Winter 2023 Web Edition Now Available!

Featuring new work from May-lee Chai, Nathan Erwin, Lupita Eyde-Tucker, Ryan Habermeyer, Sonya Lara, Frances Ogamba, Jennifer Pons, Regan Puckett, Lindsay Sproul, Jen Grace Stewart, Isabelle Stillman, and Eric Scot Tryon

Latest in Print: Fall/Winter 2022-23

Featuring the winners of our 2022 Literary Awards and the winner of our 2022 Regeneration Contest! Plus new work from Lindsey Godfrey Eccles, Adam Grabowski, Megan Kim, David Wright, Saddiq Dzukogi, Alicia Mountain, Jennie Evenson, and more, including our special experimental poetry feature, Brazen.







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Alexandra Tanner // Marla

Alisha Karabinus // Like You've Never Seen Me Before

Colleen O'Brien // Suzy

 J. Preston Witt // A Shovel, a Chest, a Tree, a Fence, a Loon, a Heron, a Hole 





Tanner Icon  Alexandra Tanner // Marla Back to top

All night Monday night I was dreaming about my teeth falling out, and then when I woke up on Tuesday there were eight dead bumblebees on my windowsill. And at first, I was like: oh, that’s an omen. I should stay in bed. But then I was like: whatever, fuck it. So I got ready and went into the kitchen for breakfast, which was a mistake, because Nelda made scrambled eggs but I think they were expired, because seriously immediately after I had diarrhea for like forty-five minutes, and then I had to take another shower because I felt so gross, and then by the time I left for school I hit all this traffic and missed like half my morning classes.

When I got to third period, there was this kid who’s on the basketball team sitting in my seat, which is in the front, because I’m essentially blind but I have a weird thing about touching my eyes so I can’t wear contacts and plus I have never ever been able to find a pair of glasses that fits my face. But I wasn’t gonna say anything or anything so I just, like, went to the back. And it was so weird, because Marla was sitting behind the baller kid and she, like, hits him on the shoulder and goes, “Hey, Giancarlo, you’re in her seat,” and he was all, “Whose seat,” and she was all, “Her seat, dumbass,” and he was like, “Jesus CHRIST,” and he got up and moved and then I had my seat back. And, I mean, it was supernice of Marla, but also superweird? Considering we haven’t been on speaking terms since circa our fifth-grade moving-up ceremony?

So, this one time in elementary school we all went on this class trip to the Everglades and Marla sustained a small alligator bite and her parents sued the school and got superrich and bought her all these tacky Juicy purses and shit, but then they lost the alligator money in the housing crisis a few years later so she got superdrepressed and went through this big anime phase and then this big goth phase and now she just kind of chain smokes and dresses like an urchin and like loiters around the mall a lot? I heard she had her clit pierced, but then at this one party a couple months ago she got drunk and went skinnydipping and my friend Nic said she was standing like right there and she could see everything and it definitely wasn’t. But I don’t really trust Nic, so.

After third period got out I went into the bathroom to do my makeup since I didn’t have time to do it at home between the eggs and the aftermath of the eggs and the drive and everything. And there was this huge line because there’s only one little stall and one big stall in the bathroom in Building C, and— okay, I wasn’t waiting in the line or anything, so I was just like a passive casual observer to all of this, but seriously— Marla walks in and she runs up and cuts the whole line and dashes into the big stall right when it opens up. And this one girl at the front of the line starts banging on the door and yelling in Spanish but obviously it was locked and no one could do anything. So then pretty much all of the girls gave up and left except for the angry one at the front, and after, like, a minute she gave up and left, too.

Marla comes out of the big stall and I’m doing my eyeliner in this one little mirror over the sinks and Marla goes over to this other little mirror and she pulls a dollar bill out of one pocket and a thing of lipstick out of another pocket and uncaps the lipstick and starts drawing on the mirror. And she keeps looking back and forth at the dollar bill and the mirror and the dollar bill and the mirror and I’m trying so hard to see what she’s doing but also not to stare? So she finishes and caps the lipstick and crumples the dollar bill and puts them both back in different pockets and I look very quickly and see that she’s drawn the little pyramid-eye-thing from the back of the dollar bill and there’s very small writing underneath that says we see u. And as she’s about to leave, I go, “Hey, thanks for that thing with Giancarlo,” and she just stares at me and then stares at her drawing and then stares back at me and goes, “I can’t talk to you,” and walks out.

At first I didn’t really think anything about the little pyramid drawing, because, it was just, like, a weird thing. Like, it was just a thing that she did that I witnessed. That afternoon, though? I had to stop by administration to order transcripts to apply to this summer dance intensive at UM? And I saw Marla and like three of her friends sitting in chairs outside the headmaster’s office, which is, like, big shit. And I guess I was kind of shamelessly staring at them because this one girl with green hair—which I didn’t even think was allowed at school considering the, like, monumentally strict dress code—starts making this awful piggy face at me and so I turned away and booked it out of admin, and the whole way to the parking lot I kept noticing all these pyramid drawings everywhere, and some of them had blood dripping out of the little eye part at the top, and I was uncomfortable.

Some days after school my friends and I all go to this little fruit stand in the Grove to get strawberry shakes. Other days we get fucked up on someone’s boat. There’s always someone whose parents are getting a new boat and there’s always someone with acid, so. That afternoon we were all on this one kid’s parents’ boat and I was just like sipping on some vodka because I had to go home and write a poem that was due the next day and I can’t emote when I’m fucked up, and Nic came over to me and she was like, “I heard Marla and all those girls got called into admin today,” and I was like, “I KNOW, I saw them,” and she was like, “Do you know what they got called in for?” and I was like, “No, do you?” and then she took this like big huge pause and her eyes got superwide and she was like, “It’s because they’re Illuminati.” Which—is that even a thing? That you can be? How do you just be Illuminati? Anyway, Nic told me that they had been drawing the graffiti that was all over campus and that apparently they were being like very nihilistic and talking back in class and that they weren’t suspended but they all got verbal warnings. And so I asked her, like, “Do you think they’re done? Now that the school knows it’s them?” And she got really serious and shook her head and she was like, “Oh, no. No way. Shit’s gonna go down.” And I was like, “Okay, Nic.”

The next day at school, though, shit did actually go down, and I have to admit that the sequence of events was like incredibly frightening and nefarious. So, basically: there are TVs in all the classrooms and every morning we watch these truly awful announcements put on by the journalism class, and then for the rest of the day it flashes annoying messages that are always like, “LAST CHANCE 4 PROM TIX” or “LADIES SOCCER 2NITE 6PM!!!!!!! !! !! !” So, like, halfway through last period, I notice out of the corner of my eye that the TV has gone white, and when I look over at it there’s this little spinny golden triangle on the TV and this music starts playing in the backgroundbackground— this, like, very bombastic orchestral music— and a voice comes in over the intercom and it’s really deep, like maybe it’s using that voice-disguiser software thing? And the voice says, “PREPARE TO BE ANNIHILATED,” and then it just kind of stops? And there’s this really loud EEE-EEE-EEE noise, and the voice comes back and it’s going “MUA HA HA HA” and all of the lights go out and everyone, like, jumps in their seats a little bit, and you could hear over the intercom this, like, scuffling? And then you could hear a very normal voice screaming, “WE WILL NEVER BE SILENT, HOSANNA HOSANNA, HIP-HOP ROYALTY FOREVER,” plus some stuff in Spanish, and the whole intercom system sort of shuts off and clicks and a few seconds later the lights come back on and everyone is like, “Ha-ha that was dumb,” but you can tell that most people were actually genuinely scared because it’s likely that they’ve seen V For Vendetta and they know that sometimes anarchy gets out of fucking hand. Our teacher got an email from someone in admin saying we were on lockdown, so we started a class game of Pictionary and played for like a full hour, and then finally the headmaster’s voice came in on the intercom and said something about how it was safe to go home but to please be like vigilant? I don’t even remember the verbiage, I was just so fucking ready to get out of there.

Then, as I’m walking out of the classroom, I’m digging in my bag for my keys, and all of a sudden I hear “Hey bitch” in my ear, and I kind of jump but it’s just Nic, and she goes, “I told you so,” and I’m like, “You told me so about what?” and she’s like, “Look,” and as we’re walking past admin we can totally see Marla and all of her friends standing there getting fully screamed at. I think I heard someone use the phrase terrorist plot. And then Nic yells, “ILLUMINATI’S DEAD, YO,” as loud as she can, and, I mean the door is made of glass so everyone in admin turns around, and Marla makes like direct eye contact with me and she looks absolutely otherworldly with rage, and Nic grabs my wrist and laughs and we run away superfast to the parking lot, and I could see that maintenance hadn’t gotten rid of the little pyramid drawings yet and I wondered if they were saving them? As evidence or maybe like a testament or something?

Then. When I get home. As I’m, like, pulling up to the house. I see that there’s someone in the front yard literally just ripping all my mom’s lantanas up out of the ground. And I was not sure what was happening because the landscapers had just been there like a week ago and it doesn’t even matter because the lantanas are my mom’s, anyway? So— no one should be messing with them? Even the landscapers? And as I get up to the house I see that it’s Marla, and she’s fucking going to town on these flowers, and I get out of the car and I run over to her and I’m like, “Marla, what the fuck are you doing,” and she doesn’t answer because I guess she’s in a trance or something? So then after another couple seconds, again, louder, I’m like, “MARLA, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING,” and she turns around and she’s crying and she’s obviously tripping out or something and she goes, “Remember your fourth grade birthday party?” and I’m like, “Sort of I mean I was like nine but—” and she cuts me off, going, “I think I left ten dollars here in your yard after your party,” which makes absolutely no sense. So I start to get really freaked out. But then she starts like sobbing, and so I just kind of pat her head for a minute and finally she goes, “Can I have ten dollars?” and I didn’t even say anything, I just turned around and went over to my car and got my wallet and handed her ten dollars. And she looks at it really carefully and then she goes, “Thanks,” like she really had to consider it or something, and I was like, “You’re welcome?” and she wipes her snot on her sleeve and looks up at me and her pupils were huge and she goes, “I got expelled. I’m running away to West Palm Beach with my boyfriend. He told me to bring ten dollars for gas.” And just as I’m about to ask her why the fuck she’s at my house or whatever, this huge motorcycle pulls up and there’s this Fall-Out-Boy-looking motherfucker on it and he’s like, “Let’s GO,” and Marla gets up and runs over to him and then she turns around and she like, throws up some gang sign or something at me. And, I mean, you generally wanna be careful where you do that in Miami, but my neighborhood’s pretty beige and there wasn’t anyone else on the street so I threw it right back at her. I have no fucking clue what it was. Then she just smiles this huge smile and she flips me off and jumps on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle like a fucking movie star and they leave. She wasn’t wearing a helmet. I hope they made it to West Palm in one piece because 95 can be fucking treacherous. Even if you take the turnpike, it’s like— whatever. 





Karabinus Icon  Alisha Karabinus // Like You've Never Seen Me Before Back to top

We start innocent enough, with you saying I’ve always wanted to do it on a park bench, and me adding during the day, which makes you laugh so hard you kick over your beer, and when I’m on my knees sopping it up, you slap my ass and say, I always wanted a blowjob in the kitchen while dinner was cooking and I say but we did that and your grin says, I know.

While I’m in the bathroom rinsing the rag, you ease into the kitchen for a couple fresh beers, and then back in the living room, you push me against the sofa and roll the bottle down my naked arm, saying, What about outfits, baby, like corsets and those lacy skirts?Shivering, with condensation beading cold on my skin, I say and stripper heels? Because I cannot walk in those things, and you’re laughing, saying no, I always hated pornos when the girls still had shoes on, so I say you could be a pirate and I could be a wench and then we’re a knot of beer tongues and hot fingers, with you whispering arrrrr.

Then, real quiet, I say I always wanted to fuck a cheerleader, like I was a man and you pull back, grimacing, surprised, saying Like with a. . . I mean and I say sure, those fleshy thighs around my waist, me holding her hips, you know it.

Thoughtful now, you say, a college cheerleader? And then I’m holding onto your fist like it’s a microphone, singing Benny Mardones, She’s just sixteen years old, leave her alone, they say when your hand opens up and pushes me back, not really hard, but hard enough to say you’re disgusting and my eyes are burning when I say what? and you say nothing, but you’re not looking at me any longer, and suddenly I wonder if I didn’t want some firm young cheerleader so I could be the one pushing, so it could be me drawing all the lines.


Obrien Icon Colleen O'Brien // Suzy Back to top

At the Monday meeting Suzy’s topic is negativity. Unless anyone has another topic they need to talk about instead. No, yes, everyone around the long conference table says. That’s good.

Suzy’s sixty-five, has short, neat, iron gray hair and a round flat face with small blue eyes. She looks like she probably looked in high school, like a high school Suzy dressed up to play an older woman. Her mouth is impatient, as if she’s always holding back, just barely, from saying something she’ll regret. Somehow this also makes her look afraid.

“Apparently I’ve been so negative lately,” Suzy says, “that my mentally ill sister thinks I need a psychiatric evaluation.” Around the table, people laugh. I laugh too, but Suzy’s too unpleasant for me to really think she’s funny. She’s been around a lot longer than I have, though. So have most of these people. A couple of the men have known Suzy since rehab twenty years ago.

“I have a severe case of the Poor-Suzys,” she says. “Everyone’s against me. My neighbor’s dog shitting in my yard is against me. My neighbor, even though he cleans up after the dog, is out there letting it shit to spite me. The lady at the D & W deli is against me—they’re out of low sodium ham. They’ve only got honey baked.”

More laughs. I laugh.

I knew girls in high school who looked like Suzy. Plain, but with that bitchy expression some guys seemed to like. Popular girls who drank hard enough they sometimes puked or peed their pants but never cried.

“So I just wondered if anyone has thoughts on that. I don’t care if it’s crosstalk, I’ll take advice. That’s all I have.”

“Thanks, Suzy,” we say.

There’s that effect, like in church, of many voices saying the same words at once. Before it fades, someone’s already saying, “I’m Meghan and I’m an alcoholic-addict.”

“Hi, Meghan,” we say.

“And Suze,” she says, “I am so grateful for what you said.”

Meghan is a crier. She’s probably forty, maybe older, should be pretty, always looks exhausted. Her hair is dyed a shade too dark.

Meghan says she’s exactly the same, except her negativity is all directed at herself. The voices in her head are like—did anyone ever see that movie Mommie Dearest? People laugh. I laugh. I’ve never seen the movie, but my mother used to talk about it, used to compare my grandmother to Joan Crawford. Cutting off her daughter’s hair and forcing her to eat raw meat. Most of the time, I’m the youngest person at this meeting.

Suzy is staring at Meghan. When she laughs, it’s loud and a little late.

I don’t blame her. We don’t have conversations. People say, “I know exactly what you mean,” and then talk about something different.

Meghan once told us how she relapsed because someone threw a drink in her face. She got vodka in her mouth and figured—.

It kills me that you can’t ask questions.

There’s a pause, a creaking of chairs, after “Thanks, Meghan.” The clock doesn’t make noise, but I feel like I can hear it.

“Well, I’m Roy and I’m a grateful recovering alcoholic.”

“Hi, Roy.”

Roy’s a small, squareheaded zealot who carries the Big Book and has half the pages flagged. He has seven years, less than a lot of these people. Roy got arrested for stopping his car and falling asleep in the middle of an on-ramp to 94 West. His favorite part of the story is that he has no idea where he’d planned to go.

If we don’t mind, Roy would like to read us a few paragraphs.

Suzy gets up to go to the bathroom. The pink satin lining of her coat is turned out over the back of her chair.

Roy’s been taking a sponsee through the fourth step. He never ceases to be amazed at the power of these words, how they came for him at just the right time, and how he knows that was God’s work.

“‘Resentment is the number one offender,’” he reads. “‘It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stems all forms of spiritual disease . . .’”

There is a horizontal crease in the lining of Suzy’s coat, like a mouth closed over glorious sarcasm.

“Thanks, Roy,” we say when he’s done.

“Thanks, Roy,” Suzy says, half a beat off, returning to her chair.

Suzy got sober because that floaty feeling she used to get went away, and she couldn’t drink enough to bring it back. She was having an affair with a married man. Her adult kids didn’t talk to her.

Big Ed talks next. People call him that because he likes being a character and people like having a character around. It makes us feel like we’re on TV. Big Ed is also obese.

I remember that floaty feeling. That forward momentum, that sense of each moment opening fluidly into the next, like notes in a song.

Suzy quits staring at Roy and shifts her eyes to me for a second. She’s jealous that I’m young. And I’m not really that young. I give her a small, tired smile, as if I understand something about her. She looks away immediately.

“Also, I forgot one announcement,” Big Ed says. “Friday the eleventh I’ll be speaking down at Alano. Should be a lot of fun.”

“Thanks, Ed.”

“Ed,” Suzy says, with the rest of us.



Witt Icon  J. Preston Witt // A Shovel, a Chest, a Tree, a Fence, a Loon, a Heron, a Hole Back to top

I used to make mudshoes out of sticks and mud. They were the most comfortable shoes until you went and tried to leave in them. They were standing and looking shoes, not walking shoes. I did it practically every day one summer, and I remember the warm mud and the sticks and the worms curling between my toes. I remember feeling safe and happy. My toes and the earthworms, they were pals.

One morning my father decided that if I was going to play in the mud all day I should do something useful. So I was out planting trees along the back fence that bordered the neighbor woman’s house and making mudshoes every once in awhile. The woman always sunned herself in a swimsuit. Each bone from the clavicle down was visible, the whole ribcage added on like armor. She had a calm mute look, that’s the impression she gave, a woman who wouldn’t ever yell at me. I’d watch her when standing in my mudshoes and admire how her hips jutted out. Little bony handles that held up bikini bottoms. And she had these thin-skinned bird-wing arms that were good for nothing apparently because I had to shovel her driveway in the winter. When my father saw the woman, he’d say she was starving herself, that she was sick, that she was crazy, which made me feel weird because I thought she was pretty.

After I’d been digging and planting for an hour or so, the shovel struck wood. It was not a root but wood, actual wood, a thing, a wooden plank-like thing. The top of a chest? I thought. A secret door? I dug fast, forgot the small trees my father said to plant, and raced to find the dimensions.

The chest grew larger the more I uncovered. I dug to the middle of the lawn, a good twelve-feet, and didn’t care about ruining the grass because with gold coins it wouldn’t matter. With rare jewels we’d move to Disney World or Poland or Nashville near Shania Twain.

“What’d you find?” the woman said, a low tired drone. She stood on her heron legs leering over the fence at me.

“None of your business,” I said.

This made her laugh, a musical noise, a loon call, a full laugh that shouldn’t have come from such a body. I could tell she liked me, and that made me like her. I suddenly wanted to tell her about how we always went to see the herons on the lake. The herons are here! we said one season, and The loons are here! we said another. Up until this year I would get them confused. Loons sang pretty, but looked like ducks, and herons looked like my neighbor—that was how I kept them straight. But I’d learned from Mother not to talk about a woman’s looks so I didn’t tell her anything.

“I hope it’s not a coffin,” she said. I stopped digging. I hadn’t thought of that.

“No,” I said, “that’s not what they look like.”

“Maybe it’s a really old one.”

“You aren’t going to scare me,” I said, “so quit trying.”

Coffin or not, with her watching I had to continue. I got a shovel under the wood and lifted. My veins bulged from the strain. I muscled and fought and made it look harder than it was, until thwup, it came free: a mosaic of slugs and roly-polies lay underneath, nothing else. Someone had buried a board.

“Just bugs,” I said and let it fall. But I wasn’t disappointed, not like I thought I’d be. She was smiling.

“Now what?”

“Now mudshoes,” I said, and went to get the hose.

I fascinated on things like mudshoes, and when I fascinated on things, I couldn’t help but do the thing until it was worn out. All the times I wasn’t in my mudshoes, I was contemplating them. In fact I didn’t quit contemplating mudshoes until the next thing came along, which happened to be stealing souls. I wanted to catch one and keep it, like a fish pulled from the river. I imagined the devil coming in with a specialized Soul-Sucking Vacuum™ and making a clean sweep of a whole town. Thing was, I’d made that up about the vacuum so I knew it wasn’t right. I wanted to know how it really was.

I actually got the soul stealing idea from my father. After he got back from bowling one Saturday, he sat me down—he went bowling early on Saturdays so that he could be home for dinner and some sobering up, and then head to the real bar downtown. Not for the first time, he told me to stay away from women: “A woman will steal your soul,” he said, in the same tone of voice he’d used before letting me drive his riding lawnmower. “It doesn’t matter how young or how old you are, you got to fight to keep it. Because if they get your soul. . .what do you got left?”

He waited for me to answer. I said that I didn’t know.

“Only your balls, kid. Only them.” He laughed and thwatted me between the legs. He hadn’t hit me hard, and it hadn’t hurt, but I screamed and cried and fell to the floor anyway. I seized like an epileptic, like a possessed washing machine, like a sad selfish boy with a poor sense of his place in the universe.

He stood up after a time and without speaking left for downtown. I couldn’t tell by how long he lingered, by his walk, or by how he shut the door, whether he’d been disappointed in me or sorry he’d done it. I wanted him to be sorry.

But that was later, after my last pair of mudshoes.

I had picked up worms while digging the big hole, and tossed them to the sides so they wouldn’t get cut by the shovel. I started making the woman and me mudshoes right where I’d put all the worms. They were going to be extra-wormy mudshoes, I told her, and she didn’t make a face.

I picked a long fat one up and showed her: “What do you know about the soul?”

“Not much. Look, you can see its heart,” she said, pointing, but I knew that already.

I dropped the hose into the trench. We stood there in our mudshoes on either side of the hole and watched it fill up with water.

“It’s a moat,” she said.

“Yeah, for protection.”

“From me?”

“Just for protection.”

“Are you afraid of me?”

“No,” I said quickly. I didn’t like her saying that—thinking I was scared of some weak lady with bird arms.

“Well, sometimes I am,” she said. It was silent for a while so I picked up another worm. Its visible little heart pulsed. “You get what I mean, I think, don’t you?”

I didn’t, but I nodded.

That evening, while my father was sobering up, we were all on the back porch eating ribs and rice. The woman came out to water her plants. My father motioned toward her and muttered to my mother: “The loons are out.” She swatted his thigh and her eyes said, You are so bad, but she wasn’t really mad.

“She’s not a loon,” I said. “Look at those legs, she’s a heron.”

This surprised my parents and set them off on an avalanche of laughter. They’d never heard me say that before, which seemed weird because I’d been thinking it all summer. They convulsed, it was torture, they said, they couldn’t stop, and so when the woman heard all the noise and, not knowing a thing, waved to us on the porch, I was the only one who saw and waved back.


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Announcing the Winners of our 2022 Literary Awards!

We are pleased to announce the winners of our 2022 Literary Awards:

Poetry: Rose Zinnia, for “Constituting Mayhem (Derealized in the CVS),” “Look (Nonbinary),” “God Wifi Earth Ong (Nonbinary),”  “Ancient Wind, Empty Skyscraper, Golden Bear (Nonbinary)” 

Creative Nonfiction: Jodie Noel Vinson, for "Self-portrait after Covid-19"

Fiction: Carly Rae Zent, for “The Girl Boss” 

More information about our winners and honorable mentions can be found here

Featured Writer: Thammika Songkaeo


  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.