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Milk Cartons

Alexa Halpern

    Stamps would have been easier to collect. They were flatter, easier to store in binders and stack into mahogany bookshelves until they grew a second skin made of dust. Stickers would have had the same appeal. Butterflies would look lovely displayed on the wall.  

    Instead, every surface was lined with milk cartons, empty but still faintly sour. Lipstick marks and child-sized fingerprints stained some of the boxes. I had no shame crawling through the dumpsters of public areas to find them. After all, truth was an expensive price to pay.  

    Holding my newest bag of treasure, I settled on the grimy carpet of the abandoned house. It was no larger than a matchbox, but it was as much of a home as I could make it. The windows didn’t close all the way, and rain seeped in through the roof, but it was mostly dry and warm. I was plenty happy with that. 

Flipping the garbage bag upside down, I watched as cartons tumbled out onto the floor. Most of them were dented. Some even still had milk in them, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want the drink anyway. Rather, I rotated each box until I could see the images on the back, the bold print underneath—smudged but glorious. 

Jeanette Ruth Williams. 

DATE MISSING: 10/14/15 

    I set it aside. I didn’t look like the girl in the picture. 

Xavier John Dalton 

DATE MISSING: 7/30/18 

    Wrong gender. 

Emilia Brooke Garcia 


    The portrait could have resembled me if I squinted. Her hair was a little darker, her smile a little wider. Still, it was worth a shot. I let my eyes wander a little farther. 

FROM: Crimora, Virginia  

DOB: 2/17/08 


EYES: Brown 
HEIGHT: 3’1” 
WEIGHT: 42 lbs. 

HAIR: Brown 

    I set it to the side. It was impossible to be completely certain, and I couldn’t afford to rule out even the slimmest chance. As I pushed it aside, I repeated the name, whispering it under my breath, speaking it into the air, yelling it at an invisible figure. 

    Emilia. Emilia Garcia. Emilia Brooke Garcia.  

    The words didn’t feel quite familiar. My lips and tongue formed the different syllables but not from muscle memory. Still, I left the carton where it was.  

Jessica Danielle Bride 


FROM: Bar Harbor, Maine 

DOB: 12/1/29 

    I stopped reading. She would have been too young to fit my profile.  

    The other cartons all repeated the same four names. Jeanette Ruth Williams. Xavier John Dalton. Emilia Brooke Garcia. Jessica Danielle Bride. Even with my doubts, I threw out the copies but kept the four neatest milk cartons, one for each name. Emilia’s went on the bookshelf. Everyone else’s was stacked aimlessly on whatever free surface I could find.   

    As I pushed the cartons back slightly to fit Emilia’s alongside them, my eyes snagged on the second shelf. Just as they always did.  

    I may not have always looked like the girls in those pictures, but I was drawn to them. Seeing their images shot me into a realm of déjà vu every time, each memory blurred slightly along the edges. I could see their faces, sometimes remember their names. But I knew them.  

    Perhaps, we lived in a group home together or were in the same class at one point. The stories grew more outlandish the longer I forced myself to remember. We were friends in a past life. We were royalty in the same kingdom. We were all parts of one distinct person, and we’re all just trying to find our memories once more.  

    Every time, I gave up. It was fruitless to imagine what could have been. After all, there was an overwhelmingly large chance I had never met those girls. They all lived in different pockets of the Appalachia region, from West Virginia to Mississippi and across the whole Bible Belt.  

    I wished the images showed more than the neck up. Every scar, mole, and blemish were clues. Each documented detail—the large beauty mark on my left shin, the crescent-shaped scar with a gap in the middle, the exact pattern of freckles along my back—could’ve helped if only I’d seen the same locations on the other girls. 

    I let myself wallow in their names, in the portraits of their smiling faces.  

    Sara. Kaya. Autumn. Julia. Amari. Katherine. Lucy. Jozeline. Selena. Milani. Heaven. Valerie. 

    If I focused long enough, I could feel Valerie’s springy curls between my fingertips. I could see the dainty, dark rings around Autumn’s blue eyes. Yet, the mental roadblock always appeared when I pictured them for too long. The pressure within my eye sockets seemed to pulse, contracting as the migraine worsened.  

    The pain stung until I turned around, leaving the girls’ photos to collect dust on the shelves and in my memories.  



Amanda Grace Thompson 

DATE MISSING: 3/22/10 


    Rain was a nuisance. It soaked the floor in patchy splats and made the wood of the house soften further. The mold blossomed with each thunderstorm. Yet, the worst of it stemmed from the isolation the rain seemed to bring. No one went outside unless they had to. No one would offer coins if it meant sticking their arm outside the umbrella’s realm of safety. Rain meant solitude, chill, hunger. 

    Today, the emphasis lingered on hunger. Even the mice I would have caught seemed to vanish, hiding wherever they could find shelter. I didn’t blame them. I wished I could do the same. But I needed to eat. 

    At least the day hadn’t been a complete waste. My fingers traced my bag, which hosted three new cartons, three new names. Rylee Colette Rhodes. Ginger Louise Marsh. Katelyn Judith Powell. 

    None of them were worthy of the second shelf, but it didn’t matter. One day, I would find my face. Youth would flood my features, but I would still be there—recognizable even over the years.  

    What would I look like without the wrinkles around my eyes, without the sun damage across my cheeks and nose? Would I see the little girl in the picture and despise her for surviving? Would I be able to still catch glimpses of myself in her eyes from before they were hardened with time and deprivation? 

    As the repetitive taps of the rain grew more painful each time they struck my skin, I ducked into the nearest abandoned shelter. It wasn’t much, just a shed with a closet. A strange odor erupted from the walls and floor, but that was the standard.  

    The wooden planks were covered with dilapidated newspapers. Tinged with yellow and scented vaguely of animal droppings, the articles looked decrepit.        Their headlines—mostly about community projects or recent basketball games—were just barely legible enough to read. I left them alone.  

    Perched onto a stool, I listened as the raindrops clattered against the roof. The shed shook slightly, and the door to the closet rattled with each knock of the thunder. I jabbed my knuckles into my eyes and waited for the rain to clear, hoping the pressure caused by the weather would vanish with it. 


Cassidy Laurel Foster 

DATE MISSING: 4/26/14 


    I knew that face. I recognized the dimples, the thick brows, the missing front teeth. The name felt right against my tongue. Sylvia Michelle Gordon. I knew her. She was a second-shelf trophy.  

    My hands jittered from excitement. The memory forced my mind to throb in cycles of clarity and blurriness. I remembered Sylvia. I remembered her pain. 

My mind halted. Whirring. Slowing. Pain?  

    Pain was new, unrecognizable among the sea of memories from the other girls. Did Julia experience pain? Did Heaven? 

    The pressure behind my eyes returned with a vengeance. I suppressed the groan and tried to focus on the carton in my hands. The top was smushed, caving into itself rather than forming a peak at the top. The bottom corner was bent, likely bashed into a picnic table repeatedly. Still, the disarray of the container didn’t faze me. The picture was the important part. The name. Sylvia.  

    I said it aloud, repeated it until my throat hurt. Sylvia. Sylvia. Sylvia.  

    No, this wasn’t my name either. I’d pressured myself into believing I would know when I heard it. This name was recognizable, but it wasn’t mine. 

    Carefully, I rinsed the dried milk and residue out of the container, watching as the miniature stream carried a dead gnat onto the pavement. I left the spout open to air out the box. Tomorrow, I would learn who Sylvia was, who all the girls were. But today, her carton would be placed upon the shelf, her smiling face blending into a crowd of missing children.  


Lily Eileen Hughes 



    The pain lingered. It rooted itself in the base of my skull, twisting, spiraling. A curled snake ready to lash out. I felt its fangs sink deep into my spine as I walked, chills running up and down where the puncture wounds rested.  

    It hadn’t left, only strengthening with each step—closer and closer to the shed.  

    I didn’t want to enter again. There was no reason for me to, not since the storm. Yet, the wood magnetized me until I was drawn within its vicinity, my feet powerless against its strength. This time as I pushed the door open, the odd odor grew stronger.  

    I knew that scent. Images flashed—bright and colorful and painful. I saw a dumpster, swirling flies around the lid hovering like vultures. Pungent. The shed had a similar smell to the garbage roasting under the summer sun.  

    The longer I remained, the more familiar it became. Memories once blurry began to clarify underneath my eyelids. The shed knew who I was. Knew Sara. Kaya. 





    The closet door was shut when I first visited. I hadn’t tested it for a lock then, but it pushed open easily, only snagging briefly on a thick splinter. The scent intensified.  

    The room—larger than expected—was filled with shelves. Pictures on the wall. The shadows wrapped around each image. I waved my cheap flashlight over the glossy paper to see 




    Smiling. Happy. Different shots from the ones on the milk cartons. They must have been taken in the shed. Maybe just outside. The wood grain background matched the shed’s walls.  

    Each grew more and more familiar. My face wasn’t in the shots. I was nowhere to be seen. I kept looking until I found 


    Her photo was on a shelf. Books and documents and jars that lined it. Dust that seemed to stretch all the way to 


    I looked closer. A jar of blue glared back at me. I dropped my flashlight. 

    Shattered. The light cracked. Splintered. Where was the battery?  

    It must have rolled out. 

    I remembered putting them in that jar.  

    Did she hate me for it? 

No, she wouldn’t have remembered. 

    I kept walking. 

    Everything was dim.  

    I felt my way around the room. 

    Fingers touching long curls gathered into a ponytail.  


Where was she? 

Where did I put it? 

    The scent strengthened.  

    It smelled like decay. 

    I tripped. My hands caught the shelf. Gripped. Felt my way through the dark. 

    There was a frame.  

    I held it to the light that crept through the cracks.  


    Her missing front teeth gave her crescent-shaped smile a gap.  


    The pressure throbbed.  

    Like a heartbeat. 

It should be. 

    Like lungs. 

Your milk cartons won’t help you. 


You remember now. 

    And exhaling.  

Don’t you? 


You can never forget. 

    And exhaling. 

Spring 2024

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