How Long Does It Take To Disappear

Creative Nonfiction winner of the Spring 2023 F(r)iction Literary Contest.

Because no one did anything, it became something I had to deal with.

During the spring of my fourth grade, arise with the bright seven o’clock sun, when I turned on this little asphalt road between an overgrown lot and an office building, I would see the body. When it started decomposing, it became a home, a colony, a system. It became breakfast. As I rode my bicycle closer, I couldn’t look away from the vibrating surface that was made of maggots moving in and out of its wound.

The first morning went like this: when I saw an animal lying in the middle of the road, I gasped. As I rode my bike closer to it, I saw that it was a fat hedgehog, the size of a soccer ball, marks of a car tire neatly printed on its flattened belly. Dark blood and body insides tumbled out from a hole torn on the side. The blood was dark and shimmered under the morning sun.

Later in life, I would study artists who were drawn to a single subject seen during different times of the day. Like Monet with Rouen Cathedral, which the artist painted in elegant violet in the morning, transparent white in midday, and suffocating orange in the half-light of the afternoon, never missing the fragments of shadows in its rose window and the ornate indentations all along its facade. Each day, each hour, each time the artist looked, the subject in question appeared minutely transformed, forever departing from the previous moment. And that’s how I felt about the body, each time I looked it turned, transcending its own time of death.

I just learned to ride a bicycle the year before, after I transferred to a new school as a second grader. I’ve been getting used to this route, after moving into a new housing complex with my parents. We lived a few years at my grandmother’s apartment, while she stayed in America with my aunt, all the while the place we lived in since I was born was demolished by the city for being structurally impermanent. I was told that the new housing complex we moved into was built on top of the place we used to live in. So it’s really like living in the same place as before.

Where we used to live was called a farm. I didn’t know whether there were many places like ours in Tianjin back then in the ‘90s, but I knew that they were all gone by the time I was in middle school. It was a loosely connected camp made of tiny brick row houses. Hundreds of people lived there; the trash that heaped in the entrance of the neighborhood proved our existence. Before you saw the people, you saw our things: formula cartons, beer bottles, menstrual pads. You smelled our shit, collecting in the bottom of the dark little brick building, a latrine that served everyone, old and young. As the children of this place, we played with dirt, we ran around with no shirt on, we stole garlic from thick garlic braids that hung on people’s doors. I loved living at the farm. I never thought I would stop living at the farm. One day, I thought, someone would help us build a bathroom in every house, and we would get some tiles on our floors, and plant flowers in our yards, and our lives would be better and better.

So I was shocked, when my parents came home one day and told me that we were going to move. That the entire farm was slated for demolition. They would tear down the houses, fill up the pond we used to play in, and turn this land into a new district. I was only five, and I thought that a home was forever.

The day after I first saw the hedgehog, I rode to school and turned on the same road. It was still there, round and plump, its blood still moist, dark, and flowing. The hole in its side was still open. A few flies buzzed above it, but besides them I was the only one here to gawk.

When I entered the road on the third day, another car had run over the hedgehog’s corpse, this time across its entire body, flattening out the other side that used to be plump. More blood gushed out and coagulated on the asphalt. The fourth day, another car drove over it with its dirty tires. By the end of the fifth day, the fuzzy skin started to lose its animal color and turned into a generic gray; the hedgehog spikes dried up and looked like pine needles in the winter. The blood had finally stopped flowing.

I rode past the body every morning, tried to look without staring, never holding my gaze for long on the gaping holes, the intestines, and the now small family of flies. I took a big gulp of air before I turned onto this road and held my breath, because I thought if I let down my guard, I would know how it smelled.

I used to wake up to my mother still sleeping in the bed in our old house. It would be a Saturday, and I would stay in bed with her for an hour, just talking. Want to go to grandma’s? She would say, her voice rose like a song. We always went to grandma’s on Saturday. My grandpa did not have cancer yet, and while my mother chatted with grandma he would chase me around the apartment like the bad guy on TV because I asked him to. He kept one nail long on his pinkie.

My mother let me ride on the back of her bike back then. The roads were unpaved and bumpy; I looked down to watch my feet hover above the ground, quickly fleeing underneath as we went forward. Sometimes we saw other kids riding on the backs of their parents’ bikes. Look, that kid’s too old to be carried around like that, my mother would point out, when we saw a student wearing an elementary school uniform with his arms around his mother’s waist.

One time when we rode to grandma’s, my mother rammed the bike over a step newly installed at the end of an unpaved road, and with one bump I fell off the back. I remember tumbling on the ground, landing face first, and felt a sore pang in my nose. Sitting up and feeling a sharp sting starting to spread on my face, I saw my mother still on the bike, both her feet on the ground to steady herself. The melons we bought for grandma rolled towards me, and the last time I had fallen felt like a long time ago. You should learn to ride a bike yourself soon, my mother said, after checking my face to see the big red hole in my skin where the ground had taken a lick.

I hadn’t thought about how soft hedgehogs were on the side that wasn’t covered with needles. They were like water balloons, filled with the good stuff they find in trash heaps like the construction lots near my new home.

The body of the dead hedgehog swelled. It was even more plump than when it was freshly dead. It looked like a bouncing castle, the kind you would find at a fair when they’ve just started inflating it. Its dirt-colored fur hardened with dried blood.

Each day, I rode my bike to school. On Mondays, we saluted the flag and sang the national anthem. On Fridays, we were let out half a day early. We were already given the sex talk, and the girls got free sanitary napkins. Everyone was given free toothpaste. I didn’t have a crush, not yet. Each day, more cars ran over the body. The blood turned maroon, then a bluish-maroon, then black, then white. The flies swarmed like when someone’s thinking really hard, their thoughts were zooming around in their head. The cars couldn’t kill them. Maggot bodies were elastic; I have seen them in the public latrine. They could become flat when pressures were applied to their boneless body, and bounce back. They moved slowly, but they lived.

All these different cars—the yellow minivan taxis, the 1997 Santanas, three-wheeled motorbikes—they all turned onto this narrow, badly-paved road, bouncing left and right over its ditches and hills, over the body. No one said anything, did anything, no one took it away or covered it up.

One day, as if they decided in a collective meeting that the body was not suitable for a home anymore, all the flies disappeared. There were a few lone stragglers picking over the body, now like a half-open felt hat, nestled on the ground, as if its owner would come back to pick it up any moment. No longer a home for maggots, now small troops of ants took the stage, busily forming a pattern around this monument of what flesh there was left.

After my mother dropped me from the bike, my face took a month to heal. Don’t pick at it, you’ll leave a scar, she reprimanded every time I fingered the edge of the itching, purple scab. When I peeled off its last morsel, I looked at my new, raw skin in the mirror hanging above the washing machine in our bedroom. I still remembered standing in the green machine’s open-top cavity when it doubled as a bathtub, but now I was so tall. The fresh skin was a slightly different color, but nothing other people would be able to detect.

It was around then that we had to move out. This was my home, I wanted to say to someone, but no one was a good audience for that sentence. Not even my parents. Why do you want to live in this garbage dump your whole life? We will move into a building, with hot water and heating, and electricity that stays on all year long. When it’s all built you can come back to visit, when this neighborhood is even better. You won’t remember anything, you are still so young.

So many other things happened around that time; my grandfather died. I was drawing in the next room at grandma’s when it happened. Then at the funeral, my mother and my grandma lifted a corner of the cushion on the bed and revealed a big wedding photo, and told me that the man in the suit was my real grandfather. When I was a little older than you, my mother said, he committed suicide. You know what that is? He died in the Cultural Revolution. You know what that is?

After the funeral, my parents, my aunt, and grandma sawed to pieces the old couch grandpa slept on when he was sick and tossed the parts out from the window, because it was too big to carry down the three flights of stairs.

Sometime after that, my aunt got married and went to America. Then after that, grandma went to America also.

I will remember, I thought in our old house, I will remember everything about this place: every blade of grass, every hole in the ground, every baby tooth my mother tossed on the roof for good luck.

I would never forget the grease that stained the ground. Morning, bike ride, dead hedgehog, main road, school. During that spring in my fourth grade, seeing the hedgehog eventually became a routine. I felt like I had transformed every time I saw it and left it behind, only to be greeted again with a new chapter of its decay. Months later, it was still lying in the same spot, only now much flatter, as if a photo of the hedgehog was pasted on the surface of the road. I tried to recall my memory of the freshly dead animal with flowing blood, and questioned whether it could have all been a dream.

My parents taught me to hide my key, to tell people I was going to the deli and my parents were at home waiting for me when in fact I was going to school and coming back home by myself. Our new home was really clean, there was no more trash, and everything was painted white, but I could not understand how it was built on top of where we used to live. My mother and I did a fun project where we recorded the temperature and weather of a city in the south everyday for a month, then at the end of the month she asked me if I would be okay if she went to that city, just for a few years, to get her doctorate. She told me to be strong, you’re not a kid anymore.

On the road, the photo became a shadow, and the shadow oozed fat from its edges. It once again shimmered, a small dark patch of liquid pooled around its blurry contour. The cars that drove over it left dark tracks further down the road.

By the time my fourth grade was almost over, the grass in the lot on the side of the road was just as tall as the kind I used to run around in, but now it suddenly felt too deep for me to explore. I never knew that hedgehogs could live inside a city like this, until I saw one die. All there was left of the body was an oil stain on the asphalt the size of a dinner plate. I could still see it even when I was in fifth grade, even though no one else would know what it was once before.

Snapping in Two

Flexibility: • the ability to bend easily or without breaking • the quality of being easily adapted or of offering many different options • the ability and willingness to adjust one’s thinking or behavior My first memory is a grasping, hard hand on my upper arm. Anger powering through my mother’s fingers, leaving bruises on and…

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You’ve often wondered why pulling feels so good. You think about it when you lie in bed, fingers twirling and scraping against your scalp, finding purchase on a single hair, yanking and feeling the follicle release.Trichotillomania, also known as hair-pulling disorder, is a mental disorder characterized by a long-term urge that results in the pulling out…

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At My Gynecologist, the Ghost Gloves Go into the Garbage and the Too-Green Girls Become a Little Less Green

You are here because you are supposed to be. Every year.Black hand to brown thigh. Wide jellied curling wand set and ready against you. Noting your age, 23, she says, So, you’ve never had sex before?Push.Hiss-Hurt-Holler.Good, Click-Crack-Crank. Wait until you’re married. Stretch. Stab. Sting. Just breathe, it’ll be over soon, the nurse coos, but if you breathe, you…

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Emptied Glass

The lights are dimmed in the sports bar that my friends and I sit in. We’re at my typical booth—to the right of the door, in the far corner, where I can look out at patrons and remain undetected. I love this table, and I love the solitude. It is separated from other tables and gives…

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Body, In Motion

Fifteen / 1996 / Secret Church Camp Bunk Party There was a misunderstanding—it was James who was invited, not Robert James, but he showed up anyway and people liked him enough not to make a fuss as he stood in the corner of the bunkhouse that smelled like cedarwood and cheap vodka. There were only eight of them, including…

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When I was in the seventh grade, I thought I could control dice with my mind. My middle school drama class was on a bus driving south from Tampa, on our way home from the Florida State Junior Thespian Competition. At a store near the convention center, my friend Vanessa had bought something called The Psychic Abilities Exercise…

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Works from the Veterans Writing Project

The Veterans Writing Project provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, service members, and their adult family members. It publishes their fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in a quarterly print journal and online. You can learn more about the Veterans Writing Project at, and read O-Dark-Thirty online at

20 To Life
by David Bublitz

if they wanted me
to collect a check
buy expensive
shoes wear a tie
pay taxes sleep
at night raise
a son teach
him how to be
a man if they
wanted me
to live
why did
they give me
this gun

This War Can’t Be All Bad 
by Sylvia Bowersox

This war can’t be all bad. We sing karaoke on Mondays and Wednesdays and sit by the pool behind Saddam’s Presidential Palace after work and smoke cigarettes. By midnight we are watching others smoke cigarettes and drink and jump off the high dive naked. Jokes that any teenage boy would roll his eyes at explain the meter-wide butt- shaped flattening of the sandbags behind your buddy’s trailer. It’s another episode of “Operation Green Card Get Me Out of Here Sex,” and today the happy contestant was the Kurdish woman who works in his office. By dawn KBR, that American multinational corporation providing support services to our war, is doing our laundry, and by day we go to meetings where the Iraqi employees cry with fear over the sentence of death imposed on them by the insurgents for the crime of working for us here at the Embassy.

This war can’t be all bad. We get visited by senators, representatives, and university professors who arrive by night to write books, collect hazard pay, and earn their sand cred. We acknowledge their positions and provide thank-you notes for the well-meaning people in their districts who send us collections of the worst books and magazines ever published. We get mail from the trailer behind the palace and buy paintings from the PX whose creators rarely sign their work. We buy rugs made by children imported from somewhere else and purchase Saddam Hussein watches at the Hajji Mart from the smiling man in the washed-out dishdasha until the whole thing was blown up by that suicide bomber on the same day that other suicide bomber blew up the Green Zone Café and all the people in it. We always get our hair done in the palace by three liberated Iraqi women in tight jeans and a KBR employee from San Diego. We play piano and guitar for parties and eat Chinese food at the “Bad Chinese Food” restaurant until it was closed because of the chickens hanging in the toilets and that guy who got hepatitis. Nobody notices the massage place above the kitchen but everybody knows that there are no happy endings there. And yesterday afternoon the general’s translator told us over lunch that the young female translator who helped us in Mosul was shot dead outside the gate on her way home from work.

This war can’t be all bad. We get good food, except for that week when the delivery trucks were delayed by too much death, that week we ate MREs and multi-use potato dishes. Now we get yummy food; we get mint chip ice cream and avocado salads and made-to-order omelets and lattes by our Pakistani cooks, and catered parties with martinis at noon and beer and wine and music under the awning and pizza in the parking lot and steak and crab on Thursdays. We only have to hide under our tables and desks when rockets land in the courtyard.

We get to hang out of windows celebrating football and soccer and gossip about who is doing what to whom and how. We go on dates at the Blue Star Café and talk to friends a million miles away on our cell phones and have screaming debates about fixing the country. We watch the Academy Awards and the Grammys and The Daily Show and we get up early to watch the election and stay up late to watch the game and I got cake on my birthday and flowers when I sang, and I always haggle over prices with the black-clad ladies minding the bathrooms and everyone always politely listens when an old Iraqi man tells us he is afraid for his life. Two weeks later someone asks me if I have seen him.

This war can’t be all bad. I got here by showing up at my Army Reserve center in California in time to jump aboard the Baghdad bus with my unit and here I am, a thirty-something Army broadcast journalist with an M16 on my back and a Sony video camera in my hands, doing television stories for the American Forces Network and the Pentagon Channel. I live in a trailer behind the palace, take a Blackhawk to work, and get to hang out with reporters from the Western and Iraqi media. Members of our group operate cameras at press conferences with Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Dan Senor and military spokesman for the Coalition Forces General Mark Kimmet, and when we were under a credible kidnapping threat we got to walk around the office with our M16s loaded.

This war can’t be all bad. We watch DVDs on huge TVs and roll over and go back to sleep during alerts. We get to eat at the outpost restaurants in the Green Zone and laugh at that guy in the gorilla suit and buy toys and jewelry from the locals and feel good about ourselves for spreading shoes and pencils and candy and democracy and by sending emails and keeping blogs and taking pictures. Sometimes, one of us, in a fervor of hopeful, democratic consumerism, jumps the fortified fence to go shopping in the Monsour district. And sometimes the shopper even comes back and sometimes that shopper even shows me pictures of their field trip and feeds me sweets from the shops. And the music at the embassy memorial services is always beautiful and the deceased always looks so happy in the memorial pamphlet picture.

This war can’t be all bad. Because of it, all of our résumés look great and will find us high- paying jobs back home and everyone here thanks me personally for giving them their freedom and everyone at home thanks me for my service and I get to mourn in silence. We get to drive cars and pick up journalists at checkpoint three and every American wants a pet Iraqi and every Iraqi wants a pet American and it is not even strange anymore when you know someone who has been killed, kidnapped, or kidnapped and killed.

This war can’t be all bad. The pundits should know that God is taken care of here. We have church on Sunday, synagogue on Friday, prayer groups on Tuesday, witness services on Wednesday, a Muslim prayer rug lives behind a screen in the chapel under the ninety-nine names of Allah. Buddhists meditate alone and the Wiccan stays indoors on Saturdays with her boyfriend. Someone said to someone in the bomb shelter next to the parking lot during an attack that Mormons do their best work in war zones, and I believe it. The fun of it all is that we all get to boss the Iraqis around and feel important by telling them what we are going to do for them and what is good for them and we never have to take no for an answer and we always assure our diplomats that we have Iraqi buy-in and our diplomats always assure their secretaries that they have Iraqi buy-in and their Secretaries always assure the President that they have Iraqi buy-in and the President always assures the American People that we have Iraqi buy-in and the American People don’t care. And the Iraqi who works in your office and thanks you personally for granting him his freedom from Saddam Hussein plants IEDs on the roadways by moonlight while the movie theater downstairs plays Ocean’s Eleven six times a week and Breaker Morant twice and later in the Big Office someone important takes notes for the eventual PowerPoint presentation as a man pleads for us to do something about the Christian genocide and mentions in passing that there are only 85 Jews left in the country.

This war can’t be all bad. Big men growing weapons from their armpits give us protection when we go on missions in the Red Zone and we get to feel like celebrities in large white SUVs as these hunks and their guns open our doors and scan sectors while we gather phrases for government documents from obsequious Iraqi officials who become glorious resistance fighters after we go home. On our days off we play volleyball and horseshoes and Marco Polo and on the Fourth of July we eat too much and feel good about ourselves, sing in the chorus and tape together empty water bottles for the “Empty Water Bottles Taped Together” raft race. We also hide in the basement or under our beds or not at all during rocket attacks on those days. We can’t be the ones to die, not on those days.

This war can’t be all bad. The President’s plan for success in Iraq is working and we don’t even need to know what that plan is this week and Zal once stopped me in the hallway to tell me he saw me perform last night in the Baghdad Idol semifinals and what a talented singer he thought I was and I shook hands with Colin Powell, Condi Rice, John McCain, Senator Barry Obama, Senator John Kerry, Governor Jeb Bush, a beauty queen, Geraldo Rivera, an actor who used to play Superman on TV and some folks with earnest smiles that I had never heard of. I also exercised in the same gym and ran on the same dusty track behind the palace with Dave Petraeus and waited in line to see President Bush when he came to Baghdad and the soldiers assigned to AFN, who had to clean the blood off of Kimberly Dozier’s cameras, didn’t know who she was.

We all had cameras and took pictures of people around the palace and Iraqis around the rubble and ordered clothes from and condoms from and DVDs and yoga mats from and partied at the British embassy, enjoyed pizza night at the Italian Embassy, danced with the Ukrainian Ambassador and laughed at the Iraqi women who wore all the makeup ever made all at the same time all the time, and men who thought we were in Washington and wore dark grey and black wool suits and went to redundant meetings and car bombs went off in the middle of Iraqis waiting in crowds to get in to see us and the pictures of dead Americans hanging from a bridge frightened little children alone at night watching television.

This war can’t be all bad. Once you’ve been there you’ll be back again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and then Iraq will live in your dreams and be the most exciting horrible thing to ever take over your life and then you will have the right to declare with a clear conscience and a steady mind and the moral sense born out of 9/11, and YouTube video clips, and statements from the Dixie Chicks, and Sean Penn and Ted Nugent’s guitar and Cindy Sheehan’s campground and the Occupy movement’s rants, and Obama’s mother and my mother and your mother and all mothers, whether or not, all and all, with all things considered, in the conflict between good and evil, lock, stock and barrel, under the eyes of the Global War on Terror, the mind of God, Osama Bin Laden’s ghost and the sinking economy, this war can’t be all bad.

Spirit of a Solstice 
by Aaron Graham

At the violet hour, you found azure icicles hugging
The bathroom vanity—diving, splintering bodies
Resonating with D minor’s deep blue when they struck.

You picked up their shards,
Constellated them into shapes of dying stars,
And pinned them together like an antique wedding dress.

At the violet hour, they sang unrivaled eulogies
of beauty and felicity, the tonic and the subdominant
of black and grey.

This is cactus land
At the yellow chirping of the fail-safe alarms
You awoke to a dappled snow.

Cinder-speckled drifts incompletely refract
The dim light of a put-upon heaven
You began this vigil two anemic weeks ago.

Weeks when moments of indigo still seemed
To drift between ash clouds
You awaited the shadow like a guest.

Father, Found 
by Caroline Bock

He’s as skinny as I ever saw him
in that black and white photograph
Shirtless against a handwritten sign
B’s Chicken Farm, Korea Division
On a hill that never had a name or
he was never informed of the designation
Running radio wire, not so
different than chicken wire except
for the guns and dysentery and
frost biting bitter and black-hearted
Back home, he worked his family’s Jersey farm
he knew how vicious
the chicks could be
ready to pluck one another’s eyes out
for an extra spike of grain

The Dark Arts

When my parents divorced in the late 70s, I was an only child. But during the 80s—that legendary decade of excess—and through a complicated string of remarriages, I accrued a grand total of twelve stepsiblings. When I explain this to people in my generation, they often say, Oh yeah, just like the Brady Bunch. At which point…

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