Onion Tears || Caitlin Upshall

Onion stem
provides support to the plant

Back when we are still buying minutes for cell phones and saving our allowances to afford emojis, my mother suggests that I get a job at the local grocery store. Feeling myself above this—due to an inflated ego commonly found in sixteen-year-olds—I decide, instead, to volunteer more at my church and avoid the retail circuit altogether. I tell my mother that this will look good on scholarships, and begin working in the nursery. Within a few months, I have become a master at avoiding actual church services, and start to smell like cheerios and talcum powder.

the outer layer of an onion; its skin

Sixth grade begins, and the family of a girl killed at Columbine come to talk to us about school shootings. We sit in a dank gymnasium on the floor—the bleachers reserved for eighth graders—paying some attention to the speakers. When we’re sent back to our classes, it is with this message: make friends with the outsiders. But this is middle school; we are all outsiders.

On Sunday, I attend church with my mother, the assembly burrowing its way out of my mind. My church was built over a century ago, but the most antiquated thing inside of it is the collection of toys in the nursery; most of them were purchased at garage sales and thrift stores. When I retrieve toys from the higher shelves, I brush off dust before handing them down to grubby little hands. The children do not discriminate between the clean and dirty toys, so I make my laps around the room with disinfectant spray in hand.

Scale leaves
found around the onion; provide protection against water loss

In eighth grade, ten minutes before school ends, we go into a lockdown. We sit in our history classroom with the lights turned off and a chair against the door, laughing and whispering in hushed tones. Our teacher taps her foot nervously and hisses at us to “shut up.” We do not understand why. This is just a drill. We have them every few months. I roll my eyes and continue talking to my best friend, leaning into her shoulder and whispering as quietly as I can directly into her ear. When she laughs, I hold a textbook in front of her face so the sound is muffled and we both can avoid detention.

When we are released forty-five minutes later, there is a police barricade in the street and my mother is waiting for me on the other side of it. We find out that a kid no one knows brought his father’s gun to school to trade for another kid’s Nintendo DS. On the car ride home, I laugh and make jokes about how stupid he must have been. I tell my mother that I have a Game Boy Advance and wouldn’t mind adding a Nintendo DS to my Christmas list.

“I’m not saying I understand why he did it, but I get it.”

My mother grips the steering wheel with one hand and my knee with the other. I do not understand why she is frightened. We have been kind to the outsiders. We have nothing to fear.

the heart of an onion

The strangest toy in the nursery is a fully anthropomorphic plush onion with wide eyes, arched eyebrows, and a single tear sewn onto his cheek. I know it’s supposed to be a male onion because it has no eyelashes and all the female toys do. There is a plush knife in his plush back, and I decide that this must be a reference to how we all cry when we’re cutting onions, but do not think about them crying as well. When the children ask me what the toy is supposed to be, I tell them that it is a type of shark and the knife is a fin. I challenge them to imagine it swimming and they drag it across the blue carpet, pretending that it’s a sea monster as only four-year-olds could do. When one of the children is excluded from the game, I remind them that this is a big ocean and there is room for everyone.

Basal plate
fleshy stem; where new organs grow on the plant

In eleventh grade, we decide that we are the generation of skeptical news consumers. The most rebellious of my generation deem themselves apolitical—which seems wonderful and impossible in the same breath. The news breaks at one o’clock, but I don’t believe it until the smart kids begin to talk about it. By 1:30, now in our last class of the day, all of us take turns pulling out our phones. We look at local news sites first and then national ones. I watch my prepaid minutes dropping down in decimals as I try to type beneath my desk while keeping my eyes on the whiteboard. 

                 77772663999                                                                                4466666655                                                             777722244666666555

                                SANDY                                                                                             HOOK                                                                                            SCHOOL

In the time that it takes my phone to load a news website, I distract myself by thinking about the name of the school—all I have heard through the whispers so far. Our high school’s mascot is a ram. I imagine that the school in Connecticut has a mascot named Sandy, that maybe she’s a bear or rabbit or a Connecticut bird. I’m sure we must have a state bird of some kind. Every state has a bird.

When the website loads, it does so with bright red words at the top: BREAKING. My classmates echo a chorus of gasps in the back row as we all read the word “elementary” and realize that these are children—were children. The teachers find out soon and finish their lesson plans quickly. No one knows what to say; no one says anything. It will be years before I hold a gun, but I understand even then that a silencer does nothing to lessen the damage from a bullet.

tethers the onion to the earth; keeps it alive

I don’t remember getting into my car after the final bell rings, but I remember driving. I remember cradling the cell phone in my hand—web page still open—refreshing it at every stoplight and watching my prepaid minutes dwindle. I walk past the sanctuary, past peering eyes in the church office, and into the nursery. I turn on the lights and then turn them back off, like this is a drill.

I am in an ocean and I do not need light to see where I am going. I am in a classroom and I cannot go anywhere, so I keep the lights off.

I sink to the floor between two cribs and grab the nearest toy. I weep into the stuffed onion as my finger continues to refresh the page and the casualty number rises. After a while, I convince myself that I am causing this by clicking refresh, so I drop the phone. I do not leave the room for an hour. When I do, I try to pull the knife out of the onion’s back, but it will not budge. 

So I tell the onion that I love him. I tell him that he did nothing wrong.

He could not have been kinder. He did not deserve this.

Caitlin Upshall (she/her/hers) holds a B.A. in English from Western Washington University. Her work has been published by the tiny journal, OyeDrum, The Sweet Tree Review, and others. In her spare time, she enjoys most things dinosaur-related and trivia nights. You can find her on Instagram at @CaitlinUpshall.


We read submissions on a rolling basis

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get notified about news and postings