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The Metaworker Podcast | 019 Pushcart Prize Nominees, Part 2

Episode Description:

In this two-part series, we celebrate our Pushcart Prize nominees. This episode features Chris Cooper, Frank Njugi, and Linda Lacey. We asked each author to read an excerpt from their poetry or prose and to share some insights about their piece and themselves as writers. Elena, Mel, and Cerid also discuss what we loved about each piece and why we chose to nominate it.

Featured Authors:

Chris Cooper is a fiction author from New Jersey; his short story “Bleed” was listed among the “Best Summer Reads” for 2021 at Hash Journal; his 2020 short story “Finn Almost Buys a Goldfish” won the ‘Emerging Writer’s Award’ at Spank the Carp Magazine; and his short story “The Swim” was recognized as the Best in Fiction for 2019 at Across the Margin. Chris’ work has also been featured in Expat Press, Bookends Review, and elsewhere.

Nominated fiction:  Thirst by Chris Cooper on The Metaworker website 

Frank Njugi (he/him) is a writer and poet from Kenya. He currently serves as a poetry Reader for Salamander ink Magazine & His work has appeared on platforms such as Roi Feineant press, Olney Magazine, Kikwetu Journal, Fiery scribe Review , Konya Shamrusmi and others. He tweets as @FrankNjugi

Nominated poetry:  Desquamation by Frank Njugi on The Metaworker website 

Linda Lacy is a short story writer from Salem, Oregon. She worked at a homeless shelter for many years and now a men’s prison for the last decade. Her writing mirrors these career paths. Her work has been published in the Avalon Literary Review, Geez, Country Woman, North Dakota Quarterly, The Magnolia Review, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, Universalist, The Adventist Review, Imperfect Women and The Anglican Digest.

Nominated fiction: For Thea by Linda Lacy on The Metaworker website

Episode Transcript:

Cerid Jones (00:01):

Welcome to our newest podcast series where we celebrate our Pushcart nominees. Each of these authors forged ahead with pieces that left lasting impressions on us as editors and on you, our listeners and readers. We’ve published so many incredible stories in 2023, and it was a very tough choice for us. But these six pieces surprised us with bold and unique qualities that really left a mark.

Elena L. Perez (00:30):

This is the very first year we have nominated authors for the Pushcart prize, so we’re very excited to be able to give our authors formal recognition for their beautiful writing.

Melissa Reynolds (00:39):

In this series, we asked each of our six nominees to read an excerpt and share with us some insights about their piece and themselves as writers. Each episode will feature three of our nominees, as well as some musings from The Metaworker editors. We hope you enjoy this feature series as much as we enjoy presenting it.

Elena L. Perez (01:03):

Hello everyone. Welcome to The Metaworker podcast. I’m Elena Perez, the editor-in-chief.

Melissa Reynolds (01:10):

And I’m Mel Reynolds, also an editor at The Metaworker.

Cerid Jones (01:14):

And I’m Cerid Jones, the international editor here at The Metaworker.

Elena L. Perez (01:19):

So, today we’re doing part two of our 2023 Pushcart Prize nominees special podcast episode. In this episode, we will talk about pieces from Chris Cooper, author of the short fiction piece, “Thirst”; Frank Njugi, author of the poem, “Desquamation”; and Linda Lacy, author of “For Thea”. First we’ll hear from Chris Cooper reading an excerpt from his story, “Thirst”. Chris Cooper is a fiction author from New Jersey. His short story, “Bleed”, was listed among the best summer reads for 2021 at Hash Journal. His 2020 short story, “Finn Almost Buys a Goldfish”, won the Emerging Writers Award at SPANK the CARP magazine, and his short story, “The Swim”, was recognized as the best in fiction for 2019 at Across the Margin. Chris’s work has also been featured in ExpatPress, The Bookends Review, and elsewhere.

Chris Cooper (02:23):

Hi everyone. My name is Chris Cooper, and I’m a published fiction author, currently residing in Flanders, New Jersey. The title of my work is “Thirst”, and I’m going to read the introduction to the story: The blinding light from the Frigidaire beams, a humming blaze fluorescing Lacey’s face as she stands, staring into the refrigerator glow with a vacant gaze. Clasping the cold chrome handle, she rubs her stomach, swaying in a trance; she forgets what she’s doing for a few moments, lost in illumination as her eyes droop. She’s hungry, no, she’s thirsty; she remembers now as she cocks her head, scanning the shelves for something to catch her attention, something appealing to satisfy her appetite. It’s got to be tasty too; she’s not settling, she tells herself as she hangs, pulling on the door with an outstretched arm. Her mouth, an arid landscape, her tongue, skidding against a parched palate, grinding in pursuit of moisture; she’s high, stoned actually. She doesn’t do drugs anymore, no, not since she got over depression and her paralegal job randomly tests for amphetamines and opiates.

Chris Cooper (03:40):

First and foremost, I felt inspired to write from a female’s perspective since all of my previous works featured male protagonists. But “Thirst” really was inspired and emerged from a period of my own introspection, rooted in my battles with trauma, and how I was still carrying their burdens with me. I understood the complexity of PTSD, so I wanted to write a simple story about it, a very minimalistic plot, but I wanted it to be highly metaphorical, since a straightforward story about trauma and depression would be way too much of a bummer to read. So, I came up with the idea that the refrigerator, an appliance we all encounter every single day, would be a great symbol of the subconscious, and the contents inside, like perishables and other items, would be great metaphors for different types of stored trauma. So, I began crafting this simple story about a girl staring in front of a refrigerator, a symbolic act of self-reflection, pondering over what to choose to quench her thirst. The act of choosing something to drink became a profound journey into the recesses of her mind, where each item in the fridge represents a different aspect of her life, whether it be her fears, her memories, or her desires. The process of writing the story was extremely cathartic. [It] allowed me to explore the depths of character psychology in a constrained setting, turning the mundane act of picking a drink into an exploration of the human psych. Being a writer, to me, is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a love-hate relationship with words and the perpetual need to create. But not just creation for creation’s sake, but a deep burning call to create something of meaning, something of value that stirs the mind, peaks emotions, and tries to make sense of the insensible. I’ve always felt compelled to write as it’s my way of making sense of the world and my experiences within it. But my goals as a writer are to continue exploring complex themes and dark subject matters, navigating through the shadows, showing that understanding the darkness is essential to truly appreciating the light. For me, being nominated with “Thirst” for the Pushcart Prize is extremely rewarding. It’s an acknowledgement that the story not only resonated, but also left readers with a lasting impression, hopefully providing a deeper philosophical takeaway that can assist in their understanding or coping with their own traumas. This nomination symbolizes a recognition of my efforts to delve into challenging subjects with sensitivity and creativity, aiming to illuminate the darker corners of the human experience with a glimmer of hope. Currently, I’m working on a hybrid story. It’s called “Mandy’s Monster”. On the surface, it will read like a children’s book: simple sentences, a lively, upbeat tone and voice. But the narrative will have deeper, darker elements for the readers to explore. It’s an exploration of anxiety personified as a growing monster, a narrative that speaks to both the innocence of childhood and the shadows that grow alongside of us. For example, Mandy’s got a pet monster. His name is Worry, and Worry used to be a little one with silly suggestions like, ‘what if the sky falls’, but now Worry is growing bigger and louder, and he’s keeping Mandy up all hours of the night asking scary questions. Like, ‘what if mommy and daddy don’t love you anymore?’ As offputting as this may be, if I could pick anything to write with that’s truly unorthodox, I would choose to write with blood. [laughs] Uh, this choice is deeply influenced by Ernest Hemingway’s quote about writing, that there’s nothing to it. You just sit at a typewriter and bleed. To me, this encapsulates the essence of writing, pouring out one’s soul onto the page. Writing with blood, metaphorically speaking, to me means embracing vulnerability, embracing the raw and unfiltered essence of humanity. It’s about getting to the heart of what it means to be human with all its flaws and beauty, and capturing that in words. Every piece I write, I always strive to reach beyond the surface, to tap into the powerful, sometimes painful, always genuine core of human emotion and experience.

Elena L. Perez (08:30):

Thank you, Chris, for that awesome reading of your piece. I really found it interesting that he went into the writing of this piece knowing that he wanted to use specific metaphors. Sometimes I feel like this is unconscious when I write or—you know, we’ve talked with other writers [about it and] in talking about it, they realize. So, it was interesting to know that it was definitely intentional for Chris. Another thing I liked about this story was his attention to detail, like the different sounds that Lacey hears, the dinging of the fridge alarm and the phone ringing. And so I liked that the attention goes from something specific in the refrigerator to then hearing these sounds and it kind of shifts the reader’s focus from one thing to another. So, I really like that intentionality.

Melissa Reynolds (09:20):

Instead of me focusing on the metaphors and things like that, I remember that I got frustrated with Lacey and was, like, to the point where I just wanted to be, like, ‘make a choice already’. So, in terms of emotion, this piece really got my goat, so to speak.

Cerid Jones (09:45):

Absolutely. I think the emotional intelligence in this piece is really quite remarkable. Especially considering that this is a male writing a female perspective, too. I think that’s worth mentioning for sure, because it can be quite difficult sometimes to sort of break those…uh…break those ‘othernesses’. I mean, and that’s what really good writing does, right? Has the capacity to write from a perspective that is so far removed from your own. And this perspective of the character Lacey and how she is portrayed to deal with the traumas that she has been through without it being too heavy, without it being too light, is what really struck me in this piece. I felt like she was such a complex and real character, and the way her external world mirrors her internal world is what really struck a deep emotional chord with me. I found it—as opposed to Mel—you know, that I remember that indecision…

Elena L. Perez (10:53):


Cerid Jones (10:53):

You know, from being in my early twenties and especially, you know, after having a toke…

Elena L. Perez (11:00):


Cerid Jones (11:00):

…you’d sit and open the fridge and imagine how every single thing inside that fridge might actually be to consume. And you’d sit there for ages, uh, trying to make a goddamn decision. I find that so relatable. There’s something really comical in that which helps to lighten some of the issues that are brought to light in the story, but also serves for this wonderful extended metaphor. You know, even the title itself, “Thirst”, we are talking about an emotional thirst, a physical thirst, you know, a biological physical thirst and the fact that she wants a drink and that physical human contact kind of need, as well. And the thirst that we have just in life and in general. I mean, there’s just so many different layers going on here. And the more you read it, the more you can strip different layers, examine different components, and I find it contextually, emotionally, and character depth, very remarkable. I’m a huge fan of this particular piece and all the clever and well thought out word choices. And like you were saying, you know, Elena, he had some really clear ideas about what metaphors he wanted to use, and they just resonate so damn well. This is such a deep experience for a reader to go through. And I’m very, very impressed of Cooper’s capacity to enter this mind-state.

Elena L. Perez (12:34):


Melissa Reynolds (12:35):

And added to all those layers, too, the ending when Lacey posts to, uh, I believe Instagram, it also provides a commentary on how modern people deal with these feelings of lack, and it’s turning to social media and how, really, it’s a momentary validation. It’s not anything that’s lasting. So, I feel like that is also a very strong point in this piece.

Elena L. Perez (13:07):


Cerid Jones (13:08):

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s such a complicated issue, right, and especially in the context of this story, you know, because that’s a safe way for her to expose herself. [It] keeps her protected, but it also keeps her stuck between the want. Because like you say, Mel, that’s such a temporary impulse of getting those ‘likes’, but it isn’t actually fulfilling that thirst. But in the same way it’s almost as close as she feels comfortable, [as] she’s able to get considering what she’s got going on in her own head. And I find that so fascinating, the complexities of that balance between dealing with trauma in our modern world.

Elena L. Perez (13:56):

And I like the buildup, too, because, like you were saying before, Cerid, each item in the fridge has its own story that she’s thinking about that reveals to the reader a little bit more about this character as we read through, you know, her analyzation of whether she wants to eat this particular thing. Why she does, why she doesn’t. I liked that, too, because we definitely do that, you know? We eat certain foods because it reminds us of, like it does for Lacey, you know, our childhood, or we don’t wanna eat certain foods because it reminds us of some negative thing in our lives. So, I like that exploration, too, how, you know, these different items tie in…

Cerid Jones (14:39):


Elena L. Perez (14:41):

Yeah. Mm-Hmm. Exactly. And so, and then, like you were saying, Mel, all of that builds up to the ending of seeking validation. It just, yeah, it all ties in so well, and all these layers just build and build until we get to that ending that may be satisfying for the reader in a way, but not so much for the main character.

Elena L. Perez (15:04):

The next piece we’ll be discussing is the poem “Desquamation” by Frank Njugi. Frank is a writer and poet from Kenya. He currently serves as a poetry reader for Salamander Ink Magazine, and his work has appeared on platforms such as Roi Faineant Press, Olney Magazine, Kikwetu Journal, Fiery Scribe Review, Konya Shamrusni, and others. We don’t have a reading from Frank, so we’ll jump straight into what we loved about his piece.

Melissa Reynolds (15:36):

I would like to first point out that this poem’s title has quite the meaning, and we actually had to look it up and discuss whatever it means. It means the skin is coming off. And for me, once I learned that meaning, it brought even more depth to this poem. It already has the sense of loneliness and just wanting to escape. The speaker wants to escape their life. And so then hearing that he’s talking down to wanting to jump out of his own skin.

Elena L. Perez (16:13):


Melissa Reynolds (16:14):

Uh, really just…it broke my heart, actually. [laughs]

Elena L. Perez (16:18):


Cerid Jones (16:19):

Yeah. There are a lot of layers going on, and I kind of feel like this has been a common theme of all the pieces we’ve discussed.

Elena L. Perez (16:27):


Cerid Jones (16:27):

I feel like, here at The Metaworker, we love pieces that have got layers and that have to be shed down [laughs] to get to different things. Like it’s the meat of a story. And this poem does have quite a lot of those layers. The thing that I love most about this is—I’m fully going to expose my own biases—but I love culture and I love mythology. And dryads are one of my favorite things. That really just clicked something over in how I read and how I looked at this poem. And that sense of wanting to break free from constraints, from the external world, and this poem in particular does such a good way of bringing that feeling in from all the different senses. You know, we deal with…there’s wonderful metaphors that invigorate touch, that invigorate taste, that invigorate smell, sight, sound…

Elena L. Perez (17:34):


Cerid Jones (17:34):

You really kind of get caught up in this. You do feel kind of cocooned in lots of ways in reading this, but there is this underlying, between the lines, sort of sense that that cocooning is also a constraint. So, I kind of like the conflict that sort of exists indirectly in this piece. That, to me, is exciting and interesting.

Elena L. Perez (18:05):

It’s definitely interesting. I also relate to it, like, as both of you were saying, the idea of just being alone and, like you said, Cerid, cocooned in your own thoughts, in your own feelings, and maybe being so overwhelmed by them that you feel like maybe there’s no release. I like, too, that it kind of details the different methods of escape. And when you’re deep in those emotions, sometimes you do contemplate things in that way.

Cerid Jones (18:36):

When you are really in the pit of despair of general loneliness, anything that feels like connectivity…

Elena L. Perez (18:43):


Cerid Jones (18:45):

Becomes bittersweet, it almost becomes, you know, like it’s a blessing and a curse because you are so aware of how temporary all these little things are gonna be. You know, like when you’re at that height of loneliness, you are so convinced that all there’s ever actually going to be at the end of every cycle is that loneliness. Everything else is a temporary blanket. And it’s kind of, you know, like, that’s where that sort of shedding feeling comes in, you know, because you can present to be joyful and all these aspects. You could enjoy the sound of music or dancing around or, you know, like the touch of something. But all of that feels like it’s just a temporary layer going on top of that loneliness. And that is the only thing that remains at the end. Trying to come to peace with that…that’s kind of what I think I mean by that sort of cocooning, you know? We cocoon ourselves, we try and wrap ourselves in all these external layers to try and ward off that loneliness or make that loneliness better, but sometimes they can actually be in conflict with themselves, if that makes sense. You know, like if that becomes the ashes of a ghoul’s corpse, you know? [laughs].

Elena L. Perez (20:04):


Melissa Reynolds (20:06):

That’s a really good point. The poet mentions that there’s a boy who charmed the speaker before, but the speaker’s saying, ‘I avoid that because that didn’t work out so well the first time’. So, there is this element of…it’s almost like the cure is…you know, when you think about a snake bite, the cure is in a venom. And that kind of… that’s what that makes me think of. That, you know, this person is lonely, but they’re avoiding the cure that can be found within the poison, so to speak, of another relationship. Or I guess maybe not poison, but the danger that can come with that.

Elena L. Perez (20:49):


Cerid Jones (20:50):

The bite.

Elena L. Perez (20:50):

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. When you were talking, Cerid, that made me think [that] what you were saying seemed to define, exactly, melancholy, you know? Just exactly that bittersweetness of contemplation, I guess. And you, um, imagine all these different scenarios, which can be kind of a…not a negative thing, but like a…I mean, it further pushes you into that melancholy. But if you look at it another way, which I think the poem kind of does at the end, you can see the hopefulness in it. Like, you can imagine yourself, as the poem says, on the day when Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony is first played. So, things it could be. Like you were saying, Mel, even though you have this sadness, there’s also that hope of maybe, you know, coming out of the sadness eventually. [laughs] At some point.

Cerid Jones (21:48):

Honestly, I’m not sure I would go as far to say hope, but I think that’s one of the qualities that yearning has, right?

Elena L. Perez (21:55):

Exactly. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Cerid Jones (21:58):

Like, loneliness comes with a yearn.

Elena L. Perez (22:01):

Right. Yeah. that’s a better word. Yearning.

Cerid Jones (22:01):

But a ‘yearn’ is something that’s not fulfillable, right? I think once you’ve obtained what you yearn for, you no longer yearn for it, right? But we yearn and do nothing with the yearning. And I kind of feel like that’s sort of more where we are kind of getting at towards the end of this poem. Like, they’re trying now to do something with the ‘yearn’, you know? Like doing a circular twirl and the dryad hearing the plea, you know? And embracing that there is a yearning for more without actually needing to hold or grab onto the more, if that makes sense. I could be totally wrong, but that’s kind of the feeling I end up being left with, is that yearning that exists in loneliness rather than the, uh, despair that exists.

Elena L. Perez (22:53):

Right? No, yeah. That’s what I was getting at. It’s sort of a process, right? The cycle of loneliness of, like you said, Cerid, yearning for what was, remembering those soft touches from piano keys and the whispers like a hymn. And the poem kind of takes you through that. So, by the end, you’ve gone through that process and are sort of moving away out of that loneliness, and you’re ready to brave the dangers, like you said, Mel, and create a new symphony, a new relationship, as, you know, we see by the mention of Beethoven’s Symphony. So, what you and I were saying, Cerid, the narrator is ready to take action, ready to imagine what could come after the loneliness. So, that’s kind of what I meant by, you know, the hopefulness at the end. I also really love the word choice in this piece. I feel like all of the words are very, um, they feel kind of delicate, but also not. Like I…

Cerid Jones (24:00):

They’ve got a bite.

Elena L. Perez (24:01):

Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. So, like, I think of tree bark, which is, you know, can be crumbly, but it’s also protecting the tree. Or like, there’s, mentioned here, soft touches and piano keys and whispers from this African rose. But, you know, a rose is delicate, but it’s also got, like you said, you know, a bite. Thorns. So, I really like that kind of juxtaposition of, you know, it’s this, like we were discussing before, this emotional state is very delicate, but it’s also got this bite, which also ties into that feeling of yearning. I really like that, as well.

Cerid Jones (24:46):

Yeah. Actually, now that you’re mentioning…I didn’t actually think of the bites that exist in these juxtapositions, but it’s really…I love that there’s the line about, you know, being able to perform aromatherapy with incense that’s made from the ashes of a ghoul’s corpse. Like just, that’s again, such a beautiful juxtaposition. Aromatherapy is relaxing and healing and, you know, it has all those…and incense is worship and all these other various bits and pieces, but from a ghoul’s corpse, you know? So, you have this boom, this gut punch, that exists in almost everything, you know? And dark cauliflowers…like, I mean…

Elena L. Perez (25:25):

[laughs] Yeah.

Cerid Jones (25:25):

…aah! I think we could talk a long time about this piece. There is just so much to it.

Elena L. Perez (25:31):


Cerid Jones (25:31):

It is really gorgeously done.

Elena L. Perez (25:34):

It is. But we’ll move on to our third piece. This one is the short fiction piece by Linda Lacy. Linda Lacy is a short story writer from Salem, Oregon. She worked at a homeless shelter for many years and now a men’s prison for the last decade. Her writing mirrors these career paths. Her work has been published in the Avalon Literary Review, Geez, Country Woman, North Dakota Quarterly, The Magnolia Review, Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, Universalist, The Adventist Review, Imperfect Women, and the Anglican Digest. Cerid recorded a reading of Linda’s piece. We hope you enjoy it.

Cerid Jones (26:21):

This is an excerpt from the Pushcart nominated story “For Thea”, written by Linda Lacy: There’s one extraordinary thing about me: I’m pregnant. My body holds not only my own life, but the spark that is my baby growing ever stronger. I haven’t seen a doctor, and I estimate I’m about six months along. She sits high and tight, kicks under my ribs, tries to turn, and hiccups, which makes me smile. “Nadia, we should go to your parents’ house. We can’t wait anymore.” My boyfriend, Nate, has worry lines etched on his forehead. “We can’t live out of fear.” I pull his body into hers. He feels her little foot kick him. “Theodore! No kicking your dad,” he teases. “Thea,” I say with confidence as I kiss his mouth. His eyes turn dark. “It’s not safe here.” Nate’s strong arms encircle my body, he buries his head in my shoulder. “My parents don’t want us there. Let me enjoy a few more days of peace. Besides, you don’t want to be in Vermont this time of year. Trust me.” I try to tickle him, but he pulls away. * * * We wait it out, play Monopoly and Scrabble in our one-bedroom apartment, and watch the news until we drown in it. Rumors of war circulate amongst our neighbors, then everyone we know moves north. The South and the Midwest succumb to the invasion, the internet is shut down, and we listen to helicopters circle in the night. Nate packs my clothes as I stare out the window. “You’re eight months now, right?” I nod. “We gotta get out of here. Your mom will know what to do.” “She won’t, but…” “It doesn’t matter.” He shoves his own clothes into a plastic bag, “The war is here. Baby or no baby, they’ll take us Nadia.” Nate turns me toward him, my round belly the bumper between us, his brown eyes plead with me. “Everyone has evacuated. We have to go now. Please.” * * * Leaving D.C. is hard. This is where I went to college, where we met, where we made Thea. I don’t want to think about my parents, their hard eyes judging me for choosing a black man. Nate siphons gas off an abandoned Escalade into our Honda. The city is quiet, the life sucked out of it, a hollow void. He says we should stay away from the big cities, so we avoid Baltimore, head towards Gettysburg. It shouldn’t be too bad there. The March wind knocks our little car around as we make our way down the highway. I thought there would be hordes of people escaping the war, but there are no hordes, only empty lanes, wrecked vehicles on the sides. We missed the waves of humanity that fled the Eastern Seaboard two months ago. We don’t speak. As we approach Allentown, the seat below me feels wet. I lift myself up to realize my water has broken. It’s ok, the contractions won’t come for a while. But I’m wrong, they begin within a few minutes. The pain is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I grab the door handle with my right hand and Nate’s arm with my left. He knows. The contractions come and go as he drives us around the city looking for an open hospital even though we both know it’s useless. He drives into Bethlehem, worried eyes between me and the road. “Stop!” I scream, “Just stop somewhere, anywhere.” I have the seat in the flat position, I’m stretched out, I dread the next wave of excruciating pain. He pulls into a deserted 7-Eleven as another contraction hits. My screams worry Nate. He looks panicked, doesn’t know what to do. “Calm down Nate, calm down,” I breathe. He nods his head, takes a deep breath. Our eyes lock, and he begins to prepare. He clears out the backseat, lays a blanket down, helps me into the back. Another contraction holds on forever. He takes off my wet underwear, tries to see if I’ve dilated. “Nothing yet,” he says with shaky hands. All through the night, he massages my back, brings me water, endures my cries and the foul words that leave my mouth. He checks, rechecks to see if Thea is on her way, and as dawn breaks, my entire being feels the primal urge to push. There on the backseat of a Honda, Thea slips into the world screaming for her life. Nate holds her in awe, stares at her perfect hands, legs, head, eyes. “The cord,” I breathe out, exhausted, “there’s scissors in my backpack.” Nate cuts the cord and hands her to me. As we both wipe her down, she nuzzles towards my breast. My body knows what to do. The placenta comes out, and with Thea in the crook of my arm, all three of us sleep. * * * My world is Thea. I tell Nate I need time to over-love her, that I will fly back to him soon. He’s so understanding, kind. Sometimes I feel he’s too good for me, but I know he feels the same thing sometimes. We balance our self-esteem like a teeter-totter. We try driving to Nazareth, but all the roads are barricaded. There’s one highway open, and it leads straight to New York, where it all began. We stop in Phillipsburg to rest. “Should we drive to New York and hope for the best?” Nate paces on the spring grass. We are parked in a lot near the Delaware River, and the ancient sound of water calms Thea. She gurgles and spit slides down the corner of her mouth. She’s dependent, vulnerable. The weight of it overwhelms me if I think too long. “All the roads north are barricaded or destroyed.” His forehead has permanent worry lines now. “We could try to go off-road, but the Honda won’t make it through I don’t think.” “We could walk,” I suggest. “I’m scared to go to New York. What if…” “It will take us months to get to Vermont if we walk. And with the baby, there’s no way.” He sighs, “We could stay here, find a place to stay.” “This is their territory now, Nate. We’ve got to get north to what’s left of our country.” “We might have to assimilate,” he says quietly, “if they don’t take us prisoner, or kill us.” We both stew in our predicament. Tonight, we eat our expired tuna with rice. Rice every day from the 50-pound bag our prepper neighbor gave us before we left. You’re gonna need it, she said, gun on hip. I don’t like to admit she was right. Thea sleeps most of the time, but when she’s awake, her brown eyes melt into mine like warm chocolate. Her fingers curl around just one of mine, her skin is soft, the fuzz on top of her head kinky and beautiful. I’m in love. Nate is in love. She nurses, sleeps, and we worry. “You ok?” Nate asks as we settle in for another night in the car, and I nod a yes. “Everything will be alright.” He mouths the words, but his face lies. * * * It’s decided. We will chance going to New York. Perhaps the worst is over. We will try to skirt the city, head north. We don’t know what to do. Nate has to siphon gas where he can, but most vehicles have been drained dry. Maybe we will walk after all. On the way out of town, we meet a man who says the troops went through about a week ago, killing anyone they saw. He seems to enjoy telling us, and I try not to believe him. He says they threw the bodies in the river: men, women, little kids, even babies. The man looks at Thea, and I cover her with the blanket to protect her from this evil, this cruelty. Later, Nate says, “That guy has problems upstairs, don’t worry Nadia. Don’t worry.” I look down at our child. Thea is all I wish to be. I see her strength and resilience even now. I try to will certain characteristics into her: kindness, peace, justice, fight, principles. “You will be a strong leader, my little chickadee,” I say as I nuzzle her creamy neck. “You’ll right the wrongs, show people the way to an honest life, a good life.” If I keep repeating these prophecies, she’ll be one to change the world. This is what is extraordinary about me now: I’m a good mother. Thea’s eyes look up at me, inquisitive, ready to be filled with experiences, laughter, love. As the car rolls down the highway, she slips into a hard sleep, secure. I cover her head with a blue flannel quilt. I can’t resist stroking her delicate cheek just once. She is incredible. We drive all morning and into the afternoon. All the highways northbound are barricaded with barrels, smashed vehicles, bombed pavement. Our gas takes us to Suffern on the outer limits of New York. There are more people here on the streets, but they stare at us, as if they know a secret we do not. We find a place to park near the Mahwah River. The water comforts us, it never changes, it takes us away. “I think we’re gonna make it, Babe,” Nate says, breathing out the words. His forehead is smooth, I kiss his nose and wrap my arms around him. He is all I need in a man, confident, kind, strong. But I don’t feel his confidence right now. There is a buzzing in my heart, my hands feel prickly, there is a black darkness growing in the back of my head. The rise and fall of his chest deepens, and he falls into exhausted sleep. I extricate my arms from his warm body so I can nurse Thea. Soon all three of us nap into the night. * * * “Get out of there! Now! Come on! Move!” A man’s voice yells at me in a dream somewhere. “I’m not fooling around, move!” It’s not a dream. I wake as the butt of a gun shatters our windshield. As my arms reach for Thea, Nate attempts to shield us, and the man rams his rifle into the side of Nate’s beautiful head. Blood seeps down his scalp, his kind face. I’m in shock, can’t move, fear slides in like an arrogant usurper. Another man screams, “Move, move, move!” My legs find their strength, and we scramble out of the car. They push us towards their pickup, the bed of which is already full of crying people. Nate helps me in as I crush Thea to my chest. He bleeds into my baby blue sweater. The colors mix into a dirty purple bruise. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” he repeats, eyes on fire, forehead creased. The woman next to me cries into her hands, the others shake with a fear I don’t know yet. “What’s going on?” I whisper to her. She looks up, face wide with terror, starts to shake her head as her body rocks back and forth. I touch her arm. “What? Please, tell me.” She cries it out, “If you’re…living on the street…they get rid of you.” Her gray eyes bore into mine. “But we’re not homeless. We’re on our way to my mom’s.” Panic begins to wrap around me and slide into my chest. The woman rocks in her rising trepidation. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.” The next time the truck stops, the armed men get out and walk over to an old man sleeping on an abandoned tavern stoop. They drag his emaciated body over to us. I scream at the other man standing at the foot of the truck, “We’re not homeless! We’re just going to my mother’s!” He ignores me. We don’t exist. Nate’s arm tightens around my shoulders, I feel his skin tremble, his blood drain from his sweet body. I cup my hand around his cheek. “I love you, Nate. I loved you the minute you tripped on that chair you pulled out for me. Remember? At that stupid expensive French place? You tried to impress me, but I saw through it. I saw the tender man underneath, the good in you, the love you carry.” His eyes are on mine, but I see his life wandering away. “Don’t worry Nate, don’t worry.” He smiles and closes his eyes. People stop on the street, stare at us with horror. Thea begins to wiggle in her sleep. I know what I must do, what horrible thing I must do. As they shove the old man onto the truck, I scan the crowd that looks on. A woman not ten feet away begins to cry, and I show her Thea, my precious, precious Thea. As the men are distracted getting into the cab, I lean over and hold her out. Nate’s blood and my tears cover her blue quilt. She runs over to grab her, our eyes lock, and I let go. This is what is extraordinary about me now: I give my baby life. Nate’s head hangs down in unconsciousness, I hold him and cry. Did I do the right thing? Maybe death in my arms would be better than living in this violent world. My breasts are hard, yearning for Thea. The pickup comes to a halt. “Get out! Get out! Get out!” they scream, but Nate cannot move, he isn’t there. I kiss his perfect, furrowed brow. “Good-bye Nate, I love you.” The butt of a gun hits the middle of my back, the pain juts down in lightning stabs, but I manage to climb out. They yell at us in a cacophony of confusion, and I jaggedly follow the other victims as we make our way to the river. I hear a shot back at the truck. It’s then the buzzing in my heart, my prickly hands, and black darkness in the back of my head all dissipates. A calm I’ve never known comes over me as they line us up by the riverbank. Thea, my little one, you will be the light in a new world, a force for good, a warrior queen. The others sob, plead, get down on their knees. I am the only quiet one, I stand tranquil, joyful even. A smile comes over me as I think on my child. Be smart sweetie, don’t let them see your fear, fight for peace and equality, lead by example, love even when it seems there is nothing to love, and

Cerid Jones (28:28):

Linda Lacy is from Salem, Oregon, and she supplied a written piece for us to read out for you in this podcast. So, here’s what she had to say: As sometimes happens with writers, I began at the ending. What if a person was speaking and, mid-sentence, was killed? So, I worked backwards in a scenario where our country had been invaded and occupied. A man and a pregnant woman are driving north to Vermont, and the child is born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in their car. I chose to loosely hint at the Christ-like progression. This is a story of hope in a crushed world. Being a writer is who I am. Words circle in the world I live in. Mixing these with words to evoke emotion and setting is beautiful to me. I’ve been writing since I was six years old. Mostly short stories and poetry. Only in the past few years have I ventured into writing novellas. I guess I’m working my way up to a novel. I still work full-time, so writing is constrained to only a few hours a week. At the moment, I am polishing up some short works and I’m psyching myself up to expand one of my novellas into a novel. I prefer to write at a desk, computer locked in word, manual keyboard. I know I’m old school, but this is my favorite way to process. My fingers and brain work together to craft a piece of art. Or a piece of crap. I own many stories that fall into both categories. As for being nominated for a Pushcart award, it is, well, unexpected. I submit my stories to whomever will take them. There is an ocean of artfully constructed writing in our world. And I guess I never imagined I might wash up on the shore. I feel very honored. Thank you so much.

Melissa Reynolds (36:01):

I really love how this piece is able to build a dystopian world so quickly and with so few words, but then also pack a significant emotional punch at the end. I think that is super difficult to do, build a world and make me care about the characters. But this author 100% pulled it off.

Cerid Jones (36:29):

And I will say that’s a huge compliment coming from Mel, because one of the things that Mel hates most is when characters die at the end. [laughs].

Elena L. Perez (36:47):

[laughs] Yeah.

Melissa Reynolds (36:47):


Cerid Jones (36:47):

It’s usually on her ‘red flag’. So, for her to say that, that she really enjoys the ending and likes the speed, that’s a big compliment. Right?

Elena L. Perez (36:47):

Very true. [laughs]

Melissa Reynolds (36:48):

You are right. I have a very high bar for deaths in short stories. And I think, in part, it’s because it’s not just something to pull at the heartstrings, like a cheap trick. This felt like a sacrifice that a parent would make. And I think that any good parent would do the same for their child. So, that really got to me.

Elena L. Perez (37:18):

I think a lot of it is because she focuses on the relationships between these characters. So, that’s really important for me. And seeing how these characters navigate this conflict, like it starts out really simply, you don’t even suspect that it’s this dystopian world. Building on that, as we read about the characters and, you know, their experiences, was really effective. Even though it is a dystopian world, you still get that personal connection, you know? Like, they’re playing Monopoly and Scrabble in a one bedroom apartment. That’s totally relatable. That pulls you in right away. Something that the reader can immediately identify with. Like you were saying, Mel, you just get pulled in and then slowly you understand that this is not just any world. It’s not the world that we’re used to. You know, there’s something a little different.

Cerid Jones (38:18):

It takes you on a journey, right?

Elena L. Perez (38:19):


Cerid Jones (38:19):

You know, you are absolutely in it with these characters. And I think that’s what makes this ending so powerful.

Elena L. Perez (38:31):


Cerid Jones (38:31):

I cried the first time I read this piece, and I’m not at all ashamed to say that. It really hit me in all the gut and heartstrings. I find it [an] incredibly powerful story. And because it’s not…despite being dystopian, there is this wonderful sense of…as much as there is kind of a warning interlinked—I mean, all dystopians have that kind of warning—there is a really nice hopefulness that is left in between all of this. And you really do get a sense of that bond between the mother and the child or the family. This little family, you know, is going to sustain even after the child’s, you know, been passed on. You get this sort of feeling. There is something kind of like a warm blanket and it dissolved all the sadness of that ending. And I think that’s something really special, too.

Elena L. Perez (39:32):

Yeah. I like that. It’s…I mean, they say that, you know, trauma is passed on from mother to child, but I think that love is also passed on. So, I really…you’re right. I really like that aspect of this as well, because she’s leaving her daughter with hope for a better life. So emotional and impactful.

Melissa Reynolds (39:51):

You know, you were mentioning that the dystopian aspect doesn’t really come in right away. And I think that giving those types of details about what’s going on as they become relevant…

Elena L. Perez (40:07):


Melissa Reynolds (40:08):

…makes it feel a lot less overwhelming. It’s not just dumped on us right away. We kind of slowly get eased into it and I think that’s highly effective.

Elena L. Perez (40:20):

Yeah. It’s a slice of life. You can definitely tell that their life existed before we started reading this story and it will continue to exist after we’ve finished reading this story. I really like when stories do that. So, that’s it for our special two-part Pushcart podcast episodes. These were a lot of fun to record and I hope our listeners enjoy them. Thank you so, so much to all six of our nominated authors. As you can hear through these two episodes, we really loved your pieces and are so honored that you decided to send your work to us. And we’re also so proud to be able to nominate you for this year’s awards.

Melissa Reynolds (41:06):

Good luck to you this May when the winners are announced. We, of course, are cheering for you.

Elena L. Perez (41:12):


Melissa Reynolds (41:13):

And thank you for all of our readers, and please keep sending us your wonderful work.

Cerid Jones (41:20):

Thank you so much for all the wonderful submissions that we get, and we are looking forward to finding who our Pushcart nominees for the year 2025 might be.

Elena L. Perez (41:31):

Thank you so much, and we hope you enjoyed the episodes.

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