“Backpack” by Stefan A. Slater

Every December, I take my old high school backpack and fill it with a year’s worth of fears, nightmares, and doubts.

Then Gwen and I go to the coast and shatter all our ill thoughts with the twenty-gauge shotgun that her mother gave her as a housewarming present five years ago.

It’s not the most efficient way of doing things—I’ll admit that.

I use a luggage lock to keep the ill thoughts from crawling out, but other than that, it’s still the same old thing I dragged to and from Miss Brecker’s homeroom class—a JanSport the color of a fresh road rash with one strap that’s shrouded in duct tape.

Some years, the bag fills up gradually over the passing months. Some years, when I try to heft it, it’s so full that I’m sure the straps will snap.

Other years, it’s nearly empty. I don’t know why, so I fill it up by staring at it until my head throbs and eyes burn.

I keep my backpack next to Gwen’s (a ratty gym bag from her track days) in the closet. Every now and then, I check to see how heavy hers is, usually when she’s at work.

Most years, it’s pretty full. Most years, I’m convinced her bag is the one that’s going to break open.

* * *

Every family has their own tradition—their own way of disposing before the New Year.

I’ve known Charlie since grade school. Every December he and his family have a bonfire. They toss all of their ill thoughts into that cinder block pit in his father’s backyard. Then they drench everything in gasoline, toss in a match—boom!

My family purged with sweat and earth: Mom and Dad would drag me to the top of Mesita Ridge, up among the brittle and crooked pines all stunted from acid rain. We’d work with folding shovels in the thin air, our breath hovering over our heads, and we’d bury each ill thought, smothering them all in the damp earth.

* * *

Gwen’s family has their own tradition. She took my last name, so we use her tradition—only fair, right?

A week before, we both go about shaping our ill thoughts.

The stuff drips and flows sluggishly like so much viscous tar, but it doesn’t stick to you, strangely. We empty our bags onto the kitchen table (we cover it with newspaper, thank you), and we mold each ill thought until it’s roughly disk shaped. Then we dry each disk with a blow dryer and toss them back into the bags.

I pack the Toyota. She packs the Browning. It’s an over-under, the kind the Olympians use—a combination of sleek, oiled walnut that shines in the sunlight and cold, gilded steel that never heats up no matter how many times you fire the gun. Her mother (but not her father) shot skeet, and mother and daughter have sharp green eyes that see all.

Then, we drive. North. Up along the winding, snaking coast.

* * *

We always climb to the top of the tallest dune. We set up shop among the dried kelp and waving, struggling grass.

We stand facing the Pacific, watching the whitecaps below, letting the spray rise up and salt our hair and clothing.

“You or me?” she asks.

“You first, Miss Oakley.”

She smiles at that. She handles the shotgun and asks for a few particular ill thoughts.

The disks cry out (I regret never finishing college. I think the mole on my shoulder is cancerous. Sometimes, I feel empty at night.), so it’s easy to find the ones she wants.

She asks for the fear about never being able to balance family and work.


She asks for another. This one’s the frustration she carries toward her mother for hounding her about grandchildren.

I toss them into the air, flinging them like Frisbees—I’ve gotten good.

The shots pierce my eardrums, even though I’m wearing earplugs. Thoughts and emotions explode into dust with each hit. Acrid smoke tickles my nose. Those lean, slender fingers move deftly, reloading.

Then she asks for the doubts she has about us.

“Give me the one about how we’ll never travel like you promised.”

“Of course.”


I fling more into the air. One doubt hisses at me (I’m afraid that one day, we’ll have nothing left to talk about). I nearly drop it, surprised.

“Easy, Butterfingers,” she says, smirking.


My turn.

She throws my disks straight out toward the water so they’re easier to hit (she likes hers to fly at an angle, like startled geese). I miss most of mine, and the disks plop and drown.

She tosses a doubt I have about work (the data center is downsizing; I’m convinced they’re going to let me go) and a fear I have that she’ll look at my growing paunch one day and sneer.


But I do hit the one nightmare I have about talking spiders.

“Great shot, honey-bunny.”

By the time the sun starts to set, the bags are empty. Then we sit and talk.

We talk about each ill thought. These talks hurt, like picking at a scabbed-over cut, but they’re necessary—part of the yearly process, part of our tradition. Some don’t talk about what they purge, but we try to. It’s all on the table. So what other choice do we have?

Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes we argue. Sometimes we’re quiet. Other times, like this time, we talk. It’s fine.

It feels good, some years, to pick up our empty bags.

But other years, even as we’re heading back down toward the car, I notice that her bag isn’t quite empty—that she already has new doubts. New fears.

And my backpack, some years, starts to fill up almost as soon as we get home.

This year, though, I let her carry her own bag. Mine is empty, thankfully.

And I think hers is too.

But I’ll check when we get home.

Stefan A. Slater is a freelance writer from Los Angeles. The ocean tends to make its way into a lot of his work, though he doesn’t quite understand why. You can check out some more of his work at his website: http://stefanaslater.com.

Support Betwixt | Buy this issue