|Art by Dario Bijelac|
“Just Before Recess” by James Van Pelt (769 words)
No Spoilers: Parker is a boy in Mr. Earl’s class, which isn’t exactly a great place to be. Mr. Earl believes in things like Responsibility, which seems to mean he’s eager to blame kids for things beyond their control, like the fact that a sun has formed in Parker’s desk and consumed his books and other classwork. Parker, trying to make the best of things, has taken to feeding the sun, helping it to grow. The piece is a bit tense, setting up a situation where Parker must face Mr. Earl’s disapproval and possible punishment. Except that there’s also an edge of humor, and fun, a brightness resolving out of the swirling dark.
Keywords: School, Suns, Teachers, Discipline, Recess
Review: This is a rather cute story, one that sets up its speculative element (a sun in the middle of a desk) and then focuses on some very non-speculative and common feelings (the fear of facing punishment from a stern teacher). Parker’s distraction is understandable, because he’d much rather be figuring out the sun rather than dodging the attention of Mr. Earl. And Mr. Earl embodies so much of what’s wrong with authority and especially with bad teachers—an enjoyment in having power over other people, in this case over children, which makes that power embalance that much more unsettling and difficult to fight against. And yet the story is structured a bit as a good joke, or a bit of cosmic justice. Mr. Earl’s disrespect of his pupil’s is what ends up being his undoing, as he acts without thinking and while ignoring Parker’s warnings and finds himself...well, not in a good way. And it is a rather fun and inventive way to set up this moment of release and freedom at the end, Parker and the entire class freed from the tyranny of Mr. Earl’s class, let out not only to literal recess but a more permanent recess from Mr. Earl. A fine read!
“Beholder” by Sarah Grey (933 words)
No Spoilers: Maria is a woman who prizes her privacy in a time where personal information is rather easy to obtain—most people display it prominently through technology that makes it visible through lens that can see this AR content. Maria is also someone who knows how dangerous this kind of sharing can be, not because of people who will use it to stalk, but rather because what kind of feedback it allows. For one barista that Maria comes across, that feedback is rather overwhelmingly harsh and critical. The piece focuses on a very small moment, and yet one that can be something of a tipping point. It examines chains of actions, and how criticism can snowball into something more.
Keywords: Coffee, Social Media, CW- Suicide(?), Self Esteem, Loss
Review: I have a bit of a mixed view of this story, because I feel like so much of its heart is in the right place, but I personally bounce off of some of the details. I like how Maria is someone who is private and so it gives her some perspective of what other people are going through when it comes to being public. Hannah is an open book and it leaves her open for people to scribble nasty things in her margins, filling her with doubt and fear and insecurity. At the same time, Maria is coming from this from a place of wealth and privilege. Not only that, but it sounds like Maria’s daughter might have died by suicide (it’s not expressly stated in the story but heavily implied) and the fault of this seems to be placed largely on the shoulders of social media and bullying. But the setup of all of this gives me the sense that there’s a certain amount of knee-jerk “social media hurts mental health instead of helps it” that is a favorite criticism and point of contention with especially later adopters of technology and online presences. It also seems to come most from people of wealth whose entire approach to social interactions probably isn’t quite comparable to someone like Hannah’s. And I like that Maria uses her distance to try and initiate random (or intentional and focused) acts of kindness on the world. That she would use her wealth to try and help people. There’s just a part of me that doesn’t trust what she sees as the problem, and another part of me that knows that sometimes a kind word in the wrong way can be harmful, too. If Hannah didn’t need to hear “beautiful” but rather “valuable and worthy of love” I feel like just focusing on beauty could...maybe backfire. But again, I think the story’s heart is in the right place, even if I personally have some reservations about the execution. Still a story well worth spending some time with!
“James Brown Is Alive And Doing Laundry In South Lake Tahoe” by Stefanie Freele (968 words)
No Spoilers: Stu and Megan are new parents, taking their first vacation to South Lake Tahoe with their infant, Phillip, and their dog, Beebop. The story flits from character to character, perspective to perspective, revealing the issues with each person, their dissatisfactions and hopes and fears. The arrival of Phillip has thrown their worlds into chaos, and they are on edge, angry, sad, and afraid. The story follows their journey and the intense fragility of their situation. It’s tense and there’s a feeling of waiting for a vase situated on the edge of a table to be tipped over onto a hardwood floor. And yet, through that all, the story shows that sometimes it’s the unexpected that can release that tension and transform it into something relieving and hopeful.
Keywords: Driving, Vacations, Family, Parenting, Dogs
Review: This story feels to me a bit like waiting for a car crash. It doesn’t help that the action takes place literally in a car driving through a snow storm (which is not a great situation for being safe). Every person seems on the edge of losing their shit, from Stu with his selfish fixation of trying to give his Family something that will “fix” them to Megan who just wants some reassurance and knowledge that she isn’t fucking everything up, while also dealing with her complex feelings about being a new mother. Even Phillip and Beebop have their issues, though they perhaps aren’t as complex as all that. And everything moves closer and closer to disaster, to everything blowing up. Everyone is tired and everyone is afraid and everyone is pissy and it seems like it’s going to Go Bad until...well, until something happens that captures every’s attention for just a moment. And it’s like flying because you’re falling but distracted at hist the right moment that you forget gravity is a thing. Suddenly the Family is sent into something that isn’t terrible, that isn’t the giant fight that was brewing. Instead, the tension is released and it’s this great moment of relief. The Family manages to smile, to be happy, and everything just works. And while there’s some rather standard gender roles at work, here, I think it’s still a great take on these characters and a rather wonderful ending. A great read!
“Hungry” by Tree Riesener (964 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a little girl whose grandmother is seriously ill. And the action of the story focuses on what the girl’s parents tell her about the illness. About death. About what happens. The story for me becomes a sort of horror story about the ways that parents think they are shielding their kids from difficult truths but really are doing their children no favors. That these lies, these platitudes, are really just meant to shield parents from having to face their actions, the truths about what they do and how the world works. Which is really fucked up sometimes. Especially when it comes to death, and trying to explain something that is difficult enough to explain to someone who doesn’t have the ability to understand everything about what’s happened.
Keywords: Loss, Hunger, Parenting, Grandparents, Lies, Death
Review: I love how the story explores the horror of the lies that parents tell their kids. Because it recognizes that in the spaces of these lies, kids have a tendency to fill in their own stories. Which, because they’re working from lies to begin with, are often much worth than what’s really going on. So because the narrator’s parents don’t want to talk to her about life support, and that her grandmother isn’t going to be getting better, instead they tell her lies about Jesus. When really, she’s old enough to understand that they’re going to take away her grandmother’s food and water. That they’re effectively killing her. Which isn’t really the case, but they never explain. They never try to treat their daughter like she’s a person capable of understanding. They don’t want to try, so they try to hit the easy button. Except instead of making things simpler, it has the effect of making things worse, of making this little girl try to navigate the lies and the partial truths and arrive at a place that is disturbing. That paints the parents’ actions as cruel and terrible. And, in a way, that’s true, for while they didn’t actually starve the grandmother to death, they also did lie to their child as a way of trying to get around having a necessary conversation about death and loss. And the result is creepy and sad and well done. A striking story!