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Brendan Stephens

Watching TV with a Busted Antenna

It’s a lot like

when a therapist

wearing a peacock-

colored shawl,

dark azure

and sparkling

green, voiced

what I’d suspected

for so long:

Asperger’s, now autism,

how both expected

and unexpected

the moment felt.

How when I asked

what came next,

how to act normal,

she interrupted

with neurotypical,

which sounded like normal

with bonus syllables.

Either way,

no grounding

technique balms

the skull-deep itch–

all of us, hiding

snow flurries and static.


All day we sat on the sofa

in silence, watching the news.

My cousin hadn’t returned

from caving. Two days ago he

called before entering

the Norman side but didn’t call

at the Bone Mountain exit.

My aunt scrolled through cave system

pictures—stalagmites like gnarled fingers,

cavers caked in mud crawling

through “Devil’s Pinch” like a cat

underneath a sofa. My uncle said,

stop torturing yourself.

The rescuers would be thorough, right?

Their son would never wander countless

dead ends, right? He would find a stream,

turn off his flashlight, plunge

into darkness, save

the last gulp of water,

pray, and—for God’s sake—

stay still until they found him, right?

Grandfathers in Wartime


No matter how many times

I asked, he never

talked about the war.

Everything I know

is secondhand:

he was a medic with an injury—

his toe blown clean off,

an accidental discharge

inside the barracks.

He hid army trinkets

inside a tattered box tucked away

in an attic crawlspace:

a bullet casing,

a bayonet flecked with rust,

a blank journal with all

but fifty pages torn away.


The enlistment board

refused railroad men.

Their battles against

Maryland miles meant

more than another body

in Normandy. Laying ballast

to keep the wooden cross ties

in place, steadying

the ribbons of steel track,

he pretended to pour

cement on German coffins.


Brendan Stephens is a writer hailing from western Maryland. His work has appeared in Pinch, Epoch, the Southeast Review, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere. His awards include multiple Inprint Donald Barthelme awards, an Into the Void Fiction Prize, and a Sequestrum Emerging Writer Award. Brendan earned his MFA from the University of Central Florida and his PhD in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. Currently, he is an assistant professor of English at Northwestern Oklahoma State University and a submissions editor for SmokeLong Quarterly.


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