering out in the hopes that someone can relate, that someone can learn from their experiences, that someone is listening as they bare their soul.

In You Better Be Lightning, Andrea Gibson does just that. You Better Be Lightning is a collection of queer, feminist, political poetry exploring everything from love, trauma, and chronic illness to climate change and outer space. With this book covering such vast topics, Gibson jumps to a new concept with each poem instead of organizing them into relevant sections, which makes it difficult for the reader to follow the thread of connection between each piece. While none of the poems were bad, I struggled to see how they fit together to create a cohesive anthology. My limited experience with Gibson’s work is watching their slam poetry videos on Button Poetry’s YouTube channel, so I’m used to experiencing their work outside of the context of a curated collection. I love Button Poetry as a whole and deeply love Andrea Gibson’s work, but You Better Be Lightning didn’t quite meet my expectations.

I’m the kind of poetry reader that gravitates towards poems that discuss trauma and “have something to say” rather than wax relatable platitudes. I also prefer carefully chosen word counts and poems where there are no words to spare, rather than longer form, stream-of-consciousness styles. Not all of Gibson’s pieces fell within my taste range, but some did, especially “Queer Youth Are Five Times More Likely to Die by Suicide” being immediately followed by “No Such Thing as The Innocent Bystander” for maximum impact on the reader. “Queer Youth Are Five Times More Likely to Die by Suicide” is a perfect example of a longer poem that does not feel overly long. It is deeply personal while being relatable on a broad scale: it turns cold statistics and mentions of hatred and bigotry into an ode to softness, to moments of love, to kindness. It shows the dichotomy of the queer experience—pain, and loss balanced with love, support, and family, even if that family is not necessarily blood. Immediately following this multipage poem is “No Such Thing as the Innocent Bystander,” a piece of only six words. “Innocent Bystander” is exactly the kind of short poem I love. It conveys its meaning in as few words as possible but still packs a massive punch. “Innocent Bystander” and “Queer Youth” also convey the dichotomy of my own taste when it comes to length. Ultimately, it boils down to whether I feel the poem conveyed its meaning without extra words, and “Innocent Bystander” and “Queer Youth” both do that incredibly well. Unfortunately, the same is not true for much of the rest of the collection.

Overall, Gibson’s longer poems fall into a stream-of-consciousness style, and I often felt their meaning became muddled by extra words or context. Shorter poems like “Constellations Rearrange Themselves into a Protest Sign” and “Wellness Check” had a greater impact than “Climate Change” and “The Asshole at the Airport,” even though I related to all four. “Constellations Rearrange Themselves into a Protest Sign” is only a few sentences long, but any poem that begins with “Every uprising has the universe on their side” wins my heart based on philosophy alone. The same is true for the final sentence of “Wellness Check,” which reads, “I can measure my wellness by this question: Is my attention on loving or is my attention on who isn’t loving me?”

It’s sentences like that that give me the metaphorical gut punch I seek when I read poetry; unfortunately, I didn’t get that feeling from poems like “Climate Change” and “The Asshole at the Airport.” I relate to their premises, but it felt like the core intent became lost amongst other thoughts and commentary. Both pieces had compelling, gut-punch sentences, but the impact was ultimately bogged down by everything else.

All of Gibson’s poetry is deeply personal and based around their own lived experiences, which is something I adore. But their shorter pieces had clear intent and focus and set out to accomplish them, while their longer poems were more of a metaphorical winding road that took the reader on a journey. Despite that journey, it felt like the longer ones stopped short of their destinations.

How does one rate a collection where the poems are good but not as good as you’ve come to expect from the poet? In the past, their poetry permanently ingrained itself in my brain because of its impact and relatability. Some pieces from this collection have certainly done the same, but a lot of them fell short of my expectations. That said, I would still recommend You Better Be Lightning to poetry lovers and novices alike, especially queer readers, as even the poems I didn’t connect with are still great, but pieces like “Queer Youth Are Five Times More Likely to Die by Suicide” and “No Such Thing as the Innocent Bystander” are life-changing enough to merit reading the collection on their own.

An Interview with Liselle Sambury

What inspired Blood Like Magic?

I had this image of a girl in a bath of blood. At the same time, I wanted to write a story about a family of black witches. It was NaNoWriMo 2017—and I started with a different project—but this idea, this family of black witches, kept poking at me. So, I started writing and spur of the moment, I decided to set it in the future, just because I thought it would be fun. I ended up discovery-writing a lot of this book. I started with the girl in the bath of blood, and I had to figure out why she was there. A lot of things I came up with off the top of my head because I thought they’d be cool, and I built the magic system along the way. A huge part of the story was missing Toronto and wanting to explore the city where I grew up. It combined my desire to get lost in and feel nostalgic about my city and then this little niggling desire to write about this family of black witches.

I don’t really know how to describe the genre of this book. It’s fantasy, it’s sci-fi, and there’s also this very intense historical-political view of the family tracing back their legacy. What was it like to smash that many genres together?

The fantasy and the sci-fi bits were conscious decisions. I wanted it to have both, but I was terrified that I would submit it to an agent, and they would want to cut the sci-fi. I made sure that the witch community relied on the sci-fi aspects of the book and that the reverse was also true. The historical bit was just something I wanted to do, but it also came up naturally when I got into the magic coming from ancestors. I had to think about who the ancestors were and where they might be from.

I had to understand the struggles of the past to understand not only the present but how that would affect the future. In the book, you have these ancestors who you not only have access to, but they’re also trying to affect your present. They have their own ideas about how you should be conducting family and living your life; they’re asserting those on you, while also having the ability to look into the future. They’re deciding what they’re going to tell you or not tell you. Everything is a test to make sure that you’re worthy of this magic that you’re getting. And I not only had to reconcile with my own history but also with how history is relevant to the world today. I ended up talking to family members about where we came from, and how my family came to be in Trinidad and Tobago and in Canada. I also read The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, which was wonderful. That reconciliation is a big struggle that Voya goes through because she feels so disconnected from this ancestor who is insisting, “I’ve picked you because I think we have something in common,” and Voya is very much like, “I have absolutely no idea what you think we have in common.”

Where did the idea of pure magic and impure magic and the political system around it come from?

I have always loved the idea of a gray area, of people who are not purely good or purely bad. I like making people grapple with an idea that on paper seems like a terrible thing that could be used for good, which is the thing about impure magic: you have to torture and or kill someone to get that magic. But you have to have a pure intent to do it. Impure witches have done dark things, but they’re the only members of the community with the magic to actually do good and to actually make a difference. The pure witches have moral superiority, which becomes difficult for Voya when she gets is tasked to kill her first love. That’s an impure act, and her family has raised her with the idea that they are morally superior, that this is not a thing they do anymore, and that they are ushering their family into this better age of magic, even though their gifts are weaker. And that’s another component to pure magic: you’re supposed to be the good guy, but you’re also suffering because you don’t have the same sort of power. You can’t afford the same privileges because you don’t have enough magic.

I’ve always been so fascinated by making people struggle to think oh, well, this person is just like, all bad, or this person is all good. Voya’s family is also kind of like, maybe you should kill just this person, and that’s okay. Whereas Voya’s very much like, no, you told me not to kill anyone and now you’re changing things. The plot started from a desire to have these two factions, where both are in a gray area, and then make them have a complicated relationship as they’re dealing with the hypocrisy of saying: Oh, these people are bad. But we’ll make an exception for these people because they’re technically part of our family. But we won’t make the same exception for someone else.

Did you intend to toss up the typical YA romance model, or did it come naturally out of putting together your plot elements? Where did the central plot of killing your first love come from?

I love stakes where you have to do extreme things for love. In a lot of books, it’s killing someone else to save the love interest. I was curious about situations where you are supposed to kill the person you’re supposed to love, and you’re having to make this choice between family and between this love interest. I wanted to see how that would play out. But then I had to think, well, she would do anything for her family, right? And so that’s where the family came in with them being very against doing this thing. So then I had to create struggles for her, and I had to make this a boy that she needed to love because that made the struggle deeper. It wasn’t like she was just killing a stranger or a friend, you have to go through the entire process of falling in love with someone. So those feelings are so fresh, and that’s when you have to do this terrible thing. I started with the stakes, and then I was like, how can I make this worse?

Blood Like Magic involves genetic compatibility. What was it like to break down relationships to core levels? And how did you go about exploring that?

It was difficult because I love an enemies-to-lovers trope, so I knew I was going to do that from the start. But then I had to think about the genetic basis for everything. There had to be some sort of drawing together, and for Voya, whatever genetic basis there is is obliterated by the fact that she’s like, well, I have to do this task, so I have to hang out with you and I have to fall in love with you. Whereas on Luc’s end, it’s very different. Luc is disinterested in the whole thing, he’s very focused on his career, he’s very focused on getting ahead. But he also has a great deal of self-consciousness about whether people authentically like him because he’s the adopted son of a very rich man who owns the company he works at. He’s frequently dealing with people that are putting on fake smiles, and he’s also very much grappling with the idea of, well, people don’t like me and that’s okay because I’m grumpy now and I don’t like them either. That was kind of the dynamic I had to work with. Even though they fully understand this genetic basis of love, you still have to create the trappings of general romantic conflict and have them be distracted by that so that they can start to forget the genetic component that says, hey, you’re supposed to like each other.

Intimacy is a common theme in the book, especially with Voya having a best friend who can read her mind. What was it like to build conflict and secrets in a world where you can hide almost nothing?

It was definitely part of the discovery-writing process. If Keis can read everyone’s mind, she’ll know everything. So I knew there had to be some kind of challenge and that’s where the element of dwindling magic came in. Then I had to go back and build everything around dwindling magic so it made sense. I also rebuilt Keisha’s character and make her kind of bad at it. She became a person who doesn’t want to be defined by magic and doesn’t want to use it. She’s doing everything she can to not be good at this very amazing skill she has. She’s a pretty stubborn person, but she has to have some outlet, which helped make her and Voya’s relationship closer. Voya is her outlet. Voya is the one person whose mind Keis very specifically focuses on to help her deal with everything. But that also created complications because now you have your best friend that can pay attention to your thoughts whenever they want and Keis has to ignore Voya’s embarrassing thoughts or things she doesn’t want to talk about. So the logistics were difficult to think about, especially because of how it also affects Voya. Voya relies on the mind-reading to enable bad habits, like making Keis help her make decisions or avoid confrontations by making Keis handle it because Keis is more stubborn and straightforward.

What is the largest change between your very first draft and the published version?

Probably the genetic matchmaking system because I rewrote it two separate times. I wrote half of the book with a mentor through a mentorship program to fix the matchmaking program. Then I wrote half of the book, again, with my agent to fix it again. That was definitely the biggest hurdle because, in the original version, it was structured by the company. Luc and Voya had to come in from this initial meeting, they had to do these checkups, they had enforced dates that they had to go on. But then I added more dates because there weren’t enough dates, and then my agent brought up a very legitimate suggestion: would they do this in the future? Right now, you just go on an app and you swipe and you go with your person. You don’t have to do all of this rigmarole. So I changed it to them getting an alert on their phone saying, this is your match, here you go, come to make sure you put a monitor on so we can track your metrics, and otherwise, do as you please. This ended up being for the best because it forced Voya to have to be the one to go out and make these dates happen. It made her a much more active character because she had to very actively pursue someone who also did not want to be pursued. It also gave Luc an excuse to not participate so that she had to push even harder to make sure he would go along with it.

What was the most fun moment to write?

There were a bunch of things that were fun. I love the scene at Brown Bear, the gaming cafe where they have to rescue Keisha from her bad date. But they’re also using it to blackmail her into helping them find information. I love it because Keis’s very upset to be there and because it’s got a little bit of a gruesome element in there. I love it because it’s also the first time that Keis and Keisha—who are sisters but are always very much at odds with each other—have a positive sisterly moment and Keisha gets to talk more about her identity and being demi-romantic. It’s a scene where a lot of things happen. But it felt really fun to write and I always have a lot of fun when I write Keisha because she’s so ridiculous.

What was your process of becoming a writer like?

I started writing as an emotional outlet at thirteen. I wrote out stories that were already in my head and I would feel better. Writing made me forget about my feelings or what happened at school. When I got to high school there was a writing club, but I was too intimidated to join as a freshman. I finally joined when I was fifteen and that really built my confidence as a writer. I was sharing my work with people for the first time, and to my shock and glee, they were enjoying what I was sharing. I realized I wasn’t half bad at writing and I was getting feedback on how to improve. So I stuck with the club through high school and even became the head of the club as a senior. Then I went to university, where I queried a Twilight knockoff and realized how difficult querying is. In my third year, I was accepted to an application-only writing class. I wrote literary short fiction then because that’s what everyone else was doing. After getting out of university I did one more year of college and then I started a desk job. That job gave me so much free time that I got back into reading, started book blogging, and then started working on my second novel. I ended up shelving that second book and then went on to write Blood Like Magic.

What do you think is the one thing that you really want to say with this book?

Black girls can be heroes too. When I was growing up, books like Legendborn and The Gilded Ones, books that show black girls can be the main character of the story, that they can have the love story, that they can go on the quest, that they can save people, and that they can be the hero didn’t exist. That elimination of the single narrative was a big part of what I wanted with this book. I wanted to know that I could put it out there, and a black girl could pick it up and feel included and not feel like there wasn’t any book for her. When I was growing up, I had to suspend disbelief, I had to push myself into a character that really didn’t have me in mind. I had to deal with the only representations being stereotypical or problematic in some way, or not making me feel great, or like I could ever be the main character of the story. I want there to be all these different representations, where you can think I want to read an urban fantasy with a black character and be like, oh, there it is.

Review of What If We Were Somewhere Else by Wendy J. Fox

Published November 1, 2021 by Santa Fe Writers Project.

The chance to review What If We Were Somewhere Else by Wendy J. Fox intrigued me. For myself, linked fiction short-story collections like this represent how we are all part of life’s tapestry and can only see the forefront patterns and miss the weave’s interconnecting tangles behind the patterns. In What If We Were Somewhere Else, the characters—who are all affected by a massive corporate layoff at the same downtown Denver corporation—do not see how their individual story threads connect. Each character’s life/work balance comes back to us with more familiarity and focus as the reader peers behind the tapestry to follow a character’s individual parts in the grander scheme of the interconnecting whole of this short-story collection. Through each of these weaved together stories, we see the scope of the office environment from multiple perspectives and what happens when cubicles no longer connect people.

In What If We Were Somewhere Else, the characters’ workday patterns have been broken by the layoff. We witness people breaking out of set routines and drastic life changes after their job ends. Fox’s characters are moving past the cubicles they are in, the feeling of loss from a job layoff, or relationships both personal and private. Kate is not only going through the downsizing but also a divorce. Melissa returns to her childhood commune and examines if she can leave the immediate benefits of a consumer-based society. Wendy J. Fox visits the workplace with empathy at a time when many readers may have been downsized themselves, had their relationships change, or had life goals shifted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What If We Were Somewhere Else is a book I commend because the topics of being present in one’s daily life and the importance of life/work balance both currently deserve a platform.

Fox ties up each story with elegant imagery, which stays with you and carries you to the next one. Where the previous story is about how everyone talks about the weather at parties, the next has a character left outside of an office holiday party in the snow. The previous images are not the only threads connecting these characters to one another. We revisit characters to see where they are in their lives since the layoff. Patterns come into play another way as each laid off employee is each given three stories in the book. Sometimes a character’s thread will loop back on their own short story as characters grow and view the events of their previous story with a new perspective. With this three-story pattern, we slowly see the connections of one character’s affairs and failed marriages intersecting into another person’s story and how they end up “living” with a different former co-worker. I recommend What If We Were Somewhere Else to everyone, particularly readers looking to break out of their own patterns, circling back to the past with the same viewpoint, or not yet in a place to forgive.

Fox has a smooth-flowing prose style that helps keep you connected to her characters. She gives each of the characters we follow their own voice in addition to their own story while honoring each with her amazing writing style. Fox writes about people going through something because the path to healing is not in the moment of a tragedy but going through the healing process. What If We Were Somewhere Else is a book that not only addresses what the workplace has witnessed with the pandemic but also helped me as a reader be present in the now.

Matthias & Maxime: Exploring the Shock of Small Changes

Spoilers Ahead!

Xavier Dolan’s 2019 film Matthias & Maxime presents as an exploratory queer story. The film follows two twenty-something male friends as they navigate the disruption caused by a kiss on the eve of a departure. While queer themes are undoubtedly infused throughout the film, its main focus is not the fluidity of sexuality, but rather the emotional implications of change. Dolan chooses to present these changes through the lens of identity and its exploration, but ultimately moves past it to investigate disruption on a deeper, more universal level.

The characters in Matthias & Maxime are all in their mid to late twenties, a time traditionally seen as one of increasing stability, when young adults are meant to be carving out a place for themselves and setting up their lives to comfortably enter middle adulthood. However, the film disregards this notion in favor of asking questions. These questions are all geared towards self-exploration and examining the conventional path to take. Things which, many would argue, one generally takes on during the painfully awkward adolescent phase.

But the purpose of the film isn’t to provide the space for a dramatic, life-changing, exploratory coming-of-age story as often seen in films with queer, teen protagonists. Rather, it seeks to examine what happens when someone who, by all accounts, has submitted to the status quo and treads the path most taken, spots a flaw in their plan. What happens when a friendship, long-standing and rivaling the greatest of brotherhoods, is suddenly seen in a different light? What happens when an infinitesimal part of that friendship changes out of the blue?

The audience is meant to ponder these types of questions themselves, using Matthias as their vehicle into this world of reconsideration. Through his growing discomfort and dissatisfaction, we see the domino effects this small change has. First, he is thrown into doubt about the nature of his platonic fraternal bond with Maxime after they kiss for a student film. Next, he begins to question how true the happiness he has felt up to this point in his long-term, heterosexual relationship really is. Cautiously, and much to his chagrin, he begins to identify this dissatisfaction in other parts of his life. He senses it in the monotony of his workplace, moving uncomfortably through encounters with his boss and later, with the misogynistic and insufferable McAfee. Given the latter’s high-ranking position and the fact that Matthias must wine, dine, and impress him during his visit, the viewer must regard McAfee as an aspirational figure, someone who Matthias must see himself becoming sooner rather than later.

Modern society is increasingly beginning to disregard the steps along which life must supposedly be lived. However, adherence to the conventions of yesteryear is still expected and enforced the world over. Wherever capitalist ideals form the foundation of society, this progression of life is still to be found. In these societies, when young adults come to be the age of the film’s protagonists, the expectation is that they must, in much the same way as Matthias, be settled, or well on their way towards it. They must occupy well-earning positions, be actively pursuing long-term, monogamous relationships and have a set plan for the next forty years of their lives.

Often in film, we see the disruption of these conventions in ways that are much more dramatic, much more cinematic. In other coming-of-age films, the protagonist defies societal expectations, breaking free in a heart-wrenching climactic scene, frequently complete with an emotional, tear-filled speech. Matthias & Maxime has its characters ask the same questions about identity as their teenage counterparts but does so in a much more grounded, more realistic way.

In life, change rarely happens in ways worthy of committing to film. Changes often manifest through subtleties, which are usually small, but nonetheless meaningful. This film represents those same subtleties. There is no intensely dramatic, catalyzing event through which the protagonist must endure. Instead, there is a simple kiss and subsequently, a perceived shift between these two closely bonded souls. The most realistic part of the portrayal of this change, lies perhaps in its imperceptibility. Almost no one outside of the core two is aware of the change that has occurred, and if they are, they don’t seem to care. It is only Matthias who has internalized this event and allowed it to shake him to his core. For the rest of the world, it is an unremarkable, non-event, again highlighting the film’s grounded thematic approach. We tend to view our problems and the anxieties that accompany them as things that are capable of shifting the planet’s very axis, when for eight billion others in the world, there has been no hiccup at all.

While Dolan concludes the film with the joyful reunion of the two friends-turned-assumed-lovers, the film’s exploration of change invites the viewer to take the questions home with them. What happens in real life when these small, yet powerful changes occur? How are we equipped emotionally to deal with them? When life throws us off the path we were expecting to take—as it so annoyingly and frequently does—are we truly ready to look at what that means, and how we might have to change? Matthias & Maxime does not seek to answer these questions for the viewer, nor is it particularly inclined to furnish you with any sort of preparation to tackle them. Rather, the film serves as a sort of case study that the viewer can use to aid them in their own exploration. The film, above all, tells a human story and ultimately invites the audience to look at their own stories and perhaps change the way they are told—albeit with less time spent pressed up against a tarpaulin.