Non-Fiction + Digital Media

Nicotine Summers - Tony Liberatore

 

Mom-Mom had lung surgery last week. Mom said she’s doing great. I’m not sure if I buy her inward smiles; the bags under her eyes tell a different story.  

I’m lucky my grandparents have always lived close. I remember their old rickety house on Main Street. The smoky Glen Burnie air dissipated in their front garden. The lily pads gave the frogs quiet refuge from the Marlboro haze.  

I can still hear the butts fizzing as they crashed into her quarter-full Deer Park. She watched closely as I drank, giving me the signal when I had refreshed myself enough. I always wished to finish the bottle. 

I would run out the back porch. She would smile and puff sweetly. Sometimes, she would join me and Pop in their pool. The water was a welcoming eighty-two. It lacked that necessary coldness. Glen Burnie was hot, sapped with the sweat of the everyman. The house was muggy and had a sepia tint. Or was it a bluish grey? I can’t quite place it.  

My sisters would kick me from the peeling swing-set. They beckoned me to dodge their gaunt legs as they cut through the sky. I often managed to dart past them.

Once, I caught a heel to the jaw. My tears fell amongst the thin grass and the dust. They caked into mud and covered my right knee.  

My sisters just kept swinging. I picked myself up and scowled. They laughed until I joined in. We didn’t know any better. 

That summer haze guarded us from the brightest sunshine. Mom-Mom’s oasis. The sanctuary she had built. In the garden, the birdbath bubbled and sputtered. One day, it drowned. It had filled with bird shit and second-hand smog.

 

Sometimes, I would sneak myself cookies from Mom-Mom’s cramped kitchen. Vienna Fingers stuffed in my dirtied shorts pocket, nestled on top of a handful of acorns. 

When I was little, the acorns were fascinating trophies; they tasted bitter and were far too crunchy. Later, I hoarded the acorns as ammunition and hurled them at my siblings. Proper defense for a familial war. Mom-Mom watched fondly from the garden with her flopping white hat; it poked brightly through the holly bushes. 

Mom got a bouquet for Mom-Mom’s return from the hospital. She loves flowers. Though, she’s lost the energy to take care of a garden. She just points out the lime green hydrangeas outside her front porch.  

It’s not the same in Millsboro. The air is crisp, and the youthful landscaping companies roar by to do commercial work. I never see them break a sweat. The fresh tulips on the counter were bought at Giant last Thursday; Mom-Mom didn’t cut them from Eden. 

The lilies and daisies always freshened up that wooded Glen Burnie porch. Their scent clashed with Mom-Mom’s Macy’s perfume and those horrible little white sticks.  

 

Fuck those white sticks. 

Mom-Mom stopped smoking after the expensive tests came back positive. Now, I see four packs of gum in her pocketbook. She never used to chew it to cover up her smoker’s breath. She chews to settle her nerves now. 

I loved smelling the cigarettes and fresh flowers, munching on peanut M&Ms on that cozy back porch. I thought life was so sweet. I didn’t know any better.  

I had a meeting the other week. I could smell the sweet nicotine deep underneath the wall of gum and breath mints. I wonder if he smokes to relieve stress. I’m sure he has a good reason. I can usually see that fire in his eyes. Something must’ve doused it.

 

Now, it smolders, and the smoke escapes through his nostrils. 

On the Outskirts - Jack Schaller
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Rising Loon - Nick Anderson

 

I had gotten into the habit every day of taking a whole lap around the lake in New Hampshire that my family comes up to for two weeks in the summer. I’ve always loved kayaking. There’s something about just being on the open water and the repetitive motion of dipping the paddle into the water off the sides. It’s peaceful.

That afternoon was perfect. Few clouds dotted the skies, and the wind was barely noticeable. I put on my bathing suit, a ratty t-shirt I cut the sleeves off of, and made my way out to the small bank on the water. The bright yellow kayak waited there for me, propped up on the mossy stone wall.

I lowered it into the water with a splash. The water was still pretty cold despite it being mid-August. I taped up the inside of my thumbs to prevent the blisters I’ve sustained doing this for a week, and set up the Strava App on my phone to track my time. I put my phone into the waterproof bag I brought along, push myself off with the black paddle, and start paddling to a fast pace.

I would say I was about a quarter of the way around the lake when I first saw the loon. I was already sweating heavily and the makeshift bandage I had was already falling loose. Even though my main focus was to keep my head down and my arms moving quick, I sometimes took the time to glance around the water and take in the sights around me, but not often. I was here to race. I was gliding along the shore and looking across to the large, white house that always had a firepit lit late at night when I saw the loon.

It looked like a black speck way out there, but it was definitely a loon. It was in the deeper part of the lake, probably trying to find some lunch under the water. However, I needed to keep up the pace if I wanted to beat my personal best, so I ignored it and kept moving forward.

I don’t know how long it took, but I was at the other side of the lake in a sweaty, panting mess. The thrum of the speaker in my kayak kept me going, but I felt that pain in my side whenever I pushed myself a little too hard. I needed to take a break. I set my paddle down and let my momentum carry me a little ways. I was taking a drink of water from the bottle I brought with me when it showed itself again.

This time, she—it was definitely a she based on her size—was no further away than a few yards. She was bobbing at the top of the water. She must have been unsuccessful in looking for lunch, as she was still in the spot I saw her before.

I’ve grown up watching the loons of the lake for years. My grandma taught me everything about them, and one thing she taught me is that they usually hate people. They tend to stay in the middle of the lake hunting for fish, and fly away or hide when boats come whizzing by.

But she was calm. She didn’t seem fazed that I was right here next to her wheezing my lungs out. She still kept her distance, unsure whether or not I was a threat. At that moment, I decided to forget about my race against myself and float with the loon.

Loons usually stay by themselves. They don’t mate for life or stay in the same area for long. Loons are lonely, which might be why they cry at night. If you’ve never heard a loon call before, it sounds mournful. They’re calling out for somebody in their life to join them, but they usually don’t find one. But the loon next to me was silent, just bobbing in the light breeze without any movement.

I decided to turn down my music a bit to not scare her. She still kept a few yards away, occasionally diving under the water to look for food just to reappear a few seconds later. Motorboats sped by across the lake. I was worried that they would scare her off and ruin the moment.

I knew that this couldn’t last forever, so I pulled my phone from the waterproof bag to try and take a picture. I fumbled with it and nearly dropped it into the water. I snapped as many photos as I could, afraid that she would leave before her photoshoot was over. But she stayed, perhaps she was happy to have some company.

Eventually, she dipped under the water, and I never saw her come back up. I sadly made my way back to the house with sunburnt skin and a phone full of new photos.

 

I’ll probably never see that loon again.

The Dark Side - Josh Maliszewski
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Dino Nuggets - Thomas Marine

 

Dino nuggets. 

Small chunks of a dinosaur’s great-great grandchild, arrayed upon a plate without dignity or fanfare, yet perceived by the younger eye as the very ambrosia of the gods. Add ketchup to the meal, pour a glass of milk, and enjoy on the spot. 

 

I remember sitting down at the outdoor table leading into my yard as a child. I couldn’t have been more than 7. The fading summer sun was sloshing strokes of purple and orange sky upon the horizon. Deer still roamed the neighborhood absentmindedly, searching for mates, safety, and the odd bagel from a neighbor. Mosquitoes had not taken as much of a liking to me as they would in later years, but they still viewed me as dinner. Through all of it, I failed to notice anything but the table in front of me and the food that was yet to come. I did not then appreciate nature to the degree I do today. 

Beside me sat my brother and sister, bickering with anyone who would bother with them. Their arguments were immature and inconsequential and had little to do with the real world. They argued about anything they could, whether it was the pronunciation of “tomorrow” or which sibling would beat which in a fight. Of course, I was no better at that age. I sat there, bickering with them and complaining that dinner was taking too long. Our father, despite his best efforts, had no power over the whirlwind of complaints and insults sitting at the table. Without any leverage over our behavior, he had nothing to give us that could make us be quiet for even a moment. He resolved to sit, outnumbered and drowned out, and waited patiently for us to calm down. 

Suddenly, my mother rushed from the house, holding plates for me and my two siblings. The plates held the long-awaited shoestring fries and dino nuggets that every child in the world so desperately craved. Immediately, everything we argued about lost meaning. We were dead silent, homing in on the prize, our quarrels with each other completely forgotten. In order to say grace, the plates had to be put aside, as we would simply devour what was put in front of us, with or without a blessing. Once we had thanked God for the grub, we were allotted our plates and given ketchup (objectively the best condiment to ever grace this earth). After that, forks flew aside, fingers were used, and the food on our plates seemed to evaporate, leaving only the breading crumbs and spare small fries behind. 

One cannot begin to even describe how dino nuggets produce such bliss in the mind of a child. They are salty, but not drowned in salt. The breading maybe? Could it just be the fact that they are shaped like dinosaurs? Who knows. It didn’t matter to me as a kid, as I was simply focused on stuffing my face with chicken. However, now that I have experienced more to life, I wish I could find out what gives me so much nostalgia from eating them.  

 

When all was said and done, and the chicken had been devoured, the dinner was over. Stomachs had been filled, and the bickering from before the meal had been forgotten wholly. By now, it was dark, and the mosquitoes increased in number and severity. One by one, as my brother and sister finished, we walked inside and got ready to go to sleep. We took our baths (not without a little complaining), got into our PJs, and got into our beds, all with the taste of the dino nuggets still in our mouths. Before drifting off to sleep, I took a look out of the window beside my bed and watched as bats flittered in to dispose of the bloodsuckers that plagued my dinner.

 

With the hooting of a great horned owl in my ears, I fell asleep.

 

Untitled - Shane Elliot
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Oculus - Erick Castaneda-Galindo
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Nike in the Indian Streets - Adarsh Gadepalli

 

The morning Indian sun flooded the porch as I locked my eyes onto the monkey in the doorway. I was sleeping in the guest bedroom of my grandparents’ apartment. The bed was a cyan mattress set on the tiled floor. Various books and keepsakes that my mother pestered my grandparents to put away or sell filled the room. 

The room was refreshing at night. The doorway had no door, so every night I felt the warm air flow in with Hyderabad’s nocturnal buzz. Late at night, I would hear the local mosque’s call to prayer. 

In the morning, the buzz of the city continued under the pink and orange skies as the street’s rage faded in and the sun sneaked through the doorway.  

And more often than not, a monkey would be there. The first morning I saw the monkey, it terrified me. If it wanted to march over to my bedside, grab me by my bony ankle, and swing through the city at my expense, it probably could.  

Thankfully, it didn’t.  

Its presence was bizarre. At least it seemed like it. However, I seemed to attract more attention than the monkey. 

 

In fact, my presence was much stranger than the monkey’s. A brown teenage boy from America who couldn’t speak Telugu and wore Nike clothes he usually throws on before hitting the sheets. 

I remember walking along the dusty road as I went to the shop around the corner to buy some AA batteries for my grandfather. That morning, I was watching TV on the scratchy cloth chair in corner of the living room. The cluster of keepsakes that crowded the bedroom flowed along the living room walls. 

 

Every morning, the electricity cut off at around 10:00 A.M. for about an hour. When the screen blacked out halfway through the episode, my grandfather sent me on the mission. 

The usual mess of cars, automobiles, and motorbikes flooded the street. And of course, the occasional cow that found its way into the loop. 

The corner store had steps leading up to its entrance. In the store I walked through the aisles and found the batteries. Beside it was a bag of gummies. I meekly slid the bag and batteries onto the counter and dropped the rupees I had. I don’t remember what the man said, but I responded with the safest word I knew: “Avunu” (Yes). 

The black swoosh on my red chest felt like a hole sucking in all kinds of stares along with the hot air. I got the most stares from kids my age handling motorcycles. They also got the most stares from me through the smoky air. 

Some of Hyderabad’s eccentricities were laid out on its overrun, rocky roads. I remember riding on the back of my older cousin’s motorbike as a high-speed farewell ride on that trip, although he wasn’t much older than me. It was probably the most absurd thing I had done in my boring, 13-year-old American life. 

Untitled - Emmett Bradley
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Alternative Minds - Logan Carignano
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Detour - Andrew Terry

Even the smallest amount of research would have told you that we were going to a ski resort in the middle of the Summer. I knew it sounded like a bad idea for my Dad to replan our vacation to Beech Mountain, North Carolina. He wouldn’t let the people who cancelled our house rental the day before we leave stop our vacation. The eight-hour trip was mostly uneventful, until my parents wanted me to drive the final leg of the trip. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but I was fresh out of driving school. I may have only been on the road once in my life before, but at least I understood stop sign red.

It turns out Beech Mountain is the tallest town in eastern America, and I was just about to figure that out. The road started going straight up, and I was still behind the wheel. Maybe it was just because this was my second time driving ever, but I thought if the road was any steeper our car would be flipping over. Our beat-up minivan struggled to make it up the hill, and I had my foot on the floor. Then, the 180 degree turns showed up.

As if a new driver like myself couldn’t be more scared, I now had to turn the car around completely while still having my foot all the way on the gas to avoid barreling backwards. The only thing I remembered from my driving class now was when we focused on people dying in car crashes for a full day.

 

At this point, I was just praying to survive.

I didn’t care if this was the worst vacation ever, as long as I got out of the car alive. Luckily my prayers were answered, because I did survive, and oh boy, that was the worst vacation I have ever had. Finally, I got to the top, and we could enjoy our vacation at a ski resort, in the middle of the summer.

My Dad and I have many terrible travel experiences. At this point it is a running joke that we accept with our lives. Beech Mountain is one of many car-related travel failures. Our next problem occurs on the dreadful “Vail pass” in Colorado. Vail pass is a part of road that takes skiers from the Denver airport to many ski resorts, and is incredibly dangerous because of its steep inclines and declines through the mountains.

 

Our family’s vacation ended, and we began the trek back to the airport. The weather report was a bit wrong for that day, instead of some snow, we were driving into a full on blizzard.

As soon as the snow sticks to the ground, our car starts losing traction. Turns out, the tires on our rental care were completely bare. The tires on the car were so bad that it seemed like the rental agency was trying to assassinate us by giving us that car to drive in the snow. Luckily, we were very close to the airport when this blizzard happened, but this remains as the most nail-biting drive of my life. I had to switch seats with my mom because she couldn’t stop screaming about how she couldn’t see anything ten feet in front of her with the snow. It was a blessing our flight was delayed, because we needed those extra two hours to meticulously navigate down those mountains.

 

These travel stories terrified me at the time, but I am happy for them. I love having traveled to the places I have been, even when the roads were rocky. Our travels make for good stories. Reflecting on these trips, I can conclude that my parents are the best. Despite so many rescheduled flights, canceled rental houses, and broken rental cars, I love that my parents continue to take me on these wild journeys.