The Witch of the Route 34 Gas-N-Go

I met the Witch of the Route 34 Gas-N-Go at three a.m. on a Tuesday in a particularly dusty part of Pennsylvania. I didn’t quite need gas, but there was a big hand-painted sign by the side of the highway that said Come See the Witch: Gas, Diesel, Coffee, Spells. My thermos was stone cold, so I thought I could refresh it, and that would be as good an excuse as any to see the Witch.

She was about twenty years younger than I thought she’d be, sitting in the gas station right next to the coffee bar, so close there were little splashes of flavor syrup on the edge of her table. It was a little folding table and she sat in a little folding chair. She looked me in the eyes as I turned away from the dark roast and said, “You missed your turn off five exits ago.”

And I said, “Shit.”

She said, “Go pay for your coffee.”

“Can I come back after?”

“Sure.”

I grabbed a sleeve of powdered donuts too, because it would be breakfast soon and I wouldn’t be stopping again.

“Do you want cards, or can I just tell you?” said the Witch as I sat down in the second little folding chair in front of her table.

“You can just tell me. How much?”

“Free. Who has time to care about money these days?” She had a paper cup with a cardboard sleeve and no lid by her elbow. She took a sip from it. I wondered if the Gas-N-Go gave her free coffee for being their witch, since I guess they weren’t paying her. “I used to be one of those Wiccany influencer types online, you know. Did tarot streams. The money was okay, but now I just don’t have the time to worry about it. I just don’t have the time.”

“I’m glad you’re still open,” I said.

“Lots of places are still open,” she said.

“I guess that’s true.”

“You’re heading in the right direction, but you don’t have enough time to get there.”

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “Do you know a quicker route?”

She tapped her finger in the center of her bottom lip thoughtfully. “No.”

“Right. Can you tell me something useful?”

“Not really,” she said, and she sounded honestly sorry for it. “There isn’t such a thing as useful anymore. It’s all just little distractions. Coffee and fortune tellers. I can give you a charm, though, hang on.” She leaned over sideways, reaching into her bag where it was squished up against the coffee bar. She handed me a length of blue yarn with two soda tabs and some kind of bone tied at the end. “Hang this on your mirror, if you want.”

“Will it do anything?”

“It’ll make you think of me before you die. I’ll think of you too. It’s free, obviously.”

“Thanks.” It wasn’t a bad deal, all said. I was glad I’d stopped for coffee.

A World of Possibility Awaits

“Grandmother, look!” Off to the side of the path they walked every morning loomed a large, white tent. It stood in stark contrast against the bleak, gray landscape ravaged by years of weather extremes that fueled famines, pandemics, and wars. “Let’s go inside.”

The woman held the child back.

Spying the pair, a man hollered, “Step right up! A world of possibility awaits.”

“I want to see!” declared the child, mesmerized by a poster of a hummingbird.

The woman covered the child’s ears. “There are no possibilities, only death,” she snapped. “You know that.”

“Yes.” The man nodded. “Still, we’re not dead yet. We have three days.”

The woman scoffed. “Some choice: die a slow death along with this world, or visit the Center in three days, and . . .” She sighed. “An ignoble end to what’s left of humankind, either way.”

He pointed to the child. “She doesn’t know?”

“No. I can’t find the words. She’s so full of life—so inquisitive, caring, optimistic, kind. She’s a force of nature, this one, and she deserves better, but we can’t survive on her will to live alone.”

“Why not allow our simple sideshow acts to entertain you until then?”

“Your distractions will change nothing.”

“No, but perhaps you should let her have this.”

The child pulled away, tugging her grandmother toward the entrance. “Come on!”

“Alright, alright.”

Inside, the tent was enormous. The center corridor extended farther than they could see, with openings lining each side. People were coming and going, chattering among themselves about the marvels they had witnessed, things adults barely remembered and children knew only from stories.

In the first room, they watched in awe as spiders wove their webs. In another, seeds sprouted from rich, dark soil. They grew into plants that produced fragrant flowers, delicious vegetables, and luscious fruits. The child liked daisies and peaches the best but didn’t care for broccoli. In the next room, bees pollinated flowers and produced honey. “This is good!” the child squealed, when offered a taste. Further on, they saw birds build nests, hatch eggs, and teach their young to fly and sing.

They wound their way through the tent, and in each room were given glimpses of nature as it was, before it was spoiled by recklessness and greed. The grandmother wondered how it could be that everything appeared as if it was happening in real time; the child absorbed it all.

When they reached the end, the child asked, “Can we go again?”

“I’m afraid not,” the attendant said. “It’s time for you to go home.”

Hand in hand, they emerged with the other explorers—into a lush, welcoming world teeming with possibilities.

“How can this be?” the grandmother inquired. “How long were we inside?”

“Long enough for the world to heal.”

“Why us?”

“Them.” The attendant nodded at the children. “You’re right. They deserve better, and they need you to help them build a future. Teach them to do things right this time.”

An Interview with Shashi Bhat

Spoiler Alert—The following review contains plot details about The Most Precious Substance on Earth.

What made you want to start writing?

I was always a reader when I was a kid, and the books that impacted me the most were short story collections or anthologies: Budge Wilson’s The Leaving and 21 Great Stories are ones that still stand out in my mind. I read those books over and over. There’s always been something about short stories that grabs me—their compression; how what’s off the page matters as much as what’s on it; how they can end with a kind of suspension or irresolution.

I wrote what I consider my first short story in Grade 8, when we had a unit in English class on “surprise ending stories.” Those surprise endings seemed like such a cool trick to pull off, and so impressive in how they earned it with foreshadowing. My own story was very bizarre and murderous, involving a unreliable narrator who may or not have stabbed his jerk brother with part of his Halloween costume.

The Most Precious Substance on Earth is such an empowering and moving coming-of-age story. I was intrigued by the title, which is also the third chapter title, in which the school band Nina is a part of argues whether platinum, the band’s namesake, is indeed the most precious substance on earth. As the narrative continues, it becomes clear that the most precious substance is something far less tangible. When writing this book, did you immediately know The Most Precious Substance on Earth would be its title?

Thank you! I had written that third chapter as a stand-alone short story before I realized it was going to be part of a novel. Originally, I plucked the phrase from that scene and made it the short story title, because I liked its enigmatic quality. I had the sense that it represented what the narrator loses at the end of that story, where there’s a fairly tragic coming-of-age moment. Once I had the full novel written, out of all the chapter titles, that one struck me the most as applying to the whole book. The “most precious substance” is this nebulous mix of all the things a girl loses when she comes of age—innocence, confidence, faith, a feeling of safety and certainty.

The first chapter ends with Nina experiencing something unspeakably traumatic at the hands of her favorite teacher, Mr. Mackenzie. Compared to books like My Dark Vanessa, The Most Precious Substance on Earth doesn’t focus on the continued predation of a teacher upon their student. How important was it for you to portray Nina’s trauma and struggle to come of age through the physical absence yet otherwise looming presence of Mr. Mackenzie?

I don’t think I would have felt comfortable writing a book that was, from start to finish, about a predatory teacher. It was less the abuse itself that interested me than its aftermath. It was important to me that the actual event remain offscreen and not be depicted graphically, but that readers still feel the weight of its impact. I’m a little obsessed with how a single incident or action or moment can cause a permanent shift and lasting trauma. I wanted to explore the subtle but still devastating effects of such an experience and how they follow Nina even when the event is over, the teacher has left, and her life has moved on.

Some readers were confused or disappointed that there wasn’t a big confrontation scene later in the book, or that the abuse didn’t get reported or go to trial and so on. I wanted to write something that felt true to real-life experiences of sexual abuse and assault—a kind of ongoing silencing. But I can certainly also understand the desire for justice and catharsis!

Despite the dark subject matters this book handles, Nina has a memorably humorous voice; there were moments that had me laughing out loud, and then feeling immediately empathetic for her. Was it difficult to strike the right balance between serious and humorous?

I’m so glad this made you laugh! Initially I wrote the first chapter of this book for a reading I gave at a bar in 2007, and I was trying to write something that was accessible, easy to follow while listening, would get an audience reaction, and had tonal range. I wanted to write something that had a breathlessness to it, in the sudden emotional turn of the ending—an ending that aimed to pull the rug out from under the reader. Because the subject matter and emotions of this story are so dark, it needed some lightness to balance it out. A big part of revision was considering and calibrating the tonal balance; I didn’t want people to think I was ever joking about what happens to Nina, but I also didn’t want the book to be joyless.

The bits of pop culture weaved throughout the narrative flavored the text and made Nina’s adolescence feel so relatable and grounded. How did you go about researching or recalling these pop culture factoids?

I was a teenager in the suburbs of Toronto in the ‘90s, so even though the book is set in Halifax, a lot of the pop culture references were just the TV and music I listened to back then. While writing, I listened to music by Our Lady Peace, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Radiohead (my favorite bands in high school), and the soundtracks to The Craft and Romeo + Juliet, both of which came out around that time.

I also had to do a lot of googling to avoid anachronisms. I kept a spreadsheet of the chapters and what years they occurred in, then looked up each reference and tracked it on the spreadsheet. While revising I had to change some of them, like if I had a reference to a TV show that was released in 2006 but the chapter was set in 2002. And it was not for only pop culture, but also things like whether there was a dollar store in a certain mall in Halifax in 1998, what thrift stores were most popular in the city then, or whether my characters would have needed to take a bus to get to Tim Hortons. It was painstaking but also very fun. I enjoyed all the nostalgia.

I appreciated how Nina’s growth continued well into her adulthood. It makes sense that going through something so traumatic would take years to heal from. Part of this is explored through Nina’s decision to become a teacher and the struggles she faced in this line of work. As a professor yourself, did you experience any struggles when you first started teaching that influenced Nina’s story? Can you tell us a little more about the role of a teacher to not only educate students but to protect and inspire them?

I did take inspiration from my teaching experiences, though I imagine teaching high school students requires a more intense level of personal responsibility. A teaching workload can be very high in terms of grading, class prep, and admin work, and there are the many hours of public speaking every week. My first few years teaching full-time were overwhelming, particularly because I was a young female minority teaching mostly white students. My teaching evaluations were full of microaggressions. I felt a lot of pressure to prove myself. I had Nina share those pressures.

Now I teach in a much more diverse environment, but any teaching comes with frequent and unexpected ethical and emotional dilemmas that we’re not always prepared for. I teach creative writing, and it’s not uncommon for students to write about very personal things, like eating disorders, gender identity, relationships, assaults, and abuse. Many students are also dealing with physical and mental health issues and have pressures outside of the classroom. Most instructors I know have had students cry in class or in office hours or have had students become very angry or send cruel or inappropriate emails. That being said, my students are engaged and brilliant and funny; they’re good writers and hard workers and sharp critics; they encourage each other. My creative writing workshops are often really fun, but I’m always aware that I’m only responsible for a small part of that—that I’m a facilitator, that the dynamic is very fragile, and that how a class goes depends so much on the mix of personalities in the room.

Before going into teaching, Nina attends an MFA program for Creative Writing in the U.S. and immediately feels alienated as the only person of color in the program. At the beginning of the narrative, when Nina imagines reading Beowulf by the fireplace with her teacher, she imagines herself with blonde hair, even though she’s Indian. This alienation is, unfortunately, a common experience for so many women of color. Did you set out to portray this heavily when you started writing this novel, or did it organically come up as you continued writing? 

It did come up organically, based on my own experiences. I didn’t put a South Asian character in any of my stories until I was 23 or so, probably because I didn’t encounter any South Asian American characters until I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Even now, in my students’ writing, it’s rare to see someone put their cultural identity in their work, or to identify a character’s race (white still seeming to be the default, even when the writer isn’t white). On the other hand, it’s very common to see them set their stories in a kind of vague American setting (though we’re in Canada). They also love setting stories in New York, which most of them have never been to! I find this last bit very charming and interesting, but I have introduced a “write what you know” assignment, partly to suggest that their own experiences—including the places they live in and the people they know—are valid to explore in fiction.

I loved how central Nina’s cultural identity was to her growing up and her relationship with her family. One example that comes to mind is how normally it’s presented that Nina lives with her parents as an adult. While this is normal in many cultures, it’s still seen as unusual in Western society. During the publishing process, did you ever face resistance or confusion toward your portrayal of Nina’s heritage?

I was very lucky to work with agents and editors who didn’t question the way I depicted Nina’s cultural background. When McClelland & Stewart made an offer, they sent a letter with kind quotes from their editors and staff responding to the manuscript. I remember one editor who referred to a moment when Nina describes having dinner at the house of a white friend as having a hidden choreography she couldn’t follow, and the editor said that, as a Korean-Canadian, that was something he had felt, too. That comment meant a lot to me. I appreciated hearing from people who could understand what those small moments are like.

Silence and power play such important roles in The Most Precious Substance on Earth. We see this clearly when Nina joins a local Toastmasters group to improve her public speaking skills. The intersection of race and gender, and the way silence is imposed on marginalized individuals, is especially present in these sections. How do you think the solidarity between Nina and the women of color in Toastmasters played a role in her growth?

I wanted Nina to find some like-minded people, and her friendship with Jules makes the story a more hopeful ending than it would be otherwise. I wrote Jules as basically Nina’s ideal friend. Like Nina, she struggles with speaking up, but she’s also sharp and funny, and Nina witnesses her stand up for the other woman of color in the Toastmaster’s group. Jules is someone who has goals and works toward achieving them. She’s a good influence on Nina, and there’s no toxicity between them; it’s a much more calm, mature friendship than what Nina has with Amy in high school.

The publishing industry can be difficult for emerging authors to navigate. If you could give your past self one piece of advice about the publishing industry or process, what would it be? 

I would tell myself to write what I wanted to, and not what I was expected to.

Part of our mission here at Brink Literacy Project is to bring the revolutionary magic of storytelling to underserved communities. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors from marginalized communities? 

My advice is the same as it is for my past self, and perhaps for all aspiring writers: write what you can’t stop thinking about.

Burn Baby, Burn

We stand under the air-conditioned vents and watch from our enclosed bubbles as the most powerful human stands outside among the sun’s hellfire, hand-like rays punching him.

“Give it up for the Great, the Spectacular Titus,” Lew Graham screams through the speakers. He emerges from his broadcast booth in yellow coveralls with a radiation shield strapped to his head. Hands raised in the air, he prances around the arena. We throw our heads back and chant, “Titus, Titus.” The vents send an echo across the sheltered arena.

The timer above Titus displays the nine minutes he’s stood with us, muscles taut. A record. Even Oil Can Harry, dubbed the great Helios by his stans, can’t withstand the unfiltered sun for more than eight minutes and forty-five seconds. And that’s because of his mutant abilities from surviving an exploding oil catch can. Titus doesn’t need his armor of patchwork skin and scar tissue.

Myra leans in forward until her nose presses against the insulated glass. I yank her back by her shirt’s collar. While we’re safe inside, the glass isn’t foolproof. I’ve seen parents throw their howling children over their shoulders and carry them to the medical tent, palms cinched from pressing on the glass for too long.

When he hits ten minutes, a chirp sounds, and Titus bounces his pecs. Left, right, left. White flecks of skin fall off. His black skin now pockmarked and maroon. Surrounded by nothing except the glass ring filled with spectators, he shines under the light like an organism under a stethoscope. Beads of sweat drip down his forehead, past his chin, and onto the cracked earth. I see his eyes squint against the sun’s glare. We all do and crane our necks forward, faces inches away from the glass.

We watch him bend his shoulder blades inward and turn his head away from the eye of our monster. He bites his blistered lips, shriveled and purple from the sun, and clenches his hands into fists. Parents cover their children’s eyes with their hands and press them close to their bodies.

Inside the tinted announcer box, Lew holds fast to the doorknob. Head tilted to the side, he waits for his earpiece to give him the signal. Lew’s the closest to Titus, and the first to see him start to shake— his body spasming from the heat—tears prickling in the corner of his  eyes.

Finally, he gets the okay and flings open the door. But before it swings shut behind him, Titus’s knees buckle. We suck in a breath. I grab Myra and pull her toward the exit.

When we reach the tunnels, I hear the audience roar behind us. We turn. Titus stands tall, hands clasped in victory. The sun basks him in a halo of light.

March Staff Picks

Nate Ragolia

Poor Things

Released in December in the U.S., Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film, Poor Things, might just be the best film of 2023. It’s a heartfelt, deeply feminist coming-of-age take on the literary classic Frankenstein that shows off Emma Stone’s awe-inspiring acting range, while getting some brilliant performances from Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe (among a stacked cast). It features a globe-hopping, eye-catching journey as protagonist Bella Baxter chases her young curiosity to find out who she really is, and who she really wants to be.

Fair warning, this film features a lot of sex and nudity, but does so while subverting the male gaze and bringing sincere, patriarchy-undermining humanity into every frame. It’s a stylish, strange, bold film that may rub some viewers the wrong way, even as it’s one of Lanthimos’ most accessibly human films. We all, ultimately, want to know who we are, what we’re made of, and why we’re here… and Poor Things hits every note in an undeniably unique and heartfelt way. Plus, there’s a chicken with a pig’s head in here, so if you’re into that kind of weird, this film is EVEN MORE for you.

Sara Santistevan

This is My Body: Poems by a Teen Trans Fem

It’s rare to find a teen poet confident in both their poetic voice and artistic mission. That’s why I was so excited to get my hands on Madeline Aliah’s debut chapbook This Is My Body: Poems by a Teen Trans Fem.

In the book’s forward, Aliah makes her goal clear: “This little book is an offering of 18 poems as candles for a birthday I didn’t expect to reach. I hope it’s a light for those who need it. I hope it helps the non-trans reader understand what it’s like to be someone like me.” Indeed, Aliah’s debut is a stunning example of how vulnerability can not only comfort those who identify with the speaker’s experience, but can also serve as a radical form of advocacy and education.

This book is thoughtfully divided into three sections (“The Body Counterfeit,” “The Body Politic,” and “The Body Manifest,”) which explore Aliah’s coming-of-age and relationship with her body. Some of my favorite lines beautifully capture the narrative arc that unfolds throughout these sections. Consider the shift in the speaker’s autonomy from the couplet in “I Woke Up Twice This Morning” to that of “The Pronoun Game,” respectively:

“My second morning body is an oven / My first morning body is a dove.”

“I/Me/Mine / are dangerous pronouns to choose / because choosing me makes me dangerous.”

The choice Aliah eventually makes, and the power she has to make that choice, is fully realized in one of the collection’s final poems, “Trans Risk.” Despite the title, Aliah sees no risk in her choice to become herself, and instead challenges the reader by asking “Does it bother you / that womanhood is a gift / worth dying for?”

I’m always stunned when I remember that Aliah had these revelations, and captured them so powerfully in her writing, as a teenager. If I were you, I’d be keeping an eye on Aliah’s future career as a poet (and bragging that I knew of her before she was famous)!

Marizel Malan

Prelude to Ecstasy

Though I’m a tad late, I have been absolutely obsessed with the band The Last Dinner Party, and their debut album, Prelude to Ecstasy. They’re currently touring, and I’m incredibly jealous of every single person who gets to experience them live.

The woman and nonbinary-led rock band has taken over every playlist I make. I’ve been listening to their album nonstop. Even though it was released in February, it’s a staple of my March listening habits. In fact, I’ve barely listened to anything else this month! This is one of those rare albums where I don’t want to skip a single song. The lyrics are incredible and they tell exceptional stories in each of their pieces. I am an absolute sucker for indie bands, and The Last Dinner Party is no exception. With the release of singles prior to the album, I was expecting some great music, but they completely surpassed all expectations. While I do have a soft spot for the single “My Lady of Mercy“—which sounds great in-between all the other songs on the album—”Beautiful Boy” has quickly become my favorite. If you enjoy unique rhythms, incredible voices, and gorgeous imagery, definitely check out The Last Dinner Party!

Dominic Loise

Resident Alien

To help get through the winter months and my seasonal depression, I’m rewatching the previous seasons of Resident Alien. The third season started dropping new weekly episodes on Valentine’s Day, and it was a better gift than a box of chocolates could ever be for me.

Resident Alien is a sci-fi action comedy on SyFy (streaming on Peacock and Netflix) about an extraterrestrial’s failed attempt to destroy Earth and become its protector. The show is also explores what it means to be human. Alien Harry struggles as he pretends to be an Earthing and learns to not be an outsider. He also learns that being human involves more than just our outer appearance as the show provides deep, complex layers to the citizens of fictitious Patience, CO.

I was familiar with the Dark Horse comic book series the TV show is based on, but the show has its own tone. That tone is built around the casting of Alan Tudyk as alien Harry. And, even though our interactions with the citizens of Patience, CO are filtered through the arrival of an alien, I find myself fully invested in each character’s presence and personality in this ensemble show and look forward to hanging out with everyone in town on my weekly viewing visits with Resident Alien.

Dear Beloved Sister

Dear Beloved Sister,

I write from the center of attention at the 136th show of our Cirqueau, with my 136th letter to you.

I’m sitting in a new booth, marked a sideshow just yesterday. Upper Command thought it best that no one observe an abomination of a girl like me for too long.

Yet the spectators stare, eyes mesmerized by the reflection of ink on paper. The shapes of my letters are foreign, so different from the standardized typeface the rest are required to use, often with the assistance of aI-WRiTe.

There is a lost art in each stroke of my pen. The spectators see it too. Their longing reaches through the glass and nearly takes hold of my words: I wish to tell my story, too. I wish to write like you do. The Cirqueau offers them a place for such imaginations, but as you know a coveted spot in our show is only reserved for those who pass the TEST—the talent examination.

As I have done for the past 135 letters, I will describe the most interesting of the spectators.

Tonight, there is a girl around your age who reminds me of a young woman I once saw in an old photograph from the Archives. Under this photograph was her last letter. The political climate of the Polar Era caused the writer much psychological distress. She could not determine who she was, as she was always trying to appease others, especially those with radically different viewpoints. She became all those views and lost herself within them. She wrote, “I feel like the greatest liar on Earth.” At this stage, what is Earth anymore? She is a lie herself.

The girl is pounding on the glass now. I cannot hear her through the soundproofed booth. She should leave soon, intermission is ending.

She speaks, her mouth forming the same words in circles. The other spectators head back to the Cirqueau tent, occasionally looking over their shoulders at this funny girl’s commotion.

She continues to hit the glass, sending a quiver down my booth. She might break in. Something is not quite right. Hold on, Sister.

She is saying, “I am the greatest liar on Earth.” This is fitting, at the greatest show on Earth. I believe her.

Two officers have just come up behind her. Their presence makes her bang on the glass more furiously. The ground is shaking beneath me, yet there is not a crack to be seen.

The officers steal her hands. The Earth rumbles.

Do you feel the end coming up on you?

The spectators outside fall, and the ground opens up to swallow them.

At least there is water below. I hope there is, anyhow. It may be all dried up.

Now, I will fall too.

Swallow

It’s funny what people don’t mind when they know they’ve only got so much time left.

Normally, when I swallow swords and hook wires through my nose and out my mouth, they gag. Or they puke on my shoes. Which makes sense. Most people don’t think about swallowing dangerous objects, let alone see it happen. Under normal circumstances, their reaction is a combination of horror and curiosity. Mainly horror.

The day the Sondering Circus went to the Splinter Dimension, there was almost none of that.

We didn’t have time to set up our usual big-top tent, because the dimension was going to collapse in less than twelve hours. But we set our caravan of fancy wagons into a semicircle and drew a nice bonfire. It was enough for the locals who’d braved the Great Sand Dunes of Colorado to see our show.

The rest was up to us.

After our leader, the faceless Magician, did a small act with roses and doves, Celia juggled alongside Benny and Belial, our clown duo. Joseph, our tattooed strongman, lifted our wagons one by one over his head, which impressed the crowd. He was followed by our contortionists, The Medusa Sisters, who were then followed by Dax, our slackline walker.

Then there was me.

No crowd were as wonderstruck as the Splinter folks. They never averted their eyes, as if they couldn’t get enough. It didn’t matter what I swallowed or what I threaded through me. Each daring act was a miracle.

In the Sondering Circus, we have an unspoken rule that whoever gets the most applause does the encore. That evening, the encore was mine. Ordinarily, I swallow an unusual object. I’ve got a whole bag of fun stuff for such a performance. But before I could reach for it, the Magician stopped me.

“What is it?” I asked.

He pulled something out of his red robe— a ball painted to resemble Earth.

“This? You sure?”

A nod was his only response. He rarely ever spoke and he never unmasked himself. It didn’t matter, I always trusted his judgement.

I held out the Earth for all to see. Every heart in the crowd seemed to stop when they realized what would happen next.

The Earth slid down my throat.

My gulp might as well have been a gunshot. Every person jolted, as if the world had ended right then and there. Before they could fret too much, I regurgitated the Earth and presented it to them, intact and unchanged. It reflected the sun’s dying light as their bittersweet smiles tore at my heart.

Our eyes were blinded by their annihilation as we transported back to our dimension.

That same annihilation will find us one of these days. When it does, I’ll swallow and bring back the Earth one last time. If nothing else, to tell the universe that life is as inevitable as death.

Corrosive

I don’t believe in what the circus is trying to peddle. It’s always been smoke and mirrors, even when wonder and joy weren’t part of the charade. It’s obscene to spend any money on pleasure these days, but it’s Ivory’s birthday and she wanted to see the elephant. I try not to flinch when the animal emerges, all bones and sinew held together by piles of falling flesh. She squeals with high-pitched joy when the beast totters. I hoist her up in my arms and try to pretend this is the world I wanted to bring a daughter into.

When the showman pulls the elephant away, the crowds dissipate, trailing into the sideshow tents. “Mommy!” Ivory cries, squirming in my arms. I grab her hand right before she darts off, and she huffs, but pulls me at a more sedated pace.

“…than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” intones another showman, as we join a small cluster of people. The man steps to the side to raucous applause, and behind him, a curtain parts to reveal a dazzling and disturbing woman. Her eyes are the color of slate by a river, and her dark hair is braided down to her knees. But what stops my gaze are the rivulets of scar tissue, starting at the line of her lips and cascading down her front like a gauzy veil.

“I present,” the man announces, “Claudia! The woman who can drink rainwater!”

I frown. Smoke and mirrors, I remind myself. No one can drink rainwater, not anymore. The man hefts a bucket up by the handle, hauling it onto a platform.

“This water was collected during the last monsoon.” He plucks his glove off to show four fingers, the scarred joints stiff and unmoving. With no hesitation, he dips his index finger into the bucket. The crowd stands at attention. When he pulls the appendage out, the skin is red and raw, already weeping and starting to blister.

He smiles, though his lips are tight. “And now, Claudia will demonstrate her undeniable talent.”

Claudia’s smile pulls at the scar tissue on her face. She grabs the bucket between slender hands and hauls it up to her lips. I can’t stop my sharp inhale when she tips the bucket, thin trails of corrosive water pouring down her gullet and falling down her front. Even Ivory is stock-still against me.

The skin around her mouth begins to steam, as though she were hot metal and not flesh. She swallows, and when she opens her mouth wider, I spot the angry flesh inside, scoured and pockmarked.

When she finishes, she throws the bucket to the side like a plaything. And then she turns to face us, her slate gray eyes stark against the devastation of her skin. I want to scream. I want to cover Ivory’s eyes. But I can’t look away.

Smoke and mirrors, I remind myself.

February Staff Picks

Dominic Loise

Mychal Threets

Mychal Threets, who won this year’s I Love My Librarian award, is having a moment, but the patrons of the Solano County Library will hopefully feel Mychal’s influence and impact for years to come. I am thoroughly enjoying the openness and warm, welcoming energy Mychal brings to social media. Mychal has a soft, Blues Clues-host vibe when discussing what’s going on in the library and how it’s a space for appreciation of others.

Around the time of the award, Mychal was talking with Oliver James on social media. Oliver’s account centers around teaching himself to read as an adult living with OCD. I very much appreciated their discussion of literacy and engagement with books. I also grew up with a learning disability and eventually went on to work with a literacy organization and marry a librarian. Mychal is equally open about mental health awareness and announced his last day at Solano County Library would be on March 1st to prioritize mental health and work with his mental health check-in team. I equally appreciate this openness as someone who also left their full-time job to prioritize their mental health, and I am in his corner as he puts his health first.

There’s been a lot of discussion about banning books in libraries lately. Growing up, I had to work around the stereotypical shushing librarians to find space in a room I didn’t feel invited to, especially as someone from an “ethnic city” family living in the suburbs during the seventies. I celebrate great librarians like Mychal and literacy spaces because I know what it was like growing up within a conservative curated collection. A real librarian doesn’t see their patrons to check out books but makes sure they are seen on the shelves. Visit Mychal Threets online then stop by your own local library.

Credit @ I Love Libraries

Ari Iscariot

Hades

For the past few months I have been on a button-mashing, finger-bashing, and skull-smashing rampage through the roguelite dungeon crawler, Hades. This comes as a surprise, because I’m notorious for abandoning games that require dying to advance to higher levels. Hades is no exception to this rule. But what makes Hades brilliant is the way it uses its death mechanic: when you die, you advance the story. 

The protagonist of Hades is the fire-stepping Prince of the Underworld, Zagreus. His mission is to fight his way out of his father’s realm. This realm is rife with ghostly enemies: vexatious witches, club-wielding wretches, and even revered heroes from the surface world. And with such formidable opponents, Zagreus dies. A lot. When you perish, you return to the game’s starting point, the House of Hades, a venerable stone mansion populated by Zagreus’s closest friends and family. With each successive death, these characters reveal to you their deepest desires and their most secret fears. And Zagreus reveals more of himself: his contentious relationship with his father, his outsider status among the denizens of the Underworld, and the secret that drove him to attempt escape—he seeks a long-lost mother he has never met. 

There’s hardly an emotional motivation more compelling than this, a child who longs for love and acceptance. It is a core that keeps you fighting even as the game slaughters you again and again. “I have to get this guy to his mom.” Eventually, you do. And it is glorious. 

Asma Al-Masyabi

Mr. Villain’s Day Off

Mr. Villain’s Day Off poses a relatively simple question as its premise: what does a lead villain trying to take over the world do on his days off? The answer is—he tries to enjoy them to their fullest, and, in turn, slowly grows to appreciate Earth and its strange inventions and inhabitants. 

Called only the General, our main character is the antagonist to Super Ranger-like heroes—until he’s off the clock. He then changes into his comfy turtleneck and trench coat and strives to avoid work at all costs. This new slice-of-life anime has already managed to capture my heart. There’s nothing more relaxing than watching someone attempt to strike that perfect work-life balance while reveling in the small moments and details that make living life worth it. Whether it’s watching pandas at the zoo, ordering latte art of said pandas, or working up the courage to eat a limited-edition panda meat bun, the General does it with unmatched determination that I can’t help but find endearing. 

Another thing about this show, it is unbearably cute. The General’s successes, and failures, have me smiling throughout the whole episode. Cute girls doing cute things is a popular genre in anime, but I think that cute guys doing cute things should be just as standard. Adults, and particularly men, aren’t often shown enjoying their life in media, and I love the way that Mr. Villain’s Day Off pushes back against that.   

Ciena Valenzuela-Peterson

Schitt’s Creek

I’m probably not the first person to recommend you Schitt’s Creek. I’m probably not the second. You’re probably thinking, “Ugh, I know, I know, everyone says I would love Schitt’s Creek, but I watched the first episode/handful of episodes/season and I just wasn’t hooked.”  

Dear reader, listen to me—listen to me, I beg of you. I know you. I see you. I was you. It’s no mistake Schitt’s Creek fans are constantly pushing the show on unsuspecting sitcom enjoyers, wheedling and insisting that you’ll love it with all the brimming sentimentality of a Canadian grandma wearing a pride pin. It really, really is that good. 

Schitt’s Creek follows the wealthy Rose family who loses everything and has no choice but to move to a crusty motel in the middle of nowhere. Over six seasons, Schitt’s Creek demonstrates the power of character-driven storytelling; what begins as a comedy satirizing the idiosyncrasies of the uber-rich unfolds into a beautiful journey of personal growth, love, and family. You’ll see yourself and your own family in the Roses—Alexis and David Rose have the realest sibling dynamic I’ve seen on TV, and Moira and Johnny’s marriage has a verisimilitude that could only be achieved by the decades-long friendship between Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy. Real-life father-and-son duo, Eugene and Dan Levy invite the viewer to a more hopeful world—one where queer acceptance is a given, love is precious, and everyone is good at heart. You’ll cry by the end, guaranteed. 

Jazzmin Joya

Wonka

I absolutely love watching movies! It is one of my all-time favorite ways to pass time. After quarantining, I started going to the movie theaters more often, really taking advantage of their discount Tuesday’s.

During this routine, I watched the new film adaptation of Willy Wonka, starring Timothée Chalamet, Keegan Michael-Key, Olivia Colman, Hugh Grant, Rowan Atkinson, and other fun actors. Wonka is a whimsical movie establishing more background on Willy Wonka before the adventures seen in the original film and the book written by Roald Dahl. The soundtrack was beautifully done, it really captured the essence of Wonka and the magical spirit of the film. This reimagining separated itself from other movies, staying true to the essence of the story while giving its own playful spin. It also introduced us to new storylines and interesting characters. I know there were mixed feelings over this film, but I really enjoyed it. It reminded me of my childhood. The whimsicalness, the vibrant coloring, people’s LOVE for chocolate. I definitely recommend watching Wonka, you’re in for a fun time. Just be wary, the songs might get stuck in your head! 

Stephanie Sargas

Suikoden

This week, articles flooded my social media feeds announcing the narrative lead of my favourite video game franchise, Suikoden, sadly passed away at 55. Yoshitaka Murayama of Rabbit & Bear Studios was the chief writer for the Suikoden series, which spanned five titles and numerous spin-offs for PlayStation and Nintendo DS from 1995-2012. 

In Murayama’s honour, I’ve decided to replay Suikoden. I played it for the first time at age 6. It’s a whimsical, turn-based fantasy game that has you collect 108 ragtag allies and lead a revolution against the corrupt imperialist government into which you were born. The game features adorable artwork and a disarmingly rich soundtrack. There’re mysterious, magical crystals called runes governing the world’s elemental powers. Oh, and there are flying squirrels. And gambling. You know how it is. 

The older I get, the more it amazes me that Murayama created such a socially and politically nuanced narrative with Suikoden while being fun and accessible across age and literacy brackets. To me, this is masterful storytelling. I like to say Suikoden radicalized me before I could pronounce “radicalized,” or “Suikoden.” For that Murayama will always have my gratitude. Through his writing, I had formative exposure to diversity and representation in storytelling. I learned about the limits of black-and-white morality, and the importance of individual choice. Suikoden is why I love writing, and why I love video games. I’d recommend it to anyone who’ll listen.  

Meet Our Spring 2024 Interns!

If you’ve ever met one of our wonderful F(r)iction staffers, you’ll quickly learn that almost every one of them was once an intern in our Publishing Internship Program.

This program is run by our parent nonprofit organization, Brink Literacy Project. While our publishing internships are a great way to get a crash course in the literary industry, they can often provide a path to what can become a long and rewarding professional relationship. For more information, please visit the internship page on the Brink website.

Ari Iscariot

they/them

What is your favorite place to read?   

I don’t think I have any favorite physical place I like to read—I tend to read wherever I am, on transportation, walking through a city, in the middle of a restaurant, etc. I’m liable to walk into oncoming traffic if engrossed enough in a good book. However, I do like to read best at night, when the world is quiet. So, I’d say my favorite place to read is the liminal space between sleeping and waking, the time before dawn when the dark brims with secret possibility. 

You’re walking down the street and suddenly spot a key on the ground! What does it look like? What do you do with it?   

It wouldn’t look like a stereotypical key. It would lie shivering on the pavement, a glittering starburst, pearlescent as opalite. I would hold it in my two hands and see ghost valleys and nebula nurseries in its reflections, and it would whisper in my mind: “I am the key to understanding. Here is what you can say to every living thing in order to be seen. Here is the knowledge of infinity and the spells that will allow you to keep it all in your tiny, human brain.” And I would use the key to learn all that can be learned, and to connect with every lonely human being who feels misunderstood.  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.   

Not so much a ritual as a ritual sacrifice but—my favorite beverage experience was buying my partner a small chocolate penguin that would melt into a cocoa drink, and then dramatically enacting his screams as he melted into her milk. 15/10 would sacrifice again.  

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

My favorite word changes frequently, but right now I’m particularly fond of “purulent.” I like to pair it with the imagery of a festering, putrescent mouth that cannot help but reveal a character’s deepest, most shameful feelings. The word reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by an author friend of mine, Phoenix Mendoza. “You cock your head, astounded by the tenor of your own voice, all that’s seeping through the careful white bandage you keep taped over the wound of your mouth.” I love the idea of the mouth as a wound, a sore, an infection, unable to be concealed or healed.  

My favorite word in another language is “L’esprit de l’escalier,” which is French for “staircase wit.” It is meant to describe the feeling one gets when they leave an argument, and then come up with the perfect reply at the bottom of the stairwell: aka, when it is already too late. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

If I was on a deserted island, I’d want a book that felt like an old friend to keep me company. It’s perhaps not the most well-written or intellectually stimulating, but I read Catherine Cookson’s The Girl about a dozen times when I was younger, and even now reading it feels like sinking into a warm embrace. The album I’d choose is Everything is Fine by Amigo the Devil, simply because my favorite genre is murderfolk and I don’t believe Danny Kiranos has ever made a bad song. His lyrics are nearly literary in their poeticism, and in the way they transform the ugly into the divine.   

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

I would make the industry more expansive, daring, and accepting. So often I see books chosen because they are written to market, because they fit modern conventions of “good writing,” because they’re written by an author that will appeal to what the industry believes is their largest demographic. Stories that are unconventional, uncomfortable, and uncompromising are often neglected and unrecognized. We need stories that defy the status quo, that speak their own truth, that are written by diverse voices. We need to prioritize creativity over marketability, and passion over profit.

Asma Al-Masyabi

she/her

What is your favorite place to read?   

I like to sit in any quiet moment with a book. If I had to pick a favorite place, it would be on the couch under a fuzzy blanket.  

You’re walking down the street and suddenly spot a key on the ground! What does it look like? What do you do with it?   

It is small and silver, and the handle twists into the shape of a “Y.” I pick it up and suddenly, I am alone. The sidewalk has been replaced by the decaying undergrowth of an old forest, and the branches of tall, dark trees braid over where there used to be sky. I stare and wonder if I was hit by a car as I crouch over the key, but a small, sweet voice coming from just beyond the tree line distracts me. “Darling,” it sings. “We’ve been waiting for you for so, so long.” 

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.   

A hot Earl Grey tea with extra honey and a splash of vanilla at a temperature just between warm and hot. The only thing that could make it better is a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. 

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language? 

“Serendipity” is a fun word to say and use. Even if it’s just a five-syllable word, it feels like a small, balanced song. Also, who wouldn’t like a bit of serendipity? As for a non-English word, I’m always learning new Arabic words, so my favorite shifts a lot. The most recent would be “’anani,” which means selfish, but I like the way it rolls off the tongue. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

Album – The Poetry of Maya Angelou. After a long day of making a shelter, finding food and water, and struggling to start a fire, I can think of no better companion than the strength and beauty of Maya Angelou’s voice. 

Book – John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. I’d be able to read this book of essays in bite-sized pieces that would leave me satisfied, but still allow me to make it last however long I’m stranded for. It would also remind me of how wonderful and strange being a human on this earth can be.  

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

Often, the literary industry is reluctant to take risks and publish work that is unusual or doesn’t fit current trends. I think there should be a bigger embrace of original stories, and creators, because that’s what readers really want (at least, it’s what I want). 

Ciena Valenzuela-Peterson

she/her

What is your favorite place to read?   

I’ve tried to be the kind of person who reads in cafés, I’ve read outdoors among the trees, I’ve hauled myself across campus to read in the fanciest library—and while those reading spots provide a certain literary flare, nothing compares to the pleasure and comfort of reading in bed. My bed is a cozy, pillowy cocoon, over-adorned with cushions and string lights and a canopy ceiling of tasseled scarves. It’s the perfect little nest for curling up with a good book. 

You’re walking down the street and suddenly spot a key on the ground! What does it look like? What do you do with it?   

The key catches my attention because it’s old—a sturdy, brass object with two bulky, uncomplicated teeth that mark it as antique. In this day and age, a key like that isn’t keeping anything secure. Maybe it’s a skeleton key to an old manor, or just a movie prop—either way, I admire the embossed detail along the handle, the ornate bow made to fit fingers instead of keychains. I pocket it. I’ll take it home and draw it, keep it in an envelope in my bullet journal, or loop a chain through it and wear it as jewelry.  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.   

I am embarrassed to admit that my current morning coffee consists of Keurig-brewed coffee, non-dairy creamer, and a scoop of vanilla-flavored protein powder. It’s sacrilege, I know, but as a vegetarian it’s a great way to boost my daily protein intake. I’ll miss breakfast routinely, but I’ll never miss my morning coffee.  

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

I am fond of the word “affectation.” I’ve always been interested in the concept of authenticity, and when I learned the word affectation in high school, I instantly recognized what a useful word it is, and it’s remained one of my favorites ever since.  

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

If I absolutely had to choose, I would bring My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade as my album. I can only imagine the circumstances that would allow me to listen to an album on a deserted island but not escape said island, but maybe a portable CD player washed up on shore or I fashioned a turntable from bamboo George of the Jungle-style. Either way, I’d be dying of anxiety if not starvation and would want the comfort of one of my all-time favorite bands from my adolescence. The Black Parade withstood the test of time and the end of my emo phase and remains an incredible album by an incredible band. 

As for a book, I’d bring a bushcraft survival guide with tips for foraging for edible mushrooms and building shelters and such. Otherwise, I’d be doomed so quickly I wouldn’t have time to read any other book for fun. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

In the literary industry, we’re in the business of art curation, and with the profit incentive taking over publishing we’ve lost sight of that. More and more books are being churned out by Big-5 publishers (and self-published authors imitating them) that are so generic they can be boiled down to a series of tropes and nothing more. Everything needs a successful “comp” that’s gone viral on BookTok, and publishing houses run by advertisers are growing more and more wary of artistic risk. If we only publish books based on what has sold in the past, there’s no way to discover “the next big thing.” Publishing is too slow of a business to rely on the trend cycle for leveraging risk, and the outcome is watered-down trope-driven books taking priority over fresh and important literary voices.  

Jazzmin Joya

she/her

What is your favorite place to read?   

My favorite place to read is the library. I spent a lot of time growing up in the library and it led me to pursue English as a degree! So to me, I think the library is just a fun, cozy environment for me to read in. 

You’re walking down the street and suddenly spot a key on the ground! What does it look like? What do you do with it? 

If I a spotted a key on a walk, it would be an old, bronze skeleton key that would allow me to open any door and transport to any place through that door.  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favorite beverage ritual.   

I don’t drink coffee but I do enjoy making a nice warm tea, especially at night when I’m winding down. My tea ritual is to warm up water, choose a tea (usually chamomile or green tea), and add honey and a slice of lemon! 

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language?   

My favorite English word is “onomatopoeia,” I think it’s a fun literary effect and sounds nice.

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why?   

If I were stranded on a deserted island my one album would be Mac Miller’s Circles. My one book would also be The Book Thief, I’ve read it so many times, but I could never get tired of it. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

I would try to increase the diversity within the literary industry to amplify the voices of many authors who have amazing stories to tell which can increase the diversity in stories, characters, and settings. 

Stephanie Sargas

she/they

What is your favorite place to read?  

I love to listen to audiobooks while exercising, at the gym or at home. 

You’re walking down the street and suddenly spot a key on the ground! What does it look like? What do you do with it?  

It’s a gold-colored house key. I’d probably leave it where it is, in case the person who dropped is retracing their steps.  

How do you take your coffee? If you don’t drink coffee, describe your favourite beverage ritual. 

I love coffee so I take it all sorts of ways. Mostly black, but sometimes as a flat white, hot or iced, and occasionally with syrup when I need a real energy boost.  

What is your favorite English word and why? Do you have a favorite word in another language? 

I like the word sombre. It’s pleasant to say, and I feel like its sound matches its meaning. 

You’re on a deserted island. You have one album and one book. What are they and why? 

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal-El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is my book. It was my favorite read last year—I found it uplifting and inspirational. My album is See Without Eyes by the Glitch Mob. It’s one of my favorites to get me into a flow state. Something to keep my spirits up paired with something to keep me productive seems like a good combination. 

If you could change one thing about the literary industry, what would it be? 

I’d love for more people to be able to get into the industry. If I could snap my fingers and simply have it happen, I’d add a whole lot of funding for education and publishing opportunities. 

January Staff Picks

Inanna Carter

My Time at Sandrock

Farming sims and RPGs have been around for quite some time. The classics of Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons, the iconic Stardew Valley, the upcoming Fields of Mistria—they’re not going away for a long time. Now, take that and add…building?

My Time at Sandrock is an RPG where rather than moving to a new town to take over your deceased grandfather’s farm, you move to a new town to take over a builder’s workshop. The full release recently came out, and though I only just got around to starting it, I’ve been having a blast. This game is heaps better than its predecessor, My Time at Portia (though Portia has a special place in my heart).

Aside from building for the community, you can mine, fight, farm, and form relationships with the other townsfolk. It’s something you can easily sink your time into, and overall, it’s a great game. The writing is witty and the plot keeps you on your toes. Games like Sandrock and Portia, ones with complete storylines, remind me so much of books. They don’t have to be perfect or extraordinary, but if the story is engaging and the characters evoke emotion, then I’d say they end up being something pretty special.

Dominic Loise

Wesley Dodds: The Sandman

When I talk about the Sandman, I am not like most comic book fans. The character I am talking about isn’t Spider-Man’s granulated, morphing foe or Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking goth-classic character. My Sandman is the Golden Age character, Wesley Dodds. Dodds, in his WWI gas mask, stood out to me against his WWII counterparts by wearing a three-piece suit, trench coat, and fedora while the rest of the Justice Society of America were flexing their muscles in tights and domino masks.

The new DC Comics miniseries by writer Robert Venditti and artist Riley Rossmo delves into Dodds as a man-of-mystery hero rather than a two-fisted, vigilante crime fighter. Venditti writes to the core of the character by looking at the nonviolent nature of the Sandman’s sleeping gas and PTSD from Dodds’ father in WWI, which led to his path as a hero and experiments with nonlethal weapons.

Rossmo’s art style is perfect for a series that needs to be grounded in the urban alleyways of gangster pulp and other times drift away in the dreams of a tormented hero trying to make the world safer. Besides hired thugs and gang bosses, the main villain is a darker version of Dodds, using toxic gases and tapping into the hero’s horrors and his work against chemical weapons in warfare.

Wesley Dodds: The Sandman shows a character a step between comic book and pulp novel heroes. It also shows the mindset of someone trying to make the world better between two world wars all while dealing with local violence and injustice in his city.

Sara Santistevan

Marry My Husband

*SPOILER ALERT* The following contains plot details about Marry My Husband.

If Marry My Husband is just your run-of-the-mill K-Drama, then I sincerely regret sleeping on K-Dramas until now! Based on a Webtoon by Sung So-jakMarry My Husband follows the story of Kang Ji-won, a woman who gets a second chance at life after she is murdered by her husband and best friend, who were having an affair.

I’ve often wondered what life decisions I would make differently if I got the chance to go back in time with the knowledge I have now. I also love a good revenge story! What makes Marry My Husband special is the plot’s seamless acknowledgement of some of the technical complications of time travel. In early episodes, we learn that in her previous life, Ji-won was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which was implied to result from gastritis due to the stress of her marriage. When Ji-won is thrust back into her life prior to her illness, she learns, through a series of experiments, that although future events can’t completely be avoided, they can be delayed or passed on to someone else. With this knowledge in mind, Ji-won makes it her mission to set up her best friend and future husband to avoid her fate.

Along the way, Ji-won forms genuine friendships, learns to stand up for herself, and grows more confident in her appearance and personality. Oh, and don’t worry—there’s plenty of romance, too, courtesy of the mysterious Yoo Ji-hyuk, Ji-won’s manager who seems to know more than he should about Ji-won.

December Staff Picks

My wife, Jenna, and I are huge fans of the show Monk. Not only is the first of our therapy rabbits named Trudy, after Detective Adrian Monk’s deceased wife, but the original show was a gateway for me to destigmatize the conversation around my OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). I felt awkward when I’d spend up to fifteen minutes locking a door, checking the oven or light switches before leaving, or trying to step away from an ATM. Before I went on medication, it would sometimes take up to an hour to lock up before leaving for the day.

The original Monk series mirrored the daily work that went into addressing my mental health, and watching the show was a guide post for us to see a famous detective evolving as he put the work in through therapy and solving cases. Needless to say, we were extremely excited about Mr. Monk’s Last Case dropping on Peacock.

In the original run of the show, Tony Shalhoub brought care and compassion to the lead character of this mystery/dramedy which ran on the USA Network for eight seasons. Over the years, viewers witnessed Monk move towards two goals—getting reinstated into the police force and solving his wife’s murder. The original series had an emotional and satisfying ending to both of these accomplishments along with Monk’s character growth.

The tv movie brought back original characters and also introduced the reality of COVID-19. Specifically, how the pandemic set back Monk’s progress in therapy and how the world became a little more aligned with Monk’s mindset. Mr. Monk’s Last Case also went deeper into mental health than the original series, addressing the importance of having a purpose in life as part of the therapeutic process. Especially since COVID-19 and other events have taken away Monk’s purpose. This tv movie explored Monk finding a way to function in society and choosing to engage with others to achieve this goal. I do wish to put a trigger warning as Monk does face suicidal ideation, but i’m recommending Mr. Monk’s Last Case also because of how it deals with suicide awareness. This tv movie is not so much Adrian Monk’s last case, but the next chapter in his life.

Cecil Janecek

Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Lonely Castle in the Mirror ends in a way that feels perfectly inevitable, and yet the novel still managed to surprise me. Mizsuki Tsujimura masterfully keeps the reader on edge, questioning whether this is a heartwarming coming of age story or a fantastical horror. In the novel, seven teens—who’ve all stopped going to school for one reason or another—are chosen by the Wolf Queen to search for the Wishing Key, which will grant one of them a single miracle. Even if they choose not to search for it, they’ll still have access to the castle for one year as a respite from the “real world.” But if they break the Wolf Queen’s one rule—never enter the castle after 5 p.m.—they’ll be eaten.

As the teens’ lives get more complicated and strange coincidences continue to connect them, they begin to question the Wolf Queen’s motivations and their realities. I, too, began to worry that the book would employ my least favorite trope: at the end of the adventure, everyone would forget and return to their normal lives as if nothing had happened. But no! The Wolf Queen’s secrets gutted me to tears and the found family among these seven traumatized teens connected them in ways I never anticipated, but found completely satisfying by the end.

JP Legarte

Alan Wake II

As writers, I don’t think we would deny the power words hold, but what if the stories we wrote manifested in our environment and altered reality? Enter Alan Wake II, a survival horror game where FBI agent Saga Anderson arrives in a small town called Bright Falls to investigate a ritualistic murder and finds pages of a manuscript titled Return that detail events as they happen—a manuscript written by the titular character, Alan Wake, stuck in an alternate dimension named the Dark Place for the past thirteen years.

Throughout the game, you can alternate between both characters, leading to situations where progressing through one character’s chapter fills in the blanks of the other. As Anderson, you traverse the isolated alcoves of Bright Falls and the vast forest of Cauldron Lake; and as Wake, you navigate a twisted version of New York. These locations were symmetric blends of beauty and eeriness, magnified when monsters—the Taken and Fadeouts—constantly haunt the characters and when, at times, the monsters are the characters’ own fears.

Anderson and Wake are certainly not defenseless against the Taken and Fadeouts. Players can obtain numerous weapons, such as a shotgun, a crossbow, and a flare gun. However, they are ineffective on their own, which brings me to one of my favorite parts of the combat system. Equally important are the batteries for flashlights as well as hand flares, both used to diffuse the shadows and darkness protecting the Taken and Fadeouts. This mechanic emphasizes the importance of resources in the characters’ limited inventories. Heightening the combat is the claustrophobic feeling when multiple monsters attack at locations where there is not much room to maneuver, offering a challenging yet rewarding fight against darkness with light, metaphorically and literally.

Alan Wake II is a horror story that brings you to the edge of your seat as you contend with supernatural scares and shifting realities. There’s even a musical sequence in one of Wake’s chapters that was an absolute masterpiece in mixed visuals, sound, and—yes—combat. If you’re still not convinced, consider the game’s accolades at The Game Awards 2023: Best Art Direction, Best Narrative, and Best Game Direction. Rest assured, I’ll soon be replaying the game through its rendition of New Game Plus titled The Final Draft, falling down the familiar yet changed rabbit hole with Anderson and Wake all over again.