IN SEARCH OF is a (wiki)novel-in-progress that may or may not end up as my thesis here at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. May not because I’m not sure if I’ll have the thing done a year from now, and I’m not about to rush it. I don’t believe in rushing. I had another project I’d been working through steadily before I came here – a collection of stories – which I more or less finished last semester, and the idea for ISO sort of came in a white-hot burst one night. Right off the bat it seemed like the pinnacle of everything I’d been working up to, not to mention the most ambitious thing I’d ever tried to pull off. Basically, there was a high probability of me fucking it up, so I knew it was the right project for me to pursue next. Anyway, it’s a fragmented narrative about communication, guilt, grief, and how technology figures into all of these things. It tells the story of the Cress family as they negotiate the loss of one of their own in the fictional town of Brownleaf, Indiana through a snapshot series of jumbled wiki entries. I envision the final version to be available only online utilizing hyperlinks to connect all the characters and events in the story, even if I have no idea how to create a wiki. (I’m not totally against a hardcopy version too, if I can figure out how to make it work).

* * *


“The Particular Sadness of a Centaur…”

Something odd Reuben says in the passenger seat on the way home from football practice, three hours before the aneurysm: The particular sadness of a centaur is that it will never fully be a man or a horse.

(Later, Doctor Whitman would conclude that at this point blood had already begun to fill the boy’s brain, flooding the ductwork of synapse and banks of language resulting in the capacity for sporadic nonsensical speech, but in the weeks following the funeral Maximilian would remain skeptical, convinced there was something he was missing – that it was in fact some kind of code, a warning which, if only he had deciphered it sooner would have saved his son. This fevered search for meaning and import of a ridiculous phrase – following his curt request to Reuben to refrain from dripping sweat all over the dashboard, to move his soaked helmet from the back seat to the floorboard – would haunt him, rendering him up all night before the frenzied flash of a screen researching a beast which had never before, to his knowledge, been an object of interest to his son. But sitting there, printing out pages from some obscure online encyclopedia of mythical creatures, he would realize how unequipped he is for this task – the extent of how little he had truly listened to his son’s precious ramblings, and in the process of ripping open another package of printer paper would cut his thumb on the razor’s edge of stacked sheets, sit in a dim lit room bleeding quietly over his many articles, which held no clues, offered no hints, and no matter how hard he puzzled over them would do to rid him of the shame of all things left unsaid and unheard between a father and his son.)


The Unmappable Place


For other uses, see Unmappable Places of the Heart

Nickname given to the creek behind the Cress house, a weed-infested lot considered both sacred and scary to kids of Gypsytea Street, purportedly haunted by strange transmissions from another planet.

(It was here that Alex, at eleven, smoked his first cigarette only to catch Reuben spying on him, having tripped through the crushed yellowed grasses in his inconspicuous manner of not walking so much as bowling forward, about as stealthy as a cannonball dropped down an escalator – incapable of lithe, quiet footfalls to save his life. Alex had subsequently punished his brother by telling him of the creek’s dark secret: black diamonds underneath the soil could invade with alien brainwaves those human minds lacking the aegis of a tinfoil helmet – only to then suddenly scuttle an ancient oak, leaving Reuben stranded below susceptible to ‘the psychic knives of The Signal’s influence,’ his eyes red-veined and raw, soaked in a crown of sweat and blinded by the shame of having soiled his size XXL overalls. This is also where Reuben would have his first and only kiss with Lucy Vetiver, who would make him promise never to tell. He would keep this vow – cross his heart / hope to die / a thousand needles in his eye – dreaming of this kiss always, his heart a well into which only one wishful coin would be dropped again and again to plink and splash and echo, but never to be spent. Lastly, following his brother’s untimely death (people would always phrase it this way in polite conversation – what death, he’d often wonder, was timely?), Alex would hide here during the funeral, counting planes from a local airport through cracks in the branches dragging their conglomeration of steel and plastic over a pink smear of sky, the plausibility of flight eluding him then—how anything burdened by such heft could achieve triumph against the tyranny of gravity.)


Acceptable Displays of Masculine Affection among the Cress Family


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The Ugliest Fan Known to Man


This is the infamous fan that Maximilian Cress brought up from the basement the night his wife claimed she could still hear phantom keys coming from the computer room. With a spinach-colored base and faux wood finish it is, by all accounts, the ugliest fan known to man.

(Rubia had grown accustomed to her son’s plinkety taps upon the keyboard bleeding through the wall of the computer room into the kitchen while she cooked dinner each afternoon. It had become a song of comfort – a small, good thing that let her know she was home and not just inside some strange house. With a too-short cord designed for tripping ankles and a bumbling busted blade that would stall in oscillation, hiccupping loudly several times before finally jerking its way round with a screech – like a neck having to ritually break itself just to pivot, an ice tray flexed fresh out of the freezer – the fan had been bought on sale at K-Mart to aid Maximilian in expediting the drying of pink paint for his newest daughter’s nursery. It doesn’t need to look pretty it only needs to do the damn job, he had told Rubia over the phone, a statement he would eventually regret upon actually slapping eyes on the thing. In spite of its ridiculous appearance, it would perform its function of muffling a noise that wasn’t really there (surely Rubia knew this on some level, Max hoped—how it was nothing more than a kind of placebo effect) for several weeks, until the morning his grief-rattled wife would walk into the room scooping sleep from her eyes only to be greeted by a fan sprawled face-down on the floor, convulsing, twitching to rotate, its rotor ground down to a low, lifeless click.)


A Conversation


Girl A sits in the diner with her friend Girl B. They sit on opposite sides in a booth, both of them with their phones out.

Hey, Girl A says. Hey, says Girl B.

When the waitress drops off the silverware, Girl A unwraps her knife and proceeds to slice into her chicken fried steak. Underdone and full of gristle, it fails to do the job.
What I wouldn’t give for a sharper knife, Girl A says…

Me too, says Girl B, pulling her sleeves up to conceal her wrists.




It’s dinnertime and there’s a submarine in Emilia’s soup—she can spy its petite periscope peeking out beside a crouton. She dips it out with a spoon and watches the speck-sized crew crawl out of the hatch one-by-one, crying abandon ship! as she sways it around, some waving white flags no bigger than insect eyes. They dive headlong back into the soup with needle-prick kerplunks, cling to oregano life-rafts or take refuge on Cannellini bean islands.

(It won’t be long until the macaroni sharks show up.)


White Lie


The second biggest regret of Maximilian’s life: Pixie didn’t die under the wheel of his truck like he told the kids she did. He simply lost sight of her in the garage one morning. He searched the neighborhood for six hours, finally slouching back through the front door to Rubia a broken man, terminally ashamed and riddled with frostbite. He couldn’t look his wife in the eyes. That night was the coldest night of the year.

(Rather than let his kids believe their dog froze to death, he made up this story.)




As Rubia sits on the bench watching the sun crest up and over the tip of the tallest tower, remembering all the perfect splinters she has removed after watching Reuben play prince of a wooden Camelot, she drops her ice cream cone on the pavement, sits there watching it melt as a line of ants enter in and out through the cone smothering the cream until it is eclipsed in a blanket of black wriggling legs, reminded of something she couldn’t quite put her finger on – elusive as a near-sneeze – too real to touch, too frightening to disturb lest she dislodge its terrible import.

(Some splinters, she knows, are better left in the skin.)


Nintendo Power #28


He is caught red-handed in the back of the Taurus masturbating to pixelated cleavage in one of his video game magazines by his mother. If this wasn’t enough, he is sent to his room where he is told to await his father who should be home any second now. When Rubia tells her husband, she has considerable trouble phrasing it. He was touching his dinger in the back of my car! she finally spits it out. When he laughs, she’s angry. You don’t understand young boys, he says. But he needs to be punished, she says. Being caught by you is punishment enough, he insists. That isn’t enough, she counter-insists. So I’ll handle it, he gives in. When he enters Reuben’s room, he is sitting on his bed reading the wall. Have you learned your lesson? Maximilian says. Reuben nods, counting the knots in his shoelaces. He’ll do anything so long as he doesn’t have to look his father in the eye. Don’t get caught again, Maximilian says.

(And here endeth the lesson. A kindness. This is the closest to a birds and bees talk Reuben will ever get.)




When the mean girls surround Emilia behind the portable classroom during recess, it is the janitor who chases them away with his mop, who helps her gather her spilled crayons back into her lunchbox. Thank you, Emilia says, as he returns to his work making a clicking sound with his tongue-stump.

(He has always hated bullies. His father was a bully, a man he talked back to only once. Comere boy, the Old Man slurred after that, fumbling through the kitchen drawer for a pair of rusty scissors.)




Two years from the day, some in the city of Brownleaf still remember. Two years from the day, as the recess bell rings a bloodburst flash of giddiness passes over him and he can’t help but snicker. Everyone with a child remembers the day Wimberley Scot disappeared. Emilia remembers the friend with whom she would roll down the steep hill beside her house. Rubia remembers that sinking feeling (as though someone had run through a minefield in her chest carelessly) the day she saw her face on the news: two green apple eyes and haunting dimples. Reuben remembers the little girl he helped to light sparklers every 4th of July. Alex remembers carrying her home from the community swimming pool after she had been viciously stung by bees, how all he had to do was pretend to hit himself to make her laugh. Maximilian remembers his hate for her father, their Presbyterian preacher and next door neighbor, convinced he did the deed. Some questions remain, will always remain. Though Detective Blurhardt would never solve the case, he would never allow the investigation to be closed either, always holding himself personally responsible for letting Father Scot slip through his fingers, gone suspiciously missing in the night. He’d never know it wasn’t because he was guilty as everyone in his congregation believed. He would never know that he simply lost faith after his daughter was murdered, and no longer able to lie about the Kingdom of Heaven or live across from the park where she once played, how he had moved to Africa where, while watching a baby zebra being born―once upon a time Wimberley’s favorite animal―he would eventually make his peace with God. They would never find the body, the location of which only one man knows.

(It’s underneath the slide, where he buried it.)


No Esc


It would be many moons before Maximilian would sleep again. Until then he would be up all night blazing through virtual torches – $10 for 100 – paddling along in his hole-riddled raft or chasing cathedrals in the clouds across the kingdom of Reubenzania—teardrop bats winging overhead, blood flowers blooming underfoot while a honeymelon moon rears restless over the blockhills.

(One night Rubia would wake to a familiar sound to find him there, crazed-clacking hunched over the keyboard with the missing ‘esc’ key, in search of—each pixel dripping undiscovered beauty and every last angle holy, gushing ghosts, somehow bending itself to resemble the love-sogged shapes of lost children.)





© Matthew Burnside