The Dollhouse

In Issue 71 by Brandon Daily

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Photo by edgeeffectmedia.com on Unsplash

The night before he left for the last time, he gave the dollhouse to her.

It was late. Abby had settled into her bedcovers and turned her head to the window. Outside, the sky was dark from the clouds that covered up the moon and stars. She knew she would wake to fresh snow on the yard—not the first snow of the season, but with the cold, it could be the first big snow.

After several minutes studying the night on the other side of the glass, her eyes growing heavy with sleep, the door opened. It creaked slowly at first, the stubborn hinges announcing his entrance, before he opened it all the way. For several seconds, he remained a silhouette, a gentle shadow looking in. Light from the hallway spilled inside her room with a gentle, yellowish glow, illuminating the pink-painted walls and the posters of horses.

“Abs?” he whispered. He knew she was awake, could see that she had lifted herself higher onto her pillow so that she was almost sitting up, though not fully. He repeated her name, this time a little louder.

With her father’s voice again, she sat up completely. A yawn escaped her lips, and she brought the cool bedspread up to her face, rubbing the soft fabric over her cheeks and her closed eyes. She giggled at the feeling of it, and she continued to do this for several seconds more— though it seemed longer—before she took the covers away. Her father walked over and sat on the foot of the bed. The springs groaned loudly underneath his weight as he settled himself there. He reached over to the bedside table and clicked on the lamp so that the whole of the room was defined now—the white dresser and wooden table that he’d given her a year earlier, crayons and pages with half-drawn images littering the small tabletop.

When he smiled at her, Abby pulled the bedspread up so that her face was covered. Another giggle, this one louder than the ones previous, came from her small body, and he laughed at the sound. A second later, she dropped the cover and smiled at him. Though she was nearly seven and too old for playing this game, it had been something the two of them had done since she could first remember. After several more rounds of hiding her face and then revealing it again, laughing loudly each time, Abby let go of the fabric and sat up completely.

Her father had stopped his laughter, too, and was now looking at her. She could tell something was wrong. His eyes were wet and there was a strange twist to his lips that she hadn’t seen before. He tried to smile through it, but he turned away and wiped at his eyes with his shirt sleeve. When he looked back, he smiled again, and this time it was genuine and real. He dropped his gaze to the bedspread and let his fingers move slowly over the pattern of Minnie Mouse holding a flower—her aunt had sewn it two years earlier and given it to her for Christmas. “I’ve always loved Minnie,” he said.

She smiled. “Me, too.”

“You know,” he said. “Every time I see her, I think of you. My little mouse.” His voice broke at the end, and he again needed to turn his head away from her.

The wind was picking up outside, and he seemed to be studying the sounds, his eyes now closed, his body swaying back and forth gently, as if there might be some music hidden within the various creaks and snaps from the trees and bushes beyond the window. Abby turned her head and listened intently, hoping to hear the same sounds her father seemed so lost within, a kitten’s mewling or a dog’s bark or the flap of a bird’s wings, but she could not. In weather like this, she knew, everything would be inside and hiding. Everything would be safe.

“I love you, peanut.” Her father’s voice broke the silence, and when she turned back to him, Abby saw that he was no longer looking away but was, instead, focused completely on her.

“I love you, peanut butter,” she said, and this made him smile and laugh slightly.

“Here,” he said and then stood. He moved away from her, back to the door. She watched as he bent down and lifted something large and seemingly heavy from the hallway, maneuvering it just so through the door and over to where she sat on her bed.

It wasn’t until he set it on the carpet and spun it around that Abby saw what it was.

“Come here,” he said, and he reached out his hand to help her down from the bed, though she did not take it. Instead, Abby pushed the covers away from her and nearly slid from the bed. She knelt there beside her father, the two of them looking at the dollhouse.

“It’s just like our home,” she whispered to herself, though her father nodded at this. She smiled as she moved her eyes slowly over each room, noticing the small details there: the clock above the orange couch in the front room; the kitchen table with chairs whose paint colors did not match one another (one white, one black, one red, and one brown); her own room with hand-drawn posters on the pink walls and a bed that looked just like hers, complete with a Minnie Mouse blanket. The rest of the dollhouse was just as detailed, from Owen’s room to her parents’. She reached her hand out toward various parts of the miniature house, but each time her hand came close to one of the fixtures there, she pulled it back quickly, as if afraid she might be stung by some unseen insect. As if she might destroy what lay before her.

“I’ve been working on this one for a while,” her father said. There was pride in his voice, but had she been listening more intently, Abby might have heard the sadness there, too.

A minute more passed with Abby’s eyes moving over each room again and again, her lips smiling wider as she noticed each specific detail. With them, her father had recreated the imperfections of the real house—the dark spot on the front room’s wall, formed when Owen accidentally knocked over a candle from the side table and almost set the wall on fire or the small hole in the kitchen wall from when her mother had tripped while making pancakes and sent the glass bowl flying. All these moments from her life replayed in her mind as she saw them recreated in front of her, this miniature version of her world entirely.

Finally, she turned to him, tears at the corners of her eyes, though she didn’t brush them aside, nor would she have been able to understand their purpose for being there in this moment. Rather, she scooted closer to her father and wrapped her arms around him. He felt thinner now, as if he were shrinking in size.

He hugged her back, bringing his face to the top of her head. He kissed her chestnut hair. She smelled of shampoo, and he breathed this scent in several times before letting her go. “There’s also these,” he said and stood. From his back pocket, he brought out three small wooden carvings and handed them to Abby. They were figurines.

She turned them over in her hands and then brought them up to her eyes so she could see them better. One taller doll and two shorter. The tall one had dark brown hair that was painted down to her shoulders, and she wore what looked to be a green dress. The two shorter dolls were painted with the same hair color, though one was shorter, and he wore a red shirt and blue pants, while the longer-haired doll was painted to look as if she wore a pink dress. Her mother and Owen and herself.

“Where’s yours?” she asked.

He opened his mouth to speak, but whatever words he wanted to say remained silent, and so he closed his mouth and simply looked down at her. In her hands, he noticed, she held the three dolls so completely. His own fingers twitched slightly at his sides, and after a few more seconds of silence, he finally spoke. “I forgot to make me,” he said. Abby dropped her head but lifted it back up when he said, “But I did make this for you.” With that, he turned and walked off to the hallway again.

When he came back, her father held another wooden carving in his hands, something large to go along with the dollhouse. He gave it to her, and she took it and set it down gently in front of where she sat. It was a big rig with a red trailer. A miniature replica of the one he drove.

As she studied the truck, looking in the cab, searching for a doll to match her father, he sat down beside her.

“I’m leaving again,” he said. “Tomorrow, early.” She looked up at this; she never knew when he was leaving or how long he would be home before having to drive the truck away from the house again. This time, it seemed like he’d only just returned, that it was too soon for him to leave again.

“When’re you coming back?”

He glanced over to the window, as he had several times during the previous few minutes, and then back to Abby. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “But I don’t think I’ll be back for your birthday.” His voice was soft. “I wanted to give you this before.” He reached over and lifted Abby so that she now sat on his knee. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he kept saying this over and over, quieter and quieter as he hugged her close to him. “I love you so much,” he said finally, and then he was quiet.

The two of them stayed like that for a while longer, until Abby fell asleep with her cheek pressed against his shoulder just as she had years ago when she was a baby. He lifted her to the bed and pulled the Minnie Mouse cover up to her chin. Then he clicked off the bedside lamp and walked to the door. There, he turned back to his sleeping daughter and the shadow of the dollhouse on the floor, before disappearing into the hall.

#

The first thing Abby did the next morning, and each of the mornings to follow, was to go straight to the window and, standing on tiptoes, look outside to see if her father’s truck was really gone or if it was parked in the driveway, where he always kept it when he was home. But that morning, as with each morning after, the driveway was empty.

Outside, the snow blanketed the yard and the street. The plows hadn’t come through yet, and tire tracks lined the road in parallels, though none of them were big enough to be those of her father’s truck. A wind passed through the air, shaking the branches of the few scattered trees. As this happened, powdered snow drifted down from the higher branches; even from her distance, Abby could see the faint shimmer sparkle in the air as the sun shone off the falling flecks that settled to the collected snow below.

On her way out of the room, Abby knelt down to look again at the dollhouse. The three figurines, those of her mother and brother and herself, lay on the floor, and she now took them up and placed them in different parts of the house. The miniature of her father’s truck she picked up and carried over to the closet, setting it inside, a distance away from the house and from the rest of the family.

Her footsteps on the carpeted hallway were slow as she moved toward the kitchen. The house was cold, and chillbumps dotted her arms and legs as she walked.

Owen was just sitting down beside their mother at the kitchen table, a spoon in his hand. When he settled himself, he poured a bowl of cereal, filled it with milk, and then began eating, never once taking his eyes from his breakfast in front of him.

Owen was five-and-a-half years older than Abby. Over the previous year, she had noticed a quiet anger take hold of her brother. He rarely came from his room when he was home, and when he was out in the main parts of the house—usually for meals only—he was sullen and quick to temper, which showed through in loud breaths and rolled eyes. Though Abby had grown up running around the house and yard with Owen, laughing at him when he tripped or made faces at her, she now kept her distance. Often, she found herself crying because of the strange and sudden change in him and wondering if he might once again become the brother she’d always cared so much about.

Neither Owen nor their mother glanced up when Abby sat down at the table. Something was wrong, she could tell, though she didn’t know what it was. Maybe they were sad that her father was gone again? Or maybe it was the snow? The knowing that the long, cold winter was officially ahead of them.

After several seconds of silently looking around the kitchen, smiling slightly at the hole in the wall, she grabbed the box of cereal and reached inside, grabbing handfuls of the flakes and putting them in her bowl. She didn’t need milk. She’d eat the cereal dry. Only then did Abby glance at her mother. Her eyes were puffy and red, her cheeks pale. It looked as if the color had been sapped completely from them.

“What is it, Mommy?” Abby asked, her voice timid, afraid.

Her mother lifted her eyes from her own breakfast bowl and found those of her daughter. She smiled weakly. “Nothing,” she said and lifted a spoonful of cereal to her mouth with a shaking hand.

Abby thought of the dollhouse and the look on her father’s face the night before. “When’s Dad coming back?” she asked.

Owen turned his head to their mother while Abby chewed loudly on several dry cereal flakes.

“I don’t know,” her mother answered. Her voice broke mid-sentence: “Might be a long while.” Then she stood up and walked away from the table. The two of them, Owen and Abby, watched her disappear down the hall toward the bedrooms. Neither said anything.

#

It was the weekend, though even if not, with a storm like the one that had come during the night, there wouldn’t be school.

Abby’s mother had been in her bedroom since she walked away from the table that morning, and Owen left shortly after he finished his breakfast, no doubt hanging out with Michael and Stevie and Jack, the friends he’d become closer and closer to over the previous year, against the warnings of their father to stay away from the three of them. They come from the trailer park, Abby had heard him say to Owen several times. Only trash comes from trailer parks. Normally, Owen remained quiet at their father’s criticisms, but about a month earlier, her brother had snapped back. Abby could still remember the pent-up frustration in Owen’s outburst, its final release. His face turned an angry red and the veins showed through on his neck. You drive a truck, he yelled at his father. Nothing more trash than that. At least they care. At least they’re here. Abby had been sitting on the couch then. She watched her father’s face change, passing from upset to defeat and back again to anger. His breathing became louder, and his hands clenched into fists. Abby had started crying then. Though she would not realize this until years later, when she thought back on it, her tears had calmed her father in that moment, redirecting his focus and sparing Owen.

The two of them—her brother and their father—hadn’t spoken more than ten words between the two of them since that afternoon, though their father had been away for nearly two weeks of that time, driving the big rig across the country and back, moving whatever crops he was transporting to the different points of the compass.

#

After her mother and brother left her alone that morning, Abby meandered about the front of the house for a while. She eventually sat on the couch and turned on the TV, flipping through the various stations, most of which were staticky from the weather outside. Nothing good was on, so she turned the TV off after running through the channels several times. She thought briefly about going outside, rolling a snowman in the yard, but she was too small to lift the head onto the body, she knew, and she didn’t want to spend the time bundling up in her jacket and mittens and boots.

For a while, she sat outside her parents’ room. On the other side of the door, her mother was crying. Abby wondered if she should open the door and go over to her mother and wrap her small arms around her in a tight hug, the same way both her parents did for her when she was sad and crying. But Abby didn’t. She couldn’t. She worried too much at her mother’s response, the anger or frustration at being interrupted in whatever moment she was creating for herself.

Eventually, Abby made her way back to her own room and shut the door. The dollhouse was in the middle of the space. She walked over and sat beside it.

Minutes passed as her eyes moved over the details that her father had put into its creation. She had noticed many of them the night before, but it wasn’t until that moment, as she sat alone with her father’s gift, that she saw them all.

When Abby looked at the miniature front room and at the door there, she felt the same tingle within her arms and legs that she felt when her father returned from one of his drives. She would always be there, waiting at the window, watching the dark street for the approaching glow of the truck’s headlights that announced his arrival. When she saw them, she would run to the door and stand there, sometimes with Owen beside her, sometimes alone. And she would listen as the rumble of the diesel engine became louder as he pulled into the driveway, and then the complete silence that swept over the entire house when he turned the engine off. The bang of the truck’s door when it closed and the soft thuds of his boots as he came up the walkway. And she remembered how the front door would open and she would catapult herself at him. Each time, he expected her, bracing himself to receive her weight. Still, each time, she almost toppled him. She’d hug him tightly, breathing in the smells that perfumed his body: sweat and tobacco and the cherry-vanilla scent of the air fresheners he kept stacked on the passenger seat. He would hug her back, and then, after several seconds, she would separate from him, and he would pull from his back pocket some trinket he had gotten her from one of the random truck stops he had come to on his drive.

She kept each of these gifts in a small tub beneath her bed. Sometimes in the late hours of the nights when he was away on another drive, she would pull the tub out and go through the various presents—pewter rings, bottle openers with the names of different cities carved onto them, decks of cards, magnets, other knickknacks—and hold each one up to her face in the darkness, knowing that her father had picked it out just for her. That somewhere out there in the night he was thinking of her.

Abby looked at the dollhouse’s kitchen and remembered the different meals they had when they were home together. The smiles and playful kicks under the table. Nearly each of those meals, her father would take a piece of whatever vegetable her mother had served, peas or green beans or carrots, and he would throw it across the table for Owen to try and catch in his mouth. Each time, her mother protested loudly, swatting at her father as he threw the food to her brother, though her mother had to know this carnival game was coming each meal. And they would keep at this game until Owen caught the vegetable. The louder her mother’s objections were, though, the worse Owen got at his ability to catch the food, and on several occasions, when her brother purposefully moved his face away from the incoming kernel of corn or tree of broccoli, Abby glanced over to her father and saw a mischievous smile spread across his face.

She moved her attention to the other rooms of the dollhouse. At last, she came to her parents’ bedroom. It was two years ago on a warm night when her mother’s screaming laughter and father’s shouts of surprise swept through the whole house. Abby and Owen had been sitting on the couch in the front room, watching a movie on TV, when they heard the noise and came bursting through the bedroom door together to see what was wrong. Their mother was buried beneath the sheets of the bed, still screeching, while their father, in gym shorts and no shirt, was running around the room with a baseball cap in his hand. It took Abby and Owen a short time to understand that he was chasing a bird that had flown in through the opened window. Their father was yelling at the bird, which flew back and forth above their heads. It banged loudly against the walls in its own panic. Abby and her brother had lain flat on their stomachs and were covering their heads as they watched their father’s frantic movements—jumping on the bed, nearly stepping on their still-screaming mother, and then jumping off, trying to get a better height to catch the bird.

Finally, after several minutes of this, he clipped the bird with the cap, causing it to fall stunned to the ground, stunned. Their father, glossy with sweat and panting loudly as if he were part-canine, fell heavily on the bird. He grabbed it securely in both hands and took the shivering thing back to the window, where he threw it out into the night sky and then closed the glass as quickly as he could.

Abby and Owen sat up and watched as their father slumped himself against the wall. “It’s okay,” he said, straining for breath, like he’d just finished running sprints up and down the street outside. He repeated these words several more times, his voice growing louder until their mother uncovered herself from the sheets and blankets that she’d torn from the bed and wrapped herself in. The two of them looked at each other, and then they looked over at Abby and Owen, who stared back at their parents, unsure what might happen next. Finally, and nearly at the exact same second, their mother and father burst into loud laughter that filled the silence that had settled over the room. The two kids joined in, and for the next five minutes, the four of them laughed at what had happened. By the end, each of their cheeks were hurting. This was a moment they brought up many times over the next several months, and each time, they smiled and chuckled at the memory, though it had been some time since anyone had mentioned it.

In the silence of her own room, Abby felt an overwhelming sadness. While she sat there on the floor, remembering the bird and their laughter, her mother was alone. The joy that had once taken place in that room no longer existed, and she lay the figurine of her mother on the miniature bed just as she imagined her mother might be right then.

Again, Abby moved her eyes over the entire dollhouse, taking it in fully. There were so many good moments lived within their house. Yet, still, there were plenty of bad ones. The times when her mother sat in the front room and stared quietly out the window at the coming night, her eyes never turning away from the darkness, as if she were searching the world for some answer to a question she kept secreted inside. Or her mother’s sighs as she shuffled through papers while she sat alone at the kitchen table. Or the frustrations between her parents and Owen, like the fight between him and her father a month ago. Or the way Owen had become more a shadow than a person she knew. And then there were the arguments between her parents, the yells of upset that, each time, began quietly behind one closed door or another, just harsh words spoken in harsh tones, but over the next several minutes, those words turned to shouts and then screams and then silence as one of them, usually her father, left the house and did not return for hours at a time. Abby had been there through each of these moments; she sat quietly away at a distance and had simply seen and heard.

The most recent of these arguments was just a few days before her father left the last time. Abby woke in the middle of the night to the sound of glass shattering. She’d moved quickly to the hallway, her heart sounding loudly in her ears. Though she would not remember it later, she carried tightly to her chest the stuffed bunny rabbit that she’d found in her Easter basket earlier that year. The house was silent as she moved down the hallway, but when she came to her parents’ closed bedroom door and reached out to open it, the shouts began. Her body tensed then, and a coldness swept over her body. First, Abby heard her mother’s shouts and then her father’s, their voices escalating in volume until the sounds became a steady din, with each voice overlapping the other until she couldn’t decipher one from the other.

Abby sat on the floor, her back against the wall, her eyes closed. Eventually, their anger became white noise to her: not comforting, but strangely not upsetting. Every few seconds, she pressed the back of her head into the wall with as much pressure as she could stand. She felt the strain on her neck with each push and saw a hazy whiteness in the dark of her vision. Eventually, she fell asleep there. In the morning, she awoke in her own bed, the sheets and Minnie Mouse cover pulled nearly over her head, and she knew that the fight between her parents the night previous was either a bad dream or that her mother or father had found her on the ground of her room and carried her to her bed, tucking her in with the same care and love they did each night.

And so, it was. The dollhouse held memories of her life, both the good and the bad. All things that would inevitably mold her into the person she would one day become. But she could not know that as she looked at the miniature house before her. Instead, she simply saw a gift that her father had given her on the night before he left that last time.

#

Over the following weeks, Abby spent more and more time with the dollhouse. Her father had not returned, and her mother had not mentioned his absence. Only once did Abby talk about him. The longest he’d ever been away on a drive was two weeks, and when the third week passed, Abby set her spoon down during dinner and asked her mother when he was coming back, if he was okay.

Her mother let go of her own spoon, which clattered messily in the bowl of soup in front of her and looked at Abby. “I don’t know,” she said. Her eyes began to tear up, and the girl felt a pang of guilt and upset at herself for mentioning her father, even though she constantly thought of him. Each night, she prayed that God might return him safely home. In her dreams, her father walked through the front door, and Abby jumped from the couch or the kitchen table, wherever she might be in that particular dream, and run into his arms, knocking him all the way over. But she’d wake and remind herself that he was still gone. Some nights, she even walked over to the window to check the dark driveway, just to make sure it was still empty. Which it was, each time.

Over those weeks, when she came home from school, Abby would go directly to her room and sit in front of the dollhouse. There, she would re-enact different conversations she’d had with each of her family members, or ones she’d overheard. Other times, Abby created new conversations—ones that hadn’t happened yet, but she hoped would one day occur. Most of those fictional conversations included only herself and her mother and Owen, since they were the only dolls that her father had left her. She often wondered if he had made a doll for himself and was holding onto it, keeping it beside him in the front seat of the truck, a reminder of who he really was. On the occasion when she included him in her recreations or creations, she took the paper doll she’d made of him—just the outline of a man, his legs straight, arms down, no face, no colored clothing—and spoke his words in a deepened voice. But when she did this—used the paper cutout—Abby felt as if she were replacing her father, and so he remained absent from these moments much of the time.

The doll of her father’s truck remained in the closet, where she had put it the morning after he’d left the last time. When she thought of moving the truck so that it was there beside the dollhouse, a sadness would settle heavily in her chest, and she would begin to cry.

She’d stay in her room with the dollhouse and the figures of her family until she was called for dinner, and after finishing the meal, she would return to her room, moving the dolls throughout the house, imagining where Owen or her mother were at that moment. Her own doll remained in the miniature of her bedroom, lying on the floor, just as she was then.

Several times over those weeks, her mother asked about the dollhouse and Abby’s obsession with it, though her mother did not use the word, not that Abby would have understood its meaning. Abby always shrugged off the question, answering simply that it was fun or that she liked it because it reminded her of her father. Owen, too, took notice of his sister’s attraction to the dollhouse. He’d already become someone so distant from the caring brother he’d been in earlier times, and so when he opened her bedroom door to see what she was doing, a scowl shadowing his face each time, Abby did not feel the hurt that her brother’s disapproval once caused her.

One afternoon, a little over a month after her father left for the last time, Abby’s bedroom door burst open, the doorknob banging loudly into the side wall. She sat up, her heart seeming to stop for a second with the hope that her father would be standing there. But it was Owen.

“What the hell is this?” he said to her. His voice was steady, though there was a gruffness to his words that she didn’t recognize.

Abby remained quiet. In her hands, she held the dolls of her mother and herself. Owen’s doll was in the kitchen, eating a snack as he did most days when he came home from school, before he left to go and hang with his friends.

“You think this is okay? Playing this stupid make-believe game?” His voice rose in volume and anger, but only slightly. There were tears in his eyes, and they ran down his cheeks as he walked over to the dollhouse. She shrank back from him, pulling her legs up to her chest.

“This won’t bring him home. You know that? Dad’s gone, and he’s not coming back.” With that, he lifted his foot high and brought it down with all his force on the roof of the dollhouse. Through tears, Abby watched as it broke apart into splinters, the rooms collapsing, folding in on themselves and on each other. After stomping down three or four times, Owen let out a gasped sob and then another. Then he turned and walked out of the room, closing the door on his way out.

The sidewalls of the miniature house were still intact, but the details had all been destroyed. With shaking hands, she cleaned out as many of the broken pieces as she could so that there was only the skeleton of the house remaining. But it was enough.

#

Owen was right. Their father didn’t return.

At strange moments over the rest of her life, Abby would find herself wondering about him. Memories of her father would surface seemingly out of nowhere when she was pouring herself a cup of coffee, or when she was throwing out dust that she had just swept up, or when she was sitting in her car at a drive-through. Where did he go? she’d ask herself. Why hadn’t she heard from him? A letter or a call, or a quick stop at the house to smile at her again and say I remember you. If only. Her thoughts would drift in those moments, at times turning to dark places in her mind. She would wonder if her father had another family. Did he have another son, another daughter that he loved more? Though she had no answer to these questions.

In the years to come, Abby would cry sometimes, always unexpectedly. When she saw a man holding a little girl’s hand as they moved down the sidewalk, or when the setting sun sat just above the horizon line, and for those magical seconds, the world turned silhouette. She’d cry then, and she’d keep herself from wiping the tears away.

In those future moments, when the sadness began to overwhelm her, Abby would think back to that afternoon when Owen had come into her room and destroyed the dollhouse. She would remember the way she set the figurines of her mother and brother and herself in its broken and crumbled remains. She made sure that her doll was in the front room. Then Abby went to the closet and took the red truck out for the first time and moved it toward the house. Slowly, so slowly, she pushed it, letting its wooden wheels carve the parallel lines in the carpet.

That afternoon, as she moved the truck, Abby told herself that it was her father returning to them all. And in that moment, she thought of her own doll, the way it was watching through the shattered front window for her father’s truck to pull into the driveway and for the front door to open wide and for her father to be home once again.

About the Author

Brandon Daily

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Brandon Daily is the author of two novels, A Murder Country and The Valley, as well as a collection of fiction, Darkening. His fiction, nonfiction, plays, and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and magazines. He is a graduate of Lindenwood University's MFA program.

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