Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2023    poetry    all issues


Joel Filipe

B. Rosenberg
My Red Hot Cape Cod Summer

John Mort
Heart and Soul

Zoe Leonard
No Way Out But Down

Dustin Stamper
The Failure

Dan Winterson
Sit and Watch

Evan Manning
You, Me, Tomorrow and the Day Before

Brian Barrientez II

Vincent J. Masterson
Directions to the Shellback

Brandon Forinash
The Incredible Expanding Man

Corinne Tai
Eight Years

Pia Baur
Make Way for Ducklings

Craig Vander Hart
September Money

Alex Barr
Lentil Loaf and Spinach Salad

Writer's Site

Zoe Leonard

No Way Out But Down

How are you supposed to act when your plane is going down? Most people around me are screaming, so I’m considering it. It’s hard not to scream—that is, if you’re a natural screamer. It’s a gut reaction to terror, and cathartic. Like how you throw up after eating spoiled food—your body has to expel the poison. I’m not judging anyone for screaming, because like I said, it’s instinct, but it’s certainly not reassuring to those around you who aren’t screaming. Like when I was six, in the back of my mom’s Volkswagen, and a pickup truck was speeding towards us down the wrong side of the road. My mom screamed because she could do nothing else—didn’t have time to react or get out of the way, or, even if she did, she couldn’t. Fear locks you up. I was locked up, too, and that’s why I wasn’t screaming.

That’s why I’m not screaming now. We’re not in a freefall—at least, there seems to be some semblance of control to this descent. After we heard the explosion, the pilot said something over the speakers, but I could barely hear over the sound of screaming. Her voice sounded reassuring, like she had things under control, but the oxygen masks just dropped, which is giving me this seizing dread feeling I associate with hearing a graveyard bell toll at midnight. I might actually die on this plane. I probably will die on this plane. No, but the angle is stable—what did the pilot say? That we might be able to land? But if the engine exploded, doesn’t that mean we’re dead? I don’t want to think about it. If all of time exists at once, there’s a version of me in a place better than this, where I’m less scared. I don’t want to keep thinking about being scared. Hearing my mom scream that day of the car accident made me the most scared I’ve ever been in my life, maybe even more than now. At least all these people screaming are strangers.

I feel bad for any children on this plane. I hope there are none—I don’t remember seeing any when I boarded, but if there are, they’re probably looking at their parents for guidance. Maybe it’s worse for the parents, who probably can’t hold it together themselves. It’s difficult to pretend everything’s okay when people are screaming. But I’ve seen parents do some amazing things for their kids.

After the accident, my dad walked out of the hospital room smiling. I smiled too. He picked me up.

“It’s going to be alright, honey,” he said. I didn’t know what he knew.

“Is Mommy okay?” I put my head on his shoulder.

“The doctors are working really hard to fix her up. We just have to wait.”

“Can I go see her?”

“Not yet, baby, only the doctors can go inside.”

“How come you got to go in?”

“Doctors and husbands only.”

He carried me downstairs to get a strawberry smoothie at the cafe inside the hospital.

“My head hurts,” I said, clamping my eyes shut. “Oww!”

“You got a brain freeze, honey,” my dad said. “Drink a little slower.”

“Do I have to go to school tomorrow?”

My dad laughed. “You think you can get out of school for a brain freeze?”

I nodded, but the discomfort was already subsiding.

“You can’t get out of school for brain freeze, but maybe I’ll let you stay home anyway. You’re going to stay with your grandfather tonight.”


“Yes, A-gong. We’ll go to his house soon.”

“Why can’t I go home?”

“Because nobody will be there to watch you. I have to be here, to stay with Mom.”

“How come I can’t stay here with you?”

“Don’t you want to go stay with A-gong? He’ll make you the noodles you like.”

My stomach rumbled, imagining rice noodles in a shallow ceramic bowl. My A-Gong had a pair of Hello Kitty chopsticks that he would always take out for me. “But I want to see Mom.”

“You’ll see her soon. There’s no place for you to sleep here.”

“Where are you gonna sleep?”

“I’ll find a place to sleep. Maybe I’ll sleep in the car.”

“Sitting up?”

My dad chuckled. “Yeah, sitting up. You don’t want to do that, do you?”

I shook my head. “A-gong will make noodles?”

“Yes, I think he’s making them right now. He knows you’re coming soon.”

“Okay,” I said, “let’s go.”

Two days later my mom died. My last memory of her awake was her eyes, wide full moons in the rearview mirror, flicking back to look at me a moment before the truck made impact. When I was that little, my dad never let me see him cry. The exception was the funeral, but then, everybody was crying. It’s normal to cry at a funeral, just like it’s normal to scream when your plane’s going down. That poison, the grief in your veins, has to come out somehow. Otherwise, you swallow it and die. I always wondered where my dad put the rest of his grief. He did a great job, by himself. I didn’t really keep it together like he did. I had a tough time, and grew into a shitty teenager. When I was sixteen, I got into another car accident, riding on the passenger side while my friend was driving drunk. It was minor—neither of us were hurt. When I got home I expected my dad to yell at me, but instead, he pulled me into his arms and sobbed. That’s the first time it clicked—that he needed me too. After that, I tried to do better.

But now, here, it’s just me, and I’m allowed to freak out. I’m allowed to scream or cry or speak in tongues and clack together prayer beads like the man sitting next to me is. No, on second thought, I think he’s speaking Spanish. It’s hard to hear with the screaming and wailing and rumbling from the jets. I suppose it’s good that I can still hear the jets, though I think the one on this side is on fire. I’m sitting by the window towards the back of the plane and there’s smoke outside. If I crane my neck, there’s the engine. And yes, it is definitely on fire. That’s not comforting. I keep breathing through the mask and telling myself I’m not going to pass out. Or, maybe I want to pass out. But if I pass out I won’t be able to brace for impact. I’m breathing. The mask is delivering oxygen. My chest is squeezing my heart like a fist.

“Let me out!” a woman shrieks from two rows in front of me. “Let me out! Let me out!” She’s crawling over the people in her row to reach the aisle. I don’t know where she thinks she can go. Isn’t it safest to be sitting down? Maybe she’s claustrophobic, but then, why would she take the window seat? Well, whatever comfort she finds stumbling around the aisle, I hope it helps her. Sometimes it helps to stand up.

I got trapped in an elevator once, with four other people. This was at another hospital. The poor young girl in there with me broke down right away because she was claustrophobic. She crouched in the corner with her elbow over her eyes and started panting like she was about to hyperventilate. I wasn’t sure what to do. There were a couple of big guys in the elevator. One of them was a nurse at the hospital. He sat down with the girl and instructed her to breathe. The other guy called 911 for the fire department. I sat down on the other side of the nurse.

“Breathe with me,” said the nurse. “I don’t want you to pass out.”

She nodded, and grabbed the shirt around her chest.

“Count to three,” he said. “Inhale. One, two, three. Exhale.”

She did this for a few minutes, and her breathing slowed.

“Hey, there’s no need to freak out,” I said. “It’s not a big deal. Elevators break all the time.” I wasn’t sure if this was true. I certainly had never been stuck in one before. “What’s your name?”

She wiped her snotty nose with her sleeve. “Lily. What’s yours?”

“I’m Ciel.” I looked at the nurse.

“I’m Roger,” he said.

“Seal,” said Lily, “like the animal?”

“Kind of,” I said, “it’s spelt with a ‘C.’”

“Oh, yeah, I get it,” she said. “Not seal like the sea creature.”

We both laughed. She took in another shaky breath.

“Are you a college student?” I asked.

“No, high school. I’m a junior.”

“What school do you go to?”


“Oh yeah? I went there too! Does Ms. Shelby still teach English?”

Lily nodded. “Did you have her?”

“She was my favorite teacher.”

“Yeah,” said Lily, “she’s nice.”

“Fire department said they’d be here in fifteen minutes,” said the other man in the elevator.

“That’s not bad,” I said. I turned to Lily. “See, that’s not bad?”

She started blubbering again.

“What’s wrong? What are you worried about?” I asked.

“I’m claustrophobic,” she said, in a voice barely above a whisper.

“Oh,” I said. I looked at the nurse. “She’s claustrophobic.”

He grimaced.

“Then it’s probably not good to be sitting in a corner,” said the nurse. “Why don’t you stand up? Look, there’s plenty of room in here.” He stood up and stepped back towards the wall, and the other man did the same.

I helped Lily to her feet.

“Take deep breaths,” said the nurse. “You’ll be okay, we won’t be in here for too much longer.”

I spread my arms wide. “See how much space there is?”

“Maybe try walking around,” suggested the other man.

Lily spread her arms wide and swung them in loose circles. Then, she paced a little around the elevator.

“It’s not helping,” she said.

“You can distract yourself,” I said. “Why don’t you look at your phone?”

She pulled out her phone for a minute, but stuffed it back in her pocket. “The wi-fi sucks.” She smacked her back against the elevator wall and sunk to the ground again. “I’m going to be late for my appointment.”

“I’m sure they’ll understand,” I said, and smiled. “Is it just a regular check-up?”

She shook her head. “I’m getting an ultrasound.”

She must have sensed my reaction, because she followed it up quickly with, “I’m not pregnant. It’s for, um, my breast.” Her jaw started to tremble. “I found a lump. My doctor felt it too.”

“Oh sweetie, don’t worry, you’re so young,” said the nurse, “it’s definitely just a regular cyst. Patients have cysts all the time.”

Lily nodded. “I know, that’s what my doctor said. I’m just,” she swallowed, “scared.”

“Ultrasounds go very quick,” said the nurse. “They’re not painful or uncomfortable at all.”

“I know,” she said again. “Yeah, I know.”

“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about,” I said.

“I do,” she said.


She almost smiled. “I’m stuck in an elevator.”

I sat down with her again. “Do you have any pets?”

She nodded. “I have a dog.”

“Will you show me pictures?

She nodded again and took her phone out. The four of us spent the rest of the time in the elevator sharing photos and videos of our pets. The nurse had two cats—one of them looked a lot like mine, and the other man had a Great Dane. It took another hour for the firefighters to pry open the doors.

Somebody is vomiting behind me. I grip the arm rests to try to stabilize myself, but it does nothing with the turbulence. That woman who climbed into the aisle is slipping and sliding all over. She can barely hold on for long enough to stand. At least, if I die, I’ll be sitting down. Though I wouldn’t call this comfortable. The lights are out in the cabin, and everything is shaking. My chest still feels tight, but I’m breathing fine through the mask. I touch the rubber band behind my ear.

I wonder what my last words will be, or if I’ve already said them. I still have time to think about it. I could just say it to myself, or I could try to text somebody. I don’t know if my phone works up here, but it certainly can’t make matters worse. I take it out of my pocket and type the only thing I can think of saying to my dad, which is “I love you.” I try to think of something better, maybe something more unique or even a little funny that I could say in case these are my last words to him. I can’t think of anything else, so I hit send and put my phone away without checking to see if it delivers.

There could be worse ways to die, though right now I can’t think of any. Maybe drowning? I heard that’s actually pretty peaceful once your lungs fill up with water and your body gives in. Maybe burning to death? Yeah, probably that would be worse because it’s painful and also slow. Right, but considering the plane is on fire and we’re over the Gulf of Mexico, I’d say, if the impact doesn’t kill us, drowning or burning to death might be my other two immediate options. The water is fast approaching.

Alright, here’s a worse way to die than a plane crash: execution. Especially if you’re in America and have to wait fifty or so years after the crime you committed to be capitally punished for it. You’re not even the same person as fifty years ago. I can’t imagine the anxiety. Lethal injection seems so . . . sterile. That stuff in the needle is going to kill me? Yeah, no thanks, get me the firing squad. Or better yet, let me make a break for it and shoot me in the back. Maye that’s what this woman is thinking—that she’d rather be up and running than sitting idly waiting to die. I can respect that, but since I’m holding on to the slim hope that we might survive the impact, I don’t think being in the aisle is going to be as safe. Holding out hope that we don’t plunge into the ocean, that is. This is another ride I can’t get off of.

When I was ten, my cousins convinced me to get on a rollercoaster ride at Hershey Park, and I hated it. Not the big one—not Fahrenheit—in fact I can’t even remember the name of it, but it was too intense for me. They were thirteen and fifteen, which is about the age when rollercoasters become fun, and I know they thought I would be okay. I wanted to get off the moment the safety bar came down. Going up the first incline I was able to convince myself that the nerves were excitement, and my cousins wouldn’t put me on a ride I couldn’t handle. We approached that first drop, the one I couldn’t see from standing in line, and everything inside me twisted into dread. Why would they lie, I thought, if they knew it was going to be scary? I was sitting between my cousins, and I grabbed my oldest cousin’s arm and buried my head in his shoulder the whole way down. They screamed and laughed. My knuckles were going white, trying to hear my thoughts over the wind. I kept my eyes shut the whole time, thinking, it’s going to be over soon.

When we got off, I was crying. I ran to my aunt, and she yelled at my cousins in Mandarin. I realized I couldn’t understand half of the things she said, though I used to be able to. Only my mom spoke to me in Chinese.

“I’m sorry,” my oldest cousin said to me. “We didn’t know it was going to be so scary.”

It wasn’t their fault. They both bought me candy with my aunt’s money as a way of apology. I stayed glued to my aunt’s side, chewing Twizzlers while I watched them go on other rides. All the big rides looked too scary, but all the kiddie rides looked like they were for kids much younger than I was. I stayed on the ground, too hot under the summer sun, until it was time to go home.

There is a child on board—making that shrill, blood-stopping noise that only babies can make. I feel bad for the parents. The baby, if it lives, won’t remember this. I wonder if its mom knows that every second a baby is crying it releases stress hormones in the brain that can permanently impede mental development. I read in a study, something like, the IQ of a baby who is left to cry will never reach the same potential of a baby whose parents coddle and hawk over them. If we survive, that mother is going to see her baby through to elementary school, and she’s going to see the B+ on a math test and sigh and think, it’s because of all that stress from the plane crash. All that cortisol being released in those ten or so minutes of its infancy lowered by baby’s IQ, made them answer five times six is thirty-six.

I think the baby, screaming and crying, is going to survive. Even if it’s the only one that survives. They’re going to dig through the wreckage of this plane and hear little goo-goo sounds coming from underneath a huge panel of crushed metal, and they’re going to lift it up and find that baby nestled right in the middle of Mom and Dad’s bodies like two clamshells clasped over a pearl. It will survive through a final desperate act of love. The firefighter who finds the baby will pick it up and wrap it in a blanket, and with tears in her eyes she will think, so this is what love is capable of. She will end up adopting the baby, and that baby will grow into a person who defies all odds, who goes to university and gets a PhD for their research on stress levels of babies and cognitive functions of adults. The baby, now a doctor, will prove that no matter what happens to you as a baby, whatever cacophonous screaming, tire-screeching, plane-flaming accident you’re subjected to may scar you for a little while, but it doesn’t affect your ability to be happy when you’re an adult. They will recognize the correlation between high levels of stress in children and lower academic performance at school, but they will examine outliers, and be an example of one themselves. They’ll interview other adults who had stressful childhoods, and those adults will say, yeah, it was bad, but now I’m okay. They’ll say, now it doesn’t matter, and I’ve never once taken an IQ test and I don’t need to. That baby on the plane right now, shrieking, is not going to shriek forever. Its future is brighter than the fire in the jet engine, and it makes me feel better, knowing that they’re going to survive.

Someone who’s not going to survive is this woman sliding around the aisle like a marble in a maze game. She tries to get up then falls over immediately. The woman sitting in my row, with the praying man between us, is trying to stop the screaming woman from sliding around. She’s trying to grab her arm, or leg, or anything. It’s not working. I peek out the window, and the water below us is much closer. This will be over soon. Whatever this is—the crashing, the screaming, or this life.

There’s land in the distance. I think it’s Florida, but maybe we didn’t get that far and it’s Texas or Louisiana. I hope it’s Florida. So much crazy shit happens there that it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a plane to come crashing down and have everybody survive. The last time I was in Florida was when I visited my high school boyfriend, who moved there suddenly, right before the start of senior year. He was the first person I trusted enough to get undressed in front of. His name was Reza—or, still is. I don’t know what he’s up to, or if he’s still in Florida or if he ended up staying in California where he went to school. We dated for a year and a half, but we couldn’t keep up with long distance. We tried to stay friends, but that fell out too. It’s hard to love somebody you don’t ever see. If he’s still in Florida, I wonder if he’ll see my name in the news as one of the victims of the plane crash off the coast. If he’ll try to text me—if he still has my number. If maybe, when he can’t get through to me, he’ll try to contact my dad. My dad will confirm that I’m dead, and he’ll have a story: the girl I lost my virginity to died in a plane crash. That’s bound to pick up chicks.

I remember that night—I mean, how could I forget—his parents were out of town, and I snuck out of my house to go to his. We planned it all out. I had started birth control a couple weeks before, he bought condoms and lube, and I wore a matching set of pink underwear and bra. We were both so nervous and excited that we didn’t try to watch a movie or anything. We went straight to his bedroom. His bedroom with a blue checkered comforter and a Kurt Cobain poster that we both agreed was hot. When we were getting into it, I started feeling like I was on that rollercoaster at Hershey Park again. But instead of it’s going to be over soon, I kept thinking it’s okay, it’ll be fun. You trust him, you’ll like it. I was so nervous. He could tell.

“What’s wrong?” he said. Our shirts were already off. He took his hand out of my pants. “You’re not enjoying this.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said, grabbing his hand, and trying to put it back. “You can keep going.”

He pulled back and shook his head. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

“Then why aren’t you enjoying this?”

“I am.” I tried to pull him on top of me.

He resisted, and stayed sitting up. “You’re not telling the truth. Tell me what’s wrong.”

I looked down. “I don’t know,” I said, honestly. “I can’t think of anything that’s wrong, I’m just nervous. I just—”

“Then let’s stop.”

“No! It’s not—” I put my head in my hands. “I didn’t want to ruin this.”

“You’re not ruining anything,” said Reza. “I don’t want to rush you if you’re not ready.”

“I am ready,” I said, “aren’t you ready?”

“Not if you’re not.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and clenched my jaw as tears started welling up.

“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” he said. “Come here, baby Ciel, don’t cry.” He wrapped his arms around me, then a blanket. “We have all the time in the world, you know. We can try again another time. My parents don’t come back until next week.”

“What if . . .” I said in barely a whisper, “what if I get pregnant.”

Reza squeezed my hand and smiled. “That’s silly to think about, baby. We’re being so safe.”

“There’s still a chance,” I said.

“But that chance is so low,” he said, “so low there’s no reason to worry about it. Every time we get in a car we could die in a car accident, too. The chances of that are probably higher than getting pregnant with two forms of birth control. You don’t worry about dying in a ca—” He finally caught himself. “I mean, that’s not what I meant. I meant there’s a chance you slip and die in the shower every time you get in. What I’m trying to say is, you don’t worry about dying in the shower every day, do you? The chances are so low.” He smiled at me, but his cheeks were blazing.

I shook my head and smiled at his flustered expression. “It’s okay. I get what you’re saying. But what’s worse, slipping and dying in the shower,” I started laughing, “or teen pregnancy?”

He kissed me on the ear. “We’re not going to die or get pregnant,” he said. “Even if you do, I’ll be with you. I’ll pay for the Plan B or the abortion out of my own pocket.”

I tried to look away while I said, “What if I wanted to keep it?” but I couldn’t keep a straight face.

“Then we’re going to have some things to talk about!” Reza said, laughing as he knocked me over on the bed.

We kissed each other on the mouth. I felt so much better—like I would marry Reza right then if I could.

“Are you hungry?” he said. “I can make some tea and snacks.”

“We’ll come back?” I asked.

He nodded, and kissed me. “We’ll come back. But one more thing,” he said. He pulled one side of my bra down to reveal a breast, and gave it a squeeze. “That’s all for now,” he said, grinning. He pulled my bra back up, “But I’ll be back.”

Reza prepared tea and snacks like he said, and we went outside to smoke half a joint. We watched a movie in his room, and later that night I threw myself on top of him. It was still a little awkward, but whose first time isn’t? We did it twice that night, and I didn’t get pregnant either time.

Someone is speaking over the loudspeaker, though I can barely make it out. Something “control,” under control? Something, something, “impact.”

I think, if I survive this, I will text Reza. I’ll say, “Hey, I know this is out of the blue, but I wanted to ask if you’re still in Florida. I’m in the area.”

Another flight attendant has taken the speaker and is yelling “SIT DOWN. BRACE YOURSELF. SIT DOWN!” over and over again, which is easy to understand.

I’m trying not to look out the window because of how close we are to landing—or crashing, or plunging into the ocean. I don’t know which. My phone buzzes. It’s a text from my dad.

“I love you. Did you land already? Plane must be early. I’m still on my way.”

I manage to smile.

“Help! Help!” that crazy woman flying around the aisle yells again, and this time, the woman in my row manages to catch her by the arm. She pulls her up, and the woman throws herself into our row, startling the praying man out of prayer, and landing with her head in my lap.

She catches a glimpse out the window, and shrieks right in my face.

“Shut the fuck up!” I scream at her.

She pays me no mind, and keeps howling.

Great, I think, maybe I can use her body as a meat shield.

“SIT DOWN, BRACE YOURSELF, SIT DOWN!” over the intercoms.

We’re about to crash, and I don’t want me telling this woman to shut the fuck up to be the last sound I ever utter, so I decide to give in. For once, I’m going to let it out.

I curl up over the screaming woman’s head, muffling her with my body, protect my head with my arms, squeeze my eyes shut, and scream. I scream as loud as possible.

All of the sudden my body feels weightless, like I’m already a ghost. I can see myself in the third person, huddled over this woman and screaming. Is that my voice? Is it the plane or my body that feels like it’s slowing down? We must be suspended in mid-air. How is it possible? I don’t think we’ve crashed yet.

I want to live. I want to go back. I want to die faster. I want to crash. I want to stop being scared. I regret being scared. I can’t not be scared. I regret not being more scared. I regret not screaming sooner, and not screaming with my mom when the pickup truck was rushing towards us. Am I about to see her again?

The impact slams me into my seat. The metal body of the plane roars while it ruptures the surface of the ocean, cutting into it like a ragged bullet. A barrage of grinding, scraping, bending, and snapping that sounds like a building collapsing. Out of it all, I pick out the baby crying. The high pitched, whining shriek of an infant cuts through the darkness, centers itself in my mind as my body jolts violently down the roughest ride of my life. The woman slides out of my lap and into the footwell. She hits her head and stops screaming.

I don’t know who I’m praying to. I think, Please, please, please, please . . . .

I wait to explode, or for the plane to rip in half, or for sea water to start leaking through the cabin. I wait to taste blood—to feel pain, or to feel nothing. I can’t wait to hit my head and pass out like the woman on the floor.

We slow. The baby’s cries become louder. We stop moving.

I open my eyes, look out the window, and see the surface of the ocean. There is chatter. Shouting. Flight attendants run down the aisle, ducking into the emergency rows. Light floods in through the open doors. People reach under their seats for life vests, and the man next to me shakes the woman on the floor awake. I want to get out of the plane and text my dad that I’m going to be late, but not to worry. I made it. I’ll be there soon.

Zoe Leonard holds a BFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. She is a Kundiman fellow and originally from Baltimore, MD. Her work has previously been published with Rejection Letters, Bag of Bones Press, and Unlikely Stories.

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