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  • Writer's pictureKayleigh Willis

'Gather Up' by Jay Nunnery

Lord, I tripped and fell into the fire and became the smell of molten. Pops did not see me fall, jangling his laughter with the way he tottered in a circle, eyes dulled, his left hand shaking a pair of loaded dice. He rolled. Yelling under the blaring rock n’ roll music, I jumped but did not go into the air.

Smoke infiltrated my vision and I saw Pops celebrating, overjoyed like an actor learning they had gotten the part they wanted, laughing while dancing in place with little jumps, bent over some, his head back, his lifeless eyes squinting. Then one of his friends asked if he heard anything. He said he did and that it sounded like someone was yelling for their life. “Smells like something’s burning to high hell,” he said too, and he turned his head to me and the fire.


You provide salvation. I am grateful for that.

The taste of smoke rushed in every time I inhaled like I was inside of a burning room. My skin converted in the cold night’s calm, freeborn spaciousness, and invisible movement. Pop’s hands pressed to my bones, the smell of charcoal and sulfur rising to the moon and stars and night sky. Numbing to those bones, my only lifeline my vision, I yelled once more, anticipating a pain that I believed would follow my salvation.

Then my eyes closed. To the feeling of being saved, descending into the sounds that are always behind and always more than what is being said, I drifted as a willing captive into my undiscovered resolution.

Just as I felt the weightlessness all throughout my body’s inside, the cold water hit my skin. The sizzling sound, quietening and like a boa’s hiss, brought me back, took me from this graceful going into the hidden secret’s ambiguity, and I opened my eyes. Pops and all his friends—drunk off light and dark at the same time, high from weed and then cocaine and then opium—were looking at me


Holy, blessed be my voice still. I remember that Pops called a doctor—not a real one—and I remember she touched me like she was holding energies in her hand. “They cool your skin,” she said. She said, “I shall anoint your redemption,” and rubbed oil over my face and my naked body, which she and Pops and his friends had stripped bare. Her hands felt like my mom’s felt.

Mentally tracing consecration onto my skin, I thought, laying there, I could’ve fallen fast asleep and dreamed, possibly about an approaching light that I felt so humbled to walk to, and I could’ve walked to that light as though I’d suggested it myself. However, the doctor, a beautiful woman with cheeks permanently raised from smiling, sang about Wall Street and the dollar bill, at the top of her lungs and out-of-tune. Her song peaked with a verse about how I was just another soul she would save, another life healed by her oil, some mixture of myrrh and frankincense and lavender hand blended by a monk she had confessed her last sin to, the oil feeling like raindrops running smooth except the oil wasn’t cold or warm.

My eyes clenched shut. I gritted my teeth through a theater’s worth of pain. I saw smoke billow up, knotted in mystic blues, overladen, vortexes, slipping and getting up as calmly as a figure skater. An angel came forth, floating and cycloptic and as though made of the darkest smoke. The angel hugged me and grazed one of its innumerable hands over my skin, a baby’s purity in its stillness, expectant and unused. Pulling my thoughts as a long strip of film, thoughts about Pops and thoughts about myself, with its longest arm.

I heard the witch doctor singing like I was a king returning to his kingdom after a savagely contested war. “Je vois la vie en rose,” she sang, her vocal range flowing everywhere.


I remember the next day was The Sabbath. We used to go to church when my mom was alive. Pops and Mom would sing along to the gospel songs together, stretching their arms out as they hoped a pair of arms stretched towards them. But that was a long time ago I remember thinking, going in and out of sleep, losing and regaining consciousness, my every moment connected to a brittle pain.

That Sabbath—sunlight configuring as a different kind of heat, sympathetic, day breaking, blissful—I believed, accepted to be my last day. Then I felt the day pass over me.

They checked on me close together, when the sun was at its highest. They gave me a glass of ice water, which the ice had melted from, and a bowl of soup, which had steam revolving around its brim. That night I didn’t sleep.

I stayed up, adjusting to my pain even though my intuition knew better. On my back, I stared at the ceiling, imagining it was not there, imaging instead Cygnus and Hercules and Libra, counting my own inspirations after that.

Then the reality of Monday, survival, and life after the life-changing and how things would be—changing—the world’s face altered as a reflection of my own face in some representative ways that would only make sense to me because those ways were mine. My co-workers, the other mechanics, would wonder where I was. I’d probably lose my job. It wasn’t much but I did love working in the shop ever since I noticed how the spills of oil would warp images and make them shine.

I watched two more sunrises. Beholden to the sun’s awe, as though I needed a phenomenon, my emanation spotlighted my rapture. Each time allowed its therapy. I felt like a child who had conceptualized their steps enough. I made up my mind and got up, not knowing if I could support my own weight or if I would collapse onto the bedroom’s flattened carpet. I wanted to see. I wanted to see what the world would see. I figured the sooner the better, a suffusion of starvation and thirst dizzying my thought process.


It is I. Acknowledge my heart, gaining strength first. I step onto the room’s floor, hours after being fed, the light beginning to dwindle. My feet cannot maintain balance.

I wobble and reach and grab the air, snatching at the nonmaterial futilely. Upsurges of trepidation make a powerlessness roam throughout my body. I figure out why. You help me. I have questions that I do not know how to ask, seek reason to fill the emptiness here and there. But that is not why I attempt to stand.

Where my body and where the bed meet seems not to be there. I feel ready as if my weakness makes my body liable. The heartfelt desire’s inheritance—to see myself. This will be my reason for moving out of bed every morning. To see myself—to see what I have become—on a daily basis, my hope, which never belonged to me.

I stood as though I was waking up from a long dream, which had been my falling and laying. I feel dazed. My focus spirals. I listen to the air conditioner in order not to think about the effort it takes for me to stand. Learning from that previous fall, as though systematically recalibrating, I find a balance after some experimentation. I breathe in and then I breathe out for a longer amount of time than I breathed in and I take one step.

Continuing to breathe the same way, I take another step. Relying on rhythm and cadence as though I was a drummer maintaining time with a new instrument attached to me, I walk out of my room.

I go down the hall, expecting to hear something—Pop’s voice, the television, nature. I hear nothing though. As if the hallway had rejected sound for me so I could move to my own rhythm.

I pass one door. It is closed.

My legs are tired. I lean against the closed door.

You see my pain, my agony, open my eyes more. I use the wall to help me.

I put my forearm against the wall and tiptoe to the bathroom. I noticed that all the doors in the hallway are closed. I open the bathroom door, more cognizant of my feet than I had ever been. I look up into the mirror.

You show up, show my eyes first, bring a thought that had nothing to do with my body. I hear a song that my mom used to sing, one about living the song, and I thank my reflection’s eyes, unblinking within a face full of flesh that looks like it was once all the way gone.

Copyright. Jay Nunnery.

Jay Nunnery is a writer, teacher, and musician, who calls many places home: Wisconsin, New York, Louisiana, and California. Recently, he completed his short story collection, Alms, Louisiana, a collection of twenty-one, interconnected stories. Currently, he is working on a screenplay called The Circuses when he is not teaching high schoolers or making music.

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