The Gift

By Bill Vernon

What changed everything for Butch and me happened during our 2nd game of the season with Stevie Singleton’s team. After their first three hitters got on base, Mr. Philpot and Mr. Sergeant called time and met me and Butch at the mound. Mr. Philpot said, “Johnny, give your equipment to your brother and take his glove.” They wanted a switch, Butch to catch and me to pitch.

“Okay.” I started unbuckling my chest protector, but Butch threw a fit, basically saying in many, many words that he didn’t want to.

Mr. Sergeant said, “Look, Butch, Johnny can get it over the plate. We can’t afford to give ’em a bunch of runs right off. I told you that at practice. Never again!”

Butch said, “It’s my turn to pitch. I’ll get it over. I promise.”

“Son, we told you this would happen if you didn’t control yourself. We’ll try you again next game.”

As I was taking off my shin guards, the managers walked away, and Butch chased after them. The straps on those darn leg things slowed me down. They cut my skin in back of my knees and made sores that sometimes even bled. I had to be careful removing them.

I caught up with the coaches and Butch between third and home. Butch was pleading. “I promise to throw nothing but strikes. If I don’t, take me out THEN. Give me another chance.”

I held out the mask and chest protector to Butch. “Here’s the catcher’s stuff. I’ll go get my own fielder’s glove.”

Mr. Philpot said to me, “Damn! Hold on now, Johnny. Just wait a minute.” Then he looked at Mr. Sergeant. “What do you think, Amos? Butch never promised that before.”

Mr. Sergeant said to Butch, “If you can do that, why in hell haven’t you been doing it?”

Now we weren’t switching? I said, “I’m warmed up. I’m ready to pitch. Let Butch catch.”

Butch said to me, “Just shut up. It’s my turn.” He looked at the men. “I promise you nothing but strikes the rest of the inning, okay?”

Mr. Sergeant shook his head. “First ball you throw, Butch, we’re pulling you out, and I don’t want no crap from you when we do it.”

Mr. Philpot said, “Put your equipment back on, Johnny.”

I said, “Jesus, I’d rather pitch.”

Butch said, “Where’s the rosin bag? I need a dry hand to do it.”

You got to understand, the palm of my left hand got sore catching Butch despite the sponge I used for cushioning. I also got bruises all over where his pitches ricocheted off the ground and hit me. It wasn’t no fun catching him.

*******

According to that year’s last May issue of the county’s weekly newspaper, William Brasfort, Butch everyone called him, was “a right-handed phenom.” He “has Superman’s arm and breaks bats with his fast ball.” The woman writer of the story about the league starting up in June must’ve thought she was a poet. Well, it was partially true. When Butch was 14, he could throw 90 mph, three years later over 100, but he’d already quit baseball by then.

Her story left out that he was wilder than hell. Butch mowed down the hitters in more ways than one. Whoever faced him with a bat in hand knew that his life was in danger. It could end right there in the dust he kicked up. Butch’s wildness came in streaks. So did his control. Sometimes he could go most of the game without hitting anyone or walking very many. Batters and nobody else knew when the streak he was on would go away and the other streak begin. I think his problem was that he went hyper in his mind and couldn’t think straight.

Batting against Butch, catching him too for that matter, involved a lot of uncertainty. The danger of his speed and lack of control would worry kids so much they froze and couldn’t swing their bat even if Butch lobbed the ball up there.

Imagining the danger got so bad for Stevie Singleton the first time we played his team, he jumped out of the box, hunched over with his back to the mound during Butch’s windup, and waited for the ball to pass him by. Looked like he might have been praying.

*******

I walked back to home plate putting the mask on, and there Stevie was, swinging a bat beside the batter’s box. I noticed him but was trying to make the shin guards comfortable and didn’t really think about Stevie’s being there until Butch walked past squeezing the rosin bag.

Stevie said, “Hey, Butch, you still the pitcher?”

Butch said, “Hi, Stevie. Yeah, I am. How you doing?”

Stevie just shook his head.

Butch said, “What’s wrong? Are you batting now? You the clean-up man?”

“Yeah.” Stevie looked over where Mr. Rowe, his coach, was watching us. “Look, I don’t want to get hit. I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t even like this game. My dad makes me do it.”

Butch stared at him. “Hey, I won’t throw at you. You’ll be okay.”

“I know you won’t hit me on purpose, but you already hit two batters and walked one.”

What was obvious to all three of us was that Stevie’s coach had put him fourth in the lineup because Stevie was so little and Butch was so wild. Stevie could hit the ball okay, but not very far. He was no slugger. So all three of us knew that Stevie’s job was to walk or, though his coach might not admit it, get hit.

Butch said, “I got to throw strikes. The managers said they’ll take me out if I don’t. So you shouldn’t worry.”

Stevie shook his head. “You ain’t even throwed one strike yet.”

“Yeah, but I’ll pitch a new way that I can control. Trust me.” Butch put a nice, dry hand on Stevie’s shoulder. “Okay?”

Just then Mr. Rowe yelled, “Get the show on the road. Come on.”

Fred Collett, the ump behind me, said, “Play ball, boys. Let’s go.”

Butch went to the mound, and when I squatted, Stevie said, “What’s his new way of pitching?”

I said, “I think he’s going submarine.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Batter up,” the ump yelled.

Butch put his right foot in the hole that four weeks of pitchers had dug in front of the rubber, leaned my way for a signal, and Stevie went into his stance. Butch stared in and stared in as if we could see my fingers. We only had 3 signals. He yelled, “Time!” and started toward me.

“Time.” Fred stretched his right hand out over my head so I bumped it, standing up. Then he said, “Butch, get back out there.”

“Just a minute, Fred. Look at how the kid’s standing. Stevie, straighten up.”

“Why?”

“Look, I know you’re trying to get your shoulders closer to your knees to shrink the strike zone, but get back in your stance and I’ll show you something. Go ahead.”

Stevie stood like he’d been, with his bat ready to swing.

Butch said, “Now look straight down at the ground. What do you see?”

Stevie looked, I looked, Fred looked over my shoulder, and Mr. Rowe came running up, “What’s going on?”

Butch said, “You’re looking at the plate, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

Butch said, “That means bending over like that, your head’s right above the strike zone. You’re putting your head right above where the pitcher’s trying to throw the ball. Understand? If a pitch gets away from him and comes in high, it’s coming toward your head. The head’s the worst place to get hit. So don’t bend over like that. Bending your knees is okay, but don’t bend over so your head’s out there unprotected.”

Mr. Rowe said, “Hey, I’ll handle his stance. I’m the coach. You pitch.”

Butch was cocky. “Well, Mr. Rowe, I’m sure you don’t want Stevie to get hurt either. And he just told me he was scared. Maybe you could tell him not to stick his head out like a turtle.”

Mr. Rowe said, “Maybe you should get back to the mound.”

Fred said, “Yeah, let’s cut out the talking. Play Ball!”

Butch said, “Can I have a few warm-up pitches?”

“Hell no,” Mr. Rowe said.

Fred said, “Not unless you’re gonna switch arms and throw left-handed from now on.”

Butch said, “Come here a minute, John.”

Mr. Rowe said, “What now?”

We went only ten feet away and with our backs to them Butch whispered that he didn’t want any batter to hit the ball into play. He didn’t think our fielders could handle ground balls or throws. I had to catch every pitch, no passed balls, and throw the ball right back to him and not to anyone else. I had to be real careful. Butch said that with Stevie, he’d pitch two slow strikes then a faster 3rd strike. He said Stevie wouldn’t swing until he had two strikes.

*******

Butch was right, and what followed was a miracle. He struck out Stevie and the next two batters without one ball being called. The first two pitches to Stevie were as slow as you could throw it without an arc. On the third pitch, Stevie swung way behind, surprised by its speed. The next two batters were the two best hitters on Stevie’s team, but Butch was in a groove.

His submarine pitches seemed to come out of the mound instead of his hand. They rose up to knee level and curved to my left. An in-shoot we called it. And when Butch released the ball with his arm pointing straight down at the ground, that pitch dropped a little. All that with speed and his sweeping curve, which slowed the ball down, and the batters had no chance. Not one touched the ball with his Louisville Slugger. Not one got brushed back. Not one walked.

When we went into our dugout to bat in the bottom of the third, we were all joking and pushing each other around. We were up two runs and alive with energy. When Butch was on a wild streak, the guys had to watch while he walked one batter after another. It was boring. Today we all were into it. Butch’s potential was obvious. How could we lose? His pitches thumped into my mitt like a drum beat, like the whumping sound of our happy hearts.

I was so happy, I yelled, “Hey Butch, you got a no-hitter going.”

Swinging a bat before getting into the batter’s box, Butch looked around at me, then went to the plate and struck out. While he was up there, Mr. Philpot sat on the bench beside me, put an arm over my shoulders, and said, “Johnny, you trying to jinx us? Never mention no-hitters when your team’s got one going. It’s bad luck.”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “I forgot.”

*******

Butch limped, returning to the bench after striking out. Mr. Sergeant examined his bare right foot and, while the next two batters made outs, taped gauze around Butch’s ankle. Then he and Mr. Philpot went to the mound and watched Butch warm up. On his first toss, Butch made a face and pointed at where he’d stood. I followed Fred to the mound afraid that I’d jinxed my own brother.

Turned out the hole he’d been standing in while pitching was so deep, his ankle brushed the rubber on every pitch and so had become raw. But they couldn’t get the shovel out of the maintenance shed because it was locked and no one had the key. To fill the hole they figured that fetching a shovel, digging up, filling, and tamping dirt in the hole would take 30 minutes.

“Let me try something,” Butch said. “Go catch me, John.”

A pitcher’s foot had to be in contact with the rubber while he made a pitch. So Butch put his right foot on the farther-away side of the rubber, keeping a spike on the front and the back of his shoe on the rubber while he wound up and threw. He pivoted on that foot, twisted his hips right, raised his left leg, turned his back to the plate, coiling up. Then he bent his upper body right and down, uncoiled fast turning toward the plate, letting his body’s weight and left leg whip his right arm almost underhanded throwing the ball toward me.

It looked complicated slowed down as he’d done it, but Butch said, “Okay. I can do this.”

Mr. Sergeant said, “Try a couple more to be sure.”

Butch did, and except for being a bit slower, the pitches came in normal.

Everybody said fine and Fred yelled, “Play ball!”

It just so happened that Stevie was up, and he was all business, no talking this time, taking a straight-up stance. On Butch’s first pitch, Stevie smashed the ball just inside the third base line. The third basemen just gawked at it without moving, as surprised as I was. Stevie had himself at least a single, maybe a double, but the ball hit a pebble, hopped left over the bag and landed foul. I breathed again. We still had our no-hitter.

It seemed clear to me that if Stevie could get around on that pitch, it had been too slow. I pounded my mitt and yelled at Butch, “Put some heat on it!”

Butch nodded, went into his windup deliberately, more slowly than usual at the start coiling up, then more quickly than usual spun back around toward me so that I knew this would be the fastest one he’d thrown all day.

Just before he let loose, though, a hard gust of wind from right field blew dust across the diamond. Butch’s heel slipped a little on the hard rubber so he lurched too far right, and his arm came around more sidearm than submarine. The ball arrived a few inches outside, started in-shooting, caught the wind, crossed above the plate even with Stevie’s armpit, and soared up out of the strike zone inside and high.

Stevie pulled his chin down and turned it a little bit left before the ball hit him. Thunk! The sound rattled my nerves. It happened so fast, I didn’t see the ball actually hit him, nor the bat drop, nor him. The next thing I knew I was standing over him saying, “Stevie, you okay?’

Meanwhile Butch was running in from the mound screaming, “Stevie!”

I saw blood oozing from a scrape on Stevie’s forehead.

The coaches made me and Butch and both teams go to our dugouts. I leaned forward on the backstop with my fingers through the fencing and watched from a distance. Stevie’s parents knelt beside him, and Mrs. Claybourne, a nurse, left the stands and knelt by his head.

Someone pried my left hand loose and squeezed so hard it hurt. It was Butch, crying.

I told him, “Stevie’s gonna be all right. It’s not your fault.”

*******

All that came back to me in Kentucky at Butch’s silver jubilee celebration. He broke his vow of silence to talk with me for an hour and by way of greeting said, “You’re the first one in years to call me Butch.” I do believe that was true.

We asked about the Stevie Singleton incident, and he said, “That had nothing to do with my vocation. I was choosing it a long time before that.” I don’t believe that was true.

Butch never pitched again. I pitched and he caught the rest of that season so that our team could finish out the schedule with our leading hitter and best catcher on the field. Then he never played the game again.

I said, “Do you mean that beaning Stevie didn’t make you feel guilty?”

He shook his head. “My guilt was from dreaming of playing for the Reds, of becoming famous and rich. I was ignoring what God wanted from me. I was also showing off, trying to pitch on a sore ankle. So Stevie did pay for my vanity. I am guilty of that.”

I said, “God gave you the ability to throw a baseball fast. That was his gift.”

“Johnny, Johnny,” he said as if he were my parent, “you got it all wrong again. Being able to throw hard was the devil’s temptation. God’s gift was showing me how badly I’d hurt people if my selfish ways continued. Luckily, I learned, and Stevie was all right.”

Butch nodded with a big smile, and that provoked me.

I said sarcastically, “So I guess you think beaning Stevie was God’s gift to him.”

“Yeah, maybe. Stevie didn’t even have a headache after it and also got his wish. His Dad felt so bad he let Stevie quit playing baseball.”

Actually, I’ve always suspected that the whole mess was my fault. Some people are a jinx and maybe I’m one of them.

To end an awkward little pause, I said, “Look what I have,” and threw him his old baseball glove from the bag of things I’d brought.

Would you believe underneath the long black and white monk’s outfit, he wore Levi’s and a tee shirt bearing a picture of the new Cincinnati ballpark and the word “REDLEGS.” I took my glove and a hardball from the bag, and we played catch. We didn’t try to burn each other out like we did as kids. Just two brothers laughing and talking, throwing a ball back and forth the same way we used to say the rosary. Then we lapsed back into silence.

Bill Vernon studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. Five Star Mysteries published his novel Old Town, and his poems, stories and nonfiction occasionally appear in a variety of magazines and anthologies.

In the news: Indiana population up 4.7% over the past decade

By Joseph S. Pete

Indiana’s population now stands at 6.79 million, up 4.7% over the last decade, according to newly released U.S. Census Bureau data.

The Hoosier state had about 6.5 million residents during the last Census in 2010. It remained the 17th most populous state in the nation after losing its 16th spot to fast-growing Tennessee during the last Census.

Indiana will keep all nine of its Congressional seats, according to the apportionment population delivered to the White House. The latest Census found the United States’ population grew from about 7.4% or by 22.7 million people to 331.4 million in April.

“The American public deserves a big thank you for its overwhelming response to the 2020 Census,” Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said. “Despite many challenges, our nation completed a census for the 24th time. This act is fundamental to our democracy and a declaration of our growth and resilience. I also want to thank the team at the U.S. Census Bureau, who overcame unprecedented challenges to collect and produce high-quality data that will inform decision-making for years to come.”

California was the most populous state with 39.5 million and Wyoming the least populous with 576,851 while Utah was the fastest growing with 

“We are proud to release these first results from the 2020 Census today. These results reflect the tireless commitment from the entire Census Bureau team to produce the highest-quality statistics that will continue to shape the future of our country,” acting Census Bureau Director Ron Jarmin said. “And in a first for the Census Bureau, we are releasing data quality metrics on the same day we’re making the resident population counts available to the public. We are confident that today’s 2020 Census results meet our high data quality standards.”

Joseph S. Pete is the editor of the Northwest Indiana Literary Journal.

Sweet Nectar

By Michael Lee Johnson

Daddy wants to see a hummingbird.

Ruby-throated hummingbird

devil in feathers,

Illinois baby come to me,

challenge my feeder

sip up, drain nectar,

no straw needed.

You are a master of your craft.

My thumb your measurements

your brain 1-grain size

white rice the same as mine.

Your vision impeccable 

clean your glasses thick and sticky,

murky migration into your

miracle little boy

prove 2 me you

are the real Wild Bill Hickok

dancing with your Calamity Jane

tick tock, a year there, year back,

3,000 miles across the saltwater

the route to Mexico, traveler

landing South America,

shake the dice toss them

you bandit.

Will you return hummingbird

daddy is on the blender,

mixing new formulas

bright new color nectar.

Michael Lee Johnson lived ten years in Canada during the Vietnam era and is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada.  Today he is a poet, freelance writer, amateur photographer, and small business owner in Itasca, DuPage County, Illinois. Mr. Johnson published in more than 2,013 new publications, and his poems have appeared in 40 countries; he edits, publishes ten poetry sites. Michael Lee Johnson has been nominated for Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net awards.

Destinations

By M.V. Reisinger

At 85 miles an hour,

past steer heads, trucks and on into

the static of social status,

we zoom.

Outcasts, misfits, poor bastards

trade in their shoes for diesel fuel 

and ride a bucking grey “outhouse

on wheels!”

Outside my window, ducks fit

into arrowhead formations,

maybe they have the right idea –

going the opposite direction.

M.V. Reisinger resides in Southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley with his wife, two dogs and a houseplant jungle. He teaches elementary writing and reading. His published work has appeared in Bomb Fire, The Circle Book 2021: A Conejos County Anthology and Lumberjack News.

None of My Business

By Katie Lynn Johnston

So, we were driving. This stretch of highway I’ve been on so many times before. The city was already far behind us, and the sky was starting to fade into inky pinks and soft oranges, rose colored clouds swirling into mountains on a silk-screen sky.

     The sun was bright coming in through the windows—bright, but so small, and these tiny black piles of melting snow were still there (despite that deadly January warmth), hiding in the growing shadow of the Jersey barriers from its hot, cherry light.

     Monster-tall transformers stood high above us on either side of the salt-gray road, glaring down as they reached toward the curling Japanese mountains in the sky with their wiry arms. They cast long, black shadows across the dirt and the grass and the road, caging everything down below them to the dry ground. The grass was dull under their feet: brown and crunchy—I could almost feel it sticking in between my toes—with not a patch of soft green in sight. The houses outside my window seemed to mimic each blade’s mediocrity as they flew passed, reflecting each sharp grass blades’ dull color and worn, tired air. The few cars that drove along with us went like lazy streaks of lighting down the highway, never passing us but hovering there beside us in their dirty bright colors and boxy shapes until we sped up passed them. Peaks inside someone else’s windows led to nothing more than an awkward split moment of eye contact—no one danced like they did in the summer—contact I wasn’t going to break, “Watch the damn road.”

     It wasn’t outside my window where I saw him.

     There, only cinnamon blades of grass swayed, stretching up to the sky, limp and so exhausted in their pursuit to reach the silk mountains above them like the transformers.

     No, it was yours.

     Far ahead I could see this dancing, vivid patch of green amidst so much dead—the only color there but for the sky and those slow, primary cars beside us. The toll was beyond him. I watched him move, quick and exasperated as he flicked and spun and screamed, livid. We came up and I watched him as he kicked and he yelled, pointing in every direction like he was surrounded by the cruelest enemies we could not see. His hair came up like fire, muted crimson like his screams from under the wind and the radio. A green sweater—grass blades in the summer—and a white dress shirt—as the sky had been—floated around his thin figure like the clouds over head. His pants didn’t fit him, they were far too short and far too big. I can’t remember if he was wearing any shoes. But his cheeks stuck to his skull, and his eyes—eyes with those colors I can never bring myself to see—stared wildly, saw all and watched me just as intently as we passed him. Your window was down just a crack. You kind of slowed down and I waited to hear his screams. But I didn’t. The radio was too loud (a terrible song). He pointed at me. He was inches from your window. And we kept driving.

     I said, “That’s something we should call the cops about, isn’t it?”

     You had your hand over your mouth, and I craned my neck around to look at him while you stared into the rearview mirror, watching him. He crossed the highway, manic yet so slow, and I was afraid I was going to see his blood splatter against the white semi-truck coming up behind him.

     Suddenly, you kind of shrieked.

     I could see the red against the cloud-white metal—I could see the ground under his legs torn away from him, splayed out, tumbling over the hood, he smashed the windshield on his way over the container and fell to the salty asphalt of the highway, dead there like a rag doll.

     And the truck kept going.

     I saw it—I saw it in my head and then I saw him cross the street with his long, lanky legs stretching across the road like a spider. He just made it passed the truck in time, his clothes billowing around him as the truck rushed by.

     “Is he okay?”

     I told you he made it to the other side of the highway—to the transformers and cinnamon grass and houses—and was now trekking across the crunchy blades.

     I switched the station and turned up the radio.

     “I thought he wanted to get hit,” you said.

     “Me too. He stared right at me.”

     You laughed. “I’m sure he saw right into your soul.”

Katie Lynn Johnston is a queer creative writing undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago, born and raised in Michigan City, Indiana. She has been an editor for the Columbia Poetry Review, Mulberry Literary, and a production editor for Hair Trigger Magazine. Her work has appeared in Hair Trigger, Hoxie Gorge Review, Lavender Review, and others. When she is not reading or watching classic movies, she enjoys baking mediocre banana bread for her family.

Native I Am, Cocopa

By Michael Lee Johnson

Now once-great events fading

into seamless history,

I am a mother, proud.

My native numbers are few.

In my heart digs many memories

forty-one relatives left in 1937.

Decay is all left of their bones, memories.

I pinch my dark skin.

I dig earthworms

farm dirt from my fingertips

grab native

Baja and Southwestern California,

its soil and sand wedged between my spaced teeth.

I see the dancing prayers of many gods.

I am Cocopa, a remnant of the Yuman family.

I extend my mouth into forest fires

Colorado rivers, trout-filled mountain streams.

I survive on corn, melons, and

pumpkins, mesquite beans.

I still dance in grass skirts

drink a hint of red Sonora wine.

I am a mother, proud.

I am parchment from animal earth.

This poem is a reprint from White Cat Publications.

Michael Lee Johnson lived ten years in Canada during the Vietnam era and is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada.  Today he is a poet, freelance writer, amateur photographer, and small business owner in Itasca, DuPage County, Illinois. Mr. Johnson published in more than 2,013 new publications, and his poems have appeared in 40 countries; he edits, publishes ten poetry sites. Michael Lee Johnson has been nominated for Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net awards.

The Desert

By Tom Probasco

Borne by dreams and desperation,

we’re taken to the edge

of the desert,

and out into it.

There to contend

with heat and cold and mirages,

until our final day and night

and illusion.

But some they say

find an oasis,

or learn magic

and make their own.

There to gather strength

to push on through

and view the beautiful,

undrinkable ocean.

Tom Probasco has had poems published in INPRINT (Indianapolis Free University Writers’ Center), the first volume of Indiannual (Writers’ Center of Indianapolis), and the Northwest Indiana Literary Journal, and in addition to writing the occasional poem, he plays harmonica in two Indianapolis bands, The Full Benefits Band and True North.

Gamble

By Hardarshan Singh Valia

He was used to storms plucking away some leaves

taking down some branches, leaving him in tattered clothes. Was

Pandemic, a part of the same storm, hell-bent

to deprive him of his dignity –

to strip him naked. To drain

his meager savings, rob his strength, and keep him awake. To

listen to the caged bird, the only companion he had, who

wouldn’t stop chirping –

“I love you.”

Welcome to Phase IV.

He welcomed the news with an overflow of joy. Wind

before the storm blew hard, he rushed to his car; and,

drove to the casino as fast as he could. Storm

blew through the unlocked door. Freed the caged bird,

into the arms of the darkened sky.

He returned home to an empty cage,

With a jackpot and shortness of breath.

Hardarshan Singh Valia is an earth scientist by profession who sings songs of earth and conveys its wonders through story-telling at venues such as schools, parks, and places where curious people are eagerly awaiting to quench their curiosity about this magical place called earth. His poems stories essays have appeared in Wards Literary Journal, Northwest Indiana Literary Journal, Poetic Medicine, River babble, Who Writes Short Shorts, Dove Tales – Writing for Peace- an anthology, Dreamscapes – an anthology,, Pages Penned in Pandemic – A Collective, Art in the Time of Covid-19 – an anthology, Caesura, Sage-ing, Literary Veganism, COVID tales journal, Right Hand Pointing Literary Journal, Poetry And Covid, Huffington Post, Northwest Indiana Times, and in books such as Diamonds-75 Years of Indiana Poetry, Hoosier Horizon, A Magic Hour Family Christmas, and Undeniably Indiana (Indiana University Press).

Blankets

By Ben Boruff

I used to make sense of the world through needle points

pinpricks of light

coming through a soft, warm blanket in my mind

like polka dots.

I liked that.

But now the blanket is old and worn

and the dots have become holes

and the needles have been replaced by thick, metal rods

poking and ripping my blanket

until it is shreds of cloth,

trying and failing to block the light.

It is blinding.

And my eyes hurt.

Ben Boruff is a high school English teacher who writes poetry and indie comic reviews. He was a 2018 Yale Educator Award Recipient, and he participated in Chicagoland’s This Is My Brave event, a live collection of shared stories designed to end stigmas surrounding mental illness. He has a cat named Roundabout (who was found near a roundabout).

A Disturbance of Air

By Patrick Kalahar

The BB gun was brand new.

Plastic stock made to look like wood,

barrel gun-metal black, satin sheen.

We boys were ten or eleven,

walking through the second-growth pines

like warriors or hunters,

instincts etched in brains of a thousand generations,

raised on war movies and TV westerns.

We shot at trees,

make-believe enemies

distant and unreal.

No blood and no pain,

but there were birds and squirrels

living and moving through the pine branches,

more exciting and challenging than ersatz foes.

We saw a small bird

gripping a low branch very near.

My friend took aim and fired,

almost soundless,

a slight recoil of spring,

a disturbance of air.

The bird fell

like a pinecone

like a broken twig.

We couldn’t believe it.

Million to one odds.

“A lucky shot,” I thought, my child brain devoid of irony.

We ran to where the bird fell,

trembling among the pine needles,

a spot of blood on its head.

I picked up the very small bird

and felt its heart beating impossibly fast

and saw the fear in its eyes—

not of dying—the bird knew no more of dying than I.

The fear was of me.

I knelt, rooted and silent as the bird died in my hands.

Setting it down gently as if it mattered,

I dug with my fingers through needles,

then into soft, moist, black earth,

smelling rich, moldy, and slightly bitter,

placed the bird in the hole and covered it,

and then my friend and I walked away

in opposite directions.

I wonder, even now:

was my final gesture and act of belated remorse,

or the hiding of a sin?

Patrick Kalahar is a used and rare bookseller with his wife, Jenny, and a book conservationist in Elwood, Indiana. He is a veteran, world traveler, avid reader, and book collector. He was one of the main interviewees in an Emmy Award-winning documentary on James Whitcomb Riley. He is a member of Last Stanza Poetry Association. His poems have been published in Tipton Poetry Journal, Flying Island, Rail Lines, The Moon and Humans, Last Stanza Poetry Journal, and A Disconsolate Planet.