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September 2023

Duellers
by Suzanne Verrall

I sign up for duelling classes at the sports and recreation centre. It doesn’t do much for cardio but it’s great for flexibility. Anton the instructor tells us about the history of duels. Swords, firearms, what to wear. Whether to serve refreshments even. He’s really into it and I must admit it’s pretty cool. And not as murderous as you might think. Apparently, it wasn’t unusual to miss your opponent on purpose to fulfill the conditions of the duel and keep everyone’s dignity intact. Or you could miss them as an insult, like they’re not worth shooting. Of course you could just miss because you’re a bad shot.

          Anton wears dark green leather trousers but everyone seems to like him. Classes are held in the big studio where they teach jazz ballet during the week. I joined the group for the social interaction but there isn’t too much of that. Anton works us solidly. One whole wall is mirrored and we line up with our backs to it. We practise spinning around and aiming our fake pistols at ourselves. We stare ourselves down, sometimes focused on being the person in the face of a deadly weapon, sometimes being the one with our finger on the trigger. We do a lot of breathing exercises to cope with the experience of threatening to shoot-slash-be-shot-by ourselves. It helps, but occasionally I have to step forward and hang onto the dance rail for air. The pistols are only replicas but they are very realistic.

          The other thing we do is practise pacing. First we do leg stretches on yoga mats. Hamstrings, quads, hips, calves. Lunges, hugs, tucks. Anton’s thorough and it’s a good workout. We all increase the length of our stride significantly over the weeks, and everyone reports improved balance. When we do the whole back-to-back pacing routine, I never, unfortunately, manage to get paired with Moira. She’s the one person in class I have in my sights. I stand next to her at the mirror a few times and try to catch her eye but she’s always dead-set concentrating on herself. Probably a good thing. She has a very steady hand. I envy her spin. It’s compact, but with a touch of wild west.

          For the final class, Anton takes us out to the oval. He has a couple of oversized sports bags with him, full of paintball equipment. We strap on the vests and goggles and Anton explains the paintball guns. He’s all business but we can see he’s excited, so we get excited too. They’re loaded, he tells us, with a single capsule. It’s pistols at ten paces. One shot. When Anton asks who wants to go first and Moira raises her hand, I push to the front. Her eyes are swallow-blue. We shake hands, Anton counts us down and we pace away. My adrenalin rises with every step. Then Anton calls the turn. Time stops – I spinnnnnnnn – and starts again and I’m flat on my back staring at pink egg splat down my chest. The sun is shining. I’m going to hurt like blazes in a moment but right now I’m so happy I cry.

Bio

Suzanne Verrall lives in Australia. She is the author of the poetry collection One Day I Will Go There (Vagabond Press, 2022). Her poetry, flash fiction and essays appear in various publications including Australian Poetry Journal, Southampton Review and The Interpreter’s House. For links to her work go to www.suzanneverrall.com

Me as Burgess Meredith as an Adoptee Writing to His Birth Mother

By Tom Holmes

Tomorrow is the apocalypse 
as always, and I won’t meet you,
and the corner store is open,

 

so I prepare to be the last man.
It’s an often wish to be alone. 
It’s why I stock up on food, 

 

cigarettes, and spirits enough
for a month and more. My gas 
tank is limited, but you are not.

 

You’re the nuclear bomb I invite.
Unfortunately, you’re also the cold
war tension of a promise to arrive 

 

but won’t. You’re why I don’t 
own a pair of fail-safe glasses
 

Bio

 

Tom Holmes is the founding editor of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics. Holmes is also the author of five full-length collections of poetry, including The Book of Incurable Dreams (forthcoming from Xavier Review Press) and The Cave, which won The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013, as well as four chapbooks. He teaches at Nashville State Community College (Clarksville). His writings about wine, poetry book reviews, and poetry can be found at his blog:

The Line Break: thelinebreak.wordpress.com/

Follow him on Twitter: @TheLineBreak

Make sure to check out Tom's forthcoming collection 

The Book of Incurable Dreams

Holmes Book Cover_edited.png

There is a covered bridge crossing the Speed River in Guelph that I often thought about jumping from. It opens just above the shallowest part of the water, and although the bridge did not seem high enough to ensure death, I thought I would certainly injure myself or at least inflict lasting damage. I usually crossed this bridge on my way to the bus stop in the mornings or on my way home from classes at night, my footsteps clomping over the hollow wooden beams. I imagined, as I walked, clumps of sand and rotting wood tumbling into the river below, loosened by the weight of my feet.

          Beyond the bridge was a small ice cream shop that rented kayaks in the summer where I would go when the weather was warm enough. They sold tea in the winter, but didn’t have enough room to sit down, so I’d have to carry my steaming cup onto the iced-over sidewalk, while struggling to grasp it in my mitted hands.

 

          I liked this bridge, although I would sometimes find old wrappers or lost gloves from the homeless people who used it as shelter during the night, but I enjoyed watching the geese floating along the river through the latticework that criss-crossed like an eleven-year-old’s attempt at cross-hatching. 

 

          I didn’t know how I would do it, and I never made a solid plan in my head. I just assumed that it would happen one day after I had crossed and some grand realization would dawn on me, or I would have a eureka moment where the sky would open up and a voice would thunder into my skull shouting, Do it

          Of course, there were many times I paused before disembarking onto the dirt path that led up to the sidewalk, believing that I would jump. Just get it over with, was what I told myself. But each time, I wasn’t able to gather up the courage, and ended up walking away and sitting through another lecture on circadian rhythms or axon potentials. Other times, an overwhelming feeling of dread would dawn on me before I was able to climb the steps onto the bridge, and I would have to turn around and walk the long way past the fire station where the bright red trucks pulled out like crazed children running out of school for recess.

          It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to die–I had already tried and failed at that–or even that I wanted to hurt myself. If I had wanted to do either of those things, there were better methods, both that I had tried, and that I had already planned out to the minute detail. The idea of jumping was mostly used as a way to feel something–anything. By nineteen, I had been cradling my depression for over five years, so that it had become a vacuous black hole, or a cavernous wasteland, always shouting for someone and only ever hearing my own voice echoing back. 

 

          I hadn’t made many friends at university. I liked to blame Covid for this, since there’s no easy way to make friends through a screen, and I often found myself annoyed and frustrated staring at blank, empty boxes in every breakout room. However, I knew people who had made most of their friends online, through Discord, Instagram, and other online servers that I had no idea how to use or access. So, I stalked people online that I found interesting and downloaded Discord but was never brave enough to reach out to anyone. Instead, I screamed into the matted belly of a stuffed pig I had brought from home and hit my head against the wall just hard enough to give myself a migraine and an excuse to avoid leaving the house. It was because of this that I found myself spending the grand majority of my time locked in my tiny bedroom rewatching episodes of Gilmore Girls and The Office. I began avoiding my work, putting off assignments until the last possible minute, and then scrambling to write eight-page lab reports in the span of a few hours, all while my hands shook and my lungs burned because I was so terrified that I wouldn't get it in on time. I stopped thinking I would graduate. 

          I’m not sure why I thought this. Despite the never-ending panic attacks and night terrors, my grades were fine, and I was able to hide most of my symptoms. I thought if it wasn’t noticeable, then it must not be that bad. In fact, I had convinced myself that I was putting on this entire display for attention and scolded myself every night before bed. Why are you really crying? I’d ask myself. It’s not as if things are that bad, and so many people have it worse. This is true, of course.

          I had recently heard about a girl from my high school who had died in a motor accident from the crockpot of Facebook posts people had posted in tribute. My first thought was that if I died, none of these people I had friended on Facebook would think twice about me, let alone share with the world how much they cared about me. Then I had to stifle the tears. Not only was I depressed, but I was also a horrible human being. What kind of person gets jealous of a dead girl? 

 

          Life seemed monotonous then. I hadn’t written anything in months, though not for lack of trying, and the few books I had brought from home were gathering dust on top of my wardrobe. The poetry account I had set up adjacent to my Instagram had grown stagnant, and I had become addicted to Netflix and sleep. My diet consisted entirely of Clif bars and pasta because it required a Herculean amount of effort to make anything else that needed more than two ingredients. 

          At night, I had dreams of my mother being choked, my father stabbed. I dreamt of my aunt and cousins falling from a high cliff over the ocean and smashing their skulls open on the rocks. I dreamt that I was suffocated, shot, drowned, and burned, and when I woke, I forgot how to breathe, how to move, how to wipe the tears that stung my soaking cheeks or how to blow my nose. It occurred so often that it got to the point where I was scared to fall asleep, so I took to watching YouTube videos until four in the morning, and then choked back an unseemly amount of melatonin or took shots of cough syrup to ensure a dreamless sleep. I kept extra tissues under my pillow so they would be easier to reach when I woke up, as my desk was placed on the other side of the room, and I usually couldn’t coax myself out of bed in the morning until the shaking had stopped. One night, I dreamt that I was being suffocated by a giant snake and then woke up after having my throat slit by Thomas Brodie Sangster. I’m still not sure if it helped to calm me down, or if it disturbed me even more, to think of the stringy little boy from Love Actually as my murderer, but I figured if I had to die, it might as well be at the hand of someone British. I always liked the accent. 

 

          After two months of this, I called my aunt, sobbing, around midnight. It was my aunt I usually called when I was having panic attacks because I didn’t want my mom to worry, and my dad always seemed to make things worse without trying.

 

          “I can’t go to sleep,” I cried.

 

          Her voice was grainy on the other end. “What’s wrong?”

 

          “Every time I think about sleeping, I have a panic attack, and every time I do sleep, I wake up in one.”

 

          There was a pause. I could tell she was thinking of what to say.

 

          “What do you dream about?”

 

          I couldn’t say it out loud for fear of shame, so instead I asked, “Will you stay on the phone with me until I fall asleep?”

 

          “Of course.”

 

          By November, I had made a single friend which, to me, was an equal accomplishment to winning an Olympic gold medal. I met her in the first English class I took at university, which also happened to be the only class I ever felt any anticipation for. I heard her speak from behind me and snapped my neck around so fast, I thought I might have sprained it. I thought if God could speak, they would sound like her. 

 

          “Do you sing?” I asked her after class, trying desperately to keep my voice steady.

          She nodded. “I do.”

          “And do you play any instruments?”

          She smiled. “Guitar and ukulele.”

          “You should bring your ukulele with you sometime.” My stomach turned. “I would love to hear you play.” 

          Her hair was a deep shade of purple and with the sunlight streaming in through the slanted windows, it seemed like she was glowing. 

          Two weeks later, my head was on her jacket as I listened to her strumming along to Mitski, staring at a concrete awning and wondering what her lips tasted like. She didn’t stop the dreams, or the vastness of the cavern I felt I was trapped in, but she did lend me some light. I had never met anyone before her who understood what it was like to be stuck where I was. Who had done to their body what I had done to mine. Meeting her was the first time I found my own darkness in someone else, and the first time I learned that loving someone is not so dependent on whether they can make you laugh, or if they find you pretty, but whether they know, intimately, all the methodical ways you tear yourself apart. 

          She was the one who took me to karaoke for the first time. The bar was a fifteen-minute walk from my house near the river and down the street from a nightclub with twenty somethings shivering in tube tops in the middle of December. It was empty when we walked in, so we had first pick of the tables. We sat up front next to the makeshift stage and window beyond it. The table was pressed against a brick wall painted with black-and-white framed band posters and a filled-in fireplace. I’d never been to a bar before and the only drink I’d ever had was a hard cider my aunt had given me on my nineteenth birthday. I’d also had sips of white wine from glasses my mother had offered me, so I ordered a glass of chardonnay while pretending to know what I was doing. She ordered a beer and pizza I couldn’t eat and talked about what songs she wanted to sing. By the time karaoke started, the bar was sufficiently packed with tipsy university students anxious to embarrass themselves.

          Despite my anticipation for the night, it ended up becoming a long period of waiting and listening. I didn’t know anyone else there, and I was constantly left alone to watch person after person singing upbeat 2000s pop songs, sipping on chardonnay that I found disgusting but was too proud to admit it, while she vaped outside talking to people who must have been much more interesting than me. Karaoke ran until two in the morning, but I decided to leave at midnight, pushing my way through a throng of drunk dancers to let her know I was leaving. When I told her this, she looked genuinely disappointed, which was almost comical against her dishevelled blue hair and flushed cheeks. She hugged me—squeezed me—goodbye, and every ounce of disappointment evaporated.

          That night came with only two weeks remaining until the end of the semester, and although I tried to keep in touch, my messages went unanswered. When the reality that she was gone finally hit me, I spiraled. The night terrors became more frequent, along with the panic attacks, until I became so anxious, I started throwing up. Three days before my biochemistry final, I hyperventilated to the point of passing out. I felt more isolated than I had before and started believing that I would spend the rest of my life trying to prove to other people that I deserved to exist, never believing it myself, and never being sure that they believed it either. I found myself staring at the same small crack in my ceiling every night trying to imagine an after, a time when I wouldn’t feel like I was carrying around this giant boulder on my back but couldn’t ever see past the creak of my door.           Everything seemed so limited. I wondered if all there was to life was the constant yearning to be loved more. And because I had never been satisfied by the amount of love I was shown, I believed I never would be. 

          At the end of December, I left Guelph to spend the holidays at home. It was harder to hurt myself with my parents in the other room, but I discovered that shutting the door on my head made less sound than hitting it against the wall and turning the shower on before vomiting canceled out the retching noise. However, no strategy was perfect, and by the looks my mother gave me, and the way she hovered–constantly coaxing me out of my room or bringing cups of steaming tea to me in bed–I suspected she knew something was wrong. 

 

          It was the evening of Boxing Day that I tried. I’d kept bottles of melatonin and Midol in my nightstand–two drugs I thought would aid in the loss of consciousness. I took a handful of each and told my parents I was taking a bath: “So I might be a while.”

          In hindsight, I’m not sure if I failed because I wanted to, or if I lacked the willpower to take it one step further. I spent that whole night shaking beneath my sheets, curled into a fetal position with a trash can pressed to the edge of my bed. I felt as though my soul was trying to claw its way out of my throat. And I wanted to get rid of it. I wanted to throw up every part of myself that I hated. Which, of course, was all of it. 

 

          I went back to Guelph in January with the simple hope of making it until April. My life hadn’t changed since Christmas because nobody knew anything I didn’t want them to, and it was easy to fall back into TV binges and perpetual sleep. By February, I had started reading again. The first book I picked up after returning to school was The Bell Jar because I liked the cover and because I had a small indication of what it was about. I had read a few poems by Plath that were beautifully depressing, and I thoroughly believed that poet’s prose was superior to anyone else’s. It only took forty pages before I was forced to put it down because I couldn’t breathe–couldn’t see through the tears that teetered along my waterline. Because it was me. The same man in the garden, the same chemistry lectures, the same thoughts, feelings, words. The more I read, the more I began to picture myself in ten years with a family—with children—and leaving them to find their mother as a balled-up corpse in the kitchen or dead in a bathtub. I thought of the kind of life I wanted for myself because I had never thought about it before. I had never imagined living past seventeen, much less twenty, and it had suddenly creeped up on me like a stalker in the night. 

          It was my mother who finally forced me to talk to someone after I told her what I had done. I don’t know what prompted me to do this, but I had already crawled into bed for the night and was lying on my back with my hands folded over my stomach, staring into the dark. I had made my bed–folded the corners of the blankets and tucked the edges of the top sheet beneath the mattress so that the comforter draped lonely over the bed frame. 

          I was filled with dread. I shook so badly as I stood up that I almost collapsed, and the room danced around me in circles. I felt the same way that I imagine it feels to stand at the edge of a plane right before you jump. 

The TV was playing softly from the next room as I wandered in, already crying. My mother looked at me, the way a child might look at an injured bird, and asked me what was wrong. 

I thought healing would be linear. That I would wake up one day and be content with my life and I would never know what it was like to be sad or empty again. Instead, it was like trying to stitch together a doll that had been chewed apart by rabid dogs. I didn’t know which piece fit where, or if there were pieces of fabric that had been swallowed or discarded–pieces I would never get back. I tried to think of the last time I had been predominantly happy and decided it had probably been when I was thirteen. Then, that same crushing defeat, because there was no way I could be the same person at twenty that I was at thirteen. I had become so many things, had given myself to too many people, melted myself into too many molds, so that all the people inside of me were chewing at my seams like foxes caught in a trap. I thought that I would go deaf from all the screaming voices before I could ever figure out who I was. 

            I saw a doctor in July, or talked to one, because it was still the midst of Covid. I ended up being grateful for that after the fact because I hate for people to see me cry. It always feels like they’re taking away a part of me I didn’t mean to give. 

 

            “I’m going to start you on a low dose of sertraline,” he said as I grabbed a post-it note to scribble down the prescription so that I could look it up once I hung up the phone. “You’re going to take one a day.”

 

            He paused. “Do you drink alcohol?”

 

            “No,” I said.

            “That’s good. I also want you to talk to your parents about what kind of coverage they have for counseling and I’m going to send over some recommendations for therapists. I want you to look through it, okay?”

            “Okay,” I answered, knowing I wasn’t going to do any of that. 

In April, I left the library around midnight after studying for an exam most of the night. It was a twenty-five-minute walk back home, mostly downhill, and the weather was warm enough that I decided to walk rather than take the bus. When I reached the bridge, I felt nothing as I walked up the steps. A biker strolled past me coming up from the ramp, and I stuck my hands in my pockets, trying not to make eye contact. At night, the bridge was lit up in colour, so that as I walked, my face shifted in shades of blue, green, and purple. The thump of the wood echoed down through the slats, sounding over still water. I stopped in the middle and looked out through the slats at the lights that reflected over the river. I could hear the rumbling of vehicles from the road, which reminded me that I wasn’t completely alone there, and though I stood there a while, I never thought about jumping.

Boxing Day

By Erin Staley

Bio

Erin Staley previously studied Zoology at the University of Guelph and currently studies at Concordia University where she majors in Creative Writing. Her previous work has been featured in Crab Apple Literary Magazine 1.1 and Soliloquies Anthology 26.2.

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