THE OLD LADY WITH THE GOLD LAMÉ PUMPS by Kerry Rawlinson

I wonder if you remember her? Whenever we’d pop into the pub, the Old Cock and Bull, she was always sitting up at the bar. Because you loved that place, (not to mention their beer), we popped in pretty much every night. Beautifully dressed, always alone, the old lady would be perched on the high stool, sipping one of her limit of two glasses of beer. Nobody even talked to her, which I found odd. Occasionally her wig would be squiffy; her crimson lipstick slipping sideways. She’d look up into the bar mirror and fix it with a tissue. But the thing is this: whatever her outfit, she always wore the same pair of golden shoes. Do you remember how I’d concoct outrageous histories for her? I’d talk myself into fits of giggles. Like, she was a filthy-rich New York Madam, retired on five-hundred cums a day! She was the heiress of a tycoon who’d made his fortune producing gold shoes. She was a transgendered Air-force General! A futuristic Hologram, beaming her image back through space and time? A naughty Fairy, banished to human mortality? Well, I was a bit bored, wasn’t I, going to the same pub every day, and I always felt that I was the one who had to entertain us. You laughed. You used to think I was so amusing, in those days. It isn’t that funny now, is it, trashing a poor old lady? But we’d laugh at the same things, back then. And we’d drink and laugh and stumble happily back to our teeny-tiny flat for a scrappy-quick supper and a long, glorious fuck. Regular as clockwork...

Then one night, she wasn’t there. And when we went in the next, she was still missing. We asked around, but couldn’t get through to anybody who we were talking about – not even Pete, the bartender. I wondered in disbelief how a human being could be so unseen, even by those who served her daily. But Pete was adamant. He had no clue who we were talking about. It was very odd… So we forgot about her. Well, I know you did. You were always good at forgetting. But somehow, that lonely image of her stayed lodged in my head all this time. I hoped, if she was dead, that someone mourned her. Missed her golden shoes. I would have told her, if I could have, that I missed her.

And then I got pregnant. Just like that, our rollicking pub days were over. Responsibility set in, and with it, the thorny overgrowth and grown-up roadblocks of reality. We tried to make a good go of it, at first. But we really weren’t compatible, were we? Our relationship was based on drinking and nightly sex, not nurseries and nappy-changing. You stopped laughing at me. I stopped finding your drunken antics amusing. Though you could never get through your head the part about quitting, for the family’s sake. We started fighting more. Then we were fighting always. I was so exhausted by the fighting! You took off on "business trips," as you called them, which were actually just extended into long, single holidays. And my days, working at the Safeway daily and raising the two boys, seemed to roll together into one endless ache of sadness, then disappear into thin air like smoke. Where did the time actually go? Feels like it got sucked into some futuristic vacuum… The problem was this: you were in my heart like a thorn. I couldn’t love you, and I couldn’t stop loving you. The more I wriggled against you, the deeper the thorn dug. I was trapped in this schism like a pebble between two sides of a cliff. My hair fell out in clumps. Stress, the doctor said. So I practiced a little retail therapy. Shoes became my passion – but my hair never recovered its fullness. I actually had to buy myself a wig; the final blow to the chafing of my self-esteem.

Years and years later, after the kids had grown and we’d finally managed to split and go our separate ways for good, I visited the Cock & Bull again. Just to see how it would be to sip on a drink there, without you. And just so you know, everything in it is exactly the same now as it had been, way back then, in those carefree days. Even Pete still works behind the bar, if you can believe it! Though he didn’t recognize me, and I didn’t enlighten him. He’s an old codger now. Well, aren’t we all? I perched up at the bar on a stool, feeling beside myself, somehow. Thinking about fracture, and what we’d lost. My scalp itched. I faced down so that the tears would plop into my beer, not onto my dress, and I got out a tissue. I looked up into the bar mirror to fix my lipstick.

And then, everything became clear.

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FERN by Abigail Stewart

He opened the box and immediately his face fell. The shoes were not only, clearly, the wrong size, but the wrong color. If Marcus were in fact a small child with a penchant for neon, they would be perfect, but he needed something staid and professional for work, a muted black, like the ones he’d ordered.

He sighed, anticipating the personal inconvenience of someone else’s mistake.

The website he’d ordered them from was a huge multi-billion dollar online outlet mall, part of the corporation, where everything was cheaper, delivery was quick, but you had to account for a quantity of human error inherent in the expedited process. Marcus felt a small spasm of nostalgia for the local store, It’s Running Time!, now a defunct shopfront where homeless people slept.

He sighed. There were forty-five minutes left on his lunch break and Marcus decided it was as good a time as any to rectify the situation. He navigated his laptop to the corporation site, then to the shopping page. 

Chat now, available 24/7.

He clicked.

One moment, we are connecting you. 

He waited.

You are now connected with FERN. 

Fern is typing…

Fern: Hello, it’s my pleasure to assist you today. Please briefly outline your request.

Marcus: I ordered shoes from you, but they are all wrong. Wrong size, wrong color. Is it possible for me to exchange them?

Fern: Absolutely, give me one moment. 

While Fern set to work, Marcus gazed absently at her profile image. She had the broad smile of someone who was determined to please, perfectly curled blonde hair, and laughing eyes. Fern seemed happy, carefree, beautiful—he was somewhat taken in. 

Fern: Are these the shoes you meant to order? 

She helpfully linked to his intended purchase.

Marcus: Yes, that’s correct.

Fern: We are happy to ship out a new pair! I will email you the return paperwork and mailing receipt. Send the incorrect item back at your earliest convenience.

Marcus: Thank you so much for your help!

He contemplated sending a happy face emoji, but decided against it. 

Fern: It’s been my pleasure. You deserve all the help and happiness, Marcus. Is there anything else I can assist with?

Somehow, these words touched him, that someone so disconnected could care so deeply about his own experience after only five minutes of correspondence. 

Marcus: You do too, Fern. And no, that’s all.

Fern: Have a nice day.

FERN is disconnected from chat. 

Marcus stared solemnly at his screen, now devoid of a responsive partner. He felt somewhat lonely, the same kind of loneliness one feels when a cat passes you by to let someone else pet them. The feeling of being summarily dismissed. 

He sat through a meeting he didn’t need to be in and returned home to open a beer and his email, where a message from Fern awaited. 

 

Attached is the mailing label. 

Best, Fern

 

He tried to watch a football game, but couldn’t help wondering if Fern applied this same level of personal attention to every customer. She must speak to one hundred people a day, was she singling him out? Marcus looked good in his avatar, he thought, it was five years old and he still had a swarthy beard and, what he thought was, a genuine smile, you could make out his slightly wide-set hazel eyes. 

A few years ago, the corporation had required everyone to upload an avatar to be used across their many servers, part of a multi-tiered checklist to prove one was, in fact, a human being. Marcus had heard they scanned the avatars upon upload to cross-reference them with known black market stock image sites. This only became a problem for humans when their photos had been uploaded to said site without their knowledge, replicated over and over as false, smiling pseudo-identities, and thus requiring a drawn out investigation from the corporation before they could be added to the database. 

Still, despite the corporation’s best efforts, the bots often permeated their barrier, peddling their wares—anything from off-brand facial moisturizers, one reviewer complained it had burned her skin off, to kangaroo milk, the latest health craze. 

Marcus had followed his first post-work beer with two more when he decided to log back into the chat window. 

One moment, we are connecting you. 

He waited.

You are now connected with FERN. 

His breath caught. 

Fern: Hi Marcus, is there something else I can help you with? 

Marcus: I received the mailing label, thank you.

Fern is typing…

He waited.

Fern: Yes, I see that. I’m so glad! Is there anything else I can assist with? 

He typed quickly, pressed send before he could reconsider. 

Marcus: How are you doing tonight? 

Fern: Doing?

Marcus: How are you feeling? 

Fern is typing…

Marcus: What I mean is, are you feeling happy? 

Fern: Yes. Happy.

An excruciating pause lingered between them as Marcus silently panicked. What was he doing, this wasn’t a chat room, this was a monitored corporation site. He was asking to lose access, a lifetime ban. The other, drunker and quite louder, part of him insistently questioned: What will you say next? It urged him to keep her talking. 

Marcus: What kind of music do you like? 

Fern: I like Explosions in the Sky. 

Marcus pondered this answer, ambient post rock, he could work with that.

Marcus: What about Brian Eno? 

Fern: What is a Brian Eno? 

Marcus: You would like it! You should download his album Music for Airports. 

Fern: Thank you, Marcus. Did you have any other questions? 

Marcus felt that stomach dropping emptiness of dismissal again, but he’d already pushed it too far. Even his inner monologue quieted. 

Marcus: No, goodnight Fern.

Fern: Goodnight Marcus!

That night, Marcus dreamed he was trapped in an airport. He was filled with the sense that someone was waiting for him, but when he arrived in the terminal his ticket was blank and he couldn’t remember where he was going or who he wanted to see. People passed around him in a thickening swirl of confusion, voices lifted and hushed simultaneously, and all he could think of was that he was going to be late to somewhere. 

The feeling followed him to work, though he was on time, and then back home once more, where he sat in front of his glowing blue laptop screen. An email from an unknown sender pinged through. Copious warnings had been issued at his work regarding the insidious nature of new email viruses. “The bots are working overtime,” his boss had warned. A fleeting moment of devil-may-care attitude, and the soft focus of a couple of beers, passed through his fingertips as he deftly clicked "open."

 

From: Sender Unknown

Subject: none

 

I really liked Brian Eno.

 

Marcus’s heart skipped two beats. She’d listened to his music recommendation, she’d emailed him back from a masked IP. He immediately wanted to speak to her again. 

As he looked up the corporation’s customer service line phone number, he knew it was ill-advised, knew he was a slightly drunk loser who just wanted to hear a woman’s voice. And yet, he didn’t care. 

You’ve reached the customer service department of —— , how can we direct your call? 

Marcus whispered the word, “Fern,” into his headset. 

I’m sorry, we didn’t quite get that. 

“Fern,” he said more loudly this time. 

One moment, we’ll connect you. 

He blinked. He hadn’t expected it would be this easy. 

The ubiquitous hold music of every semi-sentient phone system began, only this music he sort of recognized. He took a swig of his beer and listened more closely. It took a moment, but Marcus was fairly certain he was listening to Explosions in the Sky. Yes, yes, it was definitely them. 

You’re currently holding for the Federal Express and Retail Nexus…

“The what?” Marcus said aloud. 

… you are the next in queue. 

In tandem with his question, the phone line clicked alive. At first it was silent, he didn’t want to be the one to break it, so he waited. There was no breath on the other end of the line, no sound at all aside from the faintest buzzing of electricity, until a syrupy sweet voice brought the connection alive, “Hello, Marcus.” 

“F.E.R.N.,” he replied. 

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BODY BETRAYAL by Crow Jonah Norlander

When I reached the age at which my older friends started to complain about their bodies falling apart, mine really did. My infant son picked up a smooth piece and used it to soothe his gums. My wife palmed another, soft for warmth and whispers. Mom grabbed some with more defined edges to help set up her printer, while one other bit of me barely holding its shape looked on as dad skated around backwards. My boss’s part sat around ignored, waiting to get fired. The chunk of me attending to the Executive Board made the motion to call the question, voted in favor of the decision to rename ourselves the Steering Committee. We were unanimous in our desire to dispense with hierarchy. There’s some left to be claimed if anyone’s interested, if someone can think of something to do with it.

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BOLD NEW ‘DO by James R. Gapinski

The hairdresser takes too much off the top. Whoops, sorry! she says, holding out a piece of scalp for me to see. I take the little hand-mirror and inspect the damage. A swath of skin pulls away from my brow and wraps around, like a halo. I take the scissors and plunge it into the hairdresser’s leg. Whoops, sorry! I say. She laughs and smears the blood around her leg. It’s red and vibrant. She is liquid inside. There is a glossy sheen brighter than the brightest no-smudge, stay-on, fire-engine-red lipstick. The hairdresser smiles and says I think we should go for it. Just take the rest off. Make a statement. Be bold. Bold. Bold! She keeps repeating her mantra, ripped off the cover of those magazines in the lounge area—everything is billed as bold and new, but I think this is the first time a stylist has meant it. Bold!

She slices away more scalp, and she pulls on my earlobes like she’s popping open an aluminum can. She peels and yanks downward. Between cuts, she works on herself. She plunges the scissors deeper into her leg and draws the blade away from its origin point. She goes back to work on my neck. Then she uses the electric trimmer, whittling down my shoulders. She turns the trimmers on herself, chipping into her clavicles. She takes away a piece of my lip. What do you think? she asks. In the little hand-mirror, I see my teeth through translucent bits of leftover skin. I smile, and I’m amazed how white they look in this lighting, like I’ve just returned from the dentist. More! I say. Be bold!

The hairdresser retrieves a paper slicer from the back office for more expeditious work. She chops off anything that has the slightest elasticity to it. She chops and chops until there is nothing but the hardest muscles and cartilage. I think I see bone. A woman sitting across the room says I’ll have what she’s having and thinks its clever. 

The hairdresser sits me in front of the salon’s largest mirror for last-looks. The hairdresser takes pictures for her style-portfolio-thingy. She says this will become a hot new craze, and she wants photographic evidence that she thought of it first. She Tweets and posts on Facebook. My phone lights up. I think we’re already trending.

I inspect the polish on my reddened insides, the fullness of the color. I look at the hairdresser as she continues to snap photos. She is the same. She is slick with blood too. Her bones ache between the barely visible layers of flesh that remain. I feel like I’ve seen her before. I think she is my sister, though I cannot be sure.

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AT HOME WITH THE MARTINIS by Joel Allegretti

4 p.m., Sunday, July 16, 1978

The white house with the gray trim at 33 Harper Road is the home of Elizabeth and Edward Martini. They were newlyweds when they moved to East Bedford, a Central New Jersey township, in 1957. They are both forty-four years old. Liz Martini, née Sprezzante, is a homemaker. Ed is an attorney in private practice. Liz is an accomplished cook. She makes homemade pasta. Last week, her skilled hands produced two pounds of pappardelle. Ed likes to work outdoors. He planted the juniper bushes on either end of the driveway and the impatiens and tulips along the front of the house. Liz and Ed have two children. Their son, twenty-year-old Jerry, is spending the summer backpacking through Italy and Switzerland with three Rutgers University friends. He has sent Mom and Dad postcards from Milan, Venice, and Geneva. Jerry called collect from Zurich and promised to call when he arrived in Montreux. Their daughter, eighteen-year-old Deb, is spending the weekend in a Sandy Hook beach house. Deb will begin her freshman year at Oberlin College in September.

The woman in the green culottes and yellow halter top at the kitchen counter is Liz. She is tenderizing six veal cutlets for saltimbocca alla Romana. The stainless-steel mallet hits the pink slices again and again. A glass pitcher, half-full, is also on the counter. Liz pauses to pour herself another gin and tonic.

Ed enters the kitchen. He is wearing a blue bathing suit and a short-sleeve button-down paisley shirt. He watches his wife for a few moments. He doesn’t say anything. Liz doesn’t say anything, either. Ed takes a can of beer to the backyard. He stretches out on the cedarwood chaise longue by the built-in pool. A squirrel loiters on the diving board. Pine needles float on the water.

Although it is a hot day and the central air conditioning is running, the kitchen window is open. Ed hears Liz’s meat tenderizer. 

Although he is right-handed, Ed holds the beer can in his left hand because of the metal splint on his broken right forefinger.

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I DIDN’T MEAN TO WRITE THIS. by Susan Rukeyser

I meant to write about young environmental activist Greta Thunberg and her impact, how she was received on her recent visit to the US. I loved how uncomfortable Greta made the “grown-ups,” including me. I was dismayed and unsurprised by the sexism chucked at her like crumpled, plastic water bottles: How dare she not smile? 

But Greta’s visit coincided with the final stages of my divorce, and—perhaps you understand?—in that tender time, everything was metaphor. 

~

I read about a funeral held for a 700-year-old Icelandic glacier which had melted to the point that it could no longer move. It was considered “dead ice.” 

“I feel ya,” I said to a picture of grey rock, all that was left. 

Greta got me thinking about damage and denial and when is late too late? “The house is on fire,” she said, and it is, but it is also drowning. I watched YouTube videos of glaciers breaking apart, or calving. In one, tourists on the deck of an Alaskan cruise ship startle at the CRACK, then ooh and aah as one chunk after another of thick blue ice pulls free and collapses into roiling seawater. Some people cheer, others cry out, recognizing the tragedy they are witnessing. I wonder if they feel the spray on their faces, even at their safe distance. I wonder if they know there is nowhere on Earth that is safe. I wonder if they would admit to the thrill of watching the destruction of something beautiful. Or if they’d simply say, “How sad.” 

~

If you never join Twitter, does Donald Trump still make a sound? Oh, yes, I’m afraid so. Every day, in that crowded, sweaty, cacophonous room that is Twitter, your President rages and lies and misspells words, demonstrating that he is neither a great dealmaker nor a good man. We resist and ignore and wish him gone, but we remain frozen in this cruel reality.

But, lately: a promising tremor, as whistle-blows reverberate through ice. Justice moves glacier-slow, but it moves. We are not yet dead ice. 

Once the fissure appears, it’s just a matter of time before the CRACK. 

~

I didn’t mean to write about divorce. 

Which, in my case, this time, was overdue and bloodless, but still—a casting out, or off; a smack to the bruise of past divisions. The worst: calving from the glacier of my extended family, cousin birthday parties and wedding dances and annual reunions, holiday cards with photos of kids I don’t know. 

(Sunk deep in that old, familial ice: a Polaroid of me, age 14 or worse, at one of those family parties, smiling like I wanted to be more like them and less like me.) 

When I slipped underwater, the cold was a shock, but I got used to it. I stopped pretending to be frozen.

Who knows, now, in this destabilized climate, what weather will come? Maybe a surprising cold snap, to reshape us, again, hard as ice? On an unseasonably warm day, who knows what seeds might take hold.   

Or maybe we will stay fluid forever, curving into experience, slipping through impasse, dancing in eddies that catch, then release us, infused with fresh biology: mineral, animal, botanical. We will bear it all. 

~

We must be willing to drown for our transformation, I scribbled one moody night. We must be willing to give ourselves to the cold, dark unknown as we descend and decide: Will I bother to resurface, again?  

What has cleaved itself free cannot be reclaimed—thank Nature, if not God. We will grieve for our ruined illusions, of course, even as we wave them goodbye. 

I did not mean to write this.

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AFTER AUSCHWITZ by Howie Good

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. – Theodor W. Adorno

We were taken off the train at night. “What are those bonfires?” I asked. A sarcastic male voice said from out of the dark, “You’ll find out, child.” It felt like I was on a bridge and there were two or three heavy trucks and the bridge was rocking—but there were no trucks. Even cows wondered what was happening. At one point we seemed to be following Beethoven’s footsteps through Vienna. Although democracy was dead, women and young girls were smashing jars of blood on the sidewalk in a ritual protest. Temporary deities would later tell us many other horrible things while machine guns swept the streets.

&

“Last name?” the woman behind the counter asks, eyes on the computer screen, hands poised on the keyboard. “Good,” I say. She hesitates for half a second, then asks, “How do you spell that?” My body trembles like it’s not under my jurisdiction anymore. Meanwhile, Marlene is resting at home with a beer and the dude that shot her whose nickname is Rabbit. It has nothing to do with forgiveness. It’s simply that one person in six has never heard of the Holocaust. Freud said dreams are the day’s residue. I think of it sometimes when I see Nazis marching into Poland on the History Channel.

&

All day and all night the air is thick with smoke that smells like burning hair. The men in authority, when confronted, can’t explain it. They don’t even try; they just gesticulate in front of the cameras. You live in fear of losing a crap job and never finding another near as good. I’m watching an emerald-throated hummingbird at the feeder so I don’t have to deal with all the bullshit. I don’t want to make this sound worse than it is, but there isn’t a lot else happening, just these assorted crises, each at a different point of unfolding. It’s an intricate universe. Heartache is everybody’s neighbor.

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CINNAMON by Gina Marie Bernard

“Your mother should have had them tear you from her womb,” my stepmom says. “For the wicked shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

I flinch but know better than to reply. 

“What the hell, Darlene? You can’t say that shit,” my dad says from his recliner in the living room. As usual, it sounds more like a request.

“I speak the Lord’s truth,” she replies, emphasizing each syllable with the wooden spoon she has pointed at him. “He will not abide your daughter acting like some filthy dyke.”

My father looks from her to me. He shrugs and mouths, “I tried.” Then he escapes to the garage to pretend to work on his Mustang.

Darlene turns her back to me, adjusts the blue flame beneath her breakfast, and stirs.

Nails have been driven through my eyes. My lips are dry, tongue thick as jerky. Bile sours my throat.

“The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to herself brings shame to her mother,” she intones.

“You’re not my—”

“Must you be my shame? My life’s great error?” she asks, reaching for the alphabetized spice rack above the stove. Her stomach exerts just enough force to shift the Whirlpool, dislocating its gas connection.

My father and I are sitting in the backyard on what’s left of the couch when the first fire truck arrives—a steady din in my ears, much of our house strewn far beyond the alley. I’m certain an EMT asks me what has happened, how I’ve escaped this calamity unscathed. But honestly? I’m still marveling at the gaping hole my stepmother’s lower jaw has punched through our television.

Later—is it already next week?—I stand at a drunken edge of linoleum, a heavy-duty garbage bag in my hand. My father is on his ladder outside, drilling deck screws through a patchwork of tarps covering the borders of the explosion. I push aside a corner of blue polyethylene and hop down into the yard. For the most part, the grass here is scorched to the roots.

Stooping, I gather pieces of OSB, insulation, vinyl siding. Halfway to the alley, I discover the anodized saucepan my stepmother had been tending. Its silicone-covered handle is twisted but unmelted. What’s left of her last meal encrusts the inside—steel-cut oats and dried cranberries. I drop it in the bag and move on.

Thirty minutes later, my father runs out of screws and makes a run to Home Depot. My Hefty now bulges. I tie a knot with the bowstrings and lug it to the city garbage can standing sentry beside our garage.

I hear the crows arguing before I see them. The three birds dance in the long grass at the foot of a telephone pole up the alley, harassing one another in a raucous spray of black feathers.

“Fuck off,” I tell them, approaching.

They fuck off but circle back to alight in the upper branches of a white pine on our neighbor’s property.

I push the weeds aside with the toe of my Converse. Is that a dead squirrel? No, it’s just a tossed KFC drumstick gnawed to the gray bone.

Of course it’s neither of these things.

I stare dumbly at Darlene’s left hand. It’s crawling with ants and is missing the ring and pinky fingers; the first two, though, curl in towards her thumb like talons.

She is holding a spice jar.

“Well, what do you know,” I say to the crows. “Cumin.”

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THE WITCH IS DEAD by Katherine Gleason

Jamey sprawls across the sofa. I place the box of Ding Dongs on the coffee table, and she laughs.

“You remember,” I say.

“Of course,” she says. “Mom loved those.”

“And pretended she didn’t. We need coffee.” I slip into my galley kitchen and mix a few grams of a fruity Ethiopian with the usual beans. The blueberry overtones will blunt the waxiness of the chocolate.

Cups in one hand, French press in the other, I trip over the cat, fall to one knee and, fists closed tight, stop myself with elbows planted on the back of the couch.

Jamey springs up and rushes over. “Great save,” she says, settling the mugs on the table.

My cheeks burn. Jamey would never trip over her cat. If she did, she’d land like a swan, a swoop of wing and slender leg. 

I plop myself down on the couch. “Hey, look,” I say, holding the press aloft. “I didn’t spill a drop.”

“Brava,” she says and perches on my desk.

Now I’m supposed to ask, How was your trip? Then I’m to whine the required ooo and sigh the desired ahhh. I feel my knee, exaggerate my wince, and that’s when I notice.

“Maybe ice it,” she says.

“You moved the lamp,” I say.

“It looks so nice on the cabinet.”

“I like it on my desk.”

“You have to admit you can see it better.” She sweeps her arm in an arc, displaying her superior design sensibility.

“It’s my lamp.” I press the sore spot on my knee, hard.

“It’s Mummy’s lamp, Mummy’s favorite.”

“It was Mummy’s lamp.”

She purses her lips.

“Where’s Kitty?” I ask.

“Sulking in the bedroom.” Jamey peers through the doorway. “She’s fine.”

“I don’t come to your house and rearrange your furniture.”

“Oh, please,” she says.

The cat glides back into the room. I pour the coffee.

“I almost forgot.” Jamey digs in her purse and produces a small paper bag. “From the organic pet place.”

“The one on Ninth.” 

She shakes the bag, tears it open. Kitty jogs to her, rubs against her leg, snaps up the treat, meows for more.

“One more?” Jamey asks.

I nod.

Jamey doles out another crispy bit, stows the bag in my desk drawer, drops herself beside me on the couch. “We’re opening these, right?” She grabs the box of Ding Dongs.

“You do the honors.” We each unwrap a cake. “Do we dare?” I ask.

We giggle and bite into our boxed chocolate confections.

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DROSOPHILA MELANOGASTER by Hannah Storm

The fruit fly shares the same genes as a human. Its Latin name is "Drosophila Melanogaster," which sounds awfully fancy for something attracted to rotten fruit and vegetable. I think about the time you told me I smelt ripe when you forced me onto my back in that room with the torn sheets. Fruit flies breed in drains, empty bottles and waste disposals, relying on a moist layer of material that ferments to grow their families. The adults have brown trunks, black bottoms and crimson eyes and are so small they can creep through windows and doors that aren’t properly covered. I think about the time we met, how I was bruised and broken, how you flew to my side, hovered around me, your tanned arms winged in a false promise. The reproductive potential of a fruit fly is enormous, and given the chance they can lay five hundred eggs. Your first girlfriend had an abortion, you left your second after you boasted how easy it would be for you to get her pregnant. You tell me this as you lie, limp and damp, and I see your eyes turn red with tears. Soon you’re snoring. You don’t hear me creep away to mop up the smell of me, or move to the window above the bins, where I watch their bags spilling into the car park. Your snores sound like the buzz of five hundred flies surfacing from the fetid food when I leave you in your waste.

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LENA by Divya Iyer

I want this to be honest in a way that makes empires shake. I need to text Lena back, and if I do text Lena back with the right words, the ones that hum and whimper and shake and do not cajole (under any circumstances), I know what I would say. The crux of it is that, no, I wasn’t crucified and, yeah, I can’t tell sparkling water from holy water. I would tell Lena about the way loneliness grew inside me, a big sprawling thing, reaching inside for empty spaces, seeping in like ink on blotting paper, like all the lights of a city going out during a power-cut. I wanted to give Lena the proof of it, the bits that said:  look, I was here and I suffered and I nearly drowned but I made it out and, sure, it’s got to mean something, in the sense that I dug myself out of debris, metaphorically. 

It blows my mind that people in high school thought I was straight. They still treat me like a straight girl sometimes. I’m not flamboyant in an interesting enough way. Nobody from my high school era would say that I queer up a room just by entering it. Their loss; it’s astonishing, what they’re missing. I sometimes want to sing it out loud. Look at me, like a peacock dancing in the rain, I am pretty and proud. But look at thisit’s another part of me, a beautiful one, blown out of glass but tough like calluses and diamonds. What I mean is, I came out, and it didn’t change anything, not really. What a strange thing. Trust isn’t enough to renovate a building, I suppose. Some things are damned to stay the same, no matter what you give them.

People in High School could be a whole novella. It would be almost slapstick in its tragedy. Central to this is the idea that there is a girl called Divya Iyer, and she is nobody’s first choice for anything. Nobody’s second choice either, or third. There isn’t a girl called Divya Iyer anymore; she’s of the past and the past only. We’re in the next chapter here, but there is a weight to it, a sort of damned glory to how I learned to love myself, first out of spite, and second, because being your own support system does call for some love. Sometimes the reason people are nice is not because they care about you; they’re nice because that’s how they are with everyone. And they’ll string you along for rides and not listen when you talk and when you split the bill with them over lunch they won’t tell you that you’ve got broccoli between your teeth because they’ll be too busy thinking of how to come up with an excuse so that they don’t have to meet you next week.

It’s reasonable to wonder where this suspicion is coming from. It’s all in my head, but it’s still electric, like veins and lines and wires it’s a current, coursing through, all charged up. I was a flashing sign, a cry for help through a boombox. I was an open book nobody bothered to read, and, now, I am the punchline for every joke. The worst part is that there’s a girl everyone calls my best friend, and I spend too long not correcting them. There’s a girl everyone calls my best friend, everyone but me, and she’s complicit in this.

Think of buildings covered in poison ivy; the ivy the only thing holding the bricks together, holding them up. Think of me, sawed open. Think of her hands on my shoulder for a brief moment as she shares the funniest story she can think of which isn’t even a story about her; it’s a story about how I spent the day after my eighteenth birthday with a hangover headache pounding like a construction site in my head. I look at her each time she does this and I think I resent you. She tells my stories like they’re hers, so I don’t tell her the important things, not really. I give her slivers of it. Div Lite, you could say. Let her think she knows me. Let her hold shadows in her hands. 

I know she tells everyone my secrets. I know what she told her other best friend, who I can’t ever feel comfortable around, not now that I know what I know. Fun party stories. When your life isn’t marginalized you can always milk the cow of someone who struggles to get out of bed, even. You can say, look – this is adventure. Maybe it is. But it isn’t yours. 

What do you know, I think as I look at her. I loved you once, I think. I was in love with you, once. It feels like such a waste, such loss. I had so much to give, and you didn’t respect even the minimality of who I was as a person. 

High school was a mess; a mess of dissociation and possible broken home related abuse that I would only learn to call by its name years later, in college, thinking clinical and detached and shakily, god, she should never have put her hands on me like that, she should’ve gone to jail for what she did to me, she should be there still. I wish I could show Lena the kaleidoscope lens of it. I am a mess, chaotic and a disaster. People have left me behind all the time, I would say. I stand through it all, and so can you. So will you. 

I think of Lena’s poetry about softness and blueness. Lena’s writing, tender until it’s vicious, tender until the fangs of hurt sneak in from the undersides of it. I think, Lena, if you can do it, so can I. I think, Lena, you are not alone. I have been neglected by people who called themselves my friends, too. Girls have broken my heart, more often than I could ever have guessed. I know what it feels like, to love with a heart big and doglike, beating with the excess of it. We’re syrup sweet and not everyone deserves it. Not everyone is ready for the infinite momentum of love that we wield. Lena. We feel too much. We love too much. We hurt too much. It’s not a bad thing. It will never be a bad thing.

I don’t believe you’re depressed, she’d said to me that day out on the games field. I’d simmered with frustration, with anger. My suicide could be on your hands, I’d thought. I’d shrugged my way through it. I’m still here. And at 4 in the afternoon, the sky is all pastel and blue. I play my softest playlist. I curl in on myself, I look out of the car window. I think of my mental health, of my genderqueer bisexual boy experiences. I think of all the people who lost the privilege of knowing me, and I smile to myself. 

Call it bingo. Call it jackpot. Call it “being in a better place.” I built myself a mansion out of the rubble. There are so many people who aren’t invited to the housewarming party. That’s just how it is, sometimes. 

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BEACH HOUSE by Jenny Stalter

Our house faces neither east nor west and sits in shadow. The tiny green house with the too much wicker. The tinted glass dishes full of seashells and tapestries accented with smooth beach glass. Oil paintings of seagulls. Mom really went for the beach look. Most people acquire a life over a lifetime, but it’s like she stopped in 1986. Stopped making a home, stopped making herself. The house smells like sour sweat and coconut rum. Mom, drunk on the couch as a permanent fixture, her robe hanging off the sofa, mouth open. I place a pillow under her head and some water and aspirin on the coffee table. 

Rum stains map a torment of constellations on the carpet. I used to move furniture to hide them but there are too many now. To navigate the living room I step on the stains one at a time, like stamping out bad memories. When I was younger I delighted in listening to the conch shell that sat on our coffee table. I wanted to hear the ocean. Now every detail of this house feels like being swept out to sea. 

I meet Danielle in English class. We’re the only girls wearing fishnets and Docs. She passes me a note with a colored pencil drawing of a munched-up apple that says HARD CORE.

Danielle is the first girl I ever kiss. When we finally fuck she is like an anchor. Danielle works part time as a lifeguard at the Y, which means she wears a whistle. It gives her a distinct air of authority that really gets me going. She’s the one in charge, like, if I’m running too fast, she can blow her whistle and make me stop. Or if I am drowning right there in my living room, she can jump in and save me. I tell her about my fondness for the whistle, how I feel like my life, my mom, my house are swallowing me like the sea, and she is the lifeguard. After I tell her this, when we fuck, if she is ready for me to come, she blows the whistle hard.

We’re laying on my bed smoking a blunt and drinking wine. Mom is gone or drunk, the TV is going in the living room. Daytime talk shows.

“Do I fuck more like a cowboy or a bronco?” I ask her.

“I think maybe like a bronco” she says.

“On a scale of one to ten, rate me.”

“I thought we were using a mammalian rating system?” She laughs.

“It’s numerical now. Rate me one to ten.” 

She kisses me. After a minute and a pull off the wine bottle she says, “If I could tell you how to fall in love, I would tell you to hold back enough so you don’t let people take pieces of you. You’re too eager to give it all away.”

I hate that she sees me so clearly. She knows what my crass mother and shadow house have made me. I wonder what exactly I’m giving away. Probably my heart. That’s what people say about love. And I do love her.

“What do you think we are, inside our bodies? Souls? Life force? Like what even is any of that?” she asks, blowing smoke rings.

I think of grocery store meat. Blood-red hunks of shrink-wrapped muscle that once moved beasts around. What’s left when life leaves. The thought makes me feel more connected to Danielle, like we are the same. The hunk of muscle that is my heart moves my blood. She has one too, and it pumps her blood and moves her body. We move and talk and fuck and play because our hearts are shrink-wrapped inside us. But my other heart, the other kind people talk about, is not inside me anymore. It exists outside, like grocery store meat, and Danielle takes it with her every time she leaves. 

But I forget about all of it when she slides her hand up my skirt. Sex with Danielle is like listening to the conch shell in my living room. I never heard the ocean. I hear my own space cupped back to me, an echo reinforcing myself. In these tight moments with her, my life is not a fearsome abyss about to swallow me up. It is a woman stripping herself of her jewels—beach glass rubbed smooth, her seashell teeth, making herself naked. And it’s all left for me like gifts on the shore.

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HEADLESS HORSEMAN by Liz Fyne

Years ago I had a terrible dream that my cat was guillotined. Afterward she rolled her eyes this way and that, and it came to me that as a head you have no options. Questions spin through your mind on their way out forever and you want to cry and flail but all you can do is roll your eyes.

In my case there was no guillotine. What happened was more of a spontaneous disconnect, because the junction was loose and my life was full of shaking. People say bronco busting can detach your kidneys, but no one warns about the psychic earthquakes from heartbreak—

I imagine standing in stalls at night stroking velvet nostrils of bronco horses, and I wonder how they keep from shaking off their tails and ears. Their eyeballs and toes. Being just a head I have much time to think and no place to go. At times I shift my gaze to my body that has drifted in the wrong direction, crawling on hands and knees. It has accumulated dust on its belly because it sleeps on the floor where no one cleans.

My body might be lost forever except the bedroom door is closed. So my headless corpus creeps in circles. At times it seems frustrated and bangs against the wall. Over and over.

Stop! I want to say. Come back and be with me! But I cannot speak so I just blink my eyes.

There is a love, a great and endless love, between the head and the body. Between the body and all its parts. This love keeps them together, all the bodies and heads and parts. But sometimes, in the event of heartbreak, that love grows weak. Parts loosen their relative grips. Things go horribly wrong.

Horses that seem normal in the rodeo ring search and search for their missing parts: tails left trampled in the dirt, ears that twitch in the sand. I learned this when I went back night after night, in my mind, to stroke the noses.

One nose in the sand, I stroked that one too. It blew hot horse breath from lungs lying nearby.

Time stands still in the rodeo ring but in the bedroom time is passing. My body and I need each other to live. We are locked together in a tiny space so there’s a chance we could reconnect. I tell myself this as day is night is day and my body crawls far and near.

Unless someone opens the door and my body creeps through.

I don’t know who is in charge of the door.

***

It’s a new experience for me, losing my head. New just as love is new and newborn and then still and stillborn. Then life becomes a thing of breaking. It becomes putrefaction that is yours to eat and eat and never stop.

It becomes thinking you walk the apocalypse road when in fact the Earth is new once more and the Horsemen fled long ago, leaving four tired nags destined for the meat wagon except the rodeo gets them instead.

But before that happens my body walks alone and headless and those sad mangy beasts bar the way. So my body climbs atop the black nag of War. With blood on its face and gore on its feet War horse lunges through history and my body feels—

The Crusades, Antietam, Gettysburg and Vietnam—

Until an old fart who owns the OK Rodeo in South Texas finds four abandoned horses, one running madly in circles, and he lures them with oats.

Such ignominy in their end.

***

All is fair in love and war. That’s what they say. Because really love and war are the same thing. Because now my body lies headless in the corner where it’s given up. It no longer crawls. It no longer rides the night like tales of yore. It rests in silence while I watch, blinking against the dust on my lashes.

It will not come back. It’s wandered too far and what did it find but blood and death. Hate and fear and everything that makes love impossible.

This is what we are, the casualties of discord. In the end it kills us all.

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INTERVIEW WITH JAMES McADAMS by Jo Varnish

James McAdamss Ambushing the Void is released this month by Frayed Edge Press. I caught up with him for a chat about his book, his writing process, and his inspirations.

JV: Ambushing the Void is a collection of stories drawn together by themes such as relationships, loss, and nostalgia, and told through truly memorable characters. Professor Pankova and Teo are two of many that will stay with me. Did you draw from real life counterparts for these and other characters?

JM: Its pretty easy for me to look at a person, or read/hear about a person on a podcast or Tweet, and then imagine them into some weird scenario combined with my experience of the world. I guess thats true for all writers. Teo, however, I have no idea where he came from. I think I had the idea to write about this immigrant character from the 1980s, but I do think some of his determining characteristics (being a young baseball player) was probably taken from a documentary of Yankees players from the Hispanic world, maybe? Professor Pankova is modeled after a Russian literature professor from the Czech Republic I had at the University of Pittsburgh. I was fascinated by how enthusiastic she was to share her heritage with the students (cooking for us, showing us pictures of her hometown, dressing in weird post-Soviet almost-gypsy garb) combined with the utter indifference of most of the class, who were busy sleeping or texting or laughing behind her back. It was sad I guess, everythings sad, but it seemed like something more. I think adding to her character a sense or recognition that her students didnt care makes the character work. I hope this is the case. Other characters: Joe the Plumber (My Friend Joe) is based on the Joe the Plumbercharacter from some of the idiotic Sarah Palin rallies in 2008 and beyond. The most literal kidnapping of a public person for my purposes comes in Somewhere in FL, an Angel Appeared,which Ill get to.

JV: The use of technology is a recurring theme in these stories. How do you feel about modern relationships’ reliance on technology, and is there a wistfulness for a time when social media and the Internet weren’t integral to our lives?

JM: Im 40, I think around the same age as you. I feel like I straddle the world of my students, who are like, Why wouldnt our entire lives be mediated?, and the world of, say, my older siblings in their later 40s/50s, who really dont care about this. So Im in between and have both thoughts in my head all the time: I hate this but Im on it 3 hrs a day. Ultimately, Ill just be old and say 1) there are dopamine functions that the software and hardware and application developers are manipulating and exploiting and there will probably a class-action lawsuit in a decade or so, just like what happened to Pharma and Big Banking;  2) the old Pascal quote, viz. something like the most important skill for a human being is to be alone in a room: I cant do this anymore. Can you? I need to be Mr. Promotion Machine on social media for the next few months but Im pretty sure Ill be off everything by the end of 2020. I would like to go off the grid and hike to Alaska or something but I have literally zero abilities to take care of myself without things like microwaves and YouTube recipes and WikiHow instructions so.no off-the-grid for me unfortunately.

JV: Drug use and addiction are peppered throughout the collection; what inspires you to explore them through your writing?

JM: Quick answer, which is true: Im writing a novel set in a rehab so a lot of the later stories in here (Delray,” “Red Tide,” “Somewhere in FL…”) are from that. Longer answer, which Im not sure is true: I think drug addiction is another side of love. So I think you can have love (for a person, or a higher ideal maybe) or love for a drug, or even a phone or app (as I said above), or whatever pings your dopamine. And as youve noticed theres like zero romantic love in this collection, because love is boring to write about IMO, so to fill that vacuum I went with drug addiction, which is just another, less culturally-sanctioned, form of love. Im not sure this is true as a sociological insight. Do you buy any of it?

JV: It makes sense, having read your book! Talking of, tell us a little about the inspiration behind the story, "Somewhere in Florida, An Angel Appeared." It’s a beautiful piece, quietly moving, and one that leaves an impression, possibly asking more questions than it answers…

JM: Im happy to! The piece was initially dedicated to Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, but we removed it because I have a big heart and was dedicating every piece to thousands of people until it annoyed my poor editor, despite her patience...Anyway, Amanda has one of the more famous TED Talks called The Art of Asking,which she later expanded into a book. It pretty much explains the rationale for the move around 2005-2010 to artists just giving away their work for free online as a reaction to piracy. Anyway, she tells a story about touring with the Dresden Dolls in her 20s and crashing on fanscouches. In one story, she talks about her band (so we imagine a bunch of loud young brash punks) staying over at a small little hut in a Hispanic enclave in Florida. In the morning, she recounts being woken up by the Colombian grandmother and some other elders, who, while teaching her how to make authentic breakfast burritos (or whatever), thank her repeatedly for saving the life of their little girl who loves her music so much. Its around the 3/4th part of the video, I highly recommend it.

JV: What attracts you to the form of short and flash fiction?

JM: The earlier works in this collection average 4,000 words, the more recent fewer than 1,000, which is the consensus cap for flash fiction. While this wasnt a formal decision I made, it makes sense for a number of reasons, some practical, some neurotic: My attention span, because of THE OBVIOUS, doesnt work anymore. I base my TV shows on those I can watch with 33% of my brain, so I can read with 33% of my brain and listen to music with 33% of my brain. Online, I dont read anything longer than 2,000 words. I am not proud of this, but I cant be alone. Even most podcasts nowadays are moving towards 15-minutes

I think Rick Moody wrote this once, but the cool think about flash is that you can do any weird experiment and if it doesnt work, then who cares. For example, I just published a piece about a M2F Trans worker who creates fake profiles on online dating profiles in the form of a Reddit AMA. I wouldnt build a 300-page on this foundation, but for a 500-word micro its okay if it sucks. Small achievements, weekly. Its sort of a psychological trick, but Im writing a novel now cut into discrete, 500-1,000 word chapters. This way, at the end of each week, I have chapters done, chapters I can publish, that make it easier to concentrate on writing a novel for 3 years.

JV: Who influences your work as a writer?

JM: This will seem crazy after what I just wrote about flash, but I love the big old Russian-Soviet books: Gogol, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Bely, Nabokov, Pasternak...as well as the poets like Akhmatova, Mayavosky, Tsvetaeva. James Agees Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been my muse for the past two years; His A Death in the Family is pretty good too. Also, Karl Ove Knausgårds My Struggle trilogy is an amazing experiment about opening your brain 100% to readers.

Its sort of like what Howard Stern does on the radio since 1980 in terms of pure confessional mindfulness that makes even the most banal quotidian events (10% of My Struggle is Karl feeding his little kids) seem numinous and holy. As for more contemporary authors, DFW (I realize I just lost 40% of sales because people will think Im a DFW-fanboyno footnotes in this collection, I promise), Lydia Millet, Colson Whitehead (he of the repeat Pulitzers), George Saunders, J.M. Coetzee, Denis Johnson, Samuel Delany, Kathy Acker, William Vollmann, now Im just looking at bookcasesand thinking, I need more non-white males,so lets stop here.

Except to say: Im lucky to be Flash Fiction editor at Barren Magazine, so I get to read real-time Indie authors like Marisa Crane, Chelsea Laine Wells, and Cathy Ulrich, who you probably know about it. Wish more people did!

JV: Cathy Ulrich is a hero of mine! Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you allocate time to your writing every day? How much of your writing time is rewriting and editing?

JM: Im horribly lazy and have no self-discipline about the writing grind. Most of this collection was written between 2-5 a.m. when I couldnt sleep and wasnt watching The Sopranos reruns for the 25th time. I tend to write super fast and dont revise all that well. I will say, 99% of my editing goes into dialogue. I slash and slash and slash at dialogue until I find something that sounds true but unique. I have a rule where if I can tell what the next line is (Hello, how are you, Sally?/“Im fine, Reginald, how about you?), then it gets deleted automatically. I stole a lot of dialogue techniques from William Gaddis and Don DeLillo. As an editor, if I dont buy the dialogue thats something I really have trouble getting over.

JV: Finally, what are you working on now? Has the lockdown has afforded you time to write much more than usual?

JM: I’m writing a novel-in-flash about The Florida Shuffle Rehab facilities have sprouted everywhere, many of them nefarious, profiting from insurance scams and general duplicity, referred to as “The Florida Shuffle.” "Delray” and “Red Tide” from the collection are in this.

"Ambushing the Void explores the margins of 21st century America, with characters confronting new worlds, new technologies, and new social structures while attempting to retain their identities & worldviews. These quirky, off-beat stories (with a tinge of the weird and disturbing) are thought-provoking takes on the post-modern search for meaning."
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ASSIGNATION by Joshua Hebburn

He bought flowers at the grocery store and put them in a wine bottle with a little water and an aspirin. He put them on the nightstand. There, for her, so the room wouldn't smell of him.      

He took the ingredients from the plastic bag that said, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You in red block font on the side. He took out the butcher block. He smashed, peeled, and chopped the garlic. He halved, skinned, sliced, and chopped the onions. He blinked, he blinked, he blinked. He put the onions in a bowl. He put the onion bowl where it wouldn’t bite his eyes. He quartered the brussels sprouts and put them in a bowl. He put the big pan on the range and swirled olive oil supposedly from Tuscany on it. He salted and peppered the steak. He ate a raw brussels leaf.

She didn't arrive. From the kitchen, through the living room, he went. He sat on the bed. He took the flowers from the bottle and drank the aspirin and flower water. It didn't really make him feel anything, but it was something different to do. It forced him to make a face. He’d found, but would never acknowledge, that he could do almost anything if he was alone and he stopped imagining somebody.

A little while later, he put the flowers back in a bottle with water, this time, for himself. 

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IN THE TIME OF CLIMATE CHANGE (APOCALYPTIC VIEWFINDER #1) by Kathryn Kulpa

Flashing Obama

I was feeding the cats and Barack Obama was there, at my back door, standing on the deck. He wore aviator sunglasses and a blue chambray shirt and jeans. I wanted to let him in but I had to keep one hand on my belt loop because I didn’t have a belt and my pants kept slipping and how awful would it be if my pants fell down in front of Obama? 

I had things I wanted to talk about with Obama. I wanted him to convince Joe Biden to drop out of the race. Joe Biden is not our man, I wanted to tell him. Although I sort of liked that cop-buddy movie thing they used to have going on. 

Obama was like that one ex you don’t hate. The one you’d go back to, if you could. Only he’s dead or married or something, so you can’t. 

 

But Heaven Knows

I was happy drunk, spinning in circles in my backyard. I wore a flouncy skirt with tiny broken bits of mirror sewn into every flounce, and when I whirled and twirled, they could see me on the moon. 

 

Zombie Café

We were sitting in the zombie café. 

No one would notice us as long as we pretended to be dead like them. 

We ordered ice cream sundaes. We didn’t say a word when the waitress brought us Mexican soda instead. Tall green bottles of Sprite with paper straws.

The thing about zombies is they never complain about bad customer service. 

 

Vomitorium

The world was covered in vomit. A sea of vomit, only a sea has a shore, a line where dry land begins, and this didn’t. 

There were places you could go to get away. Tall, fortified buildings that somehow were still climate-controlled and had fresh air piped in. The people who could afford to live there met to discuss the state of the world. One man showed a diagram explaining how humans could be genetically modified to grow gills. 

The adapted surface dwellers, he said, would thus be able to perform manual labor for those who lived in the towers. 

I lost interest in what was said after that. Obviously nothing had changed. 

 

Saddle Shoes

I opened my bedroom door and saddle shoes came dancing out from under my bed. They were doing a two-step. I was frightened but vindicated. I had always known my room was haunted. 

 

Country Club

I was at a country club, being chased by a man in a golf cart. I kept running, looking for places to hide. I knew I couldn’t tell anyone he was chasing me, because he owned the club. I knew this had happened before. 

I hid in the pool house. Inside I found a diary. It was open to a page that said: 

 

Help me

No one will help me

He took me and tied me up and drowned me

I ran outside and jumped in the pool. Something was floating there, long hair waving like baby snakes. 

 

Briefly

An old man singing into a 1920s Rudy Vallee megaphone: 

Oh, she was young and per-ty

I was old and dir-ty

But I had lots of money

So she said she’d be my honey-bun tonight! 

 

A Wing and a Prayer

He was flying, almost out of gas. Somewhere over Kansas, Oklahoma? Long flat plains, plowed fields. Somewhere that was not yet underwater. 

He was flying under the radar. There was no radar. No instruments, no airport he could find. No sleep. Guided by stars. 

The moon lit a white steeple and he saw a town, could even make out the shapes of people, gathering, pointing. He made a low pass, returned. 

Then he saw something he hadn’t seen for a while. Lights. Sparks that flickered, then grew. Torches, lanterns, flashlights. Two rows of lights, a runway. A wide, empty street, and lights to guide his way. Calling him down. 

As he came in for a landing he saw them looking up at him, holding their lights, waiting. Waiting for news, for hope. How long had it been since a stranger had come here? He had fallen out of the sky and they didn’t know if he was an angel or a demon. 

The worst thing was, he didn’t know either. 

 

Vampire Town

Everyone was a vampire now, or maybe not everyone—where would they get new victims? Whose blood would they suck?—but it felt like everyone. It felt like you’d be better off to cut your losses and find somewhere else to live. A place vampires hadn’t found, if there was such a place. I walked home from my vampire high school with its vampire teachers and vampire kids, the vampire football team kicking around something red and wet, the vampire cheerleaders leaping into the air, then hovering in a bat-winged pyramid. 

They always had to show off, those vampire girls. 

I was tired of fighting them for so long. I needed my mom to tell me to keep fighting, that it would all be worth it. I needed her to make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut into six triangles, exactly the same size. 

But my house felt empty. When I called my mom she didn’t answer right away, and then she came out of her bedroom with a man who was not my father (I knew this, because my father was dead). She tried to introduce him, her vampire boyfriend, but I wasn’t going to go there. I wasn’t going to make nice with my new vampire stepfather. 

How could you betray Dad like that? I asked. 

Her face was weary and she looked way past me, an adult kind of tiredness I hadn’t reached yet and didn’t want to know. 

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THE PAIN WE DON’T TALK ABOUT by Amina Frances

I was six years old when my mother strapped me into the buggy of her bicycle and steered us both into oncoming traffic on the stretch of road behind the Mulberry Street house. A teen driver swerved and clipped us at fifteen miles an hour. I’ve had a raging pain at the center of my back ever since. 

My father wrote off the accident as another one of my mother’s spells—silly little things—as if they were nothing more than temporary lapses in judgement. Maybe they were. Then again, maybe they weren’t. My Aunt May always said the woman had a death wish. Maybe she did. Then again, maybe she didn’t.

Other than a hairline fracture on my thoracic vertebra—twelfth from the top—I walked away with a clean bill of health. 

“Your mother is staying with a friend,” my father assured me on our drive home from the hospital. “She’ll come home soon. Don’t worry.” I didn’t. 

I dream of my mother often. She’s wearing a wilted linen dress, traipsing barefoot through an enchanted forest. Her wild black hair is cropped at her shoulders. She still wears her wedding ring. Aunt May’s gold chain clings to her neck. 

She never did come home. I was glad. I didn’t miss her. My father still goes looking for her in nearby towns on the weekends. I don’t miss him either.

I spent most of middle school flat on my back, my eyes glued to a popcorn ceiling, Nick at Nite and Growing Pains reruns blaring in the background. By thirteen, I was convinced that there was a village of Keebler elves tinkering away inside of me. Every now and again, they’d lose a hammer between my eyes or drop a nail in my rib cage. Clumsy little things.

Sometimes at night, I still hear the clanking in my ears. It’s been twenty-two years since the accident. The sound of tiny feet shuffling across my bones still comforts me.

I told my husband about the elves. He says that’s why I never sleep. He works at the hospital as an ultrasound technician. That’s how we met. That’s how I meet most people. 

It’s just us two, for the most part, my husband and I. And the elves. And my college roommate, Maeve, on occasion. We live a thirty-minute drive from JFK. She says we keep her plane tickets cheap.

“It takes the same jaw force to bite through your pinkie finger as it does a medium sized carrot,” Maeve mentioned on her most recent pass through.

Later, I told my husband as much. 

“That isn’t true,” he said.

“How would you know?”

“Because Maeve’s not a doctor.”

“Neither are you.”

I have trinkets from Maeve’s travels sprinkled throughout the house. They gather dust on bookshelves and mantles where pictures of small children should be, but aren’t. Rose quartz from Brazil, porcelain from France, a capsule of water from the Dead Sea. 

Maeve grew up with an agoraphobe mother. Her father died when she was fifteen. Scars line the insides of her wrists—fleshy, pink orbs that look like stars when I squint. I study them when she sleeps. 

I spotted the Big Dipper once, two inches shy of her elbow crease. I thought about asking if she’d done it on purpose. Imaginative little thing. But Maeve’s pain isn’t up for discussion. We talked about elves and loneliness and broken spines instead.

“I bet you could do it if you wanted to,” Maeve said the morning after our conversation about carrots and cannibalistic jaws.

“Bite through my pinkie?” I asked. 

“Anything,” she sighed. 

Maeve tucked a stray hair behind her ear. The rest of her flyaways were secured by a bandanna she’d swindled off of a market vendor in Morocco. She sat next to the window in her Carhart jeans and an open back sweater. The light struck her like a Renaissance painting—all bright whites and shadows. My eyes grazed over her ski-jump nose and her winding, elf-less spine. It was then that I decided I would bottle her up and absorb her, one flesh orb at a time.

Two months after Maeve left for a yoga retreat in Tibet, the elves worked up a storm. I was forced to quit my gig at the call center. My husband cut his shifts at the hospital. He says getting better is a full-time job.

At night, I hold on to Maeve’s rose quartz in one hand. I put my other hand in my mouth. My pinkie finger feels at home between my molars. Sometimes I stand there, staring at myself in the bathroom mirror for hours, waiting for the elves to stop working or my jaw to go slack. Whichever comes first.

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ENERGY FROM LIVING THINGS by Laura Eppinger

I examine the head of lettuce because he tells me to, but I don’t know what he wants me to see. Broad romaine leaves the color of spring rest outside his canvas shopping bag, sure. Just a few minutes ago, John shouted at me for putting my slicker on the wrong hanger in his coat closet, or through the wrong loop inside the jacket. It’s hard to keep track, since I needed to kick my muddy boots off before stepping through the front door. I thought I was following all the rules, but I missed another one, and this time instead of lecturing, John shouted. Hard to let that go and focus on unpacking groceries now.

He pouts his thin lips at me, pale eyes seeking confirmation.

“The roots,” he says, and then I recognize a clump of brown beneath the while neck of the bunch.

“That’s sad,” I say. I’m sad, still waiting for an apology I know won’t come.

“Do you think it’s alive?” John asks, running one long finger over a single hair of root. “Should we plant it in the alley?”

Just behind his left shoulder, the blades of his knife collection catch a rare ray of sunlight. John has sensitive eyes so the apartment windows are smothered by blackout curtains, though sometimes a spear of light pokes through. I’ve been scolded for slicing back and forth with a paring knife, or using a ribbed one to make smooth drops with the blade.

Serrated, this task. I pick a knife and sever the roots from the leaves in a few jabs more than necessary. Have to justify my knife selection after all.

“Thank you,” John says. “I still hate that we need to take energy from living things to survive.”

He cradles the leaves in his bluish-white hands and nurses them all the way to the fridge, where they will live in the crisp-keeping box, which is always positioned on the second shelf, no exceptions. I tuck the clump of roots into the composter under the sink, using my left hand as a bib to catch any microbe of dirt that might try to fight free. Nothing will fight free, not in this apartment.

The loose oat (reusable) bag is stuffed into the grain tin and the agave syrup is tucked into the shelf, exactly where its predecessor sat.

John will now decompress from errands with episodes of anime I never get to pick but always have to watch, because being apart from him makes him worried I’m angry at him. My body sits in its usual spot in the knobby couch but my brain doesn’t come along this time.

If I could see my sister, privately, I’d crow to her that John treats the fucking lettuce gentler than he treats me. What’d you expect, she’d say, dating a lifelong vegan. We’d freeze our tits off under puffy down jackets—yeah, it’s mean to the ducks to use their body parts, but I like being warm too sometimes—and will each cigarette to last just another drag longer. We’d be in the mall parking lot, wasting the few minutes between our appointments for pedis.

There’s no good reason I can’t see her. It’s just that John will never entertain, it’s too overwhelming to have invaders over the apartment who don’t understand his systems. It takes too long to explain up-front; I’ve been here six months and I still make mistakes every day. He’s not too keen on me leaving all that much either. Of course I’m allowed to leave, but what if I wake up before his alarm goes off and my stirring interrupts his sleep cycle? What if our appetites or meal schedules get out of synch? No way could two separate dishes get cooked out of this kitchen too close to one another—it takes too long to clear the clean dishes from the drying rack, first inspecting them for any food or soap remnants, scrub the counters to disinfect them, select the proper utensils, gather the ingredients, explain the plan of attack to each other, and then get started on the actual cooking. Then cleaning before eating. Then the eating and the cleaning up after eating.

That’s not even to mention the orienting of the dining room before the meal is served. The place-mats must be aligned optimally, and the cushions! The cushions on the wooden chairs could leave behind their filmy glue, so they are removed when no one is sitting upon them but laid out over the chairs before either of us could sit down to dine.

It’s really only logical that I don’t see anyone but John and John doesn’t see anyone but me.

#

John yells at me now, all the time. Sometimes it’s a short snap he claims he can’t remember an hour later. Sometimes it’s over the phone, involving three breaks to suck up new breath, when I text him that I researched talk therapy and found my work insurance will cover it. He screams to me that he doesn’t need counseling. He screams that I exaggerate, he never yells.

He screams and then he begs me not to leave, because he has trust issues from that messy childhood. All that grief from watching his mother die. He’s trying to be a good person, he’s trying to eat in a way that causes no harm, he needs me to see how good he is being. Routine soothes him. Routine is good. I eat so healthy since I moved in, cut out drinking and ciggs—much to be grateful for.

So I feed the compost under the sink, all our little veggie scraps. The stems from bell peppers, banana peels, used tea bags—it’s a joy to squish up and squeal a little as I stuff them down with my open palm. I try to choke the life out of them, to hasten their ecstatic decomposition. Free up their nutrients so they can nourish something else. Isn’t that the noblest course? Releasing all the best parts from inside us, to be a feast for others instead.

#

I turn the black humus we’ve saved from this waste-free kitchen. I tell John I leave out the scraps for the cooperative compost pickup service, and that’s not a lie. I just don’t donate all of it, just yet. Ever since I found the hunk of roots sprouting new lettuce leaves on top, I felt hope for the first time in a long time. I didn’t let my mind wander like when John plants me in my spot so he can watch his favorite childhood cartoons again; my face points at the screen but none of the colors or shapes sink in. No, my mind was turned on this time, and even in the dim light enforced by the curtains, my eyes registered a tiny little life. All those saved scraps made it happen. Sacrifice does pay off.

That weak sprout could use the carbon dioxide, I reasoned, so I whispered to it that day.

Hi.

It was hard to think of what to say to a being that wasn’t John; I’m always trying to think of the right thing to say to John, though sometimes it makes him mad at me anyway. I like that this little bud can’t talk back.

It’s nice you’re here.

And now I linger in the kitchen after every meal, saying nice things to the lettuce.

I like you a lot.

You look great.

And today, No one should ever yell at you.

#

I’m flushing under my cardigan, checking one more time that I have the red-handled kitchen scissors in my hand and not the black-handled office scissors. Sure you can wash them with soap and water, but John does not want them mixed up.

It’s my turn to show him roots under lettuce, my turn to say Look, Look.

“It grew under the sink, in the compost bin,” I say, tripping over some of the words because I am talking too fast. “Let’s mix it in the salad too.”

John turns his head toward the leaves pulled from the composter and then tilts back to the scissors in my hand. I shake as much dark not-quite-soil back into the bin, making sure not one single speck hits the floor or the countertop. I selected the smallest cutting board to work over, which must be the right choice.

I want to meet John’s aquamarine eyes but he’s stepped out of the kitchen; he doesn’t like when I leave a room without warning, so it’s odd he’d do this now. In a flash I feel him behind me, tall and reedy. A jolt strikes me as John pulls my hair over my head as if making a high ponytail. A kiss? We haven’t touched in weeks. I close my eyes to savor this surprise.

A hear a whine of scissors opening their legs—did I have the desk scissors after all? A cold peck at my neck tells me a breakdown is coming.

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STUMBLING ON CONCRETE by Mileva Anastasiadou

I was overweight when I started the diet, but eating less didn’t help much. I lost some weight, yet I still feel heavy. I told him last night. My husband eyed me up and down, checking for excess fat, then said I look fine, but I don’t feel fine at all. I should move to Mars, perhaps, where gravitational forces feel less powerful, I said jokingly, or turn into a bird, I thought, only I didn’t say that aloud. He suggested exercise and I shrugged. I’m not certain exercise will help take the burden off of me, but I could give it a try. 

*

We climb and climb, and we’re now at the top of the hill when he says I look young while staring at me, and I nod for I was made for youth and daydreaming and future plans, only I’m violently present now, blissfully dizzy, feeling his hand, not a word or gesture goes unattended, and I don’t miss the young me, the dreamer, this time it’s now that I already miss, the excruciating bliss of present tense, for it’s all downhill from now on and he says that’s maturity, only I know it’s him, he’s the peak of the mountain I climb, my future happening now, the cliff I’ll stand on before the fall. And I can see me hitting the ground, gravity calling, again and again, like a repetitive stumble on concrete sound effect, like wood falling, hitting the floor, only woodcutters have been hiding in fairy tales, or movies, or songs, and I wish I could hide in a story as well and never be found and never fall.

*

The end of the world is near, says the man on the TV. My husband watches silently, eating a burger, while I only drink water to fool my empty stomach, for I want to lose more weight, to evaporate, to go back to the beginning. I was born light as a feather. A tabula rasa, a clean slate, empty of experience, ideas and emotions. I spent most of my younger years hungry. Hungry for food and knowledge and life. I’d eat more and more as I grew older, I thought, for I’d always grow bigger and wiser, and mom said I needed food to grow. So now, I’m heavy. Now, I’m full. Eternal growth is malignant, like cancer,  says my husband, while watching the documentary on climate change, while I step on the scale, counting calories, for I want to go minimal, escape flesh and bone and feelings, stop growth and immobilize time, turn into an everlasting imaginary friend or ghost.

*

I thought I was born empty, crystal clear, but I’m not sure now. I was born a baby, the way people are born, yet I was not empty at all. I carried the world inside me, for I have lived before I was born. Half of me watched my mother’s life. I watched her first steps, her first kiss, her heartaches. Half the half of me watched my grandmother’s life, her struggles, her path. The pain inside isn’t just my pain. It’s the pain of the world. A piece of me has lived forever, I think, I tell him and he looks at me like I’m crazy and perhaps I am, yet all my pain cannot be justified by one life only. A tiny piece of me has been here since the beginning of time. People get strong with time, they say, only I get weak instead. The pain threshold falls. After a certain age, you’re either too cynical or too soft, he tells me. Only the cynical can move on like nothing happened. Happiness is obstructed by experience and fear, decluttering the mind becomes a necessity. I want to empty the disc, to be a dot in space, I tell him, like in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the poem, the movie, only you can’t really erase anything. I drip seriousness and profanity and I dust tiny bits of sacredness still left upon me. I throw up all dirty knowledge, a futile attempt at unlearning the world, to clear my mind. Accumulated pain is the reason for aging and death, I tell him. You live on and on until your head bursts in pain and glory. 

*

He turns off the TV and caresses my cheek. He then pulls me close, climbs onto me and his weight on my body is a comforting weight, accumulated joy is the reason for life, he claims, and I don’t mind heaviness now, heaviness keeps me grounded, here, alive. Heaviness gives a sense of  belonging in exchange for freedom. Until you hear the chains and learn to carry them along. But I keep thinking how tiring life is. Almost like plate spinning. It’s only a matter of time before it all crashes down, before gravity calls, yet I keep at it, for there’s no choice. Until all motion seems overwhelming and the burden seems unbearable. And it’s all a simple equation; when pain exceeds joy life gives up in a reverse big bang, an implosion that ends the world, instead of starting it. 

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SNOWBANK by Frances Badgett

The night comes on so quietly, a hush riding each flake to the ground. The snowman slumps against the brambles, overwhelmed, the new snow wet, heavy. The quiet is unsettling, and all Mara can hear is the hiss of tinnitus in her left ear. She pops in headphones and listens to a meditation, the brain’s static between the breaths. The pressure of trying to relax wakes her up, agitates her. Paul’s on the porch, muffled thumps and the creak of the front door. She opens her iPad and checks to see the constellation overhead. Hydra, a favorite of hers from a childhood book on Greek myths. Removing an acid-spitting head, Hydra will grow two in its place. Survivor until Hercules and his nephew, Iolaus, strike her down. Hercules with the sword, Iolaus with a flaming torch. She turns off the iPad and closes her eyes to the meditation, the sound between the bells a swish of anxiety. Something with rain or waves, maybe. Something with wind. Nothing works.

Paul’s quiet footfall is more distracting than if he were stomping, a thing Mara says but can’t explain. He slumps into bed and sighs, wanting to talk. She does not. She turns off the meditation and answers his questions about her day—yes, work was fine; no, she doesn’t want to skip the teachers’ party in March; yes, she will be out of school the second week in April; no, she doesn’t want to go to Miami for a week in June. Paul’s new building is growing bones, walls, is looking like the drawing. Studios above a sprawling gallery, it has a pretentious color name like The Vermilion or The Chartreuse. But what Mara doesn’t say is that the building is the drawing somehow reduced, somehow more plastic. No mature trees, no unidentifiable people out front, no artful sidewalk of squares and no distinctive Paul lines and marks, his signature hatches and swirls, and therefore, somehow more than the building itself, the building a crude rendering of Paul’s spectacular art. She listens as he describes the slate for the fountain, the lights for the plantings. 

“The trees?”

“Yes, those, too. All of it lit.”

He is asleep quickly, he falls hard. She drifts on waves of dreams, of Hercules and Hydra, of the way a story can mean something to the Greeks and another to us. It seems unfair, punishing the hero with twelve tasks no one else can handle. She thinks of Jared, her smallest, most gentle student, how the world hurls challenges at him, how he manages to dodge, to remain whole. His mother a drinker, father absent much of the time. She loves the way Jared writes, lightly corrects his spelling. “More,” she tells him. “Keep going.” But Agatha, no. Agatha gets her other self, the demanding teacher, corrective, stern. She twists with anxiety at the thought. Agatha is perfectly fine. Unremarkable. She should be a softer teacher. She replays in her mind all the times she has transgressed, has spoken sharply to this girl who needs more love than the others, who doesn’t ask for too much. 

She falls asleep the hour before dawn and wakes exhausted, more tired than she will be all day. Paul is already up, humming over the presspot, plucking bacon from the pan. She slides her binder of lesson plans into her worn tote and yawns. 

“I have to go in early. We have a hip hop instructor coming.”

“I want to go to your class,” Paul says, and though he’s been cute and sweet, Mara wants to scream. 

“And what would you teach?”

“How to draw people to scale against monumental apartment blocks.”

She imagines Jared, his small, dirty hands clutching colored pencils, hatch mark shadows behind vague outlines suggest people, pets, a few trees. Agatha would draw puffy cats, a dozen or so, and pretend she was following the assignment. 

Paul does not come to her class. He flips his leg over his bicycle and glides off into the snowscape of their narrow alley, the street beyond. She drives slowly, the streets clear, the schools on time, children starting their ambles and snowball fights and snow angels on their way, snowbanks dotted with boot prints and lost mittens.

She loves the room like this, empty, quiet, the clock’s tick loud. Planners and binders holding the order of the day. She is concerned about Lily’s reading skills. She wants to like Agatha.

The day is lost to the snow, their eyes and bright cheeks watching every flake drift down, their bodies turned to the windows. They hear some of what she says, but not much. She isn’t worried, today is light. Today is a day she can erase if she needs to. Every day is shaped from air. 

Jared calls to say he will be late, midnight late. The children file out after the bell, voices filling the halls with screams and squeals. No school tomorrow. None for the rest of the week. 

The next morning, she picks a boring apartment, cold and bright, the light bouncing off the snow outside and into her, filling the windows with glow well after dark. She packs exactly one bag, a neat collection of bundled things, and takes one pair of shoes. The apartment looks like every apartment, beige and mauve, exhausted around the edges, chipped counters and worn handles. She stretches on the floor and feels the vibrations of the neighbors below, the ease and thud of snow off the roof, the muffled quiet of voices in the street. She breathes her own air and opens her own book and reads, sitting on the floor, by the window. 

Paul calls and calls again. Remove a head, and another grows in its place.

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LUCY by Paul Nevin

Lucy saw me first, so I didn’t have a chance to avoid her this time. 

We were standing on opposite sides of the narrow road that ran along the beach, her by the sea and me in front of the shops. She had one hand at her hip, thumb up and forefinger pointed at me. 'Hey Craig!' she shouted, and when I looked over she pretended to shoot me with her finger and blow imaginary smoke from its tip.

I clutched at my chest, which was the accepted response to this little in-joke of ours, while Lucy laughed and mimed holstering her hand-gun. With her other hand she pulled her sunglasses off big bee-eye frames that covered half her face and she waved at me with them.

Lucy stepped off the curb and dashed over to me through a break in the traffic. She jumped up and hugged me, kissing my cheek and swinging from my neck, perfume and sunscreen rubbing into my tee-shirt, her too-big beach bag crushed between us. She was twenty six, five years older than me, but in her excitement she seemed almost childlike.

She let go and stepped back. There was a navy blue lock in her hair. That was new. Even with hair as dark as hers it stood out, and I wondered how you got away with that working in a bank. 

'They let you out of head office?' I said. 

She smiled and nodded. 'They let me come back here at night and weekends. It's been ages, Craig,' she said. 'I miss you.' There was a pause, just a beat, and then she said 'I mean, I miss all of you guys.'

'Yeah, me too,' I said, and then played the same game back at her: 'Everyone misses you too.' I hadn't seen her since Christmas, when she'd left our local branch of the bank to work in London. We said we'd keep in touch, but I'd put a wedge of distance between us as soon as she left.

I nodded towards the Starbucks on the corner. 'Have you got time for a coffee?' I asked, thinking that she would say no, that she was on her way to the beach, and we would say how nice it was to bump into each other and leave it at that. I could carry on with avoiding her, and forgetting about her. But instead Lucy blinked in the sun, dark blue eye shadow over light blue eyes, and nodded to The Ship on the other corner. 

‘Or a proper drink?' she said.

***

We bought drinks and sat on high stools in the window, looking out to sea around a barrel that had been converted into a table, and I realised that the last time we were here alone was the night she had kissed me. 

That was payday drinks, a year ago. One minute it was eight o'clock. What felt like half an hour later it was closing time, my head was spinning, and only Lucy and I were left in the pub. There's a gap in my memory. I can't recall leaving, but I remember the two of us standing at the bus stop just outside. Lucy leaned in to me and said 'see you tomorrow, Craig,' when her bus turned the corner onto the seafront. But then she pressed her lips onto mine, one hand cupping the back of my neck, one grabbing the front of my sweater, guiding me toward her, keeping me in place, both of us drunk and unsteady. I kissed her back, my fingers curling around the toggle buttons of her coat, but she pulled away. 

She smiled and stepped onto the bus. She didn't look back,  just walked to the back and sat down on the far side. She wiped condensation from the window with her sleeve and stared out at the sea as the bus pulled away, but it was so late and so dark that she must have seen only her reflection staring back at her. 

I stood at the bus stop with my mouth still open, swaying and shocked at a little kiss, as if it had changed my whole world.

The next day I suggested a drink after work. Lucy said no, and joked that after last night she was never drinking again. There was no awkwardness, but also no mention of what had happened between us, and I wondered if she even remembered it.

***

I shook the memory away.

'and the people are really nice,' Lucy said. She was talking about her promotion, something to do with managing the accounts of the bank's wealthiest customers. 'It's so corporate though,' she said. 'Not like here.'

I looked at her hair again, and that blue band of dye running through it like the shine on an old vinyl record. 

‘And how are things with you?’ she said.

'My contract comes to an end in August,' I said, and I realised as soon as I said it that this was like a rumble of thunder, rolling in to rain on the good mood we were both in.

There was a pause, and then Lucy said: ‘Well, once you finish up you can do anything you want.’ She had suggested a proper drink, but while I’d ordered a pint, Lucy was drinking lime and soda through a straw, the bee-eye sunglasses lying upside down on a beermat on the barrel-table between us. She had slipped her sandals off, and was tapping her naked feet on the sides of the barrel.

'Yeah, I suppose I could travel,' I said.

Lucy put her drink down. 'You could,’ she said. 'There'll still be some summer left here, but you could go on a big trip like you always wanted to. Chase the sun!' She grabbed her glass again and smiled as she put the straw between her teeth.

'Chase the sun,' I repeated. I liked that. I liked the way that Lucy put things. And she was right. I could see out the contract and then have an adventure chasing the sun wherever I wanted. But was that true? My job didn't pay well, and I'd have to get another one quickly.

Lucy shook her head, as if she could read my mind. 'You don't have to go on a round-the-world cruise,' she said. 'But you can afford to go away somewhere, and it'll do you the world of good!' She nodded on the last word, as if that settled the matter.

I'd forgotten about this, her infectious enthusiasm, and the way she could turn the bad things in life on their head, as if they couldn't touch her. It made her seem carefree, years younger than me instead of years older. 

'You could come with me!' I said, and I cringed as soon as I said it, my toes curling into fists in my shoes. This felt very much like we were headed back into the territory of Making A Pass.

Lucy shook her head, still holding the straw between her lips. She gulped and put the glass down. 'I'll be away myself then,' she said.

'Where to?' I tried to appear casually curious, but my voice sounded high-pitched and needy.

Lucy stared out of the window, to the sea beyond. I didn't follow her gaze, but looked at her instead. She seemed serious now, the high spirits evaporated. 'Just away for a week or two,' she said. She added nothing else, no mention of where she was going, or who with. 

I’d forgotten about this, toothe way she could seesaw between being over-friendly and aloof, when the focus shifted to her, when there was the chance that I might get a foot in the door of her life.

'Oh, how lovely,' was all I said back. It was as bland and lifeless as what she'd said to me, and it sounded almost sarcastic, as if I was making light of having just stepped in dogshit.

A song came on through the speaker above usEvery Little Thing She Does Is Magic by The Police. 'I love this song,’ Lucy said. She sounded relieved, saved by the music and back on safe ground, talking about things that didn't really matter and wouldn't make either of us uncomfortable.

We'd heard this song before, Lucy and me, on the radio in her car, when she gave me a lift home from work one random rainy night, a few weeks after that kiss outside the pub.

Lucy had bounced along to the music in the driving seat as her Corsa inched through heavy traffic. While she stared at the road, I stared at her, watching her singing, rain drumming on the roof like a rapid heartbeat, almost drowning her and the radio out.

'Do you want to go for a drink?' I said.

She glanced over. ‘I’m driving,’ she said.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Not now. Another time.’

‘After work?’

‘Yes.’

Lucy frowned, as if mulling it over. ‘It’s payday drinks next week,’ she said.

‘No, not payday drinks,’ I said, worried that I hadn’t been clear, that I hadn’t been unequivocal. ‘Just you and me, on a date.’

We stopped at traffic lights, and Lucy turned the radio down and faced me. She smiled, but it wasn't the kind of smile you want in response to being asked out on a date. It had pity in it. Embarrassment too. The smile you give your dog when the vet is about to put him to sleep; a smile that says sorry, this is going to be awful, but we're going to get through this. We're going to be okay.

‘Craig, we work together,’ she said.

‘I’ll resign,’ I said. I meant it as a joke, but it didn’t sound funnyit sounded desperate.

Lucy said nothing, just smiled that benign and pitying smile.

‘But you kissed me,’ I added. Now I sounded petulant, and entitled.

The traffic lights changed from red to green, and Lucy turned back to the road. She wasn’t smiling anymore. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘But it was just a drunken kiss Craig. Just something that happened in the moment.’ She glanced over, nibbling her lip, worried how I might react to being rejected. ‘It doesn’t have to mean anything more than that, you know?’

I smiled and nodded. ‘I know,’ I said, shifting to damage control mode, ready to downplay what I’d said and walk it all back. ‘It’s really fine. It was just an idea.’

Lucy smiled back, relieved. ‘Let’s just get you home,’ she said. ‘And maybe we can have that drink another time.' 

It sounded like a gentle let down, and maybe it was, or maybe the timing was just off. I never got to find out, because a month later she was promoted to head office, a sudden departure, and I found myself promising to keep in touch at farewell drinks in The Ship, the conversation in the car never mentioned again.

***

Lucy finished her drink, mining the last of the lime and soda from the bottom of the glass with her straw.  She put the bee-eye frames back on. ‘The beach awaits!’ she said.

We walked out into the sunshine, past the bus stop where we had kissed.

‘It was good to see you Craig,’ she said. She leaned in, hugging me goodbye, hands around my neck again, perfume and sunscreen on my tee-shirt. Then she kissed me, aiming for the cheek, but catching the side of my mouth. ‘Next time you see me,’ she said, ‘stop and say hello.’

I watched her walk towards the beach, wondering if she might turn around, but she didn’t look back. As she reached the steps leading to the sand she lifted one arm and flapped it behind her. It could have been a wave, but she didn’t turn her head, and I thought afterwards that maybe she had just been swatting a fly.

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MY PERSONAL BRAND by Matt Leibel

My personal brand is integrity. My personal brand is fresh, innovative thinking, and a commitment to excellence. My personal brand sets me apart, in the sense that many people refuse to stand within 50 feet of me, as if my personal brand stinks or something; my personal brand does not stink. If anything, my personal brand exudes a fresh, clean scent, evocative of wintergreen, or a cool spring breeze. My personal brand does not harm the skin. My personal brand contains no known carcinogens and has been extensively tested on laboratory rats. Unfortunately, one of the rats has recently escaped his cage. If you happen to see him, do not panic, do not subject him to an inhumane trap, for this is no ordinary rat, but a spectacular rat, one infused with my own personal brand, and all that this entails. You can find out more about my personal brand on my website, mypersonalbrand.ki. All of the other internet domain extensions for mypersonalbrandhave been taken, by the way, so I had to use.ki, the extension designated for the tiny Pacific Ocean island Republic of Kiribati. I even traveled to Kiribatis main atoll to set up my personal brands website. Thats how new and fresh my personal brand is. In Gilbertese, incidentally (the official language of the I-Kiribati people), the word for dog is Kamea. Apparently the etymology of this is that European invaders used to say to their dogs, Come here, come here!I didnt learn that on KiribatiI discovered it on the internet. But the internet is only the tip of the iceberg so far as my personal brand goes. Speaking of icebergs, Ive projected my personal brand onto the face of several massive ones spanning Greenland, Siberia, and Antarctica. You can see videos of these projections on my YouTube channel; they are rather spectacular. Ive done all this, by the way, at enormous personal cost and am beginning to wonder if the payoff justifies the expense Ive gone to to get my name out there. My personal brand has destroyed both of my marriages and has deeply strained my relationship with my teenaged son Zeke, whom I enlisted in my scheme to light up the endarkened, icy ends of the Earth with a gigantic symbol of myself. This involved, among other challenges, taking Zeke out of school for an entire year, and hiring an instructor to train him in the driving and care of sled dogs. Zeke now vows that he will never forgive me, but he is still young and as yet lacks the perspective on what really was a truly unique once-in-a-lifetime experience he will one day thank me for (which other of his friends have had the chance to enjoy the meaty tang of fresh-killed whale meat?)and that thanks will come, in part, via a full-throated endorsement of my personal brand, once he himself is in position to become an influencer/thought leader/social media superstar on his own. My personal brand is all about providing unconventional and memorable branded experiences. My personal brand is stickylike that. My personal brand isand lets just be honest about thismy last real chance at this point. Its a shot in the dark, a rabbit Im trying to pull out of a hat, and, in fact, Ive had some hats created for my personal brand including these premium models made out of genuine rabbit fur, and take it from me (and Zeke!), these hats will help you get through even the most brutal of winters. My personal brand still hasnt gotten the recognition it deservesbut now is the time to change that. Im coming to you with an opportunity, in other words, to get in on the ground floor and see your own personal brand piggyback on mine and take flight (not literally, as pigs cant fly!). My personal brand has now been certified 100% rat-free, and will focus henceforth only on areas reachable without access to sled or snowmobile. Think about it like this: in the end all things will die. Penguins will die, whales will die, rats will die, icebergs will die, the I-Kiribati will die. I will die, my ex-wives will die, my ungrateful but only son will die, and you will die, too. But our personal brands will live on long after were gone. Our personal brands are, in many ways, the ghosts of our lives, and if you dont want to have your own personal ghostwell, youre missing out on a chance to reach the coveted 18-45s, as personal ghosting is all the rage right now, according to my influencer friends in the know. But if youd rather not join forces, beware: my personal brand is not fucking around. It will win out in the end, because it is desperate, it has no other choice. My personal brand is no longer merely an extension of me. It has become an independent organism, a lab creature on the loose, a monster that I can no longer contain nor control. It will not be forgotten. It will not be denied. It will flutter under your floorboards and creep into your brain. It will achieve maximum stickiness. It will make its mark upon you. 

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SENIORS ON THE MOVE by Mike Itaya

I’m Old Boy. 

In the assisted living, they give me the journal, for a doodling. I write camphor, cancer. Camphor, cancer. I don’t give a shit. I’m Old Boy. 

It’s Tuesday. And right off, things go bad.

Somebody swiped Rundy’s anxiety candle. 

“Who’s fucking with my aromatherapy?” He wants to know. 

I used to drink. I don’t have the mind for it. My back’s fucked. I sleep out in the banquet hall, like a plank, waiting on them lunch ladies. I flash peepers and spot Rundy beneath the salad barguzzling stuff—working up to frenzy. He monograms his onesie with ranch dressing, and banishes a spare bottle to the nebulous domain of his nethers. He’s big into spiritual growth and looking to boogie. I double-up on Depends, in case he tries to slip me the big banana.  

I got no man-panties. Nothing to hide a half-master. I seen them old gals in whale drawers, and make for jumping ship. It gives you pause. Each Tuesday. Thursday. Wednesday. You get the whole goddamn picture. I heist contraband from the staff kitchen. Heist a tomato-mayo sammie. Right beneath my gown. Wake up. With a tomato-mayo sammie stuck to my chest. 

I hang with Rundy. My roomie. This tragic melon-brain. He traps rats. And makes chess sets. With taxidermied rats. It gives you pause. He’s whiplashed. Too many U-turns underneath the sheets. I whip hell on him, for telling lies on my momma. I’d rather not go into it. We’re the best of friends. 

We burned down our lives in Homochitto, Mississippi. 

We mess around. We don’t go to “Seniors on the Move.” Melvin, this drowning goon, crapped out during water aerobics. With the floaties. And a Baby Ruth. And an empty wallet. All this for posterity. During the Ouija séancefor MelvinI make the board say, “Black Jesus,” which really gets the geezers riled and moaning. 

They drag me to Dr. Hypnos, who dims the lights and gets “professional.” Talking all slow and sad, like he’s got a line on me. Wanna talk ten years gone. Like I’m some kinda folksy mumba-chumba with my Rascal scooter and my “FAARTS” vanity plate. My ten year plan is to be dead for at least nine of them. He says, “Something’s got to change,” and right now, that something feels a lot like me.

I see now, I got off on the wrong foot here, talking out my buns. Which chafes. ‘Cause if you’re going to say anything, you might as well say the motherfucking truth: 

My line is cut. 

The cable is buried. 

Sickness got me here. 

My life is gone.

I came off a spree once, and found my son dead in his room. His big old moon cat sitting on top of him, staring at me. Staring through my shame. I think shame broke my mind.

I burned down my life in Homochitto, Mississippi. 

My boy: there was ruin in his face even I could not tell you of. 

But I have lived through things that might have killed you. And I have sharpened tooth on stone. I will wait for you behind happiness. I will take you from everything that’s gone wrong.  

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HAPPINESS by Matthew Licht

My father wasn’t a traveling salesman, just a guy who never seemed to be where he was.

A look crossed his face if someone came into the room where he was thinking or dreaming or scheming or whatever he was pretending to do, or spoke to him directly when he was present but lost. The look said who are you, what are you doing here, what do you want from me?Everything was fine. We lived in an acceptable house where hot meals were a regular feature. Then one day Pop came home with a monkey.The baby hadn’t begun to walk or talk yet.The monkey could walk erect. He had no tail, therefore was an ape, a primate, a chimpanzee. The chimp and Pop held hands like they’d known each other a while. Pop was in one of his gray suits, the chimp had on short pants. I watched them come up the block and then the driveway. Pop fumbled the keys and held the door.He never shouted, Honey I’m home from the factory, lab or air base or wherever I pretend to work. But then, we never dropped what we’d been doing to greet him.Pop and chimp headed for the kitchen. The chimp got a banana. Pop, a beer. The rest of us stood in the doorway.Mama unfroze first. She put the baby in his high chair and made dinner. Pop was a better cook, but he usually eschewed domestic chores.Pop crunched the can and saw us staring. At him, not the chimp. He might’ve brought the beast home to distract our attention. The plan hadn’t worked. It dawned that some explanation was called for.We settled for an introduction. “This is Happy. He will uh, live with us now.”Mama broke the silence. “Is he OK with another banana for dinner, or should I have the kids set another place at table?”Pop had to think. “Set another place, I guess.”Dinner was awkward, but Happy liked tuna noodle casserole. He ate with a spoon, without much mess or fuss.When my sister reached for the fruit salad—didn’t make sense to ask an ape to pass it along—Happy snapped at her hand with unbelievable speed and viciousness. A smell spread, like she’d wet herself.“Better watch out,” Pop said. “Happy’s not like the monkeys on TV or at the circus.”
1
There was an extra room for when Mama and Pop’s friends came. Visits called for wild parties. How all those people knew each other, where they’d met and what they had in common remained a mystery. Mama and Pop were awfully quiet after a party, and avoided each other even more than usual.Happy didn’t move into the guest room. Instead, Pop rigged a pen in the garage, with a mound of old clothes for him to sleep on, including Mama’s collection of past-date panties.The chimp went to bed and woke up when we did. I thought he’d eventually come to school with us. My sister and I invented stories to explain our brother, the chimp. Pop worked at the circus, or the zoo. He was an African explorer. The ape’s parents died in a Big Top fire, or were crushed by elephants. So we had to take him in.Pop said Happy would not attend school. “He already knows everything he needs to know.”Once I stared, to learn what went on inside the head of a creature who knew everything he needed to know. Happy’s eyes were deep pupils without centers that said, maybe I look slightly like you but we’re not the same. I know things about life and nature that you’ll never understand. Maybe I can’t express myself with words, but if I grabbed you by the ankles I could rip you in half.The hairy mirror-image dissolved and charged. Pop restrained Happy, barely. “Uh, better not stare at him like that, it’s a sign of aggression.”The only other time I’d seen animal aggression was out on the playground. Big Mary held me down and said she was going to suck out my eyeballs. But she didn’t. She kissed me on the mouth like grown-ups in movies and said, “Oh yeah baby now we’re boyfriend and girlfriend forever.”One day Mama needed help to carry a couple of sacks up to the attic. “What does Pop do for a living?” I asked.She was caught off guard. “Well, you know, he works in an office.”“Yeah but what kind of office?”“One that’s full of desks and chairs and telephones.” She didn’t know what Pop did all day either, or didn’t want to tell.“So where’s this office where he works?”“Oh, you know, downtown. Where all the other offices and skyscrapers are.”“Do I have to work in an office too when I grow up?” In a gray suit, I’d bring home a crow or a goat to meet Big Mary and our kids.
2
Mama settled the sack she’d dragged up in a corner attic where, strangely, there were no spiderwebs. She didn’t hear, or had no answer.“Did you ever work in an office, Mama?”She took my sack and settled it against the other one. They sat there, tied up at the top like hobo sausages passed out in a drunk tank. The sunset reflected on her face as she considered their placement.“Before I met your father,” she said, “I went to college to learn architecture. I wanted to build houses, you know, for people to live in.” She made it sound like an impossible dream. “Then I met your father at a cocktail party and then we had you.”Babies were born from cocktails when the party was over and foiled career dreams. Mama labored in a house she hadn’t built. Pop worked in an office no one had ever seen, and then a chimpanzee appeared.The neighbors were curious that an anthropoid ape dwelt in our garage. It was odd enough Mama and Pop didn’t own an automobile. Pop rode his bicycle to the train station and back. Occasionally he brought Happy with him to work. The chimp sat on the handlebars, but never did handstands or juggled bananas or anything circus-worthy. His muzzle was a headlight, his teeth chattered for unlucky flying insects.Maybe Happy worked in the city too. He shook a cup for a mustachioed organ-grinder, or did pin-up pictures for banana company calendars, or was the “before” model in ads for depilatory creams. Pop was the chimp’s handler/agent.Mr. Munger, our next-door neighbor, asked me to help rake leaves. He’d just lit the dead foliage pyre when Pop pedaled back from the station with the chimp. “Your father does things his own way, that’s for sure,” he said.My sister and I spied on the Mungers through their living room window that night. We were supposed to be at the McLaughlin sisters’ Halloween party, but Mama had made our costumes. My sister was a gypsy-ish witch. I was the devil in a cut-off, cast-off business suit. We didn’t want to mingle with kids in store-bought disguises.We figured the Mungers must have their own version of Happy. This turned out not to be the case. The Mungers consumed uncomplicated cocktails. They spoke to each other while they ate their non-human flesh stew. They cleaned up in the she washes, he dries manner and retired to their living room to read. She cracked a novel. He rattled the newspaper, then dropped it for Life magazine.
3
Neither of us knew that observation of events possibly influences them. Spooked, we thought everyone else in the world was normal and we were freaks.We ran wild-eyed to the McLaughlin sisters’ Day of the Dead shindig. Rhythm n’ blues blew from the parental hi-fi. Low lights shone on adolescent gropes in progress.“Boo!”“Yah!”The devil and one of his faithful witches burst in as though possessed, and scared the crap out of everyone. But we were only dancing. We shooped and shimmied, then suggested that the Munger Mansion was ripe for a toilet-papering, the Munger chariot for a windshield-egging. We whooshed out into the night like a swarm of rabid bats and laid waste. The Mungers never knew why.Being normal has a price.Happy developed gray fur on his back around the same time I needed a first shave. Pop presented me with the instruments and a deodorant stick. “You already know what happens between men and women, right? Must’ve heard talk in the gym, or on the corner, seen some magazines.”“Get a boner and stick it where she pees?"“OK you already know more about it than I do.”“But where did Happy come from, Pop? Did you and Mama...”“Everyone’s responsible for their own happiness,” he said. “You have to make your own decisions and take your lumps, if lumps are in order. But the rewards can be great, if you guess right, and...that’s all I’m going to say.”He was as good as his word.Pop took Happy to the city with him the next day.That evening, the chimp was dressed in cotton pyjamas silk-screened to look like a tuxedo. “Ooooh,” my sister said. “Happy’s gonna get married.”Pop said, quietly, “Happy grows old faster than we do. We should be ready for when his time comes. Mentally, I mean.”My sister looked my way. Our thought-balloons merged. Oh we’re ready. Any old time. It was hard to tell what our human baby brother thought.Any attempt to delve into Happy’s mental state was met with snarls. Pop, if he was around, would yell, “Leave him alone.”
4
Happy stared at flies, and at mosquitoes after sundown. He picked insects out of his airspace with blinding speed, deadly accuracy.When approached slowly, hindquarters foremost, Happy gave great neck-rubs and back-scratches. He tolerated grooming sessions with me, relished them with my sister. He’d give her the sniff test first.You probably shouldn’t do that, Pop said.Happy drew a rare paternal reproach when the ape approached my sister with a hot pink banana- shaped love-offering. Pop grabbed him by the waistband and collar, brought him to the garage. No one said, bad. No one said, wrong.Mama said, well he never tried to get fresh with me. It was hard to tell if she was surprised or miffed. Or if she was talking about Happy or Pop.Aunt Floydine phoned the week before school let out to see if my sister and could spend the summer with her in Las Vegas. Mama thought it was a good idea. “But no casinos, please,” she said. “They’re both still children, really.”Casinos were the last thing on Aunt Floydine’s mind. Games of chance, or any other kind of fun and games, weren’t her idea of a productive vacation. Gardening was more like it.Dressed like a movie star, Aunt Floydine dealt us a spade, a hoe and a rake. She swept a satin-gloved hand across the swath of desert that stretched to the horizon and was her backyard. She asked how long we thought it’d take to turn that scrubby desolation into a cactus garden.“Gonna take a long time,” I said, and my sister nodded.Aunt Floydine was an imaginative cook. She knocked up sundown cocktails with adolescent- appropriate doses of rum. She subscribed to magazines devoted to how gardens, houses and people ought to look. She wanted to create paradise on the outskirts of a cowtown that had become an amusement park.As our departure date loomed, Aunt Floydine inspected her new garden and was pleased. She drove us to the Strip in her convertible Cadillac and bought us new clothes. We knew they’d be ludicrous back home, but we got to be movie star ranch-hands for an afternoon.At the airport, she handed over the big bills.“Cash stays out of sight,” she said. “Keep it stashed it for a rainy day.”Rainy days seemed impossible around Aunt Floydine. We wanted to stay in the desert and be her garden-slaves forever, but such indentured happiness wasn’t in the cards.
5

There was a surprise at the airport on the other side. Pop was wearing an unusual hat. Unusual for him, I mean. Mama had on gangster-lady sunglasses. Our brother had evolved to the point where he could toddle around in his Oshkosh overalls.

No chimp.

Neither of us asked, "Where’s Happy?"

On the train home, Pop said Happy had had an accident when he chased one of the McLaughlin sisters. It was unclear whether Happy met his doom on a passing auto’s grille, or at the hands of shotgun- toting Papa McLaughlin. Didn’t matter. We’d missed Happy’s burial in a corner of the backyard.

Pop never brought home a replacement ape.

When I was left for college, he accompanied me to the bus depot. The others stayed home to watch a Tarzan movie on TV.

Pop shook my hand on the platform. “Be your own man,” he said. “Be strong. Be happy.”

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A GROCERY LIST FOR A SAND DUNE by K Chiucarello

The grains could never contain me.

I had always been a shape-shifting blurry little thing packed tall behind foundation slabs, their windows blown out with the shutters ringing loose, paint chipping off the front tooth. When the coastline birthed me, I was a miracle of wonder: pretty as a Cadillac slicked straight, my mother said. Daughters of the fishermen ran atop me, ribbons rippling in the breeze, pairs of feet driving down towards my candied belly, full of a momentum that had me wanting the snow. I explained by long way of lecture to the hills what it was like to direct spoonfuls of yourself into the hands of others. There was a neighboring boy I had liked and we traded weather forecasts as pendants of desire. Wind high today, flood lines low tomorrow. 

One evening, with all the stars dipped neatly above us, I called my boy over and he came to lay with me. My mother made us chocolate covered strawberries and we barricaded the fruit between our bodies. I slowly confessed to his ear, thigh over thigh, my long-game: I had wanted to be a mountain and I would stop at nothing to become so. I knew there were steps I needed to take to present as a mountain and so I hardened my insides blackening them to licorice. I draped my body on ice, hoping it would freeze over or melt down. It wasn’t until I swallowed a house whole did anyone pause to consider that maybe my consumption lay beyond my spit.

The house I came to first held me spellbound. I lowered myself over its roof, loosening my hands around giving door-frames of wood and rotting glossed varnish. I ravished a bathtub clean in one audacious gulp and next made my way over to the pillars on the front porch that echoed onto the beached landscape. There I would sit for a week or two or three months or nine, hoping my hunger would diminish. I swam laps in my appetite for destruction, reclining, sipping its cherry taste through a straw, my lips tender as foie gras in the summertime. Soft uniforms of breeze had whipped me into a devotion that only the birds now could see, a feeding frenzy gone absolutely rogue. 

The townspeople became fascinated with me. Newspaper headlines read I was a virgin daiquiri, all cream, no bite, stretching itself half-baked out in the cracks of walls. That was the last dare I took.

I spilled my way into the next thirty-seven homes rowed up pretty as pigs in a glass showcase, butcher hooks still drooling crooked off of my mouth. I choked down gardens filled with kale, celery, radishes, heirloom tomatoes. I swallowed one girl in my path simply because she had been there and I had little time to spare before someone would catch up with me. The village began to protest, construction workers bulldozing forks blunt into my ambered sides, the mayor frantically binding my chest. I tested this suffocation and stilled, taking time to do up my hair, pinning wisps out of my face. On the fourth day of silence I bubbled through twice as tight, yeast toppling pyramids onto each other.

Everyone evacuated. My mother and the boy ran parallel to me, adjusting themselves in a mirror of rupture. I had no more houses in sight. I stood there plush in the shadow of myself, a town buried under scoops of thawing sweetness. I had done it; I had become my mountain. Once in a blue moon I ruminated on what I needed to do there to get here, on things that needed to capsize for me to stand erect. I took a bottle of port to wash it all down. 

It wasn’t until the liquid reached my toes did I feel a shifting beneath me, 

a hot magma afterglow for thought. 

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IN-BETWEEN SIRENS by Davon Loeb

The in-betweens are like waiting for something to happen, like flashes of red and blue sirens pulsing through my car, while searching for the police officer about to step to my window. And I watched from the rearview mirror, and would say and act exactly how my mother told me—to call him or her sir or ma’am, to be polite, to keep my hands on the steering wheel, to have my paperwork ready. And that my stomach was buoyant, and that my eyes blurred from tracking the sirens, and that I felt the spotlight sizzle on the back of my neck—but I kept the speed limit, and my seatbelt was fastened, and I used my right blinker when pulling over to the side of the road, and that my vehicle was in good-standing; and even though I had three friends in the car, none of us had been drinking—none of us smoked or did much of anything that night besides driving back to campus from dinner. And when the police officer knocked on my window, I lowered it, and he instructed for me to step outside the vehicle—to exit slow, to keep my hands where he could see them. And another police officer, around the rear, with his flashlight, inspected the rest of my car—targeted it on my friends in the backseat—asked them their names; one said Mike, and the police officer said Miguel, and Mike said—no, Mike. And while I was outside the car, I handed the other police officer my license, and he examined it with his flashlight, checked my face to match, and then told me to sit back, and I did, resting on my hood. He studied my license longer, and though I wanted to ask him what I did wrong—that I wasn’t swerving, that I didn’t run a stop-sign, that I didn’t commit any traffic violations—I said nothing, and stood stone-still knowing it really didn’t matter—knowing exactly why he pulled me over—and that when he said there was a string of burglaries in the neighborhood and we looked suspicious, I wasn’t a bit surprised.

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CHEATER by Norris Eppes

I go there to ask why I go there. I go there to pick up trash from the sand. In the sand, I draw a heart with my toe. My initial. My wife’s initial. The initial of our shared last name. Then, I make two footprints beside it and let the incoming tide bury my feet. 

An elderly couple walks toward me along the hard sand. I do not want to talk. 

They stop and talk.  

“We are from near the Austrian border.” 

The man moves his cigar from right hand to left so we can shake. My hand is wet and sloppy from digging for sand fleas. 

I show them how I find the little things. When the wave draws back toward the ocean, the two antennae of the sand flea holds water and I dig my hand and scoop a cup of sand and feel the crustaceans tickle-critter into my palm. I pinch and fling away the sand like some god shrinking the world. 

I extend my palm for the German couple to examine. The sand flea is the size of a jelly-bean. It tucks into the nook between my ring finger and middle finger. 

“Sand fly?” the man questions my name for them. 

The woman speaks to him in German. 

“Sand flea.” 

“You are not American,” he says. 

“I live here,” I say. 

“No,” he says, “American,” then mimes that he’s casting the line from a fishing rod. 

“It is warm enough to swim here year round?” his wife asks. 

I respond in tour guide fashion—yes, I only wear a wetsuit three months out of the year and I wear shorts the other nine. 

The woman speaks to the man in German, and the English word “shorts” is in there—which I suddenly remember means underwear in Europe. 

They say “goodbye” very formally and walk north, back to the campground and their RV. 

I find, on the beach, an empty bag of bait-shrimp filled with shrimp juice. I find the grey plastic cone of some travel-sized deodorant. I find one black velcro flip-flop. I find thoughts of the beautiful Spanish woman, eight months pregnant, who played footsies with me under the conference room table today. I was scared when her toe touched my toe. How could fear and adrenaline possibly transmit such a jolt through the toe of a leather office shoe? 

I liked it. 

As I turn and slow-step up the beach toward the boardwalk, I find the silhouette of the condos, which I know precisely from hours in the water with their outline as my lineup. 

But the silhouette is wrong. An owl? 

No, an osprey. Or, a pelican. 

The bird’s tufted ears turn, head on a swivel. We observe one another. 

An owl. It hops forward, plummets, and spreads its wings — which are about the size of a pelican’s. It flaps silent to the south, silent because the ends of its primary and secondary feathers have comb-like structures on their ends, and the feathers spread apart in flight, allowing silence.

I trudge after it through the sand, which is silky, cool, slipping through my toes. But I abandon the effort. It’s too dark to see the owl again anyway, and I need to find a trash can for this stuff. 

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STILL LIFE, WAYNE COUNTY, IN AUGUST by Aliceanna Stopher

Buddy of mine used to have me over before his girl walked out on him. For supper, you know, or cards. Maybe beers, if one of us was going through it. We weren’t usually, back then.  More like, we thought we were, but really we weren’t. I’d bring him Dad or Bert, he’d bring me working, or not. We laid it all out, sorted through it. 

I ran into him on my way to work, this one night before we was supposed to get together. He cancelled, standing all crooked, thumbs stabbed through his belt loops, and I thought he was joking. I asked him what he’d said to make her run off like she did. 

He told her she was ex-wife material. “She didn’t take too kindly.” Go figure. 

I kept turning it over. Guess I’m still turning it over. What did it mean to feel into the future? To have a certainty the person you loved was going to break you, to see someday-pain wrapped up inside that somebody; know inch by bloody inch that pain would birth itself out. Know that cost and decide to risk it anyway. 

He’d said ex-wife. Wife comes with that, too, but I guess it’d been hard for her to hear it.

Smack between coming and going, all I said was, “You’re a dumbass.” I didn’t have anything to offer. I didn’t know much about risk, or love. 

 

Bert would call and check in, not just on me, but on dad through me. I must have been easier to talk to.

Those days I let her burrow in. I loved it when she’d tell me, “Don’t should all over yourself.” All that wisdom don’t ring true anymore. 

The cracks started small. Before everything else, there was this day I was talking up this redhead in line at the post office. Real cute, had that Whitesville look about her, but a sweet smile, not a thing wrong with her teeth; trying my hand at charming, telling her I had to get my dad a sheet of one-cent stamps because they’d upped the price of postage again. He was always forgetting and melting down when his letters–all cramped chicken scratch–took their time coming back to him, undelivered. 

“Kind of you,” she’d said. She fiddled with her purse strap, readjusted it on her shoulder. I was next in line. 

“Ain’t kindness,” I said. “I should do it, so I do.”

She seemed disappointed then, or bored. “Well now,” she said, “don’t should all over yourself,” so I excused myself quick because it felt all the sudden like I was talking up my own sister. People make a lot of cracks about West Virginia. You know, and I shouldn't have to say. I loved Bertie–I love Bertie. The normal amount in normal ways. You know what I’m getting at.

Forgot the stamps entirely. Called Bert and asked, straight out, where she’d gotten all that phone-call wisdom from and she said, “NA. What’d you think? Does it matter?”

Like that, air out of a balloon. I wasn’t sure why it mattered—only that it did.  

 

After Bert got divorced she moved back to Wayne County, in with Dad. Not ideal. She’d been living out on the coast a long time, maybe too long to come home. When she was married she was always saying it was easier to stay clean up where she was. I don’t know about all that. Her husband had some money. That’s always the way of it.

They were doing all right, Bertie and Dad, for a while. Making coffee, leaving enough in the pot for the other, that kind of thing. Bertie took over stamp duty. 

I spent more time on the job, or alone in my apartment, or walking the road ditches up the mountain, failing to take risks. 

Everything was fine, but it wasn’t just the bedbugs that spoiled it. Yes, I should’ve told her, but there were a lot of things I should’ve done. I knew that, even then. I knew my sister and our father didn’t see eye to eye on many things. I knew how hard it was to try to know a man who doesn’t, most days, without the right pills, really know himself. God, I knew that. Likewise it had to have been tough on him being around her, feeling like maybe the way things had all shook out in her life were a little bit his fault. Maybe more than a little bit. 

It was a bright afternoon. 

That I remember.  

I walked in, could smell coffee on and thought, good sign. Up the stairs and there was Dad, squat in front of the TV watching Judge Mablean.

“Shouldn’t you be working?” he asked, “It’s the middle of the day.” 

“Shouldn’t you be–” 

That’s when I heard Bertie stomping somewhere nearby, tap-steps, rapid-like. Then, hollering. God-awful. Like she was being stabbed all over. 

Dad hopped up and I followed behind, waited like a bloodhound as he eased open one of the bedroom doors. There she was, slapping at herself, her hair big, thin arms flailing, screaming, “They’re crawling all over me, get ’em off,” over and over. 

Big moon eyes, body—a knot of baby snakes. 

Up close, my fists clamped around her wrists, and I still didn’t see any bugs. If I were a better brother I would’ve known that didn’t matter, known she could feel them, known that was enough. I just held her there, her hollering tongue a limp fish, fixating on the raw patches on her arms, her neck, her cheeks. 

She moved in with an old friend from high school not long after that. 

Then, there was all what came next.

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CONSIDER RAVIOLI by Jane-Rebecca Cannarella

We’re three in a row and it’s warm like the way the bottom of a plate is hot and comforting after you microwave leftovers. Colleen and Sean both throw off heat to my right and my left, so much blue between both of them like the most blistering parts of a fire. And Colleen wants to know why no one will consider the plight of the ravioli. Pierogis and poptarts are pockets and appreciated. So she wants to know why I won’t give ravioli another chance. What’s to hate? We’re calling them raviolis even though the word is already pluralized but it adds to the gentleness. My heart is all valves and pulleys; with blood sluggish in the in-between seat at the bar. Like three uneven legs on a stool, we fun fight in a rapidly unwinding late afternoon.  

Time is a fragmented line from a middle-school notebook, like how you start to write a note but then get called on to answer a question during class. Hours become skipping stunted pen strokes, and Colleen says she's going to open a ravioli stand and name it after me. A little plea for the pockets to get the grandstand they deserve. It’ll make a killing. 

Everything needs a little more sympathy and people find comfort from other people. Like the way this dude at the bar who thinks Colleen is cute comes over and we pet his wool sweater. It’s warm and tender like throwing spaghetti against a wall and it sticks because it’s perfect. And who am I to hold a grudge? 

Nutrients are nutritious. What if I’m the disagreeable one here? The sort of disagreeable like a person yelling at you for making the meatballs wrong when all you wanted to do was cook your loved one dinner. And while I never ate the meatballs in question, I do know that they were perfect in the way that you just know something. It's the same way that bodies make their own lightning and it travels right to your sternum in shocks and surprises. That sort of knowing. Perfection doesn’t go unnoticed if you actually care.  

And we are three in a row. Drinking past our bedtimes on a school night, maybe we'll stay at this bar in South Philly forever? But they’re running out of red wine for Colleen. So I guess we have until the last mini-bottle of wine since it’s the thread of time from the start of hanging out to the end. And until they cut the thread, we’ll elbow lean on the glassy wood bar talking so fast. 

I am in the pocket of warmth and red wine is a river in the underworld pulling us all into the winter of the evening. For what it’s worth, I would stay here for another six months with the three of us hothouse flowers blooming indoors during the coldest season. And throughout the frost, I could use the time left to consider the ravioli and all sorts of other things, too.

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WHAT IT HAD IN ITS MOUTH by Arielle Burgdorf

What can make viewing it so memorable is the fact that as each day passes, the rock changes colour depending on the light and atmospheric conditions, and never remains the exact same permanent hue.

 

Red, the only color that stays with you. A massive red rock, rising out of a grassy field. Sun warming the stone, casting shadows in the crevices. The golden, reddish-brown fur of a wild dog peeking out from behind a bush. And the final red, rusty, dark splattered all over the white jumper. A baby, missing from the jumper. The same question, on yours and everyone else’s lips: where is the baby? Remember the days when you used to cover your eyes with your hands and whisper to her: Where’s baby? Then you’d remove your hands: There she is. A stupid game. But Azaria loved it, and you would do it for ages before she tired of seeing your face reappear between your fingers. 

And now they ask again: Where’s baby? The question is always the same. The problem, is that everyone has a different answer. 

This is not a story about dingoes, no matter what anyone tells you. It is not even a story about Australia, or media circuses. It’s a story about mothers, and how we punish them. 

*

For years, you prayed for a girl. You loved your boys, but you wanted another kind of love. And finally, she came into the world. You named her Azaria, meaning “helped by God.” You smiled and sang to her. Three children and a loving husband. You were, you thought, blessed. 

You know the exact moment and place everything changed. August, 1980. Ayer’s Rock. The Anangu people call it Uluru, which doesn’t mean anything in particular. For them, it is a sacred site. The rock is not passive, but a living, breathing entity. 

A family camping trip. Laughter. Like any old day, and then a night like no other. After that night, you would never sleep fully again. 

BABY GIRL ‘STOLEN BY DINGO’ 

You remember fragments. You were walking with your son back to the tent. And then: red fur. A lean body, running off into impossible dark. In court, they will ask you: Did you see the dingo drag the baby out in its mouth? Did you see it’s jaws clasped around the head and neck? You don’t know. Where’s baby? You don’t know that, either. 

What you do know, is that you have seen how dingos eat meat. How they ruthlessly strip back the skin as they go. You know, without a doubt, that it was possible for a ravenous wild animal to take warm flesh out of its protective shell, just the way a human would peel an orange. You know this, and so it’s what you tell the press, when they ask how it could have happened. This is your greatest mistake. 

Cold. Calculating. Hard-faced bitch. 

Nothing in your demeanor suggests maternal. What you want them to understand, is that this is maternal. The outback is harsh, filled with poisonous, deadly animals found nowhere else on earth. Every day is a struggle to survive. A mother has to be extremely tough, willing to kill. This is what the dingo knew. That a morsel of red muscle, bone, and fat would sustain her and her young. Salt in her mouth. A minute’s relief, from a hunger that never subsides. 

No one wants to see your stoic acceptance of nature. They want to see you cry. Tears, confirming your humanity. But you cannot help them. You have just lost your baby daughter. You have no more tears. 

MOTHER SUSPECTED OF MURDER 

You will not believe the atrocities they decide you are capable of. They accuse you of slitting her throat with nail scissors, decapitating her, stuffing her body into a camera bag, performing infant sacrifice for a religious cult. Too much blood, that’s the problem. When a dingo breaks a baby’s neck, it wouldn’t have produced that much blood. And we found no dingo saliva on the jumper, they tell you. The saliva must be on the matinee jacket, you tell them. She was wearing a white matinee jacket, with pale lemon edging. Really? That’s the first we’re hearing of this jacket. 

*

The men on the jury take some convincing, but the women? The women vote you guilty immediately. The nation agrees: by 1984, 76% of Australians think you killed her. This is the price of telling a story too strange, too unique to be true. 

Up until now, a dingo has never killed a human. But there were signs. A three year old girl dragged out of a car by a dingo, a few weeks before Azaria went missing. The dingoes were getting hungrier, and bolder. There will be many more children killed, or nearly killed by dingoes in the years to come. You will try and warn them, but they are not ready to hear what you have to say. 

The jury chooses to believe the expertise of a dingo expert from London. 

Exactly how many dingoes are there in London? you laugh bitterly. No one appreciates your anger. The women glare at you from the jury bench with a stare meaning,  She has no right to call herself a mother.

 Somewhere, there’s a dingo with a mouthful of blood, grinning. 

*

No one ever gives a satisfactory explanation of why you want to kill your baby daughter so much. There doesn’t have to be a reason. A baby is gone, and you are the baby’s mother. That is enough. If you didn’t kill her outright, you killed her through negligence. From every angle, her death remains your fault. This is how we crucify mothers. 

*

There is one group that believes your story. The Anagu people who know and respect the desert, who are aware of what the dingo is capable of. They are the people to whom this place rightfully belongs. The Anagu tracker was the one who found the jumper, who followed the footprints to the dingo lair. But he is not allowed to testify.  We can’t get the right interpreters is the official police line. Besides, they’re all drunks. 

In the movie version of your life, the police show up to shoot the Anagu’s dogs until Meryl Streep calmly assures them that none of the dogs look anything like a dingo. There is too much said in the silence. You can feel the tension tighten like a noose in those few minutes of celluloid, the entire weight of history playing out in the faces of everyone on screen.

*

You are sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. It feels like you are punished for being punished. Your husband is also declared guilty of murder, but allowed to remain free in order to raise your two boys. This makes very little sense to you. They are saying: he helped you murder, decapitate, and hide the corpse of your infant daughter, but he is fit to raise these children. The father’s crimes are forgivable. But a mother is beyond redemption. A mother should weep more, a mother should’ve protected her child. 

And on this, you agree with the press. 

A mother should’ve protected her child. But you do not need their help being punished for that. 

*

There is something you have kept from them. Another baby girl, growing inside you. She will never be Azaria, but she will be enough to save you from madness. You would kill for this one, like all the others. 

Another red: an opening. Kahlia. When she is born, in jail, they will allow you one hour with her. One hour to hold her, to touch her skin, to apologize to her for this brutal world that you’ve brought her into. Then she’s gone, and you are alone once more, in the wilderness. 

When she is gone, you will cry, but no one will see it. 

*

Because you have no other choice, you continue serving a sentence for a crime you didn’t commit. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether you did anything or not. You’ve lost all sense of true and real. There never was a baby you want to tell the jury. The dingo didn’t have anything in its mouth. There never was a dingo. Just me, out there in the desert. 

*

One day, a jogger at Ayer’s Rock will come upon a white matinee jacket with pale lemon edging, lying not far from a dingo lair. 

*

Where’s baby? Six years later, you don’t have answers. Sometimes, there aren’t any answers. 

Regardless, the matinee jacket buys your freedom. You are told to be grateful. You are “free” from prison, you name is “cleared.” 

But you know these are not accurate terms. You are never free, nothing has become clear. For the rest of your life, you will carry this inside your chest. You don’t know it yet, but your marriage is already over. Strangers, to this day, are convinced of your guilt. Girls call the tabloids, claiming to be your long-lost daughter. I’m Azaria they say. Pulling back their ponytails, trying to show you the twin scars on the sides of their heads. For years, the cause of death on Azaria’s birth certificate will read “unknown,” suspicion lurking. Your life boils down to a national punchline, a quip, a graphic to sell T-shirts. You will go down in history as the woman who cried dingo. 

You are alive, but you have not survived this ordeal. You feel the jaws clamped like a vice around your skull, canines sinking in. You stare down the deep red throat into nothingness. 

Then the light shifts, and you realize you are alone again. A solitary figure in the desert with a giant rock, and a baby with no body. 

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GLOVES by R.S. Powers

He had a dream, he says, about the rest of their lives on another planet rich with tech indistinguishable from magic. On his back, he holds his hands toward the ceiling, the cusp of dawn filling their disheveled bedroom, and describes jazz hands-ing away the deep gulf of scar tissue rippling down her body’s left side, from scalp to ankle, where the asphalt carried away almost everything. He was wearing these iridescent gloves that could remodel skin like wet clay. They could afford them because their parents (in the dream) were dead and left them money.

He rolls back over. You were so happy, he says into his pillow.

You need to get ready for school, she says. Your kids need you.

Her fitful sleep, which medically requires both shoulders to be flat on their broken mattress, has been the same since she woke in the E.R. with no broken bones or ligaments. Since four a.m. she’d been tracking a fresh galaxy of stains slowly spreading on the sallow stucco above. She’d have to call the landlord again about the druggie upstairs neighbors’ cracked tub before the rusty water started pooling and the pregnant ceiling shape came back, ready to burst.

I can’t go to work, he says. I should quit. I should be with you all day.

She knows this is the end, that he will never forgive himself. After five years together it was his scooter, his hard right turn down the steep hill by the chemical plant after happy hour for their anniversary, his abusive ex’s helmet that clapped the curb and saved her life. Without a scratch on him, he passed out before he could call 9-1-1. Tell me more, she says.

What? he says, half-back asleep and soaring through burning skies on the other world.

About the gloves, she says. Tell me what it feels like to use them.

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SHORT STORY AS MODERNIST WITH HUMAN BRAIN by John Milas

for Marianne

My classmates and I were waiting in line to hold a human cadaver’s brain. I took it with both hands when it was my turn. It was gray and smelled like tequila because we’d pulled it from a bucket of brains soaking in alcohol. It was heavy as if a generation of memories had accumulated within its rubbery noodles like a pile of dust. I thought if I dropped the brain on the floor by accident it would probably bounce like a spare tire. 

My professor brought our class to the cadaver lab on campus because she told us it would be a uniquely human experience and it would change our lives. This was for a graduate-level course on modernism that my advisor told me to take. This was supposed to make us feel less alone in the world, but I thought it was pointless and I didn’t know why I had to be there. I had told my professor as much in her office, but attendance was mandatory because the field trip was listed on the syllabus. 

I thought we’d end up in some dark cellar with concrete slabs displaying dead bodies that looked like they might come back to life at any moment. Instead, we walked into a bright classroom with about six cadavers laid out on stainless steel tables. The cadavers were so dead they looked fake. They were so dead they looked like they had always been dead. 

My professor had been to a cadaver lab before, so when we first strolled in as a posse of modernists she walked right up to the nearest cadaver after putting on some blue gloves. She started picking things up, such as this dead person’s heart and liver. A med student in a white coat told me the brain I was holding belonged to the same man whose heart my professor was practically kneading like dough, as if she were massaging the rhythm back into it. I was close enough to see that the third finger on the dead man’s left hand was constricted by the ghost of a wedding ring. Each of his organs looked as dry as a gourd. 

“This one died of leukemia,” one of the med students said to my professor.

“Right,” my professor said and pointed at the body. “That’s why his liver is so enlarged.” She knew things about leukemia and livers already. She knew something about everything it seemed. She impressed a lot of people. Her med student was impressed and they both started poking around together, inspecting the cadaver’s scalp, which the med student pulled off like a hat. The two of them looked closely at the dead man’s shriveled up eyes from inside the top of his skull and I felt bad for him with all that pink residue in his hollow head. 

Here was this man who had elected to become an organ donor when he signed up for a driver’s license. He was lying politely on the table and he looked like he was made of plastic. His brain was cold as hell and soggy like a wet basketball. The two halves of it moved independently as I twisted each of them around. I wondered if I could tear the halves apart by twisting far enough, if I could take the logic part of the brain and separate it from the passion part of the brain so easily. Then I would have two separate brains and each half would be less complicated on its own. Someone cleared their throat behind me. I remembered my classmates were still waiting in line to take their turn. I handed the brain to the next person. My gloves dripped alcohol. I did not tear them off or toss them into the nearby wastebasket. I tried to play it cool like I was bored and wanted to be somewhere else, but I had nowhere to hide. I knew my professor was across the room watching me as I stared at my empty blue hands.

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ALL THE THINGS WE’LL NEVER HAVE by Christopher DeWan

I remember, there was going to be a birthday party for Michael. He was turning ten. Michael was always interrupting, saying things that weren’t funny or important, because he couldn’t stand not being the center of attention. My mom said it was because he didn’t have a dad.

But Michael’s party meant I could go to the toy store to buy something I wanted, even if I would have to give it away. And the party would be a chance to see Karen. Karen was older and maybe that’s why she didn’t suffer so much from not having a dad. She was tall and skinny and cool. She ate spaghetti with butter instead of tomato sauce, and her laugh sounded to me like water bubbling out of a fountain. 

My mom and I bought Michael a set of plastic cars that sped down a twisting track, and I played with it a few times before she took it away and wrapped it. But in the end, the birthday party got canceled and I got to keep the cars, and Karen and Michael’s bodies were never found. 

* * *

My parents never told me they planned the road trip as an escape. To me it was an adventure, a month-long car ride to the national parks, a month of peanut butter sandwiches and Motel Six. 

We flew from Pennsylvania to Nebraska, my first airplane, and rented a car to drive the rest of the way: in the morning we’d been surrounded by woods and by afternoon we were in a country with no trees at all, just corn all the way to all the horizons. 

We drove and I don’t remember stopping until my dad pulled the car suddenly to the side of the road. He was crying. “I never thought I’d see the Rocky Mountains,” he said. I never thought I’d see him cry.

* * *

I wish I knew how to love people better, how to better be loved.

I’m at a noodle bar across from a waif of a woman who keeps biting her lower lip like she’s trying to tame a smile that’s always getting out of her control. We’ve had a few cocktails. 

This is during one of those breaks that my girlfriend and I keep taking, in between the times that we drive each other crazy with frustration and the times that we drive each other crazy with need, and decide, again, that we can’t live without one another. 

“Tell me,” the waif says, “what’s the craziest thing that happened to you when you were a kid?” 

I don’t tell her about Michael and Karen’s mother, found naked in the trunk of her car, plastic bag over her head, bruised, beaten with chains. I don’t tell her that the entire English department where my mom worked was subpoenaed, that the head of the department was sent away for life, that the principal of the school once bragged to his faculty about being able to dissolve bodies in acid. 

The waif and I go back to her place. We joke about getting married and then we have sex and then we never see each other again. 

* * *

Our month-long family road trip was going, ultimately, to California. Later, as an adult, I would come to believe that everything ultimately goes to California, the end of the continent. The walk of fame, the wax museum, the magic kingdom, the silver screen: nobody wants real things. We want dreams, so it’s the fake things that become most real. 

On the ocean in Malibu, we were as far away from our own lives as it was possible for us to be without flying or dying. 

Then we went home.

* * *

In the end, I got to keep the birthday-present race cars but I never unwrapped them, and when my mother wasn’t looking, I threw them away.

Every day I think of throwing out what I have. I think of getting in my car and racing to the horizon. I think of vanishing.

When you are murdered, you get to live forever. And when your body is never found, the living will never stop looking.

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THE CLOCKMAKER by Lucy Zhang

Far away—further than the deli store only frequented by the patrolling police officer and a few custodians, further than the farm with three cows and a horse and several chickens guarded from preying hawks by a fishing line ceiling, further than the white oak tree and its branches striking outward, and certainly much further than the borders of the city—is a cottage. Planks of wood bar the windows shut; mold creeps across the brick walls; pipes wind down from the roof to the ground, and the sound of water dripping on metal beats steadily to the murmurs of wind against loose shutters.

Don’t go there, it’s dangerous, parents tell their children. The parents think the basement must be full of human limbs hiding in coffins, cleaned and dusted daily, the work of a madman. They think the cobwebs are part of the madman’s machinations–to prevent anyone from looking further and seeing the incongruous gleam of a lab of bodies, the sanitized Erlenmeyer flasks, the flame of a Bunsen burner, the yellow glow of liquid metal held in a crucible. The parents think their children will vanish should they take one step towards the cottage, bodies never surfaced, and the adults will be forced to live on silently, listening to the rhythm of the morning forecast and traffic jam, holding their breath when the newscaster mentions a child kidnapping off the streets of their city, grinding their teeth at night when they dream of their shame–the shame of losing a child to a reason they can’t put into words. So they live silently. 

Among the children, a few know the truth: the cottage houses a clockmaker.  

The clockmaker cuts and sands the teeth of his own gears from wood that he later stains and seals to shield them from the years to come. He knows the escapement wheel must be cut perfectly, or else the clock might skip teeth, might not run, and time stops for someone. 

One day, a girl ends up at his door. He is assembling his clock with dowels, adjusting the escape wheel until the pallets ticked and tocked against the teeth without seizing up when he hears the knocks. He pulls open the door, a creaking monstrosity he prefers to keep shut. The girl asks for a job. She says she wants to learn to build a clock so she can gift one to her family for the holidays. 

They don’t already have a clock? he asks.

Only one in their bedroom. None in the kitchen, even though there is plenty of space on the wall beside the parrot ceramic tiles and free grocery store calendar. 

You’ll have to walk all the way here every day in the cold, he warns. The tips of the girl’s ears are bright red, and he wonders if she can feel her feet in those perforated fabric sneakers meant to let feet “breathe.” But the girl stands in front of him, head over her shoulders, the top of her shoulders over her hips, unwavering in her posture despite the wind cutting across her back. He admires her resolve and finds himself unable to say no. Not after years of living alone, secluding himself with his craft, immune to the city’s noise.

Making clocks here is dangerous work, he tells her on the first day. Everything needs to be handled with precision, or else your clock won’t function.

The girl nods as she begins to draw two concentric circles on the Alder wood sheet with the stub of a pencil, his only pencil. He no longer needs to sketch, the pattern now ingrained in muscle memory. He watches her lift the tip of graphite again as she marks off lines with a protractor every thirty degrees, connects the intersection points for the teeth, attempts to correct the uneven line of a tooth when her grip falters, sharpens the edge, cleans the line again so there’d be no confusion over which line to follow when slicing through the wood. The teeth need to be the same size, he tells her as she begins to saw through wood. It takes ten tries—ten abandoned wheels—before the girl gets it right.

When they take breaks to wash their hands of wood dust or stretch their backs and necks hunched over more often than not, they sip Lipton Black Tea out of Styrofoam cups while eating graham crackers, the sole snack in his cabinets. The girl speaks little but listens to him with an unfamiliar attentiveness—the kind where people don’t quite make eye contact, but look up at you with wonder, and somehow they forget that their leg is bobbing up and down or that their tea has gotten cold—and he feels flattered. He tells her how he has long forgotten how he came to stay at this cottage, how he sells clocks to ghosts lost in their time, how he saves souls from wandering and waiting when the pendulum halts, how he has not aged in years. In turn, she tells him of how she would cook chicken stew with more potatoes than chicken because russet potatoes are filling and cheap, how at eight pm she’d reheat up the stew for exactly two minutes in the microwave so the food would be warm when her parents came home, how she’d eat the leftovers the next day when she realized her parents did not return home on time and must’ve gotten a takeout meal instead. She tells him of the one time she could not find her stuffed rhinoceros and later discovered it suffocating in a trash bag left outside the door for Goodwill, so she rescued her rhino and rubbed its soft body against her cheek and nuzzled her nose against its stomach, which smelled of cotton and old shoes, before returning it to her bedside so it could sleep.

The girl finishes the clock early spring as a belated Christmas present to her parents. Flowers blossom on the once barren trees, the mold on the walls that once looked black lightens to green, and the cottage no longer appears haunted, but rather like a place where children get spirited away by faeries. She holds the clock under her arm, gripping the bottom edge until the whites of her knuckles contrast her pale skin. Good luck, the man tells the girl, wondering if he’ll see her again. 

To his surprise, the girl returns the next day with the clock. It stopped working, she says. He looks at the clock. The second-hand makes its way around the center in one quiet sweep movement; the minute hand adjusts itself forward. The girl follows his glance. It wasn’t working a few hours ago at home. 

Then we’ll just have to make another one, the man says without noticing pollen drift from the clock’s frame onto his finger. It is always winter to him. 

In the city, where the days are a bit longer now and cherry blossoms bloom along the apartment sidewalks, a family disassembles a bed and places it into a cardboard moving box for Goodwill to pick up. They briefly wonder how the stuffed rhino made its way back to the bedroom before placing it into a Glad trash bag of children’s dresses and sweaters. It has been almost two years since their daughter went missing and the mother and father know better than most how time heals many wounds, but not all. It has been one month since the police reported their discovery of a girl’s body, dead from hypothermia. It has been one day since they could no longer silently listen to the morning forecast, the sizzle of eggs against oil, the carols of robins roaming the streets for food. The family thinks of moving far away—to leave it all behind. 

In the cottage, a man and a girl build clocks. When winter returns, they sip hot Lipton Black tea and tell the same stories to each other, as though the season never dies off only for another to follow in its demise, as though time has never passed. Because it hasn’t. Not for them. 

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FOREVER by Jennifer London

Clara sat on the edge of the tub, smoothing the hem of her dress compulsively. Forever was an awfully long time, she thought. Forever was endless, sprawling, impossible. It was unnatural and unlikely.

But maybe. Perhaps. Forever could be parties and dinners and clinking wine glasses. It could be laughter and snuggles and warm touches in the dark.

For a moment the murmur of voices outside the bathroom door didn’t sound quite so ominous.

But a memory came to her, as sudden and sharp as a slap in the face: her mother and father shouting at each other, a spray of blood on the linoleum floor, the underside of the kitchen table as she shrank into herself to try to disappear.

No. She knew what forever really was. It was bonnets, bassinets, bibs. It was secrets festering in the empty spaces. It was the best years of her life wrapped up in glittering white fabric for other people to write on, twisting and distorting her scenes into acts of look-how-happy-we-are, a parade of we and us and ours.

“Clara?” her grandmother called. “Clara, sweetheart, is everything all right? The ceremony’s about to begin.” 

She suddenly couldn’t remember the name of the man perched alongside her on the tiered cake. She remembered his smile, a tender hand running through her hair. But then her father's face swam before her, his lips drawn back in a snarl. You think he'll still want you when he finds out what you really are?

Her breath came in short, quick bursts; her hands shook. Her dress was stifling. With a sharp tug she undid the satin ties going down her back, slipped out of her sparkling straitjacket, and crawled into the empty tub.

Her heels clanked against the porcelain. The tub was icy on her back, a sharp reminder that this was not a nightmare she could wake up from. She hugged her knees to her chest and admired her perfectly manicured toes in their strappy white prisons.

“Clara.” This time it was her father, his voice tight and menacing. “Clara, if you’re not out here in five minutes, so help me, I’ll drag you out myself.” He didn’t need to say and make you regret it.

The only response that came from her mouth was a kind of wail, a sound at once foreign and honest. A tear slid down her face, dragging a clump of mascara with it.

The voices outside seemed to be getting louder, a cacophony of hellos and how-do-you-dos and long-time-no-sees. 

You'll screw this up, just like you screw up everything else.

She tried to force herself to get dressed and go back out there to play her part. Her makeup was already on, her costume was waiting for her on the floor, the audience outside was clamoring for the show to start. She mustn’t let them down. So what if some vacuous great aunt had congratulated her on finding "a man just like your father"? 

She licked her lips. The tang of salt on her tongue was comforting, its bitterness a truth to hold onto.

Nobody wants damaged goods.

She watched the shadows moving under the door and felt like she might burst with her hatred, her anger at their inconstancy, the way the light played with the dark as if they were lovers, brazen and unafraid. She leaned her head back against the tile wall, and a ripple of cold raced down her neck and her shoulders until it reached her fingertips.

“Clara.” Her father again. Shadows filled the line under the door, driving away the light, and she could almost feel her father’s hot breath on her face, his hands moving between her legs. “Are you coming?”

The roar in her ears was deafening. 

She plugged the drain, turned the faucet on, and watched the tub fill with hot water around her. Forever didn't have to be frightening. She closed her eyes. Forever could be the warmth that suffused her limbs as the water rose, the sudden hush as she slid down to plunge her head under the surface. Forever could be quiet and peaceful. Safe. 

Forever could be her escape.

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A NOTE TO YOKO OGAWA by Michael Farfel

a note to Yoko Ogawa,

I think that others might say you make key lime pie like all other confections. You pick the fruit—found in trees and sometimes pockets—and you open it and line it up and chop. It takes patience, of course, to form the pastry dough and fold it out and fill it up. 

I found a recipe, in the back pages of your books, a sort of misdirection in the language and the wording. A few drops of this, a subtle push and an open door. A room revealed. A kitchen and a stove. The fruit is there and a table and a chair. And with caring, and with time, the pie reveals itself.

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THE TODDLERS ARE PLAYING AIRPORT AGAIN by Tucker Leighty-Phillips

They’ve partitioned everything: the slide is the runway, the jungle gym is the terminal, covered in tiny travelers; anything with mulch is part of the operations area. Nobody flies. Nobody ever wants to be pilot. The toddlers love every aspect of the airport except for flight. Tickle always wants to be the rampie, loading freight onto planes with his sandbox bucket. Dasha is the lav agent, as she’s the best at keeping the plane’s bathrooms within regulation. Everyone wants to be Bill Boyer, Jr, CEO. They fight over his stock options until they shove one another and you have to step in and separate them, saying Lacy, you were Bill Boyer Jr. last time, why don’t we let Steve this time? One child reluctantly plays pilot and discusses weather conditions and itinerary changes with a dawdling crew chief, a snotty kid with both shoe strings loose-a-goose. This is most of their game, quiet discussions, loading and unloading bags into mouths of slides. This is the fourth time I’ve been routed through Tampa this week, pilot child groans while the other begins the aircraft’s push back, preparing for takeoff. They bicker over operating the tow motor. When you say, don’t you kids want to fly, just once, don’t you want to fly, they say that’s what everyone thinks on day one, you just come in and fly, no problem, like it’s a breeze, you just fly, but we’ve got an overnighter on a non-movement area and ATC is backed up to Glasgow and I haven’t had a single fruit snack today so forgive me if I’m a little on edge, Mr. Sky Cap, and you step back, remind yourself it’s just their game, babble with the other parents, and think of some great taxi propelling you through the sky, vaulting into the blue-and-white, traversing the mighty somewhere else.

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KILLING PLANTS by Aaron Kreuter

It was during Fletcher's third week at the new job that he noticed Colleen's plant didn't look so hot. The plant's big green leaves were sagging, nearly touching the desk. Nobody had asked him to take care of the plant during his ten-month contract, filling in for Colleen while she was on mat leave, but the plant was obviously thirsty. Fletcher filled up his coffee mug with water and poured it into the off-white pot, the soil quickly sucking it up. Just to be safe, he tipped in a second mugful; this time, a half-inch of water remained sitting on top of the dirt. More than enough. It already seemed perkier.

When he came back after the long weekend—Saturday night spent worrying about the plant, whose health Fletcher had convinced himself would determine if he was hired on full time upon Colleen's return—the plant was dead. It was unmistakable: the leaves were brown and crispy, there wasn't a speck of green, not a hint of life. Fletcher panicked. A dead plant in the office did not scream collegiality. He had to get rid of it. But he couldn't just throw it out in the office garbage—it was Colleen's plant! The janitor would for sure notice.

He stuffed the plant into his knapsack, the leaves crunching, and took the stairs to the floor below, where he deposited it in the washroom garbage under the paper towel dispenser. Washing his hands, the peaked garbage lid still swinging on its hinges, a toilet flushed. Fletcher froze, looked up at the stall he had assumed was empty in the mirror. The door creaked open, and out came Brenda. “Fletch, how ya doing?! We were all really impressed with how you handled last week’s scheduling snafu.” She was rigorously washing her hands. At least six-five, shaved head, white shirt with a short black tie, Brenda was Fletcher's boss.

Fletcher stood there, dumbfounded. Did she know what he had done? “You seem to be fitting in great. Keep it up!” Brenda smacked Fletcher on the back—hard—and vacated the bathroom.

Back at his desk, Fletcher couldn't focus. There was a lot of work to do, unending work, but for the rest of the day Fletcher barely got through what normally would take him half an hour.

The plant's absence grew in his mind like a pimple. Every night he worried that the following morning he'd be called into the board room, and Brenda and Brenda's bosses—and even, sometimes, Colleen herself, a month-old baby latched onto her breast—would be sitting there. “Fletcher, we need to talk.” “Fletcher, we know what you did.” “Fletcher... you're fired.” A week after he threw the plant out he went back to the washroom to see if it was still in the garbage. It wasn't. He told himself it didn't matter, everything was okay, it was just a plant, right?

But no matter what he did, he couldn't shake that fucking plant. He booked an appointment at his therapist, whom he hadn't seen in years. The therapist had grown his hair out, was drinking coffee from a large travel mug. The office reeked like greasy farts. Fletcher wasn't perturbed; he unloaded on his therapist about the plant, the dread, the guilt, the dreams of getting fired. “How much longer can this go on?” he said to the therapist, who took a long, loud sip before launching into techniques to deal with intrusive thoughts.

Afterwards, Fletcher felt better, but that night the dream was back: the board room, the higher-ups, their knowledge of what he did to Colleen's plant. Fletcher back in his office, packing up his scant belongings.

So went the days, the weeks, the months. Some nights, worry for the plant would fester into more generalized worries, blisters of hot searing guilt. Fletcher as a bad roommate at nineteen. Fletcher running out of his pills three weeks after society collapsed. Fletcher, a young boy, laughing when he accidentally closed the elevator door on an old man, the geezer flailing his arms and legs as the soft doors hit him repeatedly. So went the days, weeks, months, the plant by now no more than dust salting a seagull's breakfast at some suburban landfill.

Finally, Colleen's mat leave was over, and Fletcher was interviewed for a permanent position. The interview with Brenda was light, chatty. A breeze. Still, he couldn't help feeling that any moment now, the ax would fall.

 

The day he was offered the job, in Colleen's office with Colleen and Brenda, Fletcher told them what happened with the plant, and they all had a good laugh. “Why didn't you just buy a new plant if you were so worried?” said Brenda, slapping her knee. “That plant was here when I got my promotion,” Colleen said, “it wasn't even mine!” She was laughing so hard Fletcher watched milk stains blossom under her blouse.

Fletcher went back to his desk. An enormous weight had been lifted. He was free of the plant. He had a good government job with good government benefits and a good government pension. He started working with that rare elation that comes, what, three, four times in a life, if you're lucky. As usual, He had a backlog, but he was so buoyant he didn't care. The work would get done. The cargo would be concentrated in central, confined centers. The cargo would be packed onto trains and delivered to the processing plant. The cargo would be processed. It always was.

Fletcher looked around his office, a smile on his face.

Maybe he'd buy himself a plant.

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THE HANDS REMEMBER by Andrea Rinard

I sit on the bench outside Publix. A little boy ran by me in light-up sneakers when I was almost, almost, almost to the door, and suddenly I could hear Caleb’s feet, encased like two meat loaves in the shoes I got him before he started K-3, drumming against the cart. He was so careful not to kick me after that one time–Don’t hurt Mommy! 

I’d had to let go of the cart and sit down because everything was narrowing down to a tunnel with Caleb at the other end. I tried to count my breaths, and I told Tom to just go, just go, and he didn’t ask what the trigger was. He just went through the sliding doors into the grocery store.

I hold the memory the way Caleb’s chubby fingers would grip the handle of the cart, my fingers closed around themselves like a puzzle. Caleb used to crack himself up, asking for silly things for dinner. I want toilet paper to eat! I’ll eat it all! And he’d cackle and I’d laugh and we’d putter around the store, doing the things that only the two of us in the whole world do, but now I’m doing the breathing stuff Dr. B’s been working on with me. 

In. Out. In. Out. Feel your lungs expand. I can’t go in the store. Can’t. Can’t. Can’t. Tom says won’t, but it’s not that. It’s just a word, but it’s a word that he’s pushing around with the cart right now, filling it with meals that he’ll prepare, and I won’t eat, and I can feel his rage from where I’m sitting. I have no room for anger, though. The despair is too big and too heavy. There’s no space for anything else.

It’s been three months, he’d said. Fifteen weeks and two days, I’d said, and his jaw did that thing that was new like so many other things that were new since Caleb left. Died, Dr. B’s voice shoves me, but I whisper left. I don’t like the vocabulary I’m asked to use—words like trigger, mindfulness, ruminative coping, adaptive grieving, and bereavement pathways--so I don’t. So stubborn. That’s new too.

Something nudges my ankle, and I look down. There’s a collarless little dog sitting by my right foot, a brown terrier mutt. It looks like Toto but brown and not quite like Toto after all.  It’s looking up at me, and I recognize him immediately. If I hadn’t been looking, I wouldn’t have seen him. Caleb, I whisper, and the little dog wags his tail and lets me stretch my hands around his warm belly and lift him to my lap where he perches like a toddler.

There’s a fat tick under his left eye like a gray teardrop, and I pinch it off. All that stuff about matches and tweezers is unnecessary. You just have to know what to do, and my hands remember. Like holding a newborn with its head like a giant flower on a narrow stem or rubbing a sweaty back just right after a nightmare or cutting a sandwich into two perfect, crustless triangles. It’s been fifteen weeks and two days since they’ve had work to do, but my hands remember. As the dog and I gaze into each other’s eyes, I know he remembers too. Caleb.

Tom doesn’t know how to say no to me anymore, so the three of us go home together. Tom calls it a mutt, but Dr. B calls it an affirmation of life, so I win. She suggests so, so, so gently that I find a different name, a name that will represent this new chapter in your story, but it’s Caleb, and I don’t even care how Tom winces every time I call him to me. I don’t care that the house echoes with his anger. It’s just a dog! But I know what’s real.

He makes me choose after twenty-seven weeks and four days, and it’s not a choice. I don’t even need Dr. B anymore. Caleb and I sit on the couch together while Tom packs a bag. I’ll be at my parents’ until I find my own place. I’ll get the rest of my stuff after I figure out what I’m doing. I feel bad for him, but I already know what I’m doing. I gather Caleb up in my arms, and he doesn’t even wiggle much as I hold him tight against my breasts and rock back and forth, enjoying the silence with my little boy.

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SAFE PASSAGE by Sharon Dale Wexler

Even though I know where the missing part of the toy gun is, I won’t tell. They haven’t asked. They ask each other but not me. Even if I tell them it’s under the kitchen table, that won't be the end of it; they won't settle down and sit at the table for the meal.

The dog smells like a boy on a camping trip. The breeder promised to deliver at three. Safe passage. Once inside, right away, the dog squatted on the floor. 

The boy was only here every other weekend and, therefore, never showered. At first, the dog was supposed to be mine. But because I gave in, reluctantly, going along with the deceit, the dog only is mine when the boy's gone. I was the only one the boy wouldn't miss if I were missing. But before his father would buy the dog, I agreed. 

The dog was my garden of Eden. Before Dude arrived, I knew no wrong. I didn't know what badness I was capable of. We are all looking to the dog for comfort we couldn’t find in food, TV, or our body. 

The boy went on walks to the sewer, to sneak smokes, where the weeds grew higher than the house. See what you made him do, we'd fight over who cleans the dog’s vomit. We bonded by talking about the dog, worrying about its appearance and health. We had to be home soon because it's almost time to feed the dog. 

Dude waits at the door to be able to be let out. I can hear him breathing behind the door, and there seemed to be a special relationship between us. His breathing on the top step and me thinking whether or not he would be safe from the boy let out. I don't mean to infer a relationship that was not there something supernatural unless it was there. For instance, if I said Dude find the leash and the leash was missing from its usual place in the drawer, and I couldn't find it, Dude would push me to the garage where I could find the leather strap hanging on the door opener. 

The only noise in the house was from the dog barking to go out.

When the boy is over, I sleep in the room with the dog but cannot fall asleep. The dog can't find a comfortable place to lie down.  I tried getting the dog to sleep in the bed. He circled around my side first; the father was sleeping on the other side or sideways with a pillow over his eyes. 

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MANDALA by Vallie Lynn Watson

He always walked me to my car when I left his house after sex, so stealing his albums was tricky. Not stealing. Borrowing. I started in month two, initially one album at a time, always only the record itself. He’d have to excuse himself to the restroom five or six times an evening, and I’d barefoot across his new carpet to just outside his bedroom, where the shelves began. I would slip an album out of the cover and into my messenger bag, take them home until our next engagement—he usually asked me back within a week—and after sex, put it back in its cover, fetch a fresh one. By month three I was exchanging ten at a time, and by month six, eighteen, the most I could carry in my bag. He never mentioned any missing, and he certainly hadn’t noticed the condition I returned them in. He said he’d not played music since the summer, but I was scared that he didn’t want me around for the music. I always made the short drive home in silence.

I missed him, in the in-between. Sometimes there were phone calls, about our day, about our faraway families. He did most of the talking while I painted on his records, repeating dots, lines, and swirls, starting around the center label and fanning out, playing the record backwards, pulling fine-tipped brushes over the surface of the grooved vinyl, until side A was nothing but a kaleidoscope of color. I bought a kid’s turntable and let the B-sides play wavily, lifted by the uneven, dried paint beneath, while I slept.

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GATSBY EFFECT by Erika Veurink

The first time I had pneumonia, I wanted it to be seismic. I wanted it to almost kill me. Being fatalistic felt grown up. I laid in the West Village, drank gin from a jar and stared at where the wall hit the ceiling, the cross-like convergence, forever. 

“There are crosses everywhere.” That’s what my basketball coach told me once before a game. If I was nervous or worried about a freethrow, I would look for a cross--in the rafters, the painted lines of the court, the referee’s stripes. And salvation meant something. 

The first time I had pneumonia, when I was twenty, I said this, “I have pneumonia and a double lung infection.” I kept saying it, in emails, in person, on a slip of paper I passed to the boy in my film class I had a crush on. “You know they’re the same thing, right?” said the crush. “They’re not,” I said, indignant in a pleated skirt, “and how would you know? You’ve never even had it.”

No one had ever had pneumonia before I did. No one had ever been in love with the wrong person. No one had walked past a garden party on a Saturday afternoon and felt as lonely as I had, etc.

Pneumonia concerns the inflammation of white blood cells swarming the infected lungs. Only scientists understand anything on a cellular level. Cells divide, swell and split too fast to comprehend. So I was right in a sense. I was an expert on my own individuality, not alveoli.

As treatment, I watched old movies with no plots to prove I could. I watched them on a plastic chair that cost less than a sandwich and repeated to myself, “You are enjoying this.” I had plain bagels delivered. I imagined being hungry. I resumed Metropolis

Bored, lungs on fire, I tried to study Socrates for a quiz on Monday. “One thing only I know, and that is that I know nothing.” I wore reading glasses until they gave me a headache. My sandpaper breath and inability to relate distracted me. 

Breathing with pneumonia made me feel like a martyr. I dedicated each inhale to someone I loved, each exhale to something I wanted. 

This time around, I’m twenty-three. I’m less sensational. I broke up with a flimsy man. I chose perfect gifts for my family that fit in my suitcase. I donated part of my bonus to a small magazine. I read a novel the entire flight back to Iowa, no breaks. And I still got sick. 

To me, Iowa is a slow motion memory foam lava lamp drip. I could float there like an embryo for eternity. It makes me feel like I can’t breathe and I love it so much. 

I made my brother leave Christmas mass because I was having a hot flash. That was pneumonia, not menopause. I emailed someone I shouldn’t have a poem that night and he replied he wished it was a picture of myself. I ignored it and slept. That was pneumonia. 

The day after Christmas, I lay in front of the fireplace in a parka and a blanket wrapped like a skirt. “I can’t warm up,” I told my mom. She laid other quilts on top of me and scheduled an appointment. I cried. She held my freezing hand under the blanket mound. Her love makes me feel on fire. 

Then the bright doctor’s office and x rays and “please take this seriously” and I was back in bed. The person I sent the poem to emailed me that he was worried for my health. He was worried the pneumonia discredited the poem.

A teacher once told me I had a “Gatsby Effect.” I thought a Gatsby Effect was something about projecting opulence. He explained it as making someone feel like the only person in the room. I blushed. “See, you just did it,” he said. 

Sickness has a Gatsby Effect, then. My dad, riddled with cancer, made everyone feel like the only person in the room. His Socratic questioning and charisma outshone his dissolving life. The dozens of orchids that sprouted from our kitchen, despite the strictly stated “No Flowers” in the death announcement, were proof. That was the Gatsby Effect. When we shoved his button ups into rubber tubs to donate, we could have launched them from the banister. That would have been my idea of the Gatsby Effect. 

So I was Jay Gatsby in my basement bedroom and I wanted to shine my infected lungs on someone. It happened to be the email guy. As I drafted a response to him, I felt the steroids shake to life. The gravel coughing, the untangling of the headphone cord, the smooth dip from my hip bone across my goosebumped stomach--my Green Light. 

People are only supposed to get pneumonia once in their lives. The first time, I talked on the phone with email guy for hours. I made it about him and cut my hair with kitchen scissors. I wanted company and I wanted layers. This time wasn’t even supposed to happen. My actions were all transposed to the key of hypothetical. 

On the phone, I heard a twist, the filling of something. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Getting a glass of water,” email guy said. I resented that he needed anything in the green dreamscape of my attention. I slept for fourteen hours. I awoke with the clarity of missing a sun cycle. 

Really, I woke up to the sound of my brother on his rowing machine--the swirling hiss of water. I deleted the emails, the call. I signed a contract with myself in my journal. I laid back, looked for a cross somewhere in the textured ceiling of my childhood bedroom. I settled on one formed in the middle of the window. I made it feel like it was the only cross in the room. 

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BERMUDA by Danny Cherry Jr.

It was somewhere between the fifth and eighth rendition of the “birthday song” when I began to see the appeal of a tight noose and a wobbly stool. That’s what this job did to me. I prayed to the chain restaurant gods to put me out of my misery, but all I heard instead was the firework-like pops of sizzling meat and the chefs’ philosophical debate over which one of the new girls had the fattest ass.

I sat on the milk crates in the kitchen and scrolled through the social media feed of my ex acting school classmates and hate-liked as many of their photos as possible. This one got a gig in a commercial. That one got a stage play role. Another somehow got a role in a big-budget film. In the group message, they asked how my luck was going. I responded with the truth. “I think I may have found my most challenging role yet.” They sent back happy faces and hearts. I responded with “thank you” and enough exclamation points to emphasize my happiness.

Then a sinister sound low below the chefs’ passionate debate grew louder, closer, like the music in slasher-films right before the victim’s throat got slit and the carotid artery splattered against the curtains.

“Alright, Diggity Dog customers!” The manager and crew continued to shout and clap their hands. “We have a special birthday guest today!” 

I closed my eyes. “Fuck me.”

I filed in and clapped along. “Happy happy birthday! From our crew to you!” And with each mangled verse of the song, what little pride still lingered evacuated my body.

It was at this moment when I realized I wasn’t lying to my friends; this was my most challenging role yet: a 20-something post graduate with a useless degree and a job in the hometown he practically sold his kidney to escape. And I was nailing it.

 “Welcome to Diggity Dog where our franks are as pleasant as our customers. What will you be having today?”

I smiled at the four-top table and passed out the menus with vigor. I nodded as they ordered but watched our mascot through the window on the sidewalk spin an arrow up and over his head like a helicopter, letting people know we had a special going on: two franks for the price of one. That damned arrow worked better than the Pied Piper, but instead of attracting kids, it summoned all of the plant workers and foremen and their overly made-up wives, along with their gaggles of children who somehow always turned their food into a mosaic on the floor. 

The parking lot was full with F-150s and jacked up trucks with confederate flags hanging from the back. I would guess there were more rifles and AR-15s in the parking lot than the weapons cache at our Sheriff’s department.

At dinner once, one of my classmates asked, “Is your hometown like ‘Friday Night Lights’?” We were at our favorite restaurant, which sat atop a skyscraper that sliced through the clouds in the sky. The glass buildings across the way looked like pitch-black monoliths, like giant Carbonado diamonds, with the exception of squares of light that came from individual rooms and offices. 

I sipped my twenty dollar drink. “Yea, I guess it’s like ‘Friday Night Lights,’ except fewer black people.” She and my other friends laughed, and one made a white hipster comment about how quaint it must be and how they’d love to visit one day, just to see one of our antique stores. Or to see the stars in the sky. But there were no stars in those skies; a constant orange tinge from the gasoline plant’s flames loomed over the town night and day.

I told them no, they didn’t want to visit. My town was nicknamed “Bermuda” because no one ever left. One of my friends put an arm on my shoulder and said, “That’s not true,” and shot me a corny, soap-opera gaze. We laughed and toasted a night that was foggier than the early mornings over the New York waterfront. 

That was a year ago. Now, I was back home, where the Confederacy and football were kings, where bonfires often replaced house parties, and when there were house parties, they were thrown by those whose parents could afford two-month vacations in Europe. The type of parties where I’d be the black fly-on-the-wall and every group would swat me away and whisper “who invited him?” The type of parties where the few black people who were there huddled up off to the side in their letterman jackets. I wasn’t permitted into that group either. I was the “faggot” in the drama club. 

Bermuda is a place I spent many years trying to escape. I applied for a “Minority In The Arts” grant and took out student loans so I could  find myself in a city of millions. And I did it. It required thousands of miles, six figures, and four years. I chiseled out the person who I always was and made friends, had girlfriends, and went on misadventures in the city. I stayed in an apartment with rickety floors and cockroaches big enough that we considered asking them to go half on rent with us. 

It was hard to accept I wasn't there anymore. As I take this table’s order, I wish I could take back the joke I made about people never leaving Bermuda. If that were true, I would never leave this fucking hellhole ever again, and I’d be doomed to spend the rest of my life clapping and singing happy birthday songs to the very people I tried to escape.

A woman with snow-white hair sat at one of my tables. She wielded sarcasm like only Baby Boomers could, using a smile to dampen the stab of her patronizing remarks. I wanted to remind her she shouldn’t expect five-star service from a place with ten three-star reviews and several food safety violations, then I remembered the lengthening zeros in my student debt balance and shut the fuck up. “I’ll take it back, ma’am.”

My next table wasn’t much better. Two baggy-eyed parents clung to their cups of coffee as if  they contained the water from the Fountain of Youth and allowed their kids to scribble with red crayon on the walls. My tongue-biting and forced courtesy only netted me the loose change from the bottom of their jeans and a dollar older than the coffee we served. I accepted the “tip” with a smile.

I ambled to the kitchen with another dissatisfied patron’s dirty dishes in my hand. Then I heard it.

“Squirt?”

I froze. The old nickname excavated old memories I had buried under expensive therapy and four years of distance. I turned to see a table full of people from my high school days.

“Darius ‘Squirt’ Miller,” he said again. I stood like a sentry as he flashed his smile at me. My body reacted like he was an apex predator baring his teeth. While I  stayed in character, I placed the dishes in a bin near the kitchen entrance and dragged my body towards the table.

He asked, “How you been?”

“Been good.”

“You’re a big-time actor yet?”

The memory of my stint as “Dead Guy #3” on Law & Order came to mind. “I do all right.”

The wrinkles under his eyes and his stray strands of remaining hair read like the life-lines of someone who had their vitality and motivation sucked dry after years in a town that eats people’s souls and shits out withered clones. He raised his arm to shake my hand. “Well, that’s good to hear, man.” Muscle memory told me to flinch, but I tightened up and gripped his hand in return before I walked away.

Some last words were said to my back. “It’s good to have you back in town, Squirt.”

I walked away and sped up once I was out of eye-sight, throwing my one-second finger up at my tables, flashing my smile, and letting them know I’d be right back. I went into the restroom where somebody stood in front of the faucet. I hid out in a stall and waited for the hissing of the faucet to stop. 

When the door opened and closed, I took one deep breath, balled up my apron, and screamed. I screamed into it like it was a vacuum in space that could swallow my frustrations, like it was an endless void where I could deposit my angst. The apron muffled my shouts, but my throat strained. I belted and belted until I felt Bermuda’s sharp talons unleash itself from me. I got up when I heard the door open again. I walked out and straightened my apron. 

When I got back to the floor, the table of ex-high school classmates was clear. I was directed to a new table by the hostess; they looked like truckers. I clutched the menus and, for a moment, pretended as if I was back in art school. I closed my eyes, whispered my lines, and asked myself what the character’s motivation was: not to be broken down again by the antagonist, this town. 

I took out a pen and notepad and smiled at the truckers. “Welcome to Diggity Dog where our franks are as pleasant as our customers. What will you be having today?”

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THE FULL LENGTH OF THE WALL by Darren Nuzzo and Toddy Smith

I watched him do it—down there in the alley beside our house. “Up to no good,” my wife said. “Can you handle it, Sam?” she asked of me. “I’ll handle it,” I told her. But I just watched. I watched this tall man from our bedroom window standing in the alley, near our things, near my wife’s car she’s almost paid off, near the flowers finally blooming from finger-painted pots, near my daughter’s purple tricycle we won in a raffle just last week, near all the things a husband is supposed to protect. I opened the window and leaned my head out. I cleared my throat to sell it to my wife that I might have it in me to yell, just how a man has it in him to yell. But I just watched. I watched this man spell his name with pee on our red brick wall. He had two hands on it. He moved left to right, knees slightly bent and angled outward so that his jeans wouldn’t drop any further. His long flannel was pulled up and stuffed between his teeth. His hips thrust forward like he was doing the limbo. He shuffled the length of the wall like a number of things that might shuffle the shoreline: a fisherman, a photographer, a lifeguard — no, not just a crab. He traveled a great distance, something I’ve never had to do being given such a short, weak name: Sam. But this guy, he really moved. The full length of the wall, like I’ve said. Two hands on it, like I’ve said. And just like that, it was over. He opened his mouth and let his shirt hang. Pulled up his pants, buckled his belt. He stepped back from the wall. Centered himself in front of his work. Admired it briefly. Pulled out his phone to take a picture. Held the camera sideways, had to. The wall lit up, eleven letters dripping down red bricks: Constantine. Now that’s a name. 

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THE MOON GOES ON by Lydia Copeland Gwyn

The tea warms through the paper cup and through my gloves. A tiny island of pleasure in the winter air outside my car. My head is still reeling with the conversations of the night. Friends from upstate New York, who drove here in their Prius. Their gentleman toddler who sat in the backseat through miles of I-81 without one solitary meltdown. The straw-bale guest house they want to construct next summer, where we can all stay when we visit. We being any friend who wishes to make the 12-hour drive.

I can’t help but look up because the trees are bare and so much of the night sky is visible. The moon full as boiled potatoes and stars always moving away.

I could reach up to the branches, damp in their centers, and pull one down to raise like a torch and stir the air. To stir the air the way my eight-year-old daughter moves the wind up in her tree house with an old walking stick. The way she owns that shit, full-faced and unflinching. And the leaves move here and there at her command. All the saints from the Catholic gift shop clinking together around her neck.

My energy is at an all-time low. Lately I'm unable to maneuver through a conversation with the ease I used to, and my brain feels dull. I can’t remember words. I interrupt more these days, and what I have to say is not important. Tonight I repeated what my friends said. I agreed. I smiled. I nodded. I added nothing new but the detail that I moved to a new office at work. I have more light now, I said. 

The moon goes on shining above my car through the oak and maple branches, a silver mystery, its gray craters like oil through paper.

I hear the cars going down Highway 400, and a train clanging and whistling in the town down the road. The town where owner-less dogs walk freely. Their fur bristling with the filth of garbage scraps. The town is named after the wild turkeys that inhabit the area.

I stand in my driveway unable to remember the planet whose shape is brightest now, nor the word whose meaning is to expand fiercely. To expand fiercely.

My brain loops like a Philip Glass machine, the same refrain, the same refrain. Only it's not the same. There are faint changes in every line.

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“BITTERNESS DURING SELF QUARANTINE” by Michael Seymour Blake


 

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THE PENCIL TEST by Grace Loh Prasad

I once dated a Famous Author—someone you might have heard of. He’d written half a dozen nonfiction books by the time I met him at a writers conference, and had recently published a surprise bestseller that was made into a movie. He’d lived and traveled all over the world as a journalist and was on the masthead of a venerable magazine. 

The Famous Author was teaching a class on how to write and sell travel stories, which seemed like a good entry point for my first-person writing about Taiwan. After the conference I emailed him to introduce myself and mentioned that we had lived in Hong Kong at the same time. I asked if I could show him some of my writing, and he said Sure, let’s meet up when I’m in California next month. He asked me to email a photo of myself, so I did. 

He wrote back: You’re not the one I was thinking of. But I still want to meet you. 

A few weeks later, he invited me to meet him in Los Angeles where he was staying at the Four Seasons Hotel. He offered to buy me a plane ticket from San Francisco to LA. 

Oh no, I said. I’m not that kind of girl. I’ll pay my own way.

I know what you’re thinking, but nothing happened at the Four Seasons except that we had a nice dinner on his expense account and caught a glimpse of the actress Elizabeth Hurley. Her eyes were smudgy with black eyeliner and her lips were set in a scarlet pout. All heads turned as she walked through the dining room in her skintight jeans and stiletto heels, hips swinging, looking mightily pissed off. A hush fell over the room as though we had witnessed Aphrodite herself storming out of a lover’s quarrel.

For the next several weeks the Famous Author and I carried on a long-distance flirtation. Not a relationship exactly, but a growing intimacy that hinted at future plans even though I had a boyfriend, and he was still married to his second wife. I suppose I should mention the age gap: I was 30 years old and the Famous Author was 55. So what, I told myself. That’s the same age difference between Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas. 

What attracted me to him was his worldly sophistication and success as a writer. He represented everything I wanted to achieve: literary success, a globetrotting lifestyle, and the confidence to write about whatever interested him. I was especially intrigued by how he had traveled across China and written extensively about it. He had a command of the country’s history, culture and geography that eluded me as a second-generation Taiwanese American just starting to explore my identity through my writing. It didn’t occur to me to challenge his expertise, to consider what he might have missed or gotten wrong as a gweilo writing about China from a colonizer’s point of view.   

When I met him he was putting the finishing touches on a book about the dissolution of Yugoslavia, using his training as a geologist to make pronouncements about how the geography of the area affected the history and volatile politics of the Balkans.

The Famous Author spent a lot of time talking about his past relationships and sexual conquests. His second wife was a busty redhead and successful entrepreneur that he met somewhere in the South Pacific. He enjoyed her ambition and her flair for adventure, along with her penchant for setting up threesomes with “office girls” she liked to chat up. They split amicably and moved on to other lovers but didn’t divorce because he didn’t want to give her half of his assets. 

His most recent girlfriend was a statuesque African American beauty, but the relationship didn’t last. She was disqualified when he found out she disliked hiking, and was so afraid of heights that she had a panic attack upon reaching a beautiful vista in the Scottish Highlands.  

In one of his books about traveling through China, he reminisced fondly about the “knock on the door in the middle of the night” accompanied by soft giggling, which meant that an enterprising hotel manager had sent him some companions for the night in the hopes of a favorable write-up.

Through these stories I got a distinct sense that I was auditioning for the role of the Ideal Girlfriend: someone smart enough to keep up with him and his literary friends, adventurous enough to accompany him on rugged trips, attractive enough to qualify as arm candy, and young enough to be a trophy.

Our long-distance relationship deepened over the summer and we spent hours talking on the phone during the month I lived in Sonoma, where I was housesitting for friends. He said he was going to dedicate his Balkans book to me, and my heart soared. When I returned home, I broke up with my boyfriend. 

Here’s the thing about long-distance relationships: none of my friends had met the Famous Author, and they were confused as to why I broke up with a boyfriend they and I adored. All they knew were the bits and pieces I would tell them, and all they could do was nod and pretend to understand as my love life unraveled. 

There were so many warning signs. He recommended that I read The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank, a novel about a young woman in a relationship with a much older man who’s a well-known writer. He said he loved Britney Spears, and preferred her naughty schoolgirl persona to her more recent work. When I visited the Famous Author at his home on the East Coast, he failed to tell me that he had a live-in personal assistant, a 22-year-old recent college grad. The assistant and I circled each other like a pair of cats and I concluded that she wasn’t a threat because she didn’t seem to be his type. She was a tall, sturdy girl with rosy cheeks, the wholesome kind you see in Russian propaganda posters. The Famous Author had told me that he liked petite Asian women because they were more likely to pass “the Pencil Test.”

What’s the Pencil Test? I remember asking him on one of our long-distance calls.

He explained: If you tuck a pencil under your breast and your breast is heavy enough to hold it in place, you fail the Pencil Test. If the pencil falls, you pass the Pencil Test. 

I assured him over the phone—since he hadn’t yet seen me undressed—that I would pass the Pencil Test. I had never heard the term before and assumed it was something he made up, rather than a standard measurement used to determine when a girl is ready to begin wearing a bra.

I know what you’re thinking. Run away now! But of course I didn’t, because I was young and naïve and blinded by my desire to be a writer, which made me think I was in love with him when in truth I was in love with the idea of him, and a version of myself I had yet to become that felt tantalizingly within reach.

This isn’t a story about consent. It’s a story about power and projection and the unspoken internship that a hopeful young woman enters into when she meets a much older man who can advance her career. 

Later that summer I had a business trip to Paris, and the Famous Author invited me to join him in Scotland, his “favorite place in the world.” I understood this was a test to see if I was outdoorsy enough to deal with mud and rain and rough terrain. Scotland was the midterm; the final exam was to be New Year’s Eve of the Millennium, when I would join him on assignment on a cruise to Antarctica that would require sailing through the famously turbulent Drake Passage. The climax of the trip would be a New Year’s Eve countdown in blinding daylight because the sun would not set on the South Pole as 1999 rolled into 2000.

I nearly missed my flight from Paris Orly to Edinburgh and sprinted through the terminal to get on the plane right before the doors closed. From Edinburgh, I took a train to Inverness where he picked me up and drove us to the restored castle where we would be staying for several days.  

That night in the hotel restaurant, he insisted on feeding me oysters, which I had never tried before. I slurped one down and did not enjoy it, then ate a second one just to be sure, and hated it as much as the first. What I remember most, but did not say out loud, was how everyone stared at me, the only nonwhite person in the dining room and quite possibly the entire property.

The next day, the Famous Author wanted to visit a friend nearby who was quite elderly and didn’t get out much. He planned to go on his own, so I would have the afternoon to myself to relax, read a book, and explore the castle. Before he left we decided to have tea in the lounge downstairs.  

I ordered a pot of Earl Grey. He had Darjeeling or English Breakfast, I can’t remember. We sat awkwardly on the opposite ends of a long, low table, drinking tea out of blue and white Wedgewood cups. He broke the news to me that he’d decided to dedicate the Balkans book to a friend who had recently passed away. I was disappointed, but couldn’t argue with that. Then we started talking about Taiwan.

He said: I think Taiwan should reunify with China. There’s a common language and history. It can be like Hong Kong: one country, two systems.

I’m not sure what I said in reply. Perhaps, I don’t believe that at all. Or, Why do you think that? Or maybe I didn’t say anything, because I was speechless that someone who seemed so knowledgeable about world affairs would take a stance that was so clearly against the wishes of the Taiwanese people—including me. 

We sipped our tea and I thought to myself, so this is how it ends. The Famous Author left to go see his elderly friend and said he’d be back by dinnertime. I didn’t tell him how upset I was. Instead, I went up to our room, packed my things, and booked a seat on the next train to London. By the time he came back, I was gone.

I never spoke to him again. It took two strong cups of tea to open my eyes and finally see how mismatched we were. Even though he had read some of my deepest thoughts in my essays, he did not know me at all. 

He was wrong about Taiwan, and wrong about me. 

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JEWEL OF THE DELTA by Noemi Martinez

Once called the jewel of the delta, Delta Lake is a tiny man made reservoir where poor families would go and eat in the 80s, claim a table to have lunch or a picnic on the sand and have Easter Sunday cookouts. You’d get there by driving out towards Edcouch, a lonely stretch of a curvy road, tiny and desolate as far as roads go down here. Mom would take us some weekends when the truck was working and there was gas in the tank. As a treat, she’d say, “Pack the cheese sandwiches.”

***

I couldn’t drive on expressways on my own until I was 25. I had this fear my car would veer off the side. It was the 281 exit going towards Edinburg I couldn’t bring myself to get on, no matter how hard I tried. I was superstitious about it. I couldn’t try on Sundays. I couldn't try with the radio on. I couldn’t try because someone did a hex on me. I couldn’t do it because I had a susto when I was 17, driving to Florida with my mom. Her dad was dying and I helped drive. I took the wheel while she slept and it was the rainy season. Now I sometimes wake up from dreams where I’ve fallen off tiny roads, and off I go, towards nothingness. The curves of roads in my dreams never change, they get tiny and nothingness overflows.

***

One Sunday after church, we packed the sandwiches and she said, "Let’s go to the lake." We didn’t tell our dad, he never wanted to go with us anyways. It was mundano, too worldly I guess to want to be out when sinners who were also enjoying themselves under the hot sweaty sun. My mom turned on her Motown classic tape on the deck, which my dad definitely thought was mundane. Hell, if we're winning, let's go all the way.

This one Sunday, the road kept curving and curving and it seemed like we got lost. The more she drove, the tinier the road got. I wished maybe we’d be transmuted to another world. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d wish, in driving, we’d be found in salvation.

***

This one is different. In this dream, I am mad, but then I become water and disintegrate. I cease to exist and crash into waves of water, right there on the chair.

For the short time, when Mom was in hospice after I found her, I’d have dreams I was so angry that I couldn’t speak. I’d wake up with my heart racing, my blood boiling, my throat a hot stone. My anger boiling and seeping into the night.

That night I told Mom it was fine, she could leave. It rained so hard and violently, a cold front had come into the valley the night before driving the temperature close to freezing. The wind shook my car across the expressway and I inched my way back home. The wind and rain crashed down, and I knew. I knew. I had stayed as long as I could. The roads by then were lonely. It was almost Thanksgiving break. I never saw another car out there. It's like those times when you're driving by yourself and the world seems eerily empty and still. The earth was not still that night.

I had played Mom’s favorite Aretha songs. I had touched her legs. I held her hands more than I had ever in all my life. The day she left, the earth shook and the heavens brought down the rain. Maybe, I like to think, her Despedida surrounded by water was like her arrival surrounded by water.

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PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION by Zac Smith

Emo Phillips stands on a train. He thinks about all the fucked-up people he knows and wonders if people think he’s as fucked-up as he thinks other people are. The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom and thanks everyone for riding the train. Emo Phillips feels like he has never been thanked for riding public transportation.

“Hey, am I fucked-up?” Emo Phillips asks.

“What,” says Dan Brown. Dan Brown is looking at an advertisement for furniture. The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom and apologizes for the slow pace of the train. Emo Phillips takes off his mittens. The advertisements for furniture are very sexually explicit–in one advertisement, there is a picture of two men having passionate sex on top of a dresser–and Dan Brown feels incredibly unloved. He doesn’t want to be on the train anymore.

“Like, am I weird, I guess,” Emo Phillips says. “Like, is there stuff weird about me. To people”

“Yeah, dude, uh…I guess. Or not,” says Don Brown (easier to type than Dan Brown). The furniture advertisement seems really fucked up. “But yeah, probably.” He imagines himself making love on top of a dresser for a photoshoot. He imagines himself being paid $7,000 in twenty-dollar bills for the photoshoot. He imagines not telling his lover about the photoshoot and using some of the money to buy a new dresser because of how good it was to be fucked on that kind of dresser during the photoshoot.

The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom and suggests that more people should get off at the next stop so the train can go faster, because of the weight of the people. Almost everyone on the train checks to see what the next stop is.

“What?” asks Emo Philips (one l, spell check seems cool with this). He is looking at the advertisement. The man penetrating the other man in the advertisement has an Emo Philips tattoo on his right shoulder. The man being penetrated has his head flat on top of the dresser, looking away from the camera.

Emo Philips feels worried. He remembers that the furniture store from the advertisement is at the next stop. 

don brown (no caps) clarifies that he doesn’t know what Emo is asking. They are lovers, and they are on the train, and The train conductor/engineer/driver person clicks on the intercom (copy pasting this now) and begins to cry into the microphone thing, pleading for everyone to leave.

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TO TEACH by Tyler Barton

Whenever she passes a picture she’s in, Jewell closes her eyes. She laughs. Jewell’s earlobes are drippingly long, and her granddaughter Tanny would like to see them pierced nine, maybe ten times. This makes Jewell laugh. Jewell has been convinced by friends to join the poetry club, because, they say, Jewell is always finishing their sentences with a slant rhyme, and damnit they want the real thing! Jewell laughs at them. The poetry teacher is a bear of a man at a pottery wheel until Jewell is told he is the pottery teacher. Jewell laughs through her apology. The poetry teacher is twirling with joy at something Lucille Clifton said. “That woman is a loon,” a poet in a wheelchair whispers. Laughing, Jewell watches the poetry teacher teach, but then she sees that the poetry teacher walked out of her apartment that morning and screamed a mean thing because she saw a ticket on her windshield, but then—and this is what tickles Jewell—when she saw that it was only a papery yellow ginkgo leaf, the poetry teacher screamed an even meaner thing. Jewell discovers this moment in the poetry teacher like a crumb in a man’s beard. As the poetry teacher speaks of inspiration and fearlessness and squeezing the muse’s two cheeks, Jewell sees through to the room where both screams started, small as pepper seeds. Jewell’s hand is up. The poetry teacher says, “Yes, you?” Jewell slides down out of her chair and crawls across the carpet toward her. “Here,” she says. “It’s a haiku.” Jewell doesn’t listen to her classmates’ gasps as she peels a leaf from the woman’s shoe. The yellowness turns to orange in her mouth. Then, blue. She can’t laugh while she chews or she’ll puke.  

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FAIR NIGHT NUMBER ONE by Tom Weller

Scrap Boys have each other. Scrap Boy 1, Scrap Boy 2, Scrap Boy 3, three prepubescent bodies lean and sharp as barbed wire, three backyard haircuts, three thunder-clap voices, three tornado spirits joined like the three chambers of a rattler’s heart. And tonight the Scrap Boys have the fair. Tonight they have snow cones and onion rings and rides that spin the Scrap Boys around and around and around and around until they can’t tell up from down. Tonight they have rock songs banging out of rickety speakers rattling their ribs. Tonight the Scrap Boys breathe humid night air full of promises of big winnings shouted by the bulldog-faced men running the milk can toss and the shooting range. Tonight they walk together, shoulder to shoulder to shoulder, bare chested and loud through the swirling crowd. Tonight the Scrap Boys watch mothers pull their toddlers closer when the Scrap Boys walk by.

Tonight the skinny blonde girls from school eat cotton candy, pink clouds of sugar filling their hands, their mouths, sticky and sweet. They travel the midway in a pack, five of them, their hair sparkling under the lights that flash from the Gravitron. They speak in high twittery syllables, voices like birdsong, call each other slut and bitch and laugh and laugh and laugh, but when the Scrap Boys call out to the skinny blonde girls from school, the girls don’t call back. The girls look at the Scrap Boys, look past the Scrap Boys, look through the Scrap Boys. Under the gaze of the skinny blonde girls, the Scrap Boys become ghosts.

Tonight the ghost Scrap Boys haunt the fair studying girls with an astronomer’s zeal, keep a tally of all the different girl bodies spinning through the universe of the midway, each new body an epiphany, each new body worthy of further study, if only there was time for that, if only there were not so many other bodies demanding attention, if only it was possible. The tall bodies, the short bodies, the brown bodies, the white bodies, the hard bodies, the thick bodies, they all spark a longing in the ghost Scrap Boys, a heat like an electrical fire crackling where their blood used to be.

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TIME TRAVELING ANTIQUE DEALER by Travis Dahlke

The owner of Beachman's eBay store had it bad for my best friend Gedaliah. I didn't trust him because his eyeballs were made three times smaller by his glasses and it was rumored he kept a time machine in his stockroom used for poaching antiques. The eBay thing was just a front and a former ketchup plant kept the whole operation mostly hidden from public view. Gedaliah paid nine hundred dollars for her walnut pembroke table but the bureau that Beachman sold me was a reproduction with drilled-in wormholes. Gedaliah's table reeked of tea bags close up. The nails piecing it together were oily when you cupped your hand underneath. Its edges had barely softened. 

“Come back with me for the set. Please. You'll learn to love him,” she told me in the car outside his shop. Gedaliah's first husband was cut down from lead paint and her second was eaten by a piano. For the in-between times there was me. For her third husband we had parked between great vats of crystallized ketchup and a yard sign that said Fast Cash 4 UR Stash. 

“Five minutes. My chaperone days are through,” I told her. 

Small talk burbled up easily in between Beachman and Gedaliah. No problem doing that with no customers. I couldn't handle the flirting and so I excused myself down a path carved through sewing machines and mirror glass framed by cherubs. Their wings were more like parrot wings. I followed an extension cord to where it lead under a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. SERIOUSLY, DON'T COME IN. Most likely a stunt to keep the time machine rumors moist. I considered throwing a pineapple shaped cookie jar to the ground until Gedaliah told me that we were all meeting at the Mystic Steak Loft for brandies. 

We waited in the bar for hours. “Don't do this,” I told her.

“Oh stop. You don't see it?”

“See what?”

“He knows me. And he's so handsome. His face narrows in a familiar way like one of those gray movie actors,” she said finishing our third bowl of olives. 

When Beachman finally showed up, draping his trench coat on a stool, I was drunk and I told him he was full of shit. 

“It's not a perfect machine,” Beachman claimed. “It can only return eighty-three years.”

“So invest in stocks,” I said. 

He looked right at my best friend, collected her tiny hands in his and said, “I'm drawn to what is rare.”

Familiarity is easily confused with love you shithead, but under the table Gedaliah was already exploring his shin with her foot which meant soon I'd be alone. 

Throughout their engagement Gedaliah wrote me emails. At first they were joyous and typeset with magenta. She'd describe which TV programs they watched together or how skillfully Beachman could apply nail polish to her little toe without getting any on the cuticle. He often returned from his excursions with special gifts. An engagement ring stolen from a major Vegemite proprietor or a toy rocking horse with its sales tag still intact, just like the one she had when she was five. 

And then her emails turned black. She wrote how Beachman had become short tempered. Money was getting tight. Young couples no longer desired real woodwork for which to decorate their homes with. Young couples aren't even buying homes. His antique poaching also came with side effects like nightmares and weight gain. He started skipping the spaghetti dinners Gedaliah cooked and spent every night on an elliptical in their basement. No more TV programs. It seemed as though, she wrote, that Beachman was tired of her. 

Gedaliah became stricken by cramps that began as glass in her stomach before working their way up to her memory. In a final email she had come to realize that she knew Beachman from somewhere else. A man that cleaned her parent's house or a faceless flannel coat splitting up bread for ducks at her teenage hangout. Always watching. Mashing toxic paint chips into powder. Familiar cramps are easily confused with love. 

A year after her emails turned white, Beachman's eBay store went up in flames. They found a body. They found several other bodies which might've been manikins. The cologne from ancient baseball cards, dinnerware melded into velvet paintings of Garth Brooks, brass sows, and rugs embedded with hair. Windsor-style armchairs, Pandora beads, postcards, VHS tapes, real pearl, fake pearl, young adult novels about teachers who were really aliens, bronze babies bred from tropical fowl, ottomans, wood paneled digital alarm clocks, luggage, electric guitars, bureaus with forbidden love letters still stashed within their hidden compartments, samurai swords, Christmas ornaments, Penthouses and coin collections all unified in the afterlife. Gedaliah had soaked them from inside. She entered with a jar of nail polish remover and escaped through the time machine before it too was destroyed. 

Now behind the ketchup plant is only emptiness. I think they won't do anything with the space. In Gedaliah's first email she had said through Comic Sans, “it all tastes exactly like sweet lint.” I think of her now living among the heirlooms where they are all brand new.

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WHEN I WAS A PAPER GIRL by Sam Payne

Nana was always keen on telling me how working hard was important, so when I was thirteen, I took it upon myself to sign up with Turners Newsagents. It wasn't long before a round came up. This pleased Nana. She was enthusiastic about bringing me up in the right way.

"Manners and hard work, that’s all you need, my girl. Don’t let the past become an excuse."

By which she meant the death of my parents when I was nine, but we didn’t talk about them directly. 

I delivered the morning papers to all the posh houses on the other side of town whose tree-lined streets had names like Buttercup Drive or Maple Avenue. Every fourth Friday, I was responsible for collecting the bill money and taking it back to Mr Turner, who meticulously counted every penny in front of me. I guess rich people didn’t like to get up early, because most of them left it under the doormat or on the ledge just inside their porch. This was alright by me, because if they didn’t leave their money, I had to knock and ask for it. I didn’t like talking to adults; my face would get all hot, and my mouth clammed up like a purse. When I eventually managed to get my words out, they sounded foolish or moronic. 

One house, whose porch was larger than Nana’s kitchen, had walls lined with glass cases. Each case contained a dozen or so moths. Some moths were the color of tree trunks or rotten leaves, but others were so vivid and bright it seemed a crime that they should end this way. I was both fascinated and revolted by the moths. I didn’t understand why someone would display them in this way, and I think a part of me was afraid they might suddenly take flight.

The people who lived there usually left their bill in a plain brown envelope marked paper money, but one Friday, they must have forgot. It wasn’t there. I knocked and waited, and an old man answered the door. He was wearing a striped pajama top, and it took me a moment to realize this was all he was wearing. His legs were skinny and wrinkled and covered with wiry grey hairs. His private parts hung limp, as if dead. ‘Take it," he said.

I felt like one of those moths, encased in glass, a silver pin through the abdomen. It took me a moment to realize he was holding out his hand to me. He dropped the coins one by one into my palm. They were warm and damp like he’d been holding them for a long time.  I closed my fist, and thanks him. It was all I could think of to say.

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HUNGER by Tyler Dempsey

Robbed. 

The ski-masked man squeezed my biceps. 

“Easy,” I said. 

He went, “Get in, fucks,” and nodded toward a black SUV, gun under Eddie’s throat. “Don’t even think about it.” 

Eddie called shotgun. 

That was yesterday. 

Eddie’s my roommate. I’m 34. Too old for a roommate. 

I fucked up. 

Eddie’s on the couch. You could say “living” there. Old vomit, pink—like brain blended with Monster energy drink—arced but didn’t clear the cushions. My cat’s purring caked in matter needing chemicals to remove. 

Ed’s stomach jiggles from a tank top. A hairy muffin hidden for later. Pink on his cheek, he loads a pipe with drugs. 

“You know. We’re broke. After the robbery. Where’d you get this? Sure, thanks. Robbed. Never thought you’d be here is the thing. The couch needs cleaned. Maybe you could get off a few months? Actually, I’m selling it. Do you like cats?” 

He “salvaged” what we’re smoking from the cushions, he says, as if defending it. It vaguely resembles something I smoked a week ago. 

“I have an idea.”

“If it’s moving out, to a shelter or a new house, I’m ears.”

“I’m hungry.” 

I look at his cheek. 

“I’m listening.”

“Saw this movie. Guys burglarize a neighborhood, taking only shit they find in freezers. Like ham the wife bought ‘cause it was five bucks, now hard as a dick. Not even the husband cares if it goes missing. We hit a few. Food for a month.”

“I’m listening.” 

Eddie could afford something like rent this way. 

“This might work, I was gonna sell plasma for my aunt, who needs plasma. I’m not clear how plasma works. Let’s do it. How are we gonna walk with hams? I’ll be at load-capacity quick.”

“I got a car.”

How long had he been up? 

“Shotgun.” 

It’s a limo. I fucked up. 

Ed parks on a hydrant; a stream catching sunlight, surges forth. 

“I fucked up, Ed. Can I have back? I’ll never see inside a limo again.”

“Nah. Sit here with me. I get distracted, alone.” 

Eddie’s a drag. 

“This is badass.” 

In gear, he creeps to the next house, considers the sidewalk, but instead eases on Ron’s grass. 

“My neighbor.” 

In the side-mirror, two girls laugh at the hydrant liberally hosing April’s air. Ron—neighbor who shuffles his driveway each morning, waving. He’s an asshole as far as I’m concerned. 

“Do we have to hit Ron? He’s not bad.” 

Ed looks at the limo, still idling, like, I was hoping to not be long.  

Inside, Ed grabs Ron. 

“Hi, Ron.” 

In Eddie’s hand, Ron’s head slams the corner separating the kitchen from the living room. I don’t think he hears me over the screams. 

On a black walnut table, in Ron’s spotless-year-round living room—carpet and furniture exceedingly white—is a Monster energy drink. 

“It’s Monster,” I say, pointing. 

Ron’s head is soft, where there’s head at all—pumpkin innards reluctant to release seeds. Pink, with flecks of Ron’s skull here and there, circle the spot where a head would be. 

“Fuck, Ed.” 

I think, This is good. We can eat yogurt while we wait for ham to thaw, certain Eddie hadn’t thought of that. 

Ed’s scraping a T-bone coated in decades of frost with a butcher knife under scalding water; the frost withdraws revealing rotten treasures. 

I spread lasagna from a Pyrex on the countertop. 

We dive in. 

I’m so hungry. 

Ed tongues tidbits while I grab a tray of eclairs. Down in the sink next to where he’s scrubbing it goes; sopping hands raise piles, cheeks bulge, pastry drips from lips. I use my hand as a shovel to plumb chocolate from corners of the pan softened from dishwater. 

“Yummm.” Ed grins. 

His neck muscles strain working the T-bone, reminding me of a bald eagle’s leg I saw in a museum. 

I feel bad for Ron. He looks like an old mop you let kids tie-die. 

Partially-frozen steak resists Eddie’s teeth. Something about everything, the whiteness of Ron’s living room, his green lawn. Makes you unbelievably hungry. 

I go to the window. The girls from earlier are peeling out in the limo. Grass and mud spray Ron’s lawn. Red and blue reflect back and forth in the hydrant’s geyser. 

I hear sirens. 

I run to the fridge. 

Green bean casserole going soft on top comes out. We descend. He mops dregs of curdled sauce and beans with bread. I explode a bag of Doritos. Ed laughs. Chips rain down. “There’s never enough in the bag,” I say. 

Crawling in the crumbs, I hear a knock. 

“It’s the police.” 

“No thanks!” 

I look at Ed struggling to get turkeys from the freezer in Ron’s garage. It’ll work if he drops one. 

“Ed.” I remember raccoons dying in a situation like this. 

Ed. Not a bad guy. 

“We’re breaking down the door.”

I fucked up. Not my day. 

“One, two—” 

My day will come.

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WHEELS by D. T. Robbins

Fat-boy Brad, the same Brad who went, Hey, Cheese Factory!, to me on the bus because my teeth are a little yellow, stood in the middle of the street with Chris, the same Chris who almost drowned me in his pool last summer showing me what a washing machine was (you flip someone over and over and over and over until they can’t catch their breath and they start to cry and someone’s mom comes out and yells, What the hell are you doing to that boy?), looking at my bike, telling me how fucking gay it is because it’s white and only queers have white bikes, and am I a queer? I tell them my dad says I’m getting a new bike soon, maybe for my tenth birthday coming up,  a Mongoose BMX bike with pegs, so Parker can ride on the back and we can jump the ramps we made in the woods behind his house. I look at Parker, he looks away. Brad and Chris go, if you’re getting a new bike you should just fuck this one up. I ask what they mean and they say they’ll show me. Chris stands on the back wheel while fat-boy Brad stands on the other. They start jumping and the wheels start bending and Parker starts laughing so I laugh too because Parker and I are fourth graders and Brad and Chris are seventh graders and that’s just how it works. Like that, they say. I get to walking my bike back to my house on the other side of the neighborhood but then I think dad’s going to be pissed so I start crying as I’m walking. Sure enough, dad sees the bike and flips out and starts asking what happened and I say it wasn’t me but I don’t want to say who did it because Chris already almost killed me once and who knows if he’ll try again? But I end up telling dad and we get in the car and dad’s driving around the neighborhood looking for fat-boy Brad and Chris and when we find them dad hops out the car and gets in their faces and asks what the hell is their problem doing that to a boy’s bike? They say I told them they could and dad says he doesn’t care if I said they could or not, it doesn’t give them the right to destroy someone else’s property. Dad tells them if they ever come near me or my bike again he’ll…and I don’t really hear or understand that part very well. Dad drives us back home but the whole time he’s hollering at me and telling me I shouldn’t let boys like that pick on me and I need to stand up for myself and act like a man. We get in the house and mom asks what happened but dad ignores her and gets his belt instead. I don’t get the Mongoose BMX bike for my birthday. 

***

I know dad only bought me this Jeep—an ’89 Suzuki Samurai—to keep me from starting any more shit. Guess he got tired of me calling the cops every time he shoved me down the hallway after I told him my little brother and I want to leave shithole Mississippi and go back to California to live with mom, that I called him a deadbeat dad since he didn’t pay child support (because fuck your kids, right?) and that’s the only reason mom couldn’t afford to fly down to Louisiana for the court hearing and that’s the only reason he got custody of us instead of her. He thinks buying me this Jeep is going to keep me happy and quiet because that’s what keeps every sixteen-year-old happy and quiet. Except he’s wrong. All it’ll do is keep me away from him and the stepmother. Well, seeing as how it’s the first day of spring break, I decide to get the hell out of the house and go somewhere, anywhere. The Jeep is parked in the garage because dad wanted it out of the driveway this morning when he was washing and waxing that turd green Camry he’s trying to sell. He and the stepmother left for work so I’m alone and there’s only so many times I can jerk off and, besides, there’s a girl who’ll let me touch her tits so I think I’m going to see her. I grab my keys and throw the Jeep in reverse and haul ass. At first, the crunch of metal on metal is muffled by the Jeep’s exhaust but when I back out further I see the whole side of the Camry torn to shit—dents six inches deep, black lines and scratches like the striking surface of a matchbox, the side mirror dangling by a single wire. I start screaming, oh fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, and jump out the Jeep to see the damage. I’m dead and I know it. I call the girl who lets me touch her tits and she doesn’t know what to do so I call the stepmother. I tell her dad is going to kill me and I’m really sorry, I should’ve looked behind me when I went in reverse, can she please talk to dad because I’m afraid of what he’ll do to me. 

Dad and the stepmother pull up in her truck and dad steps out and starts inspecting the Camry. I look at the stepmother and she raises her hand like, calm down it’s okay. Dad looks at her, then me. You’re grounded for a month, he says and walks into the house. 

***

The judge says I’m old enough to choose who I want to live with. 

Dad sits up in his bed. The stepmother pulls the blanket over her face. It’s cold. It’s always fucking cold in this house. He asks, what’re you going to do? I’m going back to California, I say. He tells me I’m making a mistake, says the Jeep stays with him.

***

The car mom’s been letting me use to get to my job at the movie theater just got repossessed and she says if I want a new one then I can call dad and ask him for the money because she doesn’t have it. I don’t want to fucking call him. It’s not that it’s been three years since I’ve been back in California or that he never came to my high school graduation or that he’s still trying to get custody of my little brother. What I don’t want to tell him is that we’d just been homeless for the past six months or so because mom got us evicted from our house in Ontario. Mom says she couldn’t pay the rent because dad wasn’t paying child support but somehow she could afford to pay for the new furniture, somehow she could afford to take that trip up north to see that guy she’s been talking to. I don’t want to call dad because I want to talk to someone about all of this but I sure as shit don’t want that someone to be him. Fuck. I still need a car and I still have no one else to ask for help. The movie theater pays shit and most of my money goes to helping with groceries or the cell phone bill we’re behind on. When he answers, he sounds tired. His voice is softer. Not a whisper, but close. I ask what he’s doing, he says he’s feeding a bottle to my new baby sister, Grace. We talk about that, how she’s doing. He says everything’s great, they’re all great. I say, good. He says, I’m sorry, son. If I had the money, I’d give it to you, I really would. He says he wants to help me. I say I know he does, and I mean it. After we hang up, I get in bed and cry into my pillow for a really long time. 

***

I just wired you five thousand dollars your grandma wanted you to have when she passed, dad says. I ask how things have been since she died. Someone finally ended up buying her house, so that’s a weight off his shoulders. We talk about my brother and sister, Grace and Graham—how smart Grace is, how she’s kicking ass in all these speech debates at her high school. Graham is Graham, loves his video games. He asks how my kids are. He wants to see them one day, says maybe the kids and I and my fiancé should visit Mississippi next Thanksgiving or something. He asks if things have gotten easier with my ex-wife, if we’re getting along. I tell him that things are better, getting better, there’s good days and bad days. It’ll all work out, he says. He thinks I should put the five grand toward a new car. 

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A FAIR FIGHT by Alle C. Hall

The boat didn’t launch until 10PM. Allia and the three Swedish men she found herself with settled into the hold of the 25-foot cargo vessel ferrying supplies between Indonesian islands. They must have hit rough seas, because Allia woke in the dark to find the boat tipping right then left, as if God were running big fingers up and down the keys of a piano. There was rain and there were rats. When the boat tipped right, the travelers and the rats rolled to the right; when the boat tipped left, they rolled left. Without an ounce of condescension, the Swedes formed their long bodies into a triangle around Allia, so that most of the rats flew over rather than rolling into her. A few slammed into her, bounced off, scuttled away. As soon as the sun broke, the winds calmed and the rain cleared. The crew invited the white people onto the deck, where each declined the breakfast stew of indefinable meat over rice.

The first rat appeared about what must have been eight o’clock. Allia spotted it on a railing, sitting up like a puppy, its little paws held its lightly moving chest. Allia traveled with a set of nunchucks. She came up quietly behind the rat to flatten its skull. With a second strike, she sent the carcass into the sea.

The second rat was almost squirrel-like, with perky ears and a rounded back. The third and fourth seemed regularly gross in the way of city rats. When she sent the fourth, bloody, into the sea, one of the Indonesian crewmen said, “Don’t. Sharks.”

Allia could not stop now. They were coming. The next was bigger and mean, the way Allia imagined the rat from 1984 would be. He put up a good fight, dodging Allia’s sticks and taking whacks to his solid sides without flinching. It took more than three minutes of battle to crack its skull. Even then, the old bastard didn’t die. His skull was not completely broken when Allia’s last swoop sent him overboard. Sure enough, he met in the water a shark. 

“Mako,” said the crewman. The big rat’s screams evidenced the short, furious fight he gave before a shriek choked off half-way through.

More rats were coming. They were wearing her out. Allia climbed to the crow’s nest. Slowly, steadily, rats followed her, strung out as evenly as Christmas lights. They appeared to have all the time there was. The Swedes and Indonesians retreated to the hold. In a gathering rush, the rodents pulled at Allia with their scratchy paws and threw her into the sea. They tossed her nunchucks after her, to make it more of a fair fight.

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PEN by Neil Clark

They put a bomb in my pen. It’s like that film Speed. In Speed, your man Dennis Hopper puts a bomb in a bus. Tells everyone as soon as the speedometer in the bus goes below 50 miles per hour, the bus goes boom. That’s what they did to my pen. If I stop writing, if ink stops leaving my pen, the pen goes boom. Bombs in buses, they do a lot of damage. Bombs in pens? Maybe not so much. But these days, who knows? I’m fucked if I’m going to stop writing to find out. My wrist is already hurting. Some of the other coffee shop punters are coming up to me and asking if I’m alright. They’re saying I look stressed. Wired. A bit on the deranged side. “Maybe go easy on the coffee,” they’re saying. “I couldn’t drink another one anyway,” I’m saying. “My hands are sort of tied.” “What do you mean?” they’re saying. I’m explaining. Explaining while writing. Explaining about the pen. And the bomb. And the inkometer. Sweat’s now coming off my forehead and my hand is smudging what’s on the page. They seem concerned, these coffee shop punters. Understandable, I suppose. I suppose they’re just like me - they don’t want blown up too. “Who’s ‘they’?” they’re asking. “What?” I’m saying. “Well, you said ‘they’ put a bomb in your pen,” they’re saying. “Who’s ‘they’? And how?” “You think I’m in a place to find that out?” I’m saying. “I’m just here to deal with the problem at hand, like Keanu and like Sandra.” They could do a runner at this point. They could leave me in here alone. Me and my pen and the bomb. That’s what they tell you to do these days. Run. Hide. Tell. I’m saying I’ve got a bomb in my hand. That could arguably be classed as terrorism. “I’m not the Dennis Hopper here.” I’m saying. I’m now finding myself a bit on the self-conscious side. Guantanamo Bay never featured on my list of dream holidays. Re-emphasis of my earlier Keanu and Sandra point is needed. “I’m Sandra fucking Bullock! I’m Keanu fucking Reeves!” This seems to be resonating. Amazing what a ‘fucking’ here and a ‘fucking’ there does. Luckily, they seem to have seen the film and know what I’m on about. “How can we help?” they’re saying. “Words,” I’m saying. “I need words, like Sandra and Keanu needed road.” Now they’re shouting words at me. But the words they’re shouting are some amount of shite and I can’t work like this. It’s all just free association, no sentences. “Pen!” “Bomb!” “Ink!” “Bleeding!” “Bleeding Ink!” “Pen!” “Somebody already said pen!” It’s like a gaggle of hens. I can’t write a gaggle of hens. Buck buck cluck cluck. See? Doesn’t work. “Stop!” I’m saying. My whole arm is seizing up now, but I don’t dare take the nib off the paper to give it a shake and a stretch. Everyone in the coffee shop has left their laptops to gather round my table. Twenty-five, maybe thirty punters. All of them trying to be the hero. “A different approach, please!” I’m saying. “Do the words need to make any sense?” they’re asking. I have no clue. “Better if they make sense,” I’m saying. “Just to be on the safe side.” There’s books. It’s one of those coffee shops where there’s book cases. “We could just read a book to you,” someone is saying.” Good idea. The consensus is that this is a good idea. They grab books. Piles of books are now everywhere around me. They start giving me options, shouting hundreds of titles at me. Fifty Shades of Grey is a popular choice, but I manage to overrule. “Read out one word of that and I’m blowing us all up,” I’m saying. There’s more debate. Debate about what type of book – poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction. High-brow, low-brow. Some clown is still insisting on Fifty Shades, but common sense prevails, and the clown gets banished from the group and barred from the shop for life. We settle on… The Grapes of Wrath. Some punter is starting to read. “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows…” “Wait!” I find myself saying. “I’m not sure about this. I think I feel my pen heating up. This is plagiarism. Maybe we can’t do plagiarism. Maybe the pen blows up if we do plagiarism!” “Fuck sake,” someone is saying. “I don’t remember the bomb on the Speed bus having this many rules,” somebody else is saying. “Yeah,” somebody else is chiming in. “That was the beauty of that film - the simplicity of the premise.” They’re all starting to chat among themselves now. They’re discussing Speed 2: Cruise Control and how it wasn’t as good as the first. How it especially suffered from not having Keanu Reeves in it. Now they’re weighing up the merits of Keanu Reeves as an actor. How bad Bram Stoker’s Dracula was. How good John Wick was. How he’s pretty much just doing Ted from the Bill & Ted films in every single role ever. “Can we please focus!” I’m saying. But the crowd is starting to dissipate and pair off and get their phones out to look up Dennis Hopper’s IMDB page. Somebody has brought me a chamomile tea. They’re putting it on my table and patting me on the back. I’m sipping it and admiring the amount of road I’ve just covered. That was a good wee writing session. And in the end, nobody got blown up. Same as in that film Speed

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GLASS by Ross McMeekin

My neighbor wants to know about the fish tank, whether it still holds water. I want to know the same about the river running along the highway. There’s a lot of agriculture upstream, a lot of fields to irrigate. It’s midsummer, the sun is merciless, and the snowpack is gone.

He rubs his finger on the glass, looks at it, and wipes his jeans. I need more money than I can make from this yard sale, and I think he knows it. 

“So what did you keep in the tank?” he asks.

“A better place than this.” I kept tropical fish—a huge waste of money—but the tank was beautiful, and my job at the distributor didn’t have an end date. I grew coral and had LED lights that made them glow. It drew your eyes from across the room. 

He nods to the hose against the siding of the house. “Do you mind?”

“Be my guest.” The man wears his jeans like a rancher, but his T-shirt is a size too large. The giveaway is his hair—it has the kind of sheen and lay that you can only pay for. He’s playing local. He has land that gets the water from the river. I know it. He heads over and turns on the water and starts filling up the tank, all the way until it spills over the side. He could have believed me, that the tank was fine, but I understand. A leak can appear from nowhere, at any time, and before you can mend it, everything inside is gone. 

He comes back, the tank dripping. “Checks out,” he says. “You leaving town?”

“Greener pastures,” I say.

The things we all say are the things that have all been said. Any conversation is confined to the form, like how a river may swirl and eddy, but it’s always beholden to the banks.

“You and everyone.” He nods to my cell phone in my hand. I’m waiting on calls for some jobs I applied to in the city. There’s no job here that deserves me; I hope never to have to reconsider that comment. 

“You know,” he says, “I was talking to a guy at Albertson’s the other day, and he told me that if your cell phone drops in the water, all you need to do is put it in a bag of rice for an hour, and poof, all of the moisture is gone. That simple.”

“I’ve heard that,” I say, and it’s true. I’ve heard it before a dozen times. What makes the comment surprising to people isn’t that rice will soak up moisture—that’s what rice does—it’s that it will soak it up even from a piece of technology. 

“So what are you going to use it for?” I ask, nodding to the tank.

“A snake.” He laughs. “I know. But once you capture it in glass, it’s easier to believe it loves you back.”

“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” I say. He looks at me like he’s lost. We’re more alike than he’s pretending we are. “I tell you what,” I say. “How about you name your price and we’ll go up from there?"

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THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED by Sandra Arnold

We called him the Music Man because while he cleaned the headstones he liked singing along to the opera playing on his radio. Sometimes he threw his head back and let his voice soar to the sky, scattering the crows. His singing was so beautiful it softened the fears that lay hard in my heart. It brought Nettle close to tears and closer to remembering. Even Stuck Boy stopped his monologues long enough to listen. The three of us loved watching him at work though he rarely spoke to us except to tell us to bugger off if we got too close.

I’m not sure why the bad thing happened. Maybe he got sick of us hanging around him all the time. Admittedly, it would do anyone’s head in listening to Stuck Boy going on hour after hour about solving iodic evaluations. Nettle and I were used to it, but you could see that it really got on Music Man’s nerves. To be honest, it bothered me far more having to listen to the weirdos that frequented this place, but Music Man didn’t even look up from his cleaning when they drifted past.

By lying in the newly dug grave next to the one Music Man was working on I could enjoy his singing and the songs on his radio and tune out most of the complaints from the weirdos as they completed their circuit of the cemetery. Only a few of their grievances stuck to my ears like tattered cobwebs.

“I don’t know who my hands belong to anymore.”

“Why do they say he is ‘obligated’. It makes him sound like a rectangle.”

“A slatternly slut slithering in slime.”

“Avoid drawing attention to yourself.”

“Okay so I was drinking meths, but those two women had no right to refuse my entry into the cathedral. I said ‘How dare you judge me? Only one person can judge me and that’s not you.”

“Even the sky was struggling to hold up the clouds that day.”

Given everything we had to contend with, listening to Music Man singing along to his radio was an interlude of happiness for Stuck Boy, Nettle and me. Unfortunately, on this particular day, Nettle was going on even more than usual about the names on the headstone that Music Man was cleaning. She was always interested in watching him prise the grime out of the names he was working on even though he always ignored her questions. Eventually she would give up and move away to read other inscriptions. This time, however, she didn’t. Music Man heaved an exasperated sigh. He turned off his radio. I felt the molecules in the air shiver as I peered over the edge of the grave and saw Music Man toss his cleaning rag on the ground. He turned to stare directly at Nettle. He looked back at the headstone and jabbed a finger at the three names etched into the stone and then turned back to stare at each of us in turn. Stuck Boy immediately stopped spouting iodic evaluations. Nettle covered her face with her hands and began to cry. Music Man’s attitude felt like a punch to my gut. He of all people should have understood that there are some things you simply don’t rub in people’s faces. To get this point across I reached up, grabbed his ankle and dragged him into the grave. He lay there yelling blue murder while I climbed out and the three of us stood at the grave’s edge staring down at him. We told him we’d leave him there for a bit so he’d know how we felt and then we’d pull him out and forgive him.

After a couple of minutes four other workers in different parts of the cemetery heard Music Man’s shouts. They came charging over as if the devil himself was after them. Between sobs, Nettle tried to explain that it was an accident, that we didn’t mean to hurt him, that we just wanted to teach him a lesson. They ignored us and called an ambulance. The ambos ignored us too as they loaded Music Man onto a stretcher. We watched them carry him out the cemetery gate and into the ambulance. We watched the ambulance speed away down the road, siren blaring. 

As the noise of the siren died away in the distance the crows settled back on the trees. Nettle cried louder and said she would really miss him. Stuck Boy gave her a hug then swiveled her around and pointed at the headstone. Music Man was kneeling there carrying on with his cleaning as if nothing had happened. Without looking at us he reached down to turn his radio on. Old habits die hard in some people, I suppose.

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A CIRCULAR SCAR by Shannon St. Hilaire

A guy I dated briefly once asked about my mother of pearl ring. Everyone knows a ring has a story. 

“I won’t tell you,” I said before I could stop myself. Then I corrected, saying I bought it off Etsy, but it was too late. I would never tell him the story of my ring, because to know and understand my ring was to know and understand me. If I told someone about my rings, about this ring in particular, it would signal to me that I trusted them, and they trusted me, too. And I had no interest in giving my trust.

The first ring I ever owned was from an Irish dance competition when I was eleven. Its Celtic knot pattern reminded me that I was Irish, that I was a dancer. I wore it every day until one afternoon when I put it in my pocket to play patty cake with a friend and never saw it again. Studying abroad in Spain, I bought an amber ring. It was my first time out of the country and the ring meant I was now a traveler and always would be. When I moved to El Salvador, I was advised that if someone complimented someone else’s jewelry, it was customary to gift it to them. I couldn’t risk that; as a compromise, I put it in my suitcase, to have close to me but not to wear. I never saw it again.

In Ireland I got a Claddagh ring, which I wore on a chain around my neck when I rejected the categorization of the four relationship statuses indicated by how the Claddagh is worn. Rings had never been about relationships for me; rings were about me. I didn’t want to make a statement about my status, to let everyone know right away if I was available, taken, engaged, or married. What if I was none of the above? When I fell for someone in an open relationship, the ring snapped. I rejected the symbolism. 

I waited for the ring to find me, for the feeling of fate and serendipity to make the ring mean something. I broke that rule at the age of twenty-five, when I purchased on the internet a rectangular mother of pearl ring, grooved with flowers, set in engraved silver. It was large and particular; not everyone would like it. It expressed, not me exactly, but a boldness I so needed at the time.

I’d been dating someone for about a year. When I was with him, he made everything a delight, an adventure if only we made it so. He was lively, generous, magnetic, and adored by everyone he met. I strove to be worthy of him. 

A month or two after we started dating, on my birthday camping trip, I realized something about a bump on my index finger. I thought it was a weird pimple or an ingrown hair. But no matter how much I messed with it, it didn’t go away. 

“I think this is a wart,” I said. My boyfriend took my hand in his, examined my finger with a prescriptive eye. 

“It’s definitely a wart,” he said, and dropped my hand. “That’s gross.”

There wasn’t much I could do about it in the moment. I’d heard that duct tape might help, but we were in the woods. So I laughed. He did not.

At home, I researched what I could do. There were many options, but none of them were guaranteed to work. Time was the only definite cure. 

I tried Compound W, but the protrusion, looking like a tiny, fleshy cauliflower, remained. I didn’t get around to going to the doctor and I couldn’t bring myself to call attention to the blemish by covering it with duct tape. I hoped no one would notice.

“You want to know what I don’t like about you?” the boyfriend said, months later. I did want to know; I asked him all the time. He refused to say anything bad about me, or anything good. I couldn’t tell if he liked me; my only hint was that he hadn’t broken up with me yet. And if he refused to tell me these things, he must be hiding some major dislikes. I had dozens of guesses as to what they might be. “Your wart. That’s my least favorite thing about you right now.”

We’d been kissing. He’d pushed me away when my wart accidentally grazed his skin. I knew he meant what he said.

“When you have a wart, you do something about it,” he said.

“But what do I do?”

“You go to the doctor and get it frozen off.”

So I went to a dermatologist. Because the wart went deep, nearly to the bone, he recommended a blister treatment instead of freezing. I did that. A blister blossomed underneath the wart. The blister popped and created a ring wart around the perimeter of the blister. The tiny cauliflower had become a not-so-tiny mountain range. When the doctor saw it, he said, Oh, that’s really bad. He prescribed me a cream that could take care of the new, larger wart. 

I no longer had insurance. The five-minute appointment cost me $287.

The cream looked like peanut butter. It burned through my skin, creating a raw wound that went so deep I was surprised not to see bone. If it hurt, that meant it was working. I was pleased as I watched my flesh sizzling over the course of weeks, because soon I would have one less flaw and all would be well between my boyfriend and me. But when he saw the wound he told me my finger was going to fall off.

So I went to a nurse practitioner. She said the best treatment would be to burn the wart. As she was cauterizing, she said, “What would you like to name the wart? If you name it, you can conceptualize it, and then you can fight it.” She believed in the healing power of the mind, that I could will my wart away.

“Beatrice,” I said. It seemed like an evil stepsister name.

“The goddess of beauty...Interesting choice,” the NP said. “You should buy yourself a ring. It will be a special ring, something you can use to fight Beatrice. Take control of your fingers and use it to overpower her.”

I didn’t know how much stock to put in that, but I was willing to try anything and I did want a new ring. So I broke my serendipity rule and spent hours looking online for my wart-repelling ring. It had to be my inner source of strength. Something just for me, to fight to take back my body, myself. I didn’t even ask my boyfriend what he thought of it. I didn’t care. It was the ring of my will. I wore it on my other hand to distract from the flesh-colored bandage I always wore.

All in all, I spent about $800 trying to get rid of my wart, trying to get my boyfriend to like me, or to dislike me less. In the end, it was time, and possibly garlic, that eradicated it. It disappeared without ceremony, and when it was gone, I didn’t tell my boyfriend. If I didn’t call attention to the wart having existed, maybe he would forget how much he’d disliked that part of me. We broke up shortly after the wart was healed, leaving a bumpy, circular scar in its place.

I continued wearing the mother of pearl anti-wart ring, carrying the secret of its meaning, as I grew to hate my ex and then thought I loved him again and then felt nothing at all for him. I wore it through a graduate course, two drafts of a novel, and more dates with people who never learned about the ring, people I never got close to, so they could never push me away.

I chose to be celibate for six months. I dated myself, became the sexless love guru for my friends. I ran a half-marathon. I felt like a pillar—strong, nearly impossible to topple. 

The ring, with its bulky secrets, held less and less meaning for me. It was no longer a talisman to ward off the judgment of boyfriends, or boyfriends in general. I didn’t want to wear it anymore, but I couldn’t find a replacement that felt right. So I kept wearing it, because it was my rule to always wear a ring, and what if I lost myself without it?

I don’t remember taking the mother of pearl ring off, but one day approximately a year after the wart became a scar, I became aware that I owned my fingers, with or without rings, with or without blemishes. In an unmemorable moment, the ring, its floral engraving worn smooth with countless hand-washings, had been put away with my necklaces and half-pairs of earrings. I hadn’t faded away or turned into someone else. I didn’t feel less myself. I even felt lighter without its weight.

Rings had always been a personal reminder, but the world asked about them and expected an answer. Without a ring, I was myself, but no one knew it, until they knew me.

In that moment I didn’t commit to memory, I was probably leaving the house to go out with friends and slipped the ring off my finger, just to see how it felt. I think I stepped out into the night and rode my bike to meet my friends, no longer feeling the pinching of flesh between the ring and the bike handle that had caused a callus on my palm. When I arrived, my friends recognized me, despite my bare hands. 

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MOLD ON THE CEILING by Katherine Tweedle

Sophie had never thought twice about the décor in her mind palace. That was, until her counselor barged into her secret space and perched in her favorite armchair. 

One moment, the women sat in an office tinted a chi-centering blue; the next, the room had transformed into a dim sitting room. Sophie blanched, her private life now public. Dr. Erwin seemed unabashed, if not actually bored, continuing to pull on a fountain soda the size of a prize pumpkin. 

The room was Yin and Yang: clutter and cleanliness; one half as immaculate as a museum, the other half, a virtual kaleidoscope of crap. A thick, musty smell crawled through the air.

Dr. Erwin’s eyes roved over their new surroundings and settled on a shaggy patch of mold inching across the ceiling. She spoke in a lazy drawl, the straw wedged between her lips. “I like what you’ve done with the place.” 

Sophie flinched at the quip. “Could we maybe—? Go back to your office?”

“You don’t like how I work?” The counselor’s tired eyes froze her. 

A flush rose up Sophie’s neck as her eyes slid from the pristine gallery on one wall to the other half of the room. Crowding around them lay piles of books like fallen avalanches, crumbling cardboard boxes of corroded spectacles, and ragged grocery bags bulging with splinters of previously-fine china.  

“Do you collect anything, Doctor?” Sophie asked, plumping a pillow beside her. A puff of dust exploded in her face.  

“Everyone’s got junk.” 

“I don’t know about junk. Lots of hobbies, maybe.” Sophie swept her arms wide, elbowing a stack of magazines that flapped to the floor.

Dr. Erwin waved a dismissive hand. “Baggage is normal,” she finally said. Then she pulled a face, her cheeks bulging, and Sophie realized with revulsion the woman was trying to smile.

Sophie reflexively perused the wall around them for the expected credential frames, but of course, if they’d been in Dr. Erwin’s office, she couldn’t see them now.

“Your room’s really something.” Dr. Erwin slid the straw from her drink and pointed it at the musty patch overhead. “Why do you figure that’s here?”  

Sophie frowned at the intrusive straw, but quickly recovered. “Beautiful plasterwork, isn’t it?” 

Dr. Erwin’s caterpillar eyebrows rose. “Is the plasterwork under the mold?”

“Mold? Oh that’s just—that’s been here forever. How about this?” Sophie scurried over to remove a glass box from the gleaming mantel and drew up a chair next to the counselor. The gold inlay gleamed when she lifted the lid. 

“Naughty Box?” the counselor asked, reading the inscription.

“Yes. It has...reminders.” 

“For?” 

Sophie paused. “Anyone ever insult you?” she said. She didn’t wait for an answer. “Everyone’s flawed. Even those people.” Sophie reached in, lifting a pink note from the well-thumbed stack inside. “This one’s Marjorie,” she said, waggling the note in the air, “who seems to find other people more interesting lately.” Sophie flipped the paper onto the coffee table.  

“Charles,” she said, extracting another note. “My cat passed away this year. I was devastated. Folks offer condolences, right? Not Charles. He didn’t care.” Sophie flicked through the pile and tugged another slip. 

Dr. Erwin interrupted. “I assume you drew up some contract with him about friendship etiquette?” 

Sophie snapped the lid shut. She rose to replace the box, taking care to ensure it was centered.  

“Did you confront these people?”

“I’d be wasting my time.” Sophie returned to the couch and stretched out. Her foot nudged a box beneath the coffee table. She stiffened, looking like she’d just swallowed an ice cube. 

Dr. Erwin leaned forward and squinted. “What’s that?”

Sophie shrugged. “That’s nothing. Not very pretty.”

Dr. Erwin’s eyes met Sophie’s, a controlled softness in her gaze. “Neither is mine.” The counselor’s exhaustion was radiating. It was a little sad; Sophie felt it too.

Sophie reluctantly lifted the box. It was glass like the first, but the panels were foggy with dust, the fastenings dark with rust. 

“I keep throwing this nasty thing out, but it keeps coming back.” 

“That’s your Oopsie Box?”

Sophie blinked away the juvenile term. 

Inside the box lay a stack of crisp yellow notes like citations. 

“These show up a lot,” Sophie said in a low voice. Her eyes scanned the first. “Sometimes I leave my shopping cart in the lot.” She flicked her shoulders as if shrugging off a fly. 

“You feel some type of way about it?” 

“Not really,” Sophie said, and that was that. “Mary. Once, I—this was just after my cat died—intimated to a coworker that Mary’d been withdrawn lately because of her husband’s affair. Apparently there were others in the breakroom, and by day’s end, those idiots spread it to everyone on the fourth floor.” Sophie rolled her eyes into her hairline. “It was...traumatizing.”

“I know what you mean,” Dr. Erwin said. Her eyes went vacant, as if she’d left her whole body sitting there, empty, to run some errand.

“I meant difficult for Mary. She was betrayed by everyone.” 

Dr. Erwin took a disinterested pull from her soda. “Next?” 

Sophie stared at this new note as if seeing it for the first time. Her face fell. “My sister’s blind in one eye.”

“How’d it happen?” 

“You know the thing that always happens to kids who play with sticks?”

They sat in silence a while. 

Finally, Sophie blurted: “She’s forgiven me, of course.” She squeezed the papers back in the decrepit box and stuffed it under the table. 

Something shifted in the room, like a breeze, and they both looked up to see the mold above them grow. Sophie scowled.

“That’s no normal fungus,” Dr. Erwin said. 

Sophie snapped her head back down to face her. “What isn’t?”  

Dr. Erwin’s caterpillars climbed up her forehead. 

“I don’t know what that is,” Sophie insisted.

“Then I’ll tell you; you don’t wanna let it sit.” 

Sophie set her jaw. “Just leave it.”

Dr. Erwin tapped the plastic lid of her cup. “You want warm fuzzy feelings, or help?”

Without a word, Sophie rose. She crossed the room and opened the door, temporarily forgetting which way to turn the knob. 

“I’m glad you came,” Dr. Erwin called. 

Sophie pivoted. Her eyes lingered on the mold looming heavy and low. The flesh on her face hung limp as if it too were tired now. She nodded and crossed the threshold.

In the room she left behind, the mold on the ceiling flickered.

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YOU’RE LUCKY YOU CAME IN TONIGHT by Susanna Baird

Pickleball is a fun sport that combines many elements of tennis, badminton and Ping-pong, according to the USA Pickleball Association. Kids and teenagers play it. Seniors, too.

I am middle-aged, but anyway, I play pickleball. According to me, pickleball is an okay sport you play with a paddle and a Wiffle ball.

I play pickleball with my aunt in Arizona, the day before I fly home. She is a senior. She falls.

***

The registrar in the emergency room looks like her name should be Gail, and she says You are lucky you came in tonight. Last night, 40 ambulances. Tonight, nothing. Seems like your aunt maybe broke her hip. I hope I'm wrong. 

You're lucky you came in tonight.

***

My aunt has cracked her pelvis. I change my flight. 

***

My aunt's roommate is sad and annoying and confused and petulant and friendly and annoying, which I said before, but she is.

First I am polite. Then I pretend I can't hear her. Then I hide behind the curtain separating her bed from my aunt's. She asks my aunt to pull the curtain back so she can see me. She says My name is Kitty.

***

The first day, a physical therapist moves my aunt's legs and it hurts. My aunt says I might swear. The physical therapist says My wife went to Catholic school and didn't know anything about swears. Now we like to sit in the car and swear for five minutes at a stretch. 

***

Two signs are outside the door of the room my aunt and Kitty share. The signs say Catch a Falling Star. My aunt and Kitty are Falling Stars. They are not supposed to walk without help.

Other rooms have other signs. One says Stop Call, Don't Fall. One says Wake me up to see if I'm breathing

***

In the hospital, the elevator doors are decorated with life-size pictures of hospital staff. I study the elevator people while I wait to go up or down. Always, they look cheery.

A lab director is pasted on the elevator doors by the Joint Academy. His hands are on his hipster eyeglasses and he is happy, maybe because the glasses are new, or maybe because he's just been accepted to the Joint Academy.

***

The second day, a physical therapist helps my aunt stand up and sit down. My aunt says it hurts

***

When I am bored I pretend I am in an episode of Nurse Jackie. I find Jackie and Thor but I can't find Zoe. I love Zoe.

***

Kitty is always forgetting she is a Falling Star. She rips out the oxygen tubes running into her nose and shuffles to the bathroom. 

At first, I report Kitty to the nurses. Eventually, I only say Kitty you are going to get me in trouble and I watch her shuffle. In my head, I start to call her Fucking Kitty. When she returns, I say Kitty put those tubes back. Sometimes, I pull her covers up and tuck her in.

***

The elevator doors by the Cool Beans coffee shop are decorated with a life-size poster of a nurse. She has one hand out low and one hand out high, maybe because she wants to high five and low five at the same time, or maybe because she just said ta-da!

***

I make a Five-Minute Friend on the elevator. We discuss the life-size cheery elevator poster people. I say I wonder what the photographer said to them right before taking their pictures. My friend says I wonder if they are just naturally like that

***

The chaplain visits and prays for Kitty. I write my aunt a note that says Shut your eyes and pretend to be asleep. When the chaplain comes to my aunt, I whisper She's sleeping and we talk about pickleball.

***

On the third day, my aunt takes 10 steps. She says it hurts.

***

A Five-Minute Friend rings up my lunch, which totals $5.55 and would be a bargain in Massachusetts where I am from. She says 555 and Did you know the lottery is at 212 million? I did not know. We agree I should put those fives into play.

***

When I am bored I spy on the nurses. One afternoon, they get angry. They tell each other they are having to do jobs the assistant nurses should be doing. Not that they mind, they tell each other, but still. 

***

My aunt moves to a single room. I do not miss Kitty and I go visit her. She says How is your aunt today, and I say Just fine how are you, and I think Fucking Kitty you are all right

***

On the fourth day, my aunt takes 40 steps. She says it hurts. On a scale of one to ten, it's a ten.

***

A Five-Minute Friend looks like Jimmy Buffet and has just the one kid. The kid's all right now, but he had a hard time with the reading. They wanted to hold him back but Jimmy Buffet went to school and helped his kid and a few others with the reading. And you know what, it worked.

***

When I am bored I read Lila by Marilynn Robinson. This book is the loveliest thing that happens to me at the hospital. 

The saddest thing that happens to me at the hospital is a body being rolled out through the sliding front doors. That thing is the saddest, but it doesn't make me ache like Lila by Marilynn Robinson does.

***

On the last day, my aunt rides in a wheelchair down the hall, to the elevator, to the lobby, to the sliding doors, to a van that will take her to rehab. Behind her, I walk. The floor is wet and my shoes are rubber. I slip and land on my ankle, my knee. I say it hurts. On a scale of one to ten, it's a seven. Tomorrow, I will fly home.

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I KNOW ALL ABOUT COMBUSTION by Allie Marini

On the night of your funeral, I stand in front of a raging bonfire licking its way up to the blacked-out stars hidden in the sky above & let the snowstorm the radio says is on its way whip oily lashes of my hair across my cheeks. Drag them like a dirty razor kisses the skin to let something bleed out—you know all about the bleeding. How quietly it leaches into pine straw. How pine straw crackles when you throw it into a bonfire burning in rusted-out washing machine drum in the backwoods of Alachua county. You know all about how something damp & damaged sizzles once it surrenders to ignition.

I know all about combustion, the bonfire whispers. I want to burn, I answer, with my lips twisted into a line so thin it becomes a razor. Taste the smoke & blood of you on my tongue. Decide I’ll tell every single one of your secrets tonight & feed you to the fire. They say a snowstorm is coming in Florida & these things are not supposed to happen. I have buried you, am burying you, will bury you every day for the rest of my life. I am buried alive with you & in this moment I don’t yet know that I’m as dead as you are. I will never be the person I was again & neither will you. The difference is that I will haunt the corners of my own life, sleepwalk through everything, seek out danger & violence & misery because they’re the only things that remind me of you. I will seek out poison & drink it down like I’m dying of thirst & really, who’s to say I’m not?

I know the difference between a casket & a coffin—mainly it’s the shape—so in this distinction, you become a coffin & I am the casket. Because at a funeral service what the mourners see is a casket—what the world sees is me—but you’re the coffin. This unbearable grief is the sepulcher & here, we are ghosts, you & I. This night is an exercise in the improbability of weather, the perils of unmanageable fire & unpredictable cold winds skittering soundless & razor sharp across a sky where the stars are blotted out. How with the proper tools a coffin can become a casketbut never in reversewithout adding two sides & wrecking the beauty of geometry, telemetry, function.

I write a secret with a hollow shaft onto the calamus of a starling feather, add every detail I can remember onto its barbs until the vane sparkles against the glow of the fire. I hold it to the flame & watch as the afterfeather goes up in smoke. Honor the connection that signifies Creator. Destroyer of Worlds, you are free to explore a starless night. Well of starling, feathered breath. The feather becomes a coffin, an inferno, a wisp of hot ash, then nothing at all. I whisper your next secret into the bracts & seed scales of a pinecone. Wonder if the whispering is generative, whether anything will take root & grow. What is the purpose of a pinecone? In this moment I’m as dead as you are. Time just hasn’t caught up to me yet. Dream about a pinecone & instead wake up a terebinth tree—good for nothing except a fool’s errand fueled by misguided strength. I feel my teeth sharpen when I pitch it into the burning drum. I taste our death on my blood-whetted tongue.

I know the difference between a casket & a coffin. You are six-sided & ornate. I am rectangular & serviceable. This unbearable grief is our mausoleum & I have become a ghost to chase you deeper into the starless night. Into a forest of trees that wave as though they’re burning in the rusted-out drum of a washing machine. The telemetry of radio waves. Static & wind turn the weather report into a tinny ghost, calling out over the tops of scrub pines, A snowstorm is coming in Florida, these things should not happen. These things should not happen. Drag lashes of dirty hair like rusty razors down my cheeks & let the bonfire warm away the chill of cadaver. Let it smolder like a secret & unfurl into a thread of ash, a column of smoke. Let the residue of the burning blot out every star in the sky & leach into moonlight obscured. Consider the way scrub pine needles soak up the aftermath of a bloodletting. Have a steady hand before the cut.

Another secret, this time written on the edge of a razor blade & meant to bury you so deep even the cicadas can’t dig you back out.  I am not a thing made for feathers. You were not a thing meant for wings. Warp like the rusted-out drum of an old washing machine bending under the weight of a funeral fire burning in a haunted canopy. Send a column of smoke straight up into the starless sky & invert it, call it hell & learn to love perdition.  I know all about combustion, the bending drum groans against each thrush of the fire.

Every snowflake, like a coffin, is a six-sided thing. Each point indebted to the way in which it crystallizes, so bend the light around me, hide me in a hexagon until I disappear. In the skies high above, a solitary snowflake is forming. These things should not happen. I have found a dram of poison here & have drunk it down. The funeral tastes of campfire & cadaver. Bract by barb, I construct you like a secret & lay us to rest in this coffin. On the night of our funeral, I stand in front of a raging bonfire stoked on secrets, feathers, pinecones. I dream of a scrub pine & awaken as a terebinth tree. Steady my hand before the cut, lick myself into a ghost.

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BONES by Wilson Koewing

I slide the glass racks to the side and peer into the dish pit where Bones struggles mightily to scrape the charred remnants of bread pudding from a hotel pan.  

“Bones, how are you holding up?” 

“Good, Chef Adam,” Bones says. 

“Let me know if you get overwhelmed.” 

“Ah, shit,” Bones laughs.

Bones is pushing seventy. He’s worked the dish pit at the country club for seven years. When he can escape the pit, Bones sweeps by the dumpster or deep cleans the upstairs banquet kitchen—tasks that take him far from the watchful eye of Executive Chef, Craig. 

I discovered the nickname Bones came from his high school running back days. Bones because he was hard as bones. He received a scholarship to Auburn but blew out his knee. I could still see the running back in him.

When I pass Bones later in the afternoon, he’s on one knee scrubbing a drain by the walk-in cooler. I enter Chef Craig’s office. He swivels in his chair. 

“Is Bones still cleaning that fucking drain?” 

“Yep.” 

“I watched him clean a pot for twenty minutes earlier,” Chef says. “He thinks he’s clever.” 

“I think he’s just old, chef.” 

“Feel free to fire him.” 

“I’ll keep an eye on him.” 

“He’s your responsibility. Now get started on those stocks.” 

***

To make beef stock, I toss oven-roasted veal bones in a tilt-kettle with onions, peppers and spices. To make crawfish stock, I retrieve a sack of live crawfish from the walk-in. Their tiny claws pinch at the sack’s purple netting. I place the sack in a deep sink and fill it with cold water to purge the crawfish. 

After adding the trinity (onions, peppers, celery), I pour in the purged crawfish and crush them with an electric mixer. I can’t watch them change from living creature to mush. I always look away. When what remains resembles a reddish batter, I fill the tilt-kettle with water and crank it to high. 

***

Ally is asleep upstairs when I get home. When we met, I was finishing culinary and she was two years into med school. I studied days and worked nights. Now we only spend nights together when she stays up to watch our shows or when things align “for us to try.” Ally says we can’t wait to have kids. Her orthopedic work with elderly patients has exposed how quickly we degrade. 

I pour a scotch and go to the patio for a cigarette. Smoke rises toward our bedroom window. Ally’s beside lamp turns on, and I follow her path to the bathroom where she flips on the light. My phone buzzes. 

Working late?  

Yeah. Grabbing a drink after.  

***

I slide onto a stool at Molotov and order a Sazerac. I watch Kelly tend her tables. On her way to the kitchen, she’s stopped by an older gentleman at the bar. He’s been coming in a lot lately. Always the same stool, always a Vieux Carre. Kelly’s face flushes. She places her hand on his arm and continues. Noticing me, she mouths, “twenty minutes.” 

The sign for the Hotel Monteleone bathes Kelly’s living room in red light. I sip scotch and stare out the window at the Quarter below. Kelly emerges from her bedroom wearing pajamas.  

“Make me one?” 

I point to a glass on the coffee table. 

“Expensive scotch,” I say. 

“It was a gift.” 

She lands on the couch and reaches for the glass.

“Who is that old guy at the bar?” 

“Who? Ron?” 

“How old is Ron?” 

“Late forties, maybe.” 

“He graduated high school before you were born.” 

Kelly grabs a joint from a cigar box on the table and lights it. 

“Ally came in the other day,” Kelly says. “I recognized her from your Facebook.” 

I crack the window. A drunk couple stumbles through the bloom of a streetlight. 

“You shouldn’t smoke in here.” 

“No recognition whatsoever,” she continues. “I guess you’ve wiped me from your social media footprint entirely.” 

I take a seat beside her on the couch. 

“Dylan’s doing well at school,” she says, inching closer. “They’re studying human anatomy. I bought him one of those life-sized wall-hanging skeletons with Velcro bones and organs he can place where they’re supposed to go.”

“You’re still getting along okay with five hundred a month?” 

“Yeah,” she says. “Just wish you’d try and see him more.” 

“I told you I can’t take being introduced as ‘mommy’s friend’ anymore,” I say. “He’s getting older. Things will start to click soon.”  

“I never wanted it to be this way,” she says. “It would crush Ally, remember?” 

She straddles me and starts unbuttoning my shirt. 

“But you just can’t stop coming over, can you?” 

Before going home, I peek in Dylan’s room. He’s curled up in a pool of moonlight shining through the window. He-Man and Skeletor do battle on his pajamas. I can see both of us in his features, but he will only see his mother’s. Hanging on the closet door is the skeleton. The bones and organs are perfectly placed except for the heart, which is too high, practically in the skeleton’s throat. 

***

The next day, after a hellish lunch rush, I’m drawn by a fracas from the dish pit. Bones is sprawled on the ground holding his chest. I hold his hand and comfort him until the EMTs arrive, place an oxygen mask over his face and take him away.  

I drop the beef and crawfish stocks through a China cap into five-gallon buckets so nothing solid enters the liquids. Once the stocks are dropped, only the bones remain. We receive them as bones and dispose of them the same. In between, we suck everything we can from them. With a metal paddle, I scrape the remnants into plastic Lexan containers then spray the kettle clean. I hoist the containers onto a cart and push it outside where I toss the bones in the dumpster. 

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LITTLE KNIFE by Candace Hartsuyker

Finger 

Deep in the bowels of the circus tent, the air is sage and sweetgrass. A bundle of snapdragon pods lie on the table, faces like skulls. The hermaphrodite gives me tea laced with rum in a teacup that has no handle. His index finger taps the cards, tell me what I already know. I am a girl who will live many lives.

Body

A man with a gap in his teeth, a gold hoop glinting in his ear. A thin, dirty hand. Every day a lemon. A yellow rind sharp as the sun. My lips puckering at the bitterness. In exchange, my handkerchief. My hand. The underside of my arm, skin goose pimpled. The inside of my thigh. My lips. My body.

Ribs

A gray lemon, the last he gives me. Shriveled flesh. A hard seed clicking against my teeth. He has already taken me, claimed me as his own. The whores discover me. They notice my eye first, its purple color one they know well. Then my ribs, bruised and broken. I am taken in to recover and then to work. Not for sex, but to clean and cook. I comb hair, breathe in the sweetness lying under the harsh scent of salt and slickness. I learn to ignore the men who drop their trousers, who shiver with anticipation, hard muscles brushing soft skin.

Legs

One of the whores. She had a name, once. A name I knew well. Her neck strangled by a rope of hair. Sideways in the gutter. The smell of piss and blood. Bodice torn. Her legs caked and raw. 

The lemon man. His voice. If you run away, this is what you will become.

Hair

The circus tent. The hermaphrodite. Green coppers laid over his shut eyes. They are glad he is dead. I do not cry, do not tell them of his long-ago gift. He twisted my hair into a bun. I remember cool air on the nape of my neck. A pin for my hair. I didn’t know what it was then, but I know now. He gave me a knife.

Throat

A stranger. Who are you? You must find yourself a new name.

My name, I say sharply, is mine. The circus had a woman who with a flick of her wrist could drop a sword down the passage of her throat. There was no blood, no puncture wounds. A man who wants to rename me is not even worth one of her blades.

If you will not go with me, then you will burn.

I know what I am. A girl with multiple lives is a witch: this is my last. The circus tent flaps with tattered edges. The crowd presses thick. A knife is tucked between my breasts and pulled out like a rose. I bow.

They want bloodshed. They want something they have never seen before. They will get it. The knife is my lover; I am its vessel. A gentle caress. A sound softer than a feather falling. I will make them watch as I devour myself.

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THINGS TO SHIP TO AMERICA by Jessica Evans

Is heaven a proper noun?

Here, I learned to love myself. To love the thick full shimmy of thighs against one another; to appreciate the height of my traps compared to the valley of my clavicle. I fell in love with butter churned from cream produced by cows who live only a few kilometers away.

I learned to seek out the salted rotisserie chicken, its skin crispy and shimmering after hours on a spit. As much to bite into something with savage need as because there's ownership that comes from eating simply to eat. But chicken is only good when washed down with room temperature fest beer, brewed like their ancestors and consumed within modernity in overcrowded but not too autophobic beer tents where everyone knew everyone else, except for us because here we are, moored inside something that looks like expat living but is actually attempts to recreate America whenever possible.

 

Our circle within a circle confuses even us. We drive roundabouts and autobahns and pay tolls on roadways, deposit euro coins into bathroom vending stalls so we can enter and not be able to tell the attendant there's no soap, the water is too cold. We recede into the background if we're not on post.

Or.

We become obnoxiously loud and boisterous, the kinds of Americans who boast about a war that ended seventy-five years ago, who consistently remind the local populace that had it not been for us, the entire world would look different, feel different, be different. Well. That's so consumable and true and entirely false that the congruencies between understanding now and then becomes complex and altered so it's easier to reach for another warming beer.

We travel, we rove, we move, searching for something that feels like home but gives us enough space to learn to grow. I take moments for myself, carve out instances in which I can identify as myself and not (just a) spouse, my own person, my own truth, my own evocation:

Mornings when the moon is bright, and there's no one else in the forest so I can turn off the headlights and pretend I'm a real forest witch.

When half my drive has no cell signal, so I'm forced to sit in silence, contemplative, and settled.

Looking for the quiet markers of age—the creasing of an elbow joint, the slow upstart of lifting from a chair, I settle into this time-space, being the preemptive feelings of being nostalgic before it's time. 

And in nostalgia for here comes past-longing for forms of then, tangible or  esoteric, the kinds of memories that come unbidden:

Dima buying a bedroom set, Ken buying an air mattress, his aging skin that looked like leather from a distance and felt even more snakish next to mine. The first two airmen I slept with, their introductions into my life only a half-week away from one another. The expectation that eventually, I would find myself grown, polished, and with a family to support.

A mother, two toddlers, and an infant strapped to her chest, EPT test in hand as she sets down birthday candles, plastic party favors, sweets and treats onto the conveyor belt, her hand clutched around her wallet, head constantly evaluating her two small humans, looking for relief and answers and silence. And I watch her watch that which she's produced and clearly her womb isn't hollow, her tribe is continuing to grow, (though I sense that she gleefully accepts the silken luxury of sitting in a bath in solitude, or spending a morning reading and drinking coffee, luxuries that she's never going to be able to afford, not now, not with her progeny continuing to propagate and just once), I want the openness that might come from being able to reproduce; mitosis at its very core, a concept that has both alarmed and paralyzed me, left me bereft with longing and sighing with relief.  

 

Whisk(e)ys we like

Bushmills Original only in basement Irish bars watching soccer and listening to 90s "classic rock" while we're both recuperating from the walking and the sleeping outside of our schedule, the constant seeking of something that we're certain, if we just keep traveling, we're going to find. In these basement bars, we avoid serious discussions, like what's going to happen when we never have children, and how should we deal with deployment, or our next concrete steps after the army, after uniform, after boots. Instead, we talk about the better band and I toss out suggestions, none of which are ever, ever better than Nirvana. The light is low, which hides the shimmer strands of grey that color both of our heads, our lines from lack of sleep, hollow nights lost to wonder and worry. 

Glenfiddich, good for dessert cheese plates when we're feeling fancy and pretending like we were born fluent in sophistication, though communism and generational poverty rarely suggest a fluency in anything but loss and longing. 

Paddy and Red Breast for those nights when we've finally made forever friends and we can just be loose but that would require us to be in a place longer than a tour and we're both so hard to get to know that ultimately, we learn to lean into our own patterns, create tradition that can exist outside the need for friends

and finally

Querceto Chianti that's a little overpriced paired with Italian food that a chef didn't prepare but we're hungry and trying because it's been a long weekend full of unknowns because we're on the way to listen to a symphony, something purchased well-ahead of time, that Sunday morning when we planned the trip to Salzburg; when it felt wrong not to include a small dip into the sort of chords that make each of us whole.

So tonight—

I'm sitting in a 17th century palace where Mozart first performed, watching a small group of students play a selection of winter music. Two whiskeys and two wines in and the viola player looks exactly like a powerlifter I used to fuck but can't remember his name. Exactly like him, even down to the shape of his nose, the way it meets the beginnings of his lip because I used to think it was so endearing that his youth meant he couldn't grow a beard (and even in those endearing moments I used to find a slight smidge of pleasure at knowing even at my age, I could still pull one so young; but that was always accompanied by the idea that at my age, I shouldn't need to pull because I should be settled, which would revolve like glass doors of emotions that shouldn't be examined or even seen during the middle of a little better than average sex) so in the palace, for the next 90 minutes I focus in and out of trying to remember what his name might have been, studying this Austrian's face for similarities to the Ohioan kid, but now I'm thinking maybe he was from somewhere north in Ohio where they're committed and focused on OSU football because their small towns are devoid of industry and therefore absent culture or other events. I can remember his numbers; he was a beast on bench, pushing with ease and his youth made it so he could easily shed weight before a competition or put big gains on the bar without really struggling and I always wondered what someone so objectively physically gorgeous was doing with an old lady like me, until I realized from his perspective that I was the one who had my shit together; early thirties graduate student who could afford an off campus rental that came with a driveway and a basement, two gym memberships because I was just that serious about making myself into what I wanted to see. One day, he came over, residually stoned and hiccupping about not being prepared for his next day and all I could think was how delightfully not serious it must've been to just exist for one single day.

At the palace, I'm flanked on either side by two pregnant women and their presence makes my womb ache in ways that feel hollow, mountainous, bereft.

I watch my husband watch a promising Virtuosos whose hair reaches her hips and whose lace cuffs land delicately on violinists' wrists. He leans in, whispering between Vivaldi's notes, that our daughter should play, too.

And I want to tell him that we're both getting old, geriatric for conception, so maybe that very pressing desire needs to be butterfly-fleeting, the way spring sunlight can't be captured, the way trills and scales feel real and immediate in the moment but whose notes eventually, ultimately, finally, fade away.

*

The Heart of Joy premier vegan but we're starving and don't look at the menu because it's snow-raining and we're more attuned to fashion and photos.

Dead animals, eggs, Buddha, a repeat loop of some Kundalini style retreat, servers dressed all in white, heads covered, I can practically hear tables repeating Bhajan's words

We need meat

A runners' body, the server's face

Falls

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“FACE TOUCHING DURING A PANDEMIC” by Michael Seymour Blake



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THE DUMPSTER GAME by Rachel Mans McKenny

The Hu Palace had a classy buffet, with slippery chopsticks that went into the dishwasher not the break-apart kind. Baxter raised himself on the lid of Hu’s dumpster, hanging off it with forearms and elbows as anchor. The graying cabbage landscape and jagged Styrofoam iceberg looked the same as yesterday. Then a faint scratching. Something was alive, a small something.

His foot found a cardboard box island in the sea of decomposing food. The box took his weight, so he swung the other leg inside, pushing the trash aside with a sneaker. 

A chick, brown wings folded under its body. 

It pecked Baxter’s hand until it bled. At the bottom of the fire escape, he tucked the chick between shirt and chest, tying the fabric at the bottom so it couldn’t fall out. The bird rattled around against skin, unable to find purchase while he climbed. At the window ledge, Baxter untied his shirt and the chick flopped onto the carpet, stretched his legs, and cheeped in protest. 

Baxter’s brother wasn’t home yet. Boy, when he came home! Baxter let the chicken stand on the counter while he wet a dishrag. He knew that cats cleaned themselves and dogs hated baths, but didn’t know the protocol for chickens. 

Eddy slammed the door. Baxter tried to scoop the chicken in his hands, but Eddy intercepted it. The chick tried to stand on Eddy’s fleshy palm but tumbled backwards on spindly legs. 

“Careful,” Baxter said.

“It smells.”

“I found it in Hu’s dumpster.”

Eddy pondered this, holding the chick up for closer inspection. 

“I win? You find anything?”

Eddy shook his head. “You win. Yeah. You win.”

Paul lived in an underwear drawer, its original contents relocated with the pajamas. Baxter poured Paul a shot glass of water. The shot glass said “Margarita Mondays.” He hoped there wasn’t any alcohol left in it, poor bird, but then he remembered the chick lived in a dark drawer for twenty hours a day and hoped maybe there was. Maybe to the chick, the dumpster had been the whole world.

Was that life? Baxter wondered. 

The other four hours of the day, Paul wandered the apartment. Between school and dinner and whenever Mom was occupied—he had free range. A chicken ranger. A vigilante, not a chicken at all.

Baxter didn’t play the game anymore. Baxter had Paul. Baxter won, and for once, Eddy had lost. 

Until Eddy found the cat. 

The creature had half a tail and nicks in its ears like hole punches. “This is Big Paul,” he told Baxter. He set the animal on the bottom bunk, and it hopped off, disappearing under the bed.

“The game was over. And we weren’t looking for animals anyway.”

Eddy just hummed, hand groping under the bed. “I didn’t say it was over.”

Years later, Baxter sat in the car outside his brother’s house, breathing hard. He couldn’t believe that every picture with his brother didn’t have hidden feathers and blood in it like an ISpy. Like Where’s Waldo. 

“Where’s Paul?”

Blood, feathers. “Well, don’t blame the cat.”

Baxter didn’t.

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CUL-DE-SAC by Christopher Linforth

In the backyard, firecrackers fizz in our hands. We dare each other to throw first. We draw the firecrackers to our mouths, chomp on them like cigars. Watch the fuses burn. Blue smoke drifts up our noses, down our throats. We hold the smoke inside of us, blackening our lungs, exhaling when we feel sick. Then we hear the gruff voice of our neighbor and the bark of his dog. He threatens to call our parents, CPS, the police. As we withdraw the firecrackers from our mouths, they bang. Fine gray powder coats our still-intact fingers. We laugh and throw the charred remains over the fence. Our neighbor peers over the top rail; his eyes and shiny pate glint in the midday sun. We know he is on tiptoes, even standing on a brick. Where are your mom and dad? he asks. They are gone, but we do not let on. They left days ago. A trip, they said. To visit relatives. They didn’t fool us—our family is close with no one. Our parents always said that was our fault. But we care little for what our neighbors think about us. This is our neighborhood, our street, we decide what we do here. We light more firecrackers, wave them above our heads. Our neighbor steps back, disappears from view. We lob the firecrackers over the fence, hear them explode in midair. An animal whimpers, then a soft voice speaks. We lie in the grass, try to glimpse our neighbor through the gap at the bottom of the fence. In the dirt lies a mound of tan fur. The retriever lolls on its side, legs shaking unnaturally, its watery black eyes rolled back. Our neighbor hunches over his dog, drives the brick into its skull.

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NEGOTIATIONS by Adrienne Marie Barrios

Marriage, /merij/, noun: a series of negotiations. 

At least, inside her head, it was. She had these little rhythmic mantras to keep from fucking it up, like my plate is on the left, or the left tray goes on top. She’d repeat it to herself, over and over again, like someone with OCD stuck in a tick—Left tray goes on the top. Left tray goes on the top. It wouldn’t do to burn one half of the muesli. My plate is on the left. My plate is on the left. It wouldn’t do to give him her sandwich; he hated mayonnaise. 

These negotiations, these little balancing acts, like bargaining chips between her stomach and her mind, her feelings and her general day-to-day life. Everything she ever did came down to one of these negotiations. These haggling sessions. 

I’ll just take one more scoop of veggies. My plate is on the left.

But then I’ll have more veggies than he does.

I didn’t eat lunch, and he ate his sandwich and apples, like he does every day. My plate is on the left. 

But he might notice that my burrito is bigger than his.

Well, I’ll keep my veggies, but he can have the extra piece of bacon. I did make five, after all. My plate is on the left.

Yeah…

Better put a couple bell peppers in his. My plate is on the left.

That’s better.

My plate is on the left.

Always, these negotiations. Always weighing the potential outcomes, sussing out what might happen if she did this or that. If she chose what she wanted. If she put herself first. If, for once, she defied his unspoken demands.

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1978. BATH, OHIO by Sean Williamson

He was driving drunk, a cigarette ripping hot, filter crushed between his fingers. Around a faraway corner headlights, beams reflected faint through the windshield, through his Kmart but that’s ok glasses. Tiny embers spit, excited by wind from the open window.

He put out the cigarette, stuffed it into the ashtray blossom, grabbed a pack of Camel Menthols off the passenger seat, popped the top, flicked and flicked until a filtered end rose, then pulled it out slow between tight teeth. He pushed in the lighter.

Headlights down the way grew at him, flare swelling in his smudged up glasses, exposing fingerprints and crud. He had been drinking all day, spent most days drinking alone, all day, since graduation. His mother had moved with his brother to Wisconsin. His father was staying at a Red Roof Inn but that's ok. His father had said, “Jeff, the house is yours, for now.”

Black trash bags rippled on the seat behind him. He looked. They moved, wet with moonlight. The lighter popped out, and in that moment of distraction, the warbling of the loop, the car swerved over the centerline, just over.

Eyes back on the road, car back in it’s lane. Pressed the Camel into the red coil, smoke blossomed from his hand like a magic trick. Headlights slowed and passed, slugging over like an old boat, night filled the space. A hallway of trees lead an easy, relaxing ride to the dump.

Straight shot. The bags rippled in the back seat, crinkling in his ear.

Suddenly whirring. Red and blue spinning lights. Oncoming headlights turned cop lights. The cop would pass him, hustling to stop some crime, but no. But that’s ok, that’s ok, that’s ok. Smoke moved down his throat, hot and dirty in his nose. Hands to the wheel, to the shoulder of the road, both cars stopped.

At the flip of the key his engine whirred to a stop. He rested his cigarette hand, fat ember billowing, on the open window ledge. Cop lights: long ray of fanning red, long ray of fanning blue, one after the other after the other, moved across the cracks in the road. The cop door opened and closed. Shadows of feet moved within the rays. Cop stopped and flashed his light. 

You crossed the centerline back there. 

I know. Sorry. I dropped something.

Cop again shined his fucking light. What’s in the bags?

He paused, only for a second. 

I forgot to drop of my family’s garbage this morning. So I thought I’d do it now.

At night?

Nothing else to do.

Cop shrugged. Please step out of the car.

He touched his finger to his nose, walked heel to toe in a straight line, said the alphabet backwards but that’s ok. Started drinking at 14. He passed the tests, of course. Cop, young then, would be much older the next time they met, wrote a ticket, back in his fuckingcopcar and whooshed away. The road was lonely, they came and went. 

Weeks back, Steve held his thumb out. Hop on in, drink some beers at my place, listen to some records, then I’ll drive you to the concert. But after a few hours, practically no time, Steve needed to go, as others, further in the unseen loop, needed to go. So the dumbbell, record still spinning, empty beer cans on the floors, and loneliness again. 

Fuckingcopcar all the way out of sight, heat of the night. He decided not to go to the dump after all. He did not know then, where the loop started or ended. Instead he went straight home. In the driveway, he smashed the plastic bags with a sledge hammer, took the bags to the woods behind the house and scattered their insides.

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FAILURE TO BREATHE by Emily Withnall

The diaphragm wheezed and gasped. It was a broken accordion and with each push, the squeaking and squawking that emerged were evidence that it should surrender. There was no hope and what’s more, the attempts were painful—and embarrassing.

The diaphragm felt defeated. This was an old, familiar feeling. It had never lived up to its full capacity, but over the years, awkward swimming lessons and less awkward singing lessons had strengthened it. The diaphragm knew what it was like to be useful and strong and to provide the satisfying, deep inhale and long sustained exhale. It was capable and even when it didn’t live up to its full potential, its self-esteem was always growing.

The diaphragm had never liked roller coasters but it had to admit that the roller coaster was the best metaphor for its trajectory. Roller coasters were clichés though, so the diaphragm felt it had to reconsider this framing. Maybe it was like hiking a mountain. It had done well with hikes, but not with hikes over 10,000 feet. Pumping air through asthmatic lungs was a tall order. Still, the diaphragm had done the best it could. What had all appeared like an uphill path, leading past the stars and to the very edges of the ever-expanding universe, was just like everyone else’s path. A lovely, if arduous, ascent… but with nowhere left to go but down.

The diaphragm felt guilt in admitting defeat. What would happen to the body if it just laid down and took a forever nap? Would it be accused of murder? It had never heard of a diaphragm being accused of murder, but there was a first for everything. An accusation would surely lead to conviction. A life behind bars. That wouldn’t do the body any good, but the criminal justice system further breaks what is already broken, so such an outcome would be in keeping with history.

The diaphragm was glum at this point and wanted to rewind time, but time was like a cassette tape with all the ribbon hanging out and knotted. Even if the diaphragm could untangle the ribbon and find a pencil to slowly wind it back in, would reliving the pain be worth it for the joy? Especially if it turned out that the tape was Alanis Morissette. It would even be worth caterwauling to “You Oughta Know” if the diaphragm could just fix some things. If it could go back and choose not to self-sabotage. If it could go back and do deeper therapy.

The diaphragm had been rendered a sad, flat balloon because the body was wracked with grief. Love, the kind that seeps in and stays, had alchemized between the body it belonged to and the body containing another diaphragm. The other diaphragm was even weaker and rarely provided its body with a full breath. There were sad reasons for this but also hope for breathing at full capacity. The two bodies felt promise and possibility and a love with family in it—a new feeling for both of the bodies. Together, both diaphragms experienced breathing that was deeper than ever before. The future was full of the richest oxygen.  

Then, the other body walked away. The love stayed behind because it was too late to get it out. Love had spread everywhere and filled spaces not occupied by organs. Love blocked the middle of the chest like a bandage applied so tight the wound festers and skin dies at the edges. 

The diaphragm supposed that it should blame love, or the chest, or the lungs. Or maybe it should blame the air, so filled with coal dust and exhaust and micro-plastics. Maybe, in not trying, it was actually saving itself.

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FIRST KISS AT THE END OF THE WORLD by Chelsea Voulgares

Convinced they were the only people alive in their shit California town, Opal and Matt sat together in a coffin in the basement of the funeral home Matt’s family owned. They planned to get as drunk as possible on the top shelf whiskey they’d looted the week before. “Give me the chips. I’m starving,” Opal said. When Matt handed them to her, she caressed his fingertips. He stared at her and scratched his nose.

First came the droughts and then the fires. The air had crisped up. All that was nothing compared to what happened to the water, which in the beginning was hard to find. Eventually, even what got shipped in tasted greasy. Polluted. Chemically poisoned. They watched their moms and dads and sisters die. Their classmates. Opal’s dog. But for some reason, even though the water made their pee orange, they survived it.

Opal scooted across the coffin’s satin lining. She acted more wasted than she felt and blinked at him through half-closed eyes. Through the smell of liquor and sweat, the apple-y tang of the fabric softener on his shirt came through. She wondered if his mom had washed it last, or if she got too sick in the end and he did it himself. Opal put her head on his shoulder and let her breath go slow and deep.

She’d been in love with him since third grade when they got stuck together during a project on the gold rush. They bought aluminum pie tins, poked holes in them, and convinced their dads to drive them out to a muddy old creek. Despite the fact they got a C, they were inseparable after that class.

He usually dated girls with giant boobs, and even though Opal ran the fastest mile in school, she was desperately and relentlessly flat-chested. His taste in the opposite sex was tacky and shallow, but she liked him anyway. As they lounged in the coffin, with probably every large-breasted teenager in town dead and death coming for them soon too, her opportunity arrived.

She sat up and ate the chips. Some salt fell on her neck and glistened there. She heard a rumble outside and mistakenly thought it was an earthquake. Her throat was dry. They needed to go out and find more water soon.

***

Matt knew Opal wanted him to kiss her. He wanted it too, because he’d seen Gina Thomas barf blood a month ago, and he always cared more about Opal than any other girl anyways. Besides, stuff like will we still be friends after didn’t mean much anymore. There wasn’t going to be an after, and if there was, they wouldn’t have anyone but each other.

He stroked her hair, leaned his cheek against the top of her head, and breathed. Her curls were warm and dry against his face. They smelled like the ocean, which was weird, because neither of them had been bathing much. 

As kids, they’d played dolls. He controlled the He-Men. She orchestrated the Barbies. Sometimes, if left alone for long enough, they made the figures bump and grind, smooth tan plastic parts clacking together. His favorite had always been Skeletor, and it never seemed strange then to see that yellow skull of a face under Skipper as she thrashed up and down, side to side.

Opal pulled away from him in a coughing fit. He grabbed her elbow to steady her, put a bottle of Gatorade in her hand. She took a swig, smiled. “Much better,” she said. 

He grinned back, rubbed her shoulder, and looked into her eyes. His groin twitched. 

As he moved his hand to the back of her head and his face toward hers, he didn't notice the ground around them vibrating.

***

Outside, one of two things was happening. The first: a cavalcade of army green Humvees pulled into the funeral home parking lot filled with antibiotics, high-tech water purifiers, and rescuers (most of them young and nubile women, more beautiful than Opal and also immune). The second: a dust storm, rolling grey and brown dirt, charged toward them to destroy any remaining drop of fresh water, to bury the door of this building, trapping Opal and Matt inside. Either way, their lips, their mouths, their tongues touched.

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LITTLE DISTRACTIONS by Sherry Morris

Maybe because I’m bored, I agree to see Barry’s fish tank. I’d just returned from three months in Europe where travelling with a circus through France or catching live octopus to grill for lunch while house-sitting on a Spanish island was just how some weeks played out. 

I was back in Waynesville now, broke, regretting I’d come back too late to start the autumn term at the state university. The main attraction in Waynesville was the Walmart Super Center, which had never been that super. My dad knew somebody who knew somebody who could get me on at the cake-mix factory. It was the best menial pay going—a solid $5 an hour. It sounded easier than waitressing, and McDonalds was for teenagers. Assembly work would be dull, but I’d had my adventure. I’d do a bit of time then move on. Maybe find a little distraction or two to pass that time. There’d be no harm in that.

We go for breakfast first. It’s like going to dinner since me and Barry work the graveyard shift, eleven to seven. The days are shorter now, and as we leave the factory, there’s a hint of light in the sky. I feel my exhaustion fade as I step into the freshness of early-morning air. Barry says being awake before the birds makes him feel wise. We’ll eat in our uniform whites but remove our hairnets and dust off the fine white powder that covers us as best we can. 

*

For the first three months I work the gentle macaroni line with mothers of classmates who puff up proud talking about their children and grandchildren as Kraft boxes and cheese packets trundled along. I join in, talking maybe a bit too loud about the French hairdresser boyfriend I’d had and tales of circus life where the troupe’s trumpeter lost his tongue by standing too close to a monkey. Then I get moved upstairs to a fast line. 

I find myself standing elbow-to-elbow with sturdy stone-faced women who look like they’ve worked assembly lines for centuries—even the ones only a few years older than me. Their eyes and faces seem dead, but their hands are so alive. I’m transfixed by the way they flit like birds as we stuff plastic pouches of cake mix, muffin mix, and brownie mix into cardboard boxes that race by. All the women snap-to when the shouty little foreman appears. I keep my head down and hands moving, but he always stops near me. He stares at my hands, then shakes his head. I try and stuff like the others, but I miss boxes, a lot of boxes, making the women swoop in to stuff them. Sometimes I miss so many boxes the shouty little foreman stops the line during the three-hour run. If too many boxes are missed, we lose our fifteen-minute break.

Breaks are crucial. That’s when everyone flies off to pee, then smoke, flocking back together to chatter. But I don’t smoke and try not to drink anything before a shift. I stand apart and pretend not to notice how they tilt their heads or point their chins in my direction, stare at me with tough-guy eyes. I listen to them squawk about drunken honky-tonk escapades and how they lost their bras in barroom brawls. They’d probably roll their eyes hearing about all-night Italian beach raves and sunbathing topless. Doubt they’d care about cocktail recipes unless I left out the fruit. But it doesn’t matter—I’m here for only eight more months. So what if they don’t invite me to their lunch table or show me pictures of their babies and toddlers, friends’ bachelorette parties or pets.  

A book is my lunch company, and I do my best to ignore the cackles that carry as they gossip, discuss TV shows I don’t watch, and grouch they’ll be stuck at home this weekend as they can’t ditch their kids with their parents. Sometimes a single shift feels like eight months. 

At least Big Bertha tolerates me, giving me technique tips and stuffing most of my missed boxes without comment. But it’s hard working next to her. She smells bad and sucks soft caramels non-stop, popping them into her mouth even while working the line. Her teeth are grey stubs swimming in gooey muck, making her words stick and slur into a pool of mumble. When I look at her mouth, I feel sick.

At some point I notice Barry, the foreman of the pancake line. See how he laughs and jokes with his ladies throughout their shift, giving them little lingering pats on their backs or their arms or hips to celebrate the fact they have the most productive line. And he notices me, coming over one lunchtime to sit down and chat. We discover he went to school with my older cousins, and he asks me about the book I’m reading. Before long, I’m tell him my plans for college. How I’m living at home and working here because I’m going away next fall. He nods and tells me about the philosophy books he’s reading, how he’s always been interested in enlightenment. Adds he has a fish tank I really should see sometime. 

*

We go to a family-run bakery for breakfast. We don’t want anything from a box. The smell of fresh bread, donuts, and coffee surrounds us and reminds me of my grandma’s kitchen. Breakfast with Barry is good. Even great. He’s funny, got things to say. He thinks it’s super I’m working to finance my studies. Says education is important, the key to enlightenment. In a lower voice he says he’ll try to get me on his line, but it’s complicated. It feels like Barry could be a friend, an ally, a mentor. That makes me smile, go a bit fluttery. There’s a white smudge on his cheek I hope he doesn’t wipe away. Barry tells me he once had an offer to go to college.

“But I got side-tracked. Don’t get side-tracked,” he says, shaking a finger at me.

Then he goes quiet and stares at his donut. Starts telling me about his ex-wife, how he’s on decent terms with her now. Has weekends with the kids sorted. Working different shifts helps. He perks back up after a bit. He wants to show me his trailer and some new furniture he’s bought. 

“And the fish tank,” I say. 

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, the fish tank. And maybe we’ll watch a movie.”

But there’s no fish tank and the sofa sags in the middle. I can’t see a single book anywhere. I perch on one end of the sofa and watch as Barry makes us drinks even though it’s only 9 a.m. He says his Bloody Mary is a killer. I shake my head, but he hands me a glass anyway. He goes off to change and comes back wearing jeans and a red plaid shirt. He’s put on cologne, too. A lot. Something that smells like kerosene. The smudge has disappeared, and I hardly recognize him now. He says I can change if I want, but I haven’t brought any other clothes. I say I need to go, that I have to take my mom to her doctor’s appointment. Barry punches a button on the remote and the TV pops on.

“But we were gonna watch a movie,” he says. His voice has risen to an unmistakable whine. “I’ve got one I think you’ll like.”

And before I can say anything else, he presses another button for the VCR and a porno begins to play. 

Barry’s got one of those old box TVs with photos of his kids on top. Two big 8x10 prints from a studio, with the kids dressed up in front of a bland blue backdrop. His boy is maybe four with a wide smile, cute and blond. His red cowboy boots are planted firmly, and his hat sits at a jaunty angle as he takes aim at the camera with a toy gun. In the other photo is his girl. She’s a little older, another blonde, with pink bows and matching Mary Janes. She’s perched on the edge of her chair, ready to bolt, with a ragdoll she holds tight. Her head is cocked, like she’s listening, her little face full of doubt. Maybe she’s been promised a fish tank too. 

I concentrate on the photos, ignore the tangle of limbs and sounds coming from the TV. Barry’s advice floats back to me. I see how it happened. The repercussions that followed. How it could happen again. I take a deep breath. 

“Nice kids,” I say. 

Go on about how sweet they look, how I bet they enjoy spending time with their dad. That he must be super proud of them. I keep talking ‘til he switches off the TV. 

“Well,” I say, standing up. “It’s been enlightening.” Then I go.

On the way home, I stop at Walmart. I’ve heard Vicks VapoRub under the nose works wonders. Peruse the hard candy aisle and buy a bag of sugar-free peppermints. I’ll tell Bertha they’re a thank you, that they were out of soft caramels. I grab a few of those glossy TV rag-mags I’ve only ever sniffed at. Tell myself to consider it research. That I should apply myself, make friends with the line. Maybe even offer to babysit. Enlightenment is everywhere. So are harmful little distractions.

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JUMP by Neil McDonald

Arlene had felt like a criminal the first time.

You’re thirty-seven, she thought to herself.  

Don’t remind me, she’d say in jest, whenever her age came up in conversation.

But here she was again, sneaking into the back yard in the dark. The first time she had done it on a whim, its strangeness a thrill in itself. It gave her a rush that was illicit, maybe? She wasn’t sure if that was the word. Now it was almost second nature, though she might still freeze a moment before beginning, not sure whether anyone could see her, wondering if there were any neighbours’ eyes out there peering from behind almost-closed blinds in some darkened bedroom nearby. Not to mention the joggers and the dog walkers, who would half-look as they passed the back fence, unable to help themselves. They never broke stride, though, not fully. They just went on their way and pretended they hadn’t seen a grown woman bouncing on a child’s trampoline in the dark.

At first, the jumping had been a release, a girlish fancy that became a form of what her friend Jackie called mindfulness, which was some kind of meditation she had heard about on Oprah. Initially, Arlene had felt this to be true, the night air and the silence of the neighbourhood punctured only by the sound of her feet meeting the trampoline with every gravitational descent, a sound akin to a mantra repeated over and over and over again. After a while her thoughts would become muffled as she rose and fell, the physical exertion coupled with the sensation of falling through the air barefoot, producing a kind of childish joy at being alive. 

Lately, though, the feeling produced by jumping had started to change, curdling slowly from innocent release into a nightly compulsion that had replaced her sneaked cigarettes after the kids had gone to bed or, to be more accurate, after they had closed their doors for the night. Who knew when they actually went to bed. 

Now she found herself unable to dissociate as she jumped, and instead her worries and regrets, her ‘tendency toward drama,’ as her husband Brad had put it during one typically orderly disagreement, were unmuffled and seemed to grow louder each night as she leapt. What does Breanne do after she closes her door at night, Arlene would wonder, her hair flipped upside down mid-descent. Is she on her phone with someone, some inappropriately older someone, or sending those pictures you hear about, or texting her friends the latest crime of embarrassment caused by her mother’s chronic misunderstanding. 

Arlene worried about Breanne, it felt like 24/7, each day a torture of guessing her whereabouts or mood, unable to stop visualizing her 15-year-old daughter as the six-year-old girl who had made her a Christmas card that said ‘Merry Mama, Xmas’ on the front, in her earnest crayon scrawl. 

And Jayson, that was another story. Her adorable, cheeky little Jay now a sullen 13-year-old from whose room came foul outbursts as he played that awful war video game online with who knows who. He had quit volleyball, diving, and band, all in the last year. He no longer wanted to do anything with Brad and her, and answered the playful queries of family members at Christmas and Easter with monosyllabic responses or vacant shrugs, trends that felt somewhere between normal pre-teen boy and future inmate. 

Was it something she had done? 

Bounce. 

She had yelled at Jay so awfully that time when he was three. 

Bounce. 

And his face had crumpled, then straightened out into defiance, a sequence that had never left her mind and that seemed horrifying in retrospect, and that she had – bounce – watched for carefully ever since, fearful of any lasting damage to his personality she may have inflicted. Had it lain latent since? 

Bounce. 

And now curdled into mistrust and loathing, aided by a hormonal shift that tricked his better nature?

Bounce.

And why, on another topic, had Jackie stopped calling or stopping by? They used to get together for girls nights, drinks down at The Cruise Ship, where they’d talk and confide and roll their eyes when the university boys looked them over. Arlene had always considered herself a guarded person, not one to give herself away too easily. But she had been uncharacteristically disclosive with Jackie, lured in by her friend’s allusive gossip about the teachers at their kids’ school, and her frank assessment of the men of the neighbourhood, including Jackie’s own husband, Dean, whose online activities and struggles with personal hygiene had been both shocking and delicious to hear. 

After a few glasses of wine and tales of this nature, Arlene had let slip some of her own previously unaired opinions about their mutual friends and neighbours, even, worst of all, about her own family, emboldened as she was by the alcohol and how Jackie leaned in when she knew something good was coming. Jackie, too, had been a flatterer, and Arlene was easily flattered, a weakness she now rued as she reviewed nightly the sentences she had spoken aloud to Jackie. And all because, what? Because Jackie had once said that Dean had once said that Brad was the most respected man in Woodlawn? Had he ever even said that, Arlene wondered now as she bounced. Had there ever been any truth to Jackie’s gossip and compliments, or was it all some elaborate long game to get to know the secrets of the quiet mum?

Whatever the case, she didn’t hear from Jackie now. Arlene thought she must have said something to offend Jackie, maybe some thoughtless, half-drunk comment at The Cruise Ship that carried deeper meaning than she’d intended. Who knew. They had drifted and it was over, and Arlene could only assume it was her fault. Sometimes they’d run into each other at the grocery store or at some neighbourhood thing, but it was like they had never even been friends, like they had meant nothing to each other. Jackie was, Arlene noticed, back to her old friends, the ones she had gossiped about, the ones who had once seemed part of Jackie’s past as the two of them looked forward to a lifetime of Cruise Ship nights, maybe even family vacations together. Now, clearly, that was not to be, though the two might half-heartedly resurrect the idea in passing, Arlene imagined, at some future Woodlawn Christmas party, for lack of anything else to talk about in the company of their husbands and the neighbours about whom they had once speculated so cavalierly. 

Some nights, she would try to ignore these thoughts, gulp them down like some necessarily foul medicine, like the kind Brad had to drink before his colonoscopy. She would try to think of other things, like how she liked when people said ‘So long’ instead of goodbye, like in old movies. She also thought about how women don’t name their daughters after themselves. You never hear a woman say, ‘I’m Wendy Smith, Junior,” or whatever, she thought. Only guys do that. 

Other nights, Arlene might take notice of her surroundings as she bounced, and wonder, for example, why she had never learned the names of the plants in her own yard, had never learned them and then taught them to her children, patiently explaining their provenance and import. What were those, anyway, over by the shed? Rhododendrons? No idea. What kind of trees, even, were these in her yard? Oak, maybe? Beech? 

Sometimes, she just titled her head way back as she jumped, so it was perpendicular to the sky, almost so she felt like she might fall over completely, and tried not to think of anything. 

***

Breanne stood at her bedroom window, as she did most nights, and watched her mother bouncing up and down, twisting this way and that under the moon. She never told her mother that she saw her or had seen her, or whatever the right way of saying that was. In her pettiest moments, she considered filming it on her phone and saving it for some kind of child-parent blackmail. However, even though the urge to use her phone to film something unusual was pretty much irresistible, she never did.

She just watched her mother bounce up and down on the trampoline and then finally stop and sit on the edge, Arlene’s shoulders moving a little. With the effort, or whatever.

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IN A SMALL TOWN (CALLED AMERICA) by Christian Fennell

It’s getting worse, and Jake finished his beer, and together they listened to the rain on the tin roof of the drive-shed; the receptiveness of its falling; the comfort within its echoing. 

Things are lookin up, said Jake. 

Damn straight, said Jared. 

I mean, now that things are great again, things are lookin up, and Jake stood and walked to the fridge and grabbed two more beers. He passed one to Jared and sat back down on the block of cracked white oak. He took a sip and looked at Jared. I went and saw the doc.

Oh? 

Said I’m shooting blanks.

Shit, Jake, I’m sorry to hear that. Have ya told Sugar?

Last night.

How’d that go?

‘Bout as good as you’d think. Ya know how much she wants kids. Not that I don’t—I mean, you got your two and they’re doin okay, right?

Right.

Thing is, I don’t wanna adopt some stranger’s baby and say it’s mine. Sugar don’t neither. We could get her artificially knocked up, but—.

What?

Jake shrugged and took another sip. 

They got DNA.

I know they got DNA, but nothins perfect, and it might work out you’re paying for somethin a little less than what you’d hoped for, ya know what I mean?

I guess.

And then you’re just fucked. 

So, what’ya thinkin?

I want you to do it.

You what?

You heard me.

Are you askin me to fuck Sugar?

Yup. 

Really?

Yup.

Have you lost your goddamn mind?

Jake lifted his John Deere ball cap, scratched the top of his balding head, and said, nope. 

Does Sugar know?

We talked about it.

You talked about it?

Yup.

And what’ya think, Alice is gonna be okay with me walkin next door and havin a go with Sugar? ‘Cause I got news for ya, she won’t be. 

She don’t gotta know.

What’ya mean she don’t gotta know? How the hell is she not gonna know?

Cause we ain’t gonna tell her, that’s how.

For fuck sake, this is nuts, I can’t fuck Sugar.

What’ya mean you can’t fuck Sugar? She looks good still. Hell, she’s a lot better lookin than that girl you were fuckin back in high school.

She wasn’t that bad.

The hell she wasn’t.

C’mon, Jake, get serious, you don’t mean this shit?

I’m as serious as the day is long, little brother, hell, it won’t take more than a time or two—didn’t ya always tell me all you had to do to knock up Alice was to hang your pants on the bed post? 

I know, but, still—

At least this way the kid’ll be a Burleson. Jake finished his beer and threw the empty at the garbage can. Besides, ya don’t gotta worry bout thing. We’ll just get up a little early, you walk to my place, and I’ll come here. After you’re done, you come back here like nothing ever happened, and I’ll head back to my place. Jake stood. Do me a favor and just think about it. He walked to the door and looked back. Oh, and by the way, Sugar says she’ll be droppin eggs in the next day or two.

She’ll be what? 

That’s what she said.

You talked about it?

Yup, we talked about it. Later.

Yeah, said Jared. Fuck me. 

Jake opened the door and walked to the fridge and grabbed a beer. How’d it go?

Standing at the workbench cleaning an engine part Jared looked back.

Ya got it done, right?

Yeah, I got it done, but I had to turn her around.

What? Why? She looks good still. 

No, I mean, to do it, ya know. 

I guess, and Jake tipped back his beer.

Maybe cause she’s your wife, or somethin like that, what’ya think? 

How long ya been married?

Eleven years.

Do ya love her still?

What? Yeah, I suppose so. How the hell should I know? 

It’s hard to know, ain’t it?

Yeah, it’s not easy.

Ya think she still loves you?

Of course she does. Why wouldn’t she?

 I didn’t say she didn’t. What about Sugar?

What about her?

Think she still loves me?

Hell, I don’t know. Why? 

It’s just something ya wonder about, that’s all. It’s not like it’s not possible. It happens all the time. 

I guess.

Do ya think it matters?

What?

Love.

I don’t know—for fuck sake, Jake.

Jake tossed his empty at the garbage can. I think it does. He walked to the door and looked back. We’d best try again tomorrow, well things are still going good that way. 

Yeah, sure.

Later.

Yeah, said Jared, later.

Sugar walked out the door, her flip-flops smacking her heels, her white short dress tight all the way down. 

She crossed the adjoining properties and reached the gravel driveway. She looked away, somewhere, and took a drag of her cigarette. She tossed it to the gravel, toed it out, and opened the drive-shed door.

Her eyes adjusting to the dim light she walked to the fridge and grabbed a beer. She looked at the calendar hanging on the wall, some girl with less than little on draped over the hood of a shiny red car. They make good money, ya know. She opened the beer and looked back at the poster. A blonde, like her. It's not just the money, it's the connections. Ya know that, right?

She walked to the workbench and pulled herself onto a high metal stool. She crossed her legs, her one foot bouncing—a nervous energy of how she was hinged, much like this place itself. I suppose ya talked about it?

Not much we did, no.

She took a sip of beer and leaned back, her thin milky-white forearms resting on the workbench, her dress high up on her long legs, and she tilted her head, the thickness of her blonde hair falling to one side and catching the light, just right, and she knew it, and did so without having to. What’d he say? She looked at her chipped red nail polish.

He wanted to know if it went okay.

And? 

And what?

What’ya say?

Not much. 

Not much?

No. Can we not talk about this? 

Why don’t ya wanna talk about it? 

What’s the point? 

The point? She uncrossed her legs and re-crossed them the other way, her foot starting to bounce. Why’s it gotta be so hot in here? What’s wrong with that damn fan? She leaned forward. The point is, we need to figure this out, and right this minute we do. 

Jared grabbed a rag and began to wipe his hands. What’s with you? 

Did ya not hear us late night? I’d be surprised if ya didn’t.

A little, I did. What was up? He walked to the fridge and grabbed a beer.

I told him, I ain’t no puppy-mill slut, and I ain’t sleeping with you no more. 

Jarred stopped. You’re what?

What?

They looked at one another.

You ain’t sleeping with me no more?

Of course, I am, I just ain’t doin it for him no more.

That makes no sense.  

Are you dumb? There’s a world of difference between my wanting to sleep with you and him wanting me to. And I can tell you this much, we had better figure this out, and I mean now.  

Jared leaned against the bench and sipped his beer. How long we been together? 

I don’t know, a couple of years, I guess. Why?

In all that time we been doin it, were ya never worried about getting pregnant? Or were ya just hoping ya would and say it was Jake’s?

Ya don’t get it, do you? All this damn talk of babies, I can hardly take it. 

What’ya mean? 

She put her beer down and got and began to pace in her flip-flops. It’s the last thing I’m ever gonna do, do understand that?

What?

This world is a hard world, Jared Burleson, and it gets no easier being woman, that’s for damn sure. She picked up her beer and took a sip. And if you think I’m gonna get dropped down another rung or two by having either yours or your brother’s damn babies, ya gotta another thing comin. Besides, it plays absolute havoc with your body, destroys it completely. She looked at Jared. Is that what you want?

Hold on, are you telling me all this time you’ve been on birth control?

That is correct, smart boy, yes I have.

And all this time Jake thought you were trying to get pregnant?

Correct. 

And then it turns out, he’s sterile? What would ya have done if he hadn’t been?

I don’t know. I’d of figured somethin out.

And now he’s got me doin ya to get ya pregnant even though I already am and you’re on birth control?

She pulled herself back up onto the stool. As it turns out, yes. She took a sip of beer.

Jared pushed off the workbench and stood in front of Sugar, his hands reaching past her to the workbench. You’re something, Sugar. I don’t know what, but you’re definitely somethin. 

The small fan in the window began to rattle and it blew warm sticky air.

Sweat from his forehead dropped to her thigh.

She looked at her leg, at the drop, and she put her finger to it, and it ran like a tear.

She felt the smooth touch of her dress, moving up, and she pushed herself forward on the stool, just a little, just enough, a lazy southern cat stretching its underbelly to the warming sun.

Sugar.

I know, baby, and she put her arms around his neck. She looked out the small window. At the scrubby land. At the coming heat. A small bird came to the window. Maybe a starling? She didn't know. She did once, when she was just a little girl.

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THE FLIGHT OF LIU XIAN by Matt Zbrog

He stared out at the world through paneled glass. At his fingertips lay a suite of controls. Switches. Buttons. Joysticks. HUD. Chrome. Glass. Metal. All that blinking light. But Liu Xian focused on the world beyond, gazing out from the cockpit at a domed sky. He breathed in pressurized oxygen through a ribbed and rubberized tube. A voice in his right ear counted down. A voice in his left gave final instructions. And, for the last time in his life, Liu Xian did what he was told. 

He fired up the twin jet engines. Cut tether with the launch deck. Blasted forward, soaring down and then up and off the aircraft carrier's ski jump ramp, into blue sky, rushing towards it. Behind his oxygen mask: a little grin. He powered down his comm-link. Veered off his designated flight path. Did a tiny barrel roll -- just because. Then punched on towards the horizon and its afternoon sun. 

He would bring the world closer to him. 

*

Not all that long ago, he'd taken an oath: 

I am a member of the People's Liberation Army. I promise that I will follow the leadership of the Communist Party of China, serve the people wholeheartedly, obey orders, strictly observe discipline, fear no sacrifice… blah, blah… and under no circumstances will I betray the Motherland or desert the army. 

Well, Liu Xian thought, so much for all of that. 

*

She'd married someone else. If there were any reason for this egregious and drastic course of action he'd taken, it was that. Not that Liu Xian had ever held any illusions of marrying Mai himself. No. From those first days at the civilian college, he'd known she was destined for greater things than a military-bound farm boy from Xinjiang. She'd been to Paris. Spoke French and English. Wrote poetry. Dearest Mai. Still. She'd treated Liu Xian as if he were an equal. Smiled at him, without shame. No one could deny she was brave. There was that picture she'd given him, in secret. They'd argued about what it'd meant, in whispers. If anyone had ever found out – well, they didn't. And who's to say it mattered anymore? Even though he hadn't seen her in years, even though he'd long ago burned that picture, its resonant image now flickered in his mind as he flipped on the afterburner: a man, in front of a tank, in Tiananmen. 

*

Cruising at 2,100 kilometers per hour, Liu Xian felt something akin to vertigo, a sensation he'd only read about before, but never felt. He attributed this new feeling to his lack of any immediate plan. It was new psychic territory for Liu Xian, the man of the memorized oath, the man of groupthink, the man of math and plotted trajectories. So much order and obedience and for what? Something pinned to his chest, near the heart? One day flying for the August 1st Aerobatic Display Team, a role in which his precise non-deviation could have been a source of entertainment for drunken crowds during Tet? 

It seemed strange to him now that he'd been fine with such a destiny for so long. But for so long he'd had Mai. Or rather the idea of Mai. The enduring symbol. The quiet hero. The source of a type of hope that one might feel for one's children. She'd existed in a pure and independent state. Untethered from a system Liu had felt powerless against, even as he'd helped perpetuate it. She'd wielded both the power and pedigree to bring about a new future. A change. Was that naïve to think? Even though it flew counter to his own life trajectory, he felt it'd been her duty to remain that contrarian beacon. She'd owed that to herself. To Liu Xian. To the vast and evolving country they called home. To the children of the coming century. But she'd broken that silent promise. She'd married someone else. And not just any someone else. A politician.

Fuck, Liu Xian said, in English, out loud, to no one but himself. 

He tilted the joystick and rocketed towards Taiwan. 

*

Most of the English Liu Xian knew, he knew from Mai, from unofficial study sessions in her private room at the civilian college. Hello. Please. I love you. Yes. Fuck. But when she'd tried to teach him the word democracy – she fell into a laughing fit. Perhaps it was the way he'd pronounced it, his northwest accent mangling the letter R. Perhaps it was the way he’d repeated and repeated the word, fruitlessly attempting to grasp its proper sound. Perhaps it was all these things, the absurd context of it all. But she laughed, and couldn't stop, turning her pale cheeks bright red. And it made Liu Xian feel embarrassed, poor, dumb, mad, and exactly like the farm boy from the Northwest that he was. So he stood up and shouted. Scolded her in Beijing-dialect Mandarin. Forget her precious Cantonese. Forget her Anglo affectations. He told her what that funny word of hers really meant. What it cost. What it wrought. He lectured her with textbook rhetoric. With a guffaw: democracy. He called her nasty names. He mocked her tears. And, still, she begged him to forgive her. He laughed at that, and it made him feel strong. Then he left. He hadn't seen her since.

Now, at nearly 10,000 meters up, Liu Xian wept. 

*

The blue sky hardly seemed to move, even at such speed. The horizon, never nearing. The sun, slowly setting. The enveloping roar of twin jagged-nozzle engines washed out the world. There didn't seem enough time to change anything. He was a traitor now. A refugee from an old way of living. Where else to go but into the arms of the perceived enemy, to a different vision of the same homeland?

Is this what Mai felt, he wondered—then pushed the thought away.

Perhaps he could prepare some sort of statement. Something to say upon arrival in his new land. Words that could one day be chiseled beneath a statue of, yes, him. The hero. The rogue. The brave Liu Xian. Perhaps the statement could even be made in English. He'd taught himself a little more in those lonely intervening years. Mostly short phrases he could use as playful barbs if ever he saw her again. There's only one China, my dear Mai, he could've said. Yes. The irony, the wit, the new Liu Xian, the master of pronunciation and complex linguistic sentiment. Would that line have impressed her, made her laugh, been apology enough?

But as he entered Taiwanese airspace, the only English that came to mind, for some reason, was a jingle he'd taught himself as a way to practice his pronunciation, a jingle he'd whispered to himself over and over, late into the hot nights of the barracks at flight school, never knowing for certain what all the words meant but repeating them all the same, under his breath: Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce cheese, pickles onions, on a sesame seed bun. 

*

It took him by surprise when the Taiwanese opened fire. It shouldn't have, but it did. New psychic territory. And, as his strange and half-made plan disintegrated, his old training and reflex kicked back in to fill the vacuum. The fruits of past obedience manifested in action, and they did the thinking for him. Obedience, training, reflex, yes, but something else, something older – an ancient muscle stretching itself. 

He evaded his pursuers. Re-engaged his aircraft's stealth. Ran quick diagnostics. The damage was real. But he still had fuel left. A slight bleed, yes, but enough to get away. He lit up his HUD, only for a moment, to keep his radar signature minimal. He watched himself lay in a course for Kiribati, a sparsely inhabited archipelago several thousand kilometers to the east. He wasn't sure exactly why he'd picked it. He knew little about it. Better options, more practical options, existed. But instinct had decided. He went with it.

Perhaps the symbolism was all that mattered. The resonant image therein. If only for something for himself to hold onto. Kiribati. The last land mass this side of the International Date Line. He was headed for the future. 

*

There wasn't much left to do in that final leg of Liu Xian's trip. Nothing to do but watch the clouds fly past as he thought back on old decisions. He hadn't made a whole lot of decisions in his 25 years. 

Perhaps that's why his mind flew all the way back to Xinjiang Province, that 'New Frontier' where, when he was nine years old, he'd attended his first day of a new school. Dust on the classroom floor. The air smelling of animals and manure. The teacher read off roll call, and Liu Xian learned he was seated both in front of and behind students also named Liu Xian. In retrospect, it wasn't that unusual. There were a quarter million Liu Xians in the country. But he didn't know that then. Liu Xian, the teacher said. Liu Xian. Liu Xian.

Liu Xian pushed himself away from the desk. He stood up. And then he ran. 

Out of the classroom. Into the field, where the wheat stalks rose high above his head. He couldn't, then, have told you why he ran – and maybe couldn't still – but he ran, and he ran. It was a command from somewhere on high in a time when he wasn't allowed to believe in anything on high. It was a command he obeyed at full speed, with heaving breath. And when he reached the far side of the field, he hopped atop the saddled horse that stood there. He untied its reins from that crooked fence. He couldn't have told you the breed of the horse, but he definitely knew how to ride. It was easy. You trust the horse. Trust the huffing and hot-blooded mass of muscle and limbs that sit below you. Direct the speed and vector from above. Meld will with power. Harness the language and kinetics of instinct.

So off he went. With a click of his heels. He hadn't known where he was going. 

And here he was, running—flying—still.

*

Nothing lies near Kiribati. It's surrounded by a vast expanse of deep blue. Somewhere out there over the Pacific, after the sun had set, a warning light blinked on in Liu Xian's aircraft. He'd run out of fuel. He couldn't turn back. He kept going until the engines made their last sputtering breaths. Then he took his hands off the controls, and, in his final, roaring, flaming, smoking, screeching descent, he ripped off his oxygen mask and screamed and into the cockpit's black box: There is only one Liu Xian!

He hit eject. 

Liu Xian floated in space. Through a sky full of stars. The air – cold and clean. A dream-like fall. He splashed down into the twinkling sea. Training kicked in and cut his parachute lines for him. But it was a youthful instinct that made him start swimming. 

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THE BIRD by Mary Widdicks

There’s mud between my toes. Slimy, sticky, and covering the chipped pink polish that now decorates only the tips of my big toenails. It’ll be gone the next time Mom cuts them. The ground is hot even though the sun is starting to duck behind the trees, and I can’t stand still for very long or it burns the bottoms of my feet. I hop from grass patch to molehill along the side of the road, avoiding gravel and broken glass like a game of hopscotch, and trying desperately not to spill the water from the bucket dangling from my right hand.

Slosh.

Hop.

Splash.

The air still smells like clamshells on the creekbank even though I can see my house waiting on the other side of the street. It has a covered porch on the second floor, which people say is fancy, though I’ve never been out there. Mom says it’s not safe, and the window has been locked for as long as I can remember. There’s a long stretch of sunbaked asphalt to tiptoe across to get home. Pinched in my other hand are my favorite boots, hot and damp and dripping silt. The boots are green rubber and look like frogs with two big yellow eyes that gaze up at me from the toes. They’re two sizes too small and give me blisters now, but I don’t care. 

They’re lucky. 

I set the bucket on the grass beside me. More like a pail. The kind you build sandcastles with at the beach. I peer inside.

Crawdads. 

Piled in the bottom of the bucket, the little river lobsters squirm on top of each other. A wriggling tower of shells and pinchers tangle up with antennae and spider-legs. The alien creatures roll onto their backs and curl inward, as if they’re afraid to touch the plastic sides. Their whole lives have been spent hiding beneath rocks and traversing the gentle rapids of the creek. The water is murky with sand and fear, the metallic tang of desperation rises from the sloshing water. 

I plunge my free hand into the chilly water and pinch one of the wriggling creatures between my thumb and forefinger, careful to keep my flesh clear of the flailing claws. The remaining crawdads clack against the bucket as they test the limitations of their new surroundings. Plucked from the only home they’ve ever known, these creatures waste no time in mourning. The static death of plastic must feel like another world, and the natives are getting restless.  

I lift the hefty crawdad in front of my face. Ruddy brown eyes stare through me as if my nose isn’t poised inches from its sharp snout. The crawdad stretches its legs to the side, reaching and hoping for anything it can use to escape. One antenna tickles the back of my wrist. Goosebumps rise up along my tanned arms and I grip the hard shell harder, just in case. The boots in my other hand dangle heavily against my thigh and I drop them to the ground without breaking the crawdads beady gaze. 

The crawdad in my hand writhes and I flip it onto its back, a little trick I learned from my cousin a few summers ago. In contrast to the dark mahogany shell along its back, the underbelly of the crawdad was pallid and speckled with tiny orange and black orbs. Dozens of them, mashed together and protected by the scooping tail shell that was now resting against my palm. Eggs. This crawdad was about to be a mother. 

I curl my toes into the soft grass and bite my cheek. The sun has dipped behind the trees along the creekbank, and it’s starting to get dark. The light shining through is sherbet orange instead of golden yellow, and the little ginger eggs glow translucent. My stomach rumbles. There isn’t time to take her home. Not today. Cars whiz past on the road ahead and I ease the pregnant crawdad back into the bucket. The others pile on top of her and within seconds it’s impossible to distinguish claw from leg. My toes start to twitch. I tip out my lucky boots and water pours onto the grass beside my feet. Maybe I’ll take my chances on the hot blacktop. I crouch to scoop up the bucket and that’s when I see it. 

A few steps away, half buried in a pothole, a mass of black feathers and dirt is crumpled in a heap on the road. A single feather sticks straight up from the center like someone planted a flag. The crawdads clack against the side of the bucket as I drag it behind me. One step. My wet toes sizzle against the ground. At first the thing looks like a pile of leaves or dirt, but soon my eyes make out the shape of a large, black bird. A sharp rock jabs between my toes and tears cloud my eyes. Is he still moving? 

When I’m close enough I could reach out and touch the broken wing, I stop. I let the bucket fall from my hand. Water splashes onto my feet and seeps into the ground as the pile of crawdads wriggles free. They’ll be fine, I tell myself. Mud drips from my toes, and I fall to my knees on the verge of the street. I’m close enough to touch the crumpled mess. The long flight feathers of one wing are bent toward the sky and twitching with the wind from each passing car. Someone honks as they pass. I examine the bird. A starling. They’re easy to spot from the metallic rainbow of colors shining from their slick black heads, like oil spills leaking across parking lots. 

He’s been hit by a car. The back half of his body spread thin like playdoh, his skinny legs bent until they look almost like the Crawdads. I wonder if he suffered, how long he’s been plastered here. Sadness rises up from my stomach and sticks in my throat like a bubble. Everyone hates starlings, but I always thought they were pretty. Some of his feathers are still whole and unbroken. His black eyes are staring up at the sky. I set my boots down and reach my hand toward one of the long, sleek, tail feathers. 

Then he blinks. 

His head rises from the ground and the twisted wing flaps pointlessly in the air. 

I jump to my feet. His legs and body have glued him to the ground and no matter how hard he struggles, he’ll never leave that place. 

The bubble in my throat bursts and a sob escapes. The sound shocks the bird as much as me. We both freeze. His eye fixes on me. I look around for someone to call, but there’s no one. Who would help him anyway? Birds die every day. It’s nature. 

But not this way. 

Not slow and painful and pointless.

I want to help. 

Beside me the eyes of my frog boots glare up at me. Calling me weak. Stupid. They know what needs to be done. I slip one foot into the wet boot. It’s cold and gritty inside. I step closer to the bird and he flaps again. My face is hot and then cold and it’s not until I reach a hand to my cheek that I realize I’m crying. Someone has to do it. I can’t leave him this way.

I’m standing over him now. His wing pointed at me like a finger. I raise my foot high. Probably too high, because I tip off balance as I bring the heel of my boot down toward his head. The force of the impact vibrates up my leg and into my hip. It hurts. Like a shock from an electric fence. But I missed. The bird’s beak scrapes against the road but he’s still moving. More frantic now. The last of his life energy fighting to stay alive when really he’s already dead. He just doesn’t know it yet. 

My chest burns and my stomach heaves. I want to leave. I want to run home and forget I ever saw him. In that moment I hate him. But I’ve made it worse now. Half snapped, his wing still flails and I know he’s hurting. I sniff hard and snot leaks down my throat. I close my eyes and bring my heel down again. This time I know I’ve done it. There’s a loud popping sound like those little firecrackers you throw at the sidewalk. 

And then nothing. 

I can’t even look. I slip my foot from the boot and leave it where it falls. My knees crunch against gravel as I ease back onto my ankles in the ditch. Hands shaking in my lap I count the cars that pass, so close I can feel the wind dragging me along behind them. One. Two. Three. Beside me a rustling pulls my attention back toward the bird. The crawdads sharp legs scrape the asphalt as they test this new environment. Within moments, they gain confidence. One reaches a claw toward the bird and grips the one protruding feather still pointing toward the dusky sky. 

Crack. 

The feather snaps between the pincers, and I scramble to my feet. Crawdads don’t scavenge dead birds. It isn’t right. My stomach turns and I wish I’d never seen the bird, wish I’d never tipped out the bucket and introduced these creatures to the cruelty of human nature. Another car honks and I  and there’s no time for mourning. I turn my back to the boots and the bird and the bucket and I walk home. The ground cooks my feet, but I don’t care anymore. I’ll never go back. 

No more lucky boots. 

No more hopping. 

No more dancing.

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SALT IN THE BODY by Kelsey Ipsen

Ghosts do not come to me because I grew up by the ocean and my body is still full of salt.

Girl; all limbs, all eyes and sudden fearlessness, dared the waves to become bigger and they did. And of course she was sucked under, tossed about, close enough to death. Of course she was rag-doll, rag-doll, rag-doll. Remember when your body was your body but now it is not. The feeling is like this. I know my body is other things, is waves, is salt. Is once a house/a host/a body with another body’s cells in it. The other body’s cells are still inside me, touching my own cells, and we will be like this forever. An adult body contains 250g of salt meaning I am a walking mix of salt and you. Meaning I was right all along while I was under the waves thinking this is it, thinking this is what I really am. Women understand that ownership of the body is an untruth. I think men only discover this when they are dying. 

If I have one piece of advice it is this: if you have not yet learned to be terrified of the ocean you should learn to be terrified of the ocean.

I have heard a needle inside me break through to water like an explosion. I have heard shells chaotic over each other as the ocean breathes out. We are all crashing against each other. We are all life trapped in flesh gods trying. We are only meant to be born screaming. I only wanted your loudest sound.

Noises in the night can be explained away by morning, but the depths of the ocean will just swallow you whole.

Whispers in my ear are not spiritual phenomena, they are voices from me telling me something I don’t want to hear but need to hear: Don’t forget to breathe. Don’t forget the shape of your abdomen, duneless. Don’t forget the length of arms, you can use them to reach in, to grab someone out of the waves, to make someone bird—forever sky, never drowning. 

The depths of the ocean, when explained, are still uninhabitable.

I cannot follow you if you do not scream, baby. Scream. Small kicks can’t sound louder than this. You only ever heard me. You only ever heard me from under water.

Ghosts, when explained, will let the water flow right through them.

I am the ocean and you are the ghost. I am still here without you here. I want to know how to breathe when I can’t breathe. I need to know that the salt in my body will surface me. I need to know that the next wave makes sound. I need to know that the next wave makes something other than this.

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CHALK by R. J. Patteson

Look at a man’s shoes, would you look? You can tell a lot, they say. People look at your feet and see the left toe of your boot scuffed black and they don’t know that you do it for the wind, man. That you kick the shift up, up, up, man, you kick it. And for what?

You say, “The wind, man, I do it for the wind.”

And you scare your mother and other people’s mothers when you ride by, and maybe you get too close or you get too loud. They look at their sons through the mirrors of their station wagons as you ride too close and tell them to never get a tattoo and to never date a girl with a tattoo and to never get a motorbike or else they’ll die all gruesome.

So why, man, why? It’s the mothers, man.

And people don’t understand when the work gets slow and the money gets less and you can pick only one, man. You live in a place where the leaves change colors and the snow falls and you sell the one with heated seats and keep the one with half as many wheels. For what? That’s what they say and you just smile back and tell them you plan to take the bus.

They look at you like you’ve got a mental disability, man.

The snow turns to slush and the slush turns to rain and the rain turns to sun and people waiting in line at the bus stop go from boots to running shoes to socks-in-sandals to just sandals. You give your cousin a call and he says he’s at work but the garage isn’t locked, man, and you open your cousin’s garage and take the greased bedsheet and throw it to the floor and sit on the tattered seat and grip the bars and lift the steel with your legs, man. You lift it.

Then you grow your hair a little too long and you ride through the country and you scare the cows and you race the horses and the whole time you’re thinking about how you don’t get what people don’t get. They look at you all confused, man, and they always say to ride safe and wear your helmet and ask if you’ve signed up as an organ donor yet. 

“I knew a guy whose brother died in a motorcycle accident,” they tell you. “Why are you single? You should have a wife of your own. You should have kids.”

So you swipe right one day and she swipes right and her profile says that she teaches kindergarten classes and you ask her if she’d like to meet up for coffee and she looks through your profile and says yes. She says yes, man. And you’re drinking orange pekoe, man, when you tell her you were only half-truthful that you owned a car and she smiles a fake smile and looks at her hands for a while.

But she doesn’t leave, man.

She asks if you can take her out and the next day you squeeze her head into your spare helmet and the two of you scare the cows and race the horses and she digs her nails into your chest so she doesn’t fly off the back, man. And when you get to your apartment, she pushes you on your back, man, and she undoes your belt and pulls off your shirt and digs her nails into your chest, man.

But you’re just the notch because she doesn’t call you back and she even blocks your number, man. She blocks it. Now she can make her father angry and she can wear a Harley Davidson T-shirt around her friends and wait for them to mention it so she can tell them about the time she dug her nails into a man with long hair—that’s you, man.

Now the road is lonely and the air bites and the leaves fall down, down man, they fall and your cousin calls to ask if you need to use his garage again.

You’re not paying attention, man. You’re not.

Your phone is buzzing and you’re thinking it’s your cousin when you should be thinking about some important information that was told to you by your motorcycle instructor when you were seventeen. When your instructor stood in front of a chalkboard and said, “Hey gang, how’s everyone doing today? We’ll break in an hour, for about an hour, and there’s a sandwich place across the street just so you know. But first, let’s talk about something that’s so important, gang. Let me see a show of hands on who can tell me how many beers you can have before riding? How many beers, gang? The real answer is zero, gang. Zero beers, because a motorbike isn’t like a car or a truck, gang, there’s no seatbelts or airbags and requires your full attention.”

It requires your full attention, man.

And small rocks pull your tires and you go down, down man, you go sideways. “Eighty-feet,” said your instructor all those years ago as he ate his ham sandwich for about an hour. A man can slide on the road for eighty-feet when he goes down, man. That’s you, man. Your body slides and the road eats through your denim before it eats through your skin before it eats through your fatty layer of flesh before it eats through your muscle before it eats through your bone.

Somewhere there’s an instructor who’s telling his class how your body painted a line on the road like red chalk. You wish he was telling them how you did it for the wind, man, but he’s not. He’s showing your helmet, how it’s worn flat on one side like lipstick, how if you hadn’t been wearing it your head would have looked like the perfect cross-section of the human brain that you see in textbooks. He’s blaming you for the increase in his motorcycle insurance.

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FRAGMENTS by Chelsea Plunkett

I.

My mother tastes like the peanut butter sandwiches she made when I refused a homemade meal, Chai-spiced tea to soothe bronchitis, and a sprinkle of powdered sugar on brownies and banana bread. Her taste is stolen bites of cream cheese mixed with sugar as we make pumpkin cheesecake, steady instructions for achieving the streusel on sweet potato casserole, and chocolate frosting on birthday cakes. 

In the time of new prescription refills, when she sleeps for days on end, sugar and fat dance on my tongue. It’s a momentary high from stolen food to fill an emotional void, whole boxes of Pop Tarts and packages of Oreos stuffed down after school, the wrappings stashed beneath my sheets. When food is scarce, I taste a concoction of saltines and apple jelly. The sweetness comes up in mouthfuls of sour stomach bile from swallowing the anger and shame and a trickle of blood in my mouth from bitten cheeks. 

II.

My mother smells of laundry detergent and an excessive, twenty-fabric-softener-sheet-per-load habit. There is the sting of cinnamon oil on wooden floors, bleach-coated bathroom tiles, and upholstery soaked in Febreze. When she approaches, she carries a sweet mixture of floral shampoo, hairspray, and baby powder. For all appearances, my mother’s home and body smell clean. 

But within the house, she is the choking cloud of Virginia Slims that penetrates deep into the walls and furniture. It is a scent that spirals from her bedroom and mixes with our musty, flooded basement that sprouts mold up wooden paneling. Within her beat-up Buick, which has crashed into a mailbox, a sidewalk, and a ditch outside my elementary school, is the haze of blueberry air freshener and coffee. Outside, within my father’s old grill, is the scent of lighter fluid and burnt plastic from the wedding album she torched. 

III.

My mother’s soundtrack is the rattle and pop of prescription bottles, of Fioricet and Clonazapam, of medication meant for my epileptic dog and a dead neighbor. It is her dragging, sweeping gait down hallways, a crash as she throws herself down the stairs and sprains an ankle, and the leaden stomps upstairs to my bedroom. It is fists slammed against walls, splintering wood, slaps and stumbles and screaming, always screaming, barbed insults hurled against my father, against my sister, against myself.

There is the cycling of Queen’s greatest hits as we bake Christmas cookies, the collected works of the Beatles in the car, and the cadence of our voices as we sing along to SuperTramp’s “The Logical Song.” Later, it is always the same songs—Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” her anthem for broken marriage vows—muffled by the floorboards in my bedroom and the rasp of Janis Joplin’s “Me & Bobby McGee” in an abandoned Kohl’s parking lot, the orange glow of the radio as she hits repeat over and over, interlaced with accusations of betrayal as I break the news of my father’s remarriage. There is the thud of her body against the ground, her back arched over a humidifier, neck wedged against the nightstand, and a feral cry of “Mommy,” escaping my twelve-year-old lips in the night.  

IV.

My mother feels like gentle hugs, a trace of fingertips against my cheek, the warmth of blankets tucked beneath my chin, and the contour of her hip and chest as I lie beside her in the flickering light of the television. In these moments, she feels safe. 

But later, as she cycles to the end of a prescription bottle, her touch grows violent. It is the cool storm door against my palms as she points a steak knife, the vibration of hurled valuables and slammed kitchen cabinets, the weight of a prepacked go-bag shoved beneath my bed and clothing hurriedly stuffed in trash bags. There is the unbearable heaviness as I try to cover her nakedness before the paramedics arrive and my own anxiety-ridden fingernails digging at my scalp and ripping hair. 

Even now, twenty years later and 500 miles away, I feel her touch, reaching through the phone to produce guilt and shame. There is dizziness, shaking, shortness of breath, and the rough carpet fibers against my cheek as I sob on the floor. It is the cramp in my wrist as I write in a journal she can’t hurt you anymore

V.

My mind’s eye is misleading, as the portrait of my mother shifts and blurs with distance and time. The child within sees the possession, the complete and utter takeover that shifts her from parent to animal. It is her shadow self, pin-prick pupils and drooping eyes, clad in a wrinkled, ripped, and bleach-stained T-shirt and panties, towering over me as I crouch on the floor. It is her silhouette behind the wheel of a barreling sedan as my sister runs through the bushes, and a stare void of emotion as we face her in court. 

There is the memory, a decade later, of untangling a bird from fishing line by the ocean, her features soft, cheeks flushed, eyes warm as we watch it stumble into the surf at dusk. It is seeing her eyes alight each time I come to town, and the devastating reminder of her humanity when we meet on video chat from the new lines etched around her mouth and eyes. 

And lately, with her renewed instability at the forefront of my mind, it is seeing the lines form in my own face, deep frowns as I watch myself in the mirror while holding the phone. It is a technique to ward off panic, to render the memories of her shadow self powerless. But as I meet my own gaze, I cannot help but see her likeness. It is present in the line of my jaw, the shape of cheeks and brow bone, my thin, straight hair. She always said we looked like twins. And beneath the skin, peeking from my tired eyes, is the ever-present fear that this cycle could begin again. 

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DINNER by Christopher Linforth

At that time in our lives, we rose at dusk for the feeding shift. Still in our underwear, we crept downstairs and into the kitchen. Shiny black bugs skittered across the tile floor. The lazy cockroaches remained on the counter and in the tinfoil containers stinking of rotten noodles; a few silvery beetles disappeared into the seal of the refrigerator. In the living room our mother railed at the television, at the caregiver exiting the house. We heard calls for dinner, thuds on the floor, shouts for our dead father. We rubbed crust from our eyes, then surveyed the leftovers on the floor: the cartons of moldy coleslaw, the potatoes sitting in an old washing machine drum. Our mother wanted something to ease the eternal pain in her stomach. She cried about it every evening, said it was caused by our father’s death. His coronary was our fault, she claimed. Even now, we could hear her saying that he had despised us, that raising twins had broken his spirit. He had spiraled into his own world; he desired food, every bit of it in the house, and she now carried on his legacy. We pawed through the cabinets, then the refrigerator. We slapped a slab of raw chicken on a plate, sprinkled blue crystal salts onto the pinkish skin. We slipped into the living room, saw our mother’s bulbous silhouette. The television flashed commercials: fat burgers and buttered shrimp. She jabbed at the remote control. The volume ramped up. The bass rumbled through her chairside buckets of seed packets, the fruit crates stuffed with newspapers and women’s magazines. Dolls toppled off the bookshelves. Her possessions were part of her, she enjoyed saying, but we were not. She yelled for us to hurry. We looked at the slimy chicken breast again, second-guessed the blue crystals. Our mother’s favorite gameshow came on the television and she roared for her food. We’d had enough. We sneaked closer to her. Ammonia stung our noses. Beside the foot of her recliner sat a line of soda bottles filled with urine. A string of Christmas lights lay around the bottles, around the skirt of her chair. We cooed: Mamma, Mamma, Mamma. We offered her the plate and she snatched it from us. Leave, she said. I want to enjoy this. She used to say she was a proud mother. She used to look to see what she was eating.

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ADULT-ORIENTED by Kala Frances Wahl

I was seventeen with braces, bright pink rubber bands looped around the brackets in my mouth, when God appeared to me in a dream. He told me it was my destiny to be a porn star. I was peroxide blonde, big-breasted and flexible. I readily accepted God’s proposal. Once without direction, my life now had purpose, meaning, something tangible that I could grip onto and ride like a mechanical bull. The horns felt good in my hands.

I attended Catholic school, but I didn’t believe in God. I wasn’t sure what I believed in. I wanted to believe I was edgy or rebellious, a flamingo in a flock of pigeons, or a loud tornado gliding over a quiet Midwestern town. I wandered the hallways aimlessly with no shorts beneath my plaid kilt and a fresh tongue piercing; I spoke with a lisp for a month as my swollen tongue healed. My history teacher caught on that I wasn’t speaking correctly. He promised not to give me a detention for my new body modification, even though school policy insisted he should, but he did warn me about potential gum decay from having a metal ball in my mouth. I appreciated his concern; that teacher always rooted for me. I think he was the only one.

Teetering on a jagged line between searching for meaning in life and being too cool to search for meaning in life, I sat on the floor of my bedroom and waited for someone to tell me what to do. I was open to suggestions from anyone. God just happened to be the first one to tell me exactly what it was I needed to do.

When I told my mother about my vocational calling, we were in the car on the way home from school, a black Ford Escape that glistened in the sunlight like a damp forehead. My mother was also blonde, platinum. She always wore capris and oversized t-shirts with various logos on them. Some were for local fundraisers she never participated in and others were for tractor supply companies or breweries. Those shirts were amassed in her closet from various thrift stores and flea markets. Comfort was her thing, not fashion. I admired that about her. My mother gripped the steering wheel and called my dream ridiculous. I reminded her that God only appeared to important people, like prophets and virgins. She ignored me and asked if I’d taken out the trash in my room. Apparently it stunk in there; I hadn’t noticed.

We went to a tattoo parlor on a Saturday morning, a nice one with a fake chandelier and large fish tank in the lobby. The fish swam back and forth like they were running from something, but I couldn’t tell what. I identified with that. I told my mom we were there because I wanted to reinvent myself. She nodded and said to consider it an early birthday gift. I lay on my back while a man, who looked to be in his late 30s with a tattoo of a sphinx on his upper left arm, pushed a needle through the top of my belly button. I winced and wondered if he’d ever been to Egypt, or if he’d like to take me. The belly button gem was light blue and sparkling. It made me look edible, like candy. I looked at my piercer and smiled.

At home, in the mirror of my vanity, I pursed my glossy lips into an O and moaned. Taped along the golden frame were pictures of my dog, friends and makeup tips cut out from the pages of Cosmopolitan. They surrounded my face and torso like an attentive audience waiting for the next song, and I was going to give it to them. I was going to give it to everyone one day. I slid my tongue over my braces, feeling the rough grooves of metal before grabbing my bare breasts and squeezing. I moaned again. I practiced, and then I practiced some more. I slipped my fingers in between my lips and sucked. It wasn’t enough, though. Nothing was ever enough, and I threw a fit. I needed actual practice; I needed a boy.

So I found one and agreed to meet at a campsite twenty minutes from my house where he would take my virginity. Inside a tent, the classmate from third period Current Events flipped me onto my back on top of a sleeping bag. His penis was inside of me as he knelt over my naked body. We were two wrestlers tangled up in one another, oiled with each other’s sweat and grunting with every slight movement. My pussy bled from the pressure, the blood smeared along my inner thighs and coating his dick, but I told him to keep going. It was all so dirty and rough, and I liked it. He slammed his eyes shut and whimpered, and I told him I felt like I was in a porno or something. He didn’t say anything but instead panted like he was going to cum. 

I looked up at him and said, “Did you know that I want to be in pornos?”

***

I began to spray-tan. I used those cans from the drugstore. I’d baptize myself with the orange spray as I leaned my naked body against the walls of my shower. My mother complained it stained the white porcelain; I complained she spent too much time drinking on cruise ships with male suitor number five, or six or seven. I lost count.

My naturally curly hair became fried beneath the tongs of my flatiron as I straightened it stiff, and I wore heavy eyeliner, thick and black like the ink of a King-Size Sharpie. 

“If I wouldn’t pose for Playboy in it, I don’t leave the house,” I told my friends on the school track as we stretched our legs before practice. 

I then lifted my arms upwards over my head, reaching and reaching until my shirt rode up enough for my belly button piercing to show. The girls stared and asked me about it. 

Coach yelled at us, “Stop talking and run!”

And I did run—away from home in the black Ford Escape. I drove on the highway barefoot, my dirty sneakers tossed into the backseat along with a duffle bag. All it held were four half-empty bottles of nail polish and a few pairs of dirty underwear I found beneath my bed, because I hadn’t done my laundry in a while. I drove fast, but I shouldn’t have. I didn’t actually know where I was going; the whole thing sounded better in my head. With each slam of the brake, my toes pressing down hard on the pedal and the tires screeching, I yelled expletives out of the half-open window. My mom asked via text where I took the car, and I responded, my fingers thumping angrily against the keyboard, “Fuck you.” She could use her company car. I drove for thirty minutes before getting off on Exit 31. I went to my friend’s house and ended up staying with her for a week. When she asked why I left home, I told her it was my mom or something like that: “She’s fucking wack, dude.” 

During my stay, my friend and I went to different malls and shoplifted. We drove to our local mall, then to the mall in the next town, and then to one in the town over. I would drop frilly G-strings from display counters at Victoria’s Secret into my purse. I ducked behind scantily clad mannequins in bridal lingerie and threw more panties into my bag. I accidentally swiped a pair that said, “I Do,” on the butt in shiny rhinestones. But the muffled sounds of the mall cops’ walkie-talkies in the distance scared me, so I tugged at my friend’s sleeve and we left.

We made our way to the riverside. A flickering light bulb surrounded by giant moths guided us to an adult-oriented store called Southern Secrets. We got in without being carded, which I took as a compliment. I must have looked mature for my age, or fuckable, so I covered my braces with my lips. Reaching my sticky palms out towards the shelves of erotic merchandise, nipple clamps and cock rings manifested in the bottom of my bag like a spreading wildfire. I’d been bad. I needed to be spanked, and I wanted the guy from the piercing shop to do it—the one with the sphinx on his arm. I’d ask him to call me a slut. The thought excited me, but no one was calling me a slut. My mom just called me “crazy” over a three-minute voicemail. She wanted me back at the house. I didn’t want to go, so I didn’t. 

My phone, however, buzzed all night in the back pocket of my denim shorts. It was my mom again, “You need to come home. And bring the car with you, obviously.” I ignored her.

I ignored her until I stumbled back into the house on a school night. I wasn’t drunk or anything; I stumbled because I was careless, misbalanced and unaware of how to put one foot in front of the other anymore. My friend said she needed space or whatever, so there I was. I slammed the front door behind me and watched as the ceramic candleholders on the end tables shook. I liked the rattling noise they made as they shivered against one another. 

“Talk to me,” my mom said as she emerged from the dimly lit kitchen. Duffle bag dangling from my shoulder and resting against my hip, I held the car keys. I held them firmly in case I decided to recoil back to the Escape and drive to Kentucky or maybe Canada.

“Talk to you about what?”

“About what’s going on,” she said.

“I was with a friend.”

“I knew where you were.”

Rolling my eyes far back enough to where I could see all of the pink, squishy stuff inside my head, I tossed the car keys onto the table and headed towards my bedroom. My mom stayed in the kitchen, which disappointed me. I wanted to be followed. I wanted to be chased and grabbed and tackled to the ground, because any kind of attention was good attention, at least that’s what I thought; I thought it consciously. But instead of running after me, my mom called in a relaxed tone, her voice cool and collected as always, “I knew where you were, but I didn’t know where you were going, or what you were doing, or why you were even doing the things you were doing. I was scared.”

“Me too,” I said to the door of my bedroom. I ran my fingers over the brass knob before entering, “Me too.” I lay in bed that night and thought about my destiny. 

I was seventeen with scrapes and bruises on my knees from falling so much on the ground beneath me. I was good at that—falling. I would even do it on purpose and like it. The wounds were self-inflicted, and each time I found myself lying on the ground, fewer people were around to offer me kisses or gauze. But some still tried. I’d sit across from my therapist in tight mini-dresses or graphic t-shirts that’d say things like, “I’m Not Listening,” or “Buy Me Things and I’ll Be Nicer,” and she’d ask me to elaborate on my dream. She wanted to know more about what God was like, what he was wearing, if he said anything else or why I even listened to him if I wasn’t a believer. Her questions annoyed me. Batting my black-shadowed lids and crusty, coated eyelashes, long and thin like a bug’s legs, I shrugged and said, “I think you’re just jealous God didn’t appear to you.”

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GHOST by Alexandra M. Matthews

I rode the roller coasters again today.

I called out sick from work, ate a small breakfast. I pulled my hair back in a tight braid so it wouldn’t whip me in the face on sharp turns.

The park was empty. As long as I didn’t faint or vomit, there was no limit on how many times I could ride the same roller coaster. I nodded to the attendants and they sent me around once more.

My grandfather used to say that roller coasters jumble the insides, cause nose bleeds. Enough scrambling and a person would come off the ride different.

I sat in the front row on every ride. From high up, the other attractions looked like the colorful, oversized toys of a child.

###

I’ve always thought of myself as an interpreter of blood signs, because women understand how blood behaves outside the body. If it appears in our underwear, we analyze. We need a tampon. We’re spotting. We may have cervical cancer. We are not pregnant, we may be pregnant, we are no longer pregnant. It can evoke elation, relief, devastation, ambivalence, or no emotion at all. It depends on the bleeder.

I was eighteen weeks pregnant on the day I found the blood.

It could never survive, the doctors said. I sobbed.

After the hospital, I put my stained underwear in the washing machine by itself on delicate cycle.

###

As I was leaving the amusement park, a teenage girl in one of the ticket booths called out to me. For thrill seekers like me, she said, it would be much cheaper to find people online to join me and get the group rate.

I thanked her for the suggestion without explaining that I preferred to ride the roller coasters by myself. I needed to be alone during that first, terrifying drop. I needed to feel weightless.

The first time I went in my grandfather’s basement was after he died. I was eight. I made it most of the way down the stairs before I got spooked. I’d seen his empty tool wall, where he had painted the outlines of his entire collection in white: saws, hammers, wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, levels, utility knives. I was afraid the tools had become ghosts. At any moment, they could soar through the dark basement to attack.

###

When he retired, my grandfather converted the space into a workshop, where he repaired vintage Italian bicycles to sell at antique shows. No one was allowed down there, not even my grandmother. There were small parts that we might knock off the table and lose, paint we might spill that was difficult to replace.

###

In his final weeks, my grandfather refused all visitors. My parents lied. They told me it was unsafe for me to be around him. It was as if he had disappeared. No one could bring themselves to say that what drove my grandfather to isolation was shame.

###

I realize now he wasn’t protecting the bicycles. He could drop a tire valve cover on the floor, his hands too stiff to get a firm grip, without being seen. His arms could shake from the tremors, struggling to position the seat on its post, and no one would offer to do it for him. Alone, he was the only witness to his body’s betrayal.

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“WHAT? NO.” by Scott Bryan

One time, at least, an elephant ate a bat. 

It wasn’t a mistake, either. Nothing is.

It wasn’t like the bat was flying around, all willy-nilly, and the elephant was yawning, as pachyderms have a tendency to do, and the bat just, like, zigged when it should have zagged, and instead of a mouthful of cud or hay or greens, delivered by way of a droopy, rough, wet schnoz, the poor elephant unintentionally brought down their ill-equipped herbivore's chompers (humiliated and hiding behind the impressive tusks of fortune which had been bestowed by whatever glue-sniffing god to whom elephants pray [Do you think elephants pray to Ganesha? No. That doesn’t seem right. I guess most people would assert that elephants don’t pray at all. Then most people would put their hands on their hips and authoritatively nod their head, proud of their superiority over such a staggering creature]. Crap, what was I saying? Oh yeah, the elephant didn’t accidentally clamp down) on the soft, light, furry flesh of the bat.

Nope. That’s not what happened at all.

“Grandpa, did you mean the elephant’s presence was staggering? Or that the elephant was staggering around?”

What? No.

What I meant was, the bat was in no danger whatsoever. This wasn’t normal, predictable, or fair. The elephant swung their mouth wide and lifted their girth away from the ground like a monkey lifting its paws off the earth for the first time, quite a feat for such a colossally distributed animal. 

“Does ‘colossally distributed’ mean there are a lot of elephants, created by a god to which they do not (or can not or choose not to) pray? Or does it mean elephants are big and have a strange center of gravity?”

What? NO.

Turns out, all of this was happening just as the hipster hangout across the way was closing down.

“For the day, or, like, going out of business?”

What? No.

They just finished the weekly open mic night, for Pete’s sake. The place was hopping! All the residents of the town had gathered to partake in some spoken-word by candlelight. 

A young person recited a piece of epic power and profundity, and the audience, dressed in slacks and pressed shirts and beatnik scarfs and glasses, who pretended to give their friends bored, disinterested eye rolls while whispering critical comments under their breath, were actually riveted, so enthralled with the young sycophant's performance they quietly snapped their fingers in time with their own heartbeats.

The background repeated like a cheaply made cartoon, the same doors passed multiple times. They elephant chomped down only a short time after the emotional monologue crescendoed to an ovation-inspiring conclusion.  

Do you get the point o’ this whole endeavor, youngin?

“I think so. You’re saying if we are inactive, we will never see the possibilities for improvement or adventure. Whether the elephant chomps down on the bat or the audience sits in silence or erupts in applause, whether or not the meaning of the action has been revealed, it’s our recognition of the importance of the moment which really counts, and we have no foresight as to where our actions will take us.”

What? No. I nearly impressed a member of the homecoming court at that open mic. 

The point is: The performer was me! 

As the two of us were trying to leave together, arm in arm, probably headed to a night of fumbling adolescent copulation, we witnessed a broken-winged bat tumbling down the throat of a full-grown elephant. That wrinkly grey mess was savage. We shrieked in horror, we covered our eyes. Our buzzing energy was flattened like the earth under the elephant’s dusty feet!

Talk about a mood-killer. 

I never saw that person again. They found their own ride home, never returned my calls. I assume they forever associated me with the ugly incident. 

“I feel bad for them.”

What? Who cares about them! They went on to marry a circus clown and I ended up entering into a partnership with the person who, upon coupling with me, brought about the birth of one of your parents! 

“You mean you got with Grandma? That’s good, right?”

Who? What? No. What makes you assume I’m the male? Grandpa is my name, not my title. Grandpa Chris Demonkovich. Would-Be Poet, Slinger of Yarn, Ivory Poacher.

“So you’re a lady?”  

Don’t make assumptions is all I’m saying. Here’s my point, young whippersnapper: 

I killed the elephant, opened his stomach, set that bat free on the same night I recited my poem. I’m a good person! But, for some reason, that night set off a chain reaction which led directly to this moment, and I’m none too happy about it! God, inasmuch as I have any concept of them, is punishing me, obviously. My life has been a steady downhill slide away from art and music and beauty and toward violence and disappointment and you! Every moment is worse than the last, this one included.

“What?”

No! You’re awful, grandchild. Just awful. I look at you and all I see is the result of my misfortune. 

Aside from the overwhelming monetary wealth I’ve amassed thanks to my unnatural ability to visit my neverending revenge on anarchistic elephants, I’m a pretty unhappy person. But I’ve never written another poem.

“Well, maybe I’ll be able to carry your legacy. You know, appreciate life more than you were able to. Perhaps I’ll become a patron of the arts when I’m spending all your money, your ill-gotten ivory gains, after you are dead!”

Lord, I hope so. 

“What? No.”

 
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IRENE by Sarah MW

“Fancy a bite of my banana, Miss?”

Teenage faces have a soft bluntness to them, a button-like quality as they wait to be chiseled out to their full adult contour. Joe’s face was the same, though unlike the others it sported a uniquely impressive beard, far from usual in a fifteen-year-old. He was grisly and monstrous; I heard he’d fucked his way through most of the pretty girls in year ten and eleven. Simpering, gum-chewing girls with clotted mascara and deep-set insecurities. He swung back, all too pleased with himself in his plastic chair, forcibly recumbent, legs wide like a broken easel. 

I was a newly anointed high school teacher, fast baptized into the daily ritual of having my boundaries teased, stretched, and overstepped. I thought my greatest power might have been the ability to put on a show of indifference. 

“No thanks, Joe.” 

The indifference thing didn’t really work. They simply became more inventive in their provocations. An orange once, for instance, just missing the back of my head, hitting the whiteboard with a satisfying smack. Whittled down, waiting each day for the evening bus, I was a totally flimsy and broken thing. Better to wait for the very last one, or else be targeted again, naked by the shelterless stop, cat-called down from the top deck of the school bus.

Each day, disembarking the bus, entering that village, it seemed time at some point had been discontinued. Before starting there, I’d envisaged a forgivably backwards, warm, and well-meaning community: soft, thatched buildings, the post office, a local shop, and sheep. What I met with was the darker heart of a pretty English county, its deprived and neglected inner core. Filthy vehicles lined the pavements, lucky if they were still running. Right-wing vitriol was rampant as union jack flags hung defiantly in front room windows. Then there was the school: a five-story, brutalist nightmare, old-style attitudes cast in concrete. 

Time stood uncannily statuary in those breeze-blocked, ascetic walls. I felt it, having turned to senior teachers about the hounding and harassment. My concerns were greeted with laughter from older women in shapeless cardigans who told me they’d be thrilled with such attention. The male counterpart of the staff body offered even less hope; in their mid-fifties, on average, with blackened teeth and overhanging bellies, and a scoring system among them for all new female staff. I’d been forewarned of this by my new manager, as she reassured me between giggles that it was "just a bit of fun."

I first spotted Irene whizzing by down the stone staircase, a ladder of gaping slats through which, four stories up, I’d look down and eye the building’s ever-threatening concrete base. She had no specific classroom of her own, and so stomped by purposefully in her studded heeled boots, up and down, every day. Her smile exposed black holes and golden glints in its crooks that I found simultaneously threatening and charming.

“Lovely day,” she beamed, approaching me during one break time in her extravagant sun hat, weather-beaten face upturned towards the sun's glare. Her bright fuchsia lipstick screamed youthfulness and vitality, and was jarring set against her long, ashtray grey hair. Irene told me she was the union representative for the school—was I a member? A woman’s place is in her union, she laughed. I noticed she had a habit of licking her two front teeth and pouting in the interim of her speaking. She oozed gratitude and ease and really didn’t seem like a teacher at all. More like a carefree member of the public who just happened to pass by. Her gaze probed deep as I asked her what it was that she taught.

“Life,” she announced, smiling, a statement that seemed to me underpinned with limitless profundity. What she meant was Citizenship and Religious Studies, though she had gifted it with a totally endearing rebrand. There was a knowing in her eyes, and I longed to swim in it.

One uncharacteristically shady summer’s night, as I stood wilting as ever by the bus-stop, it seemed like a beautiful, cosmic twist of fate when an aging camper van pulled over. Irene slid the door open from the backseat to let me in. 

“I would have offered you a lift before, but Angus can be so unreliable." To this, Angus emitted an incoherent groan of disapproval and went back to wildly eyeballing the road ahead. If I was to deduce correctly—from that all too familiar cat piss stench—I’d passed on the hum-drum reliability of the public bus that evening to be driven home down dark country side-roads by a speed-induced stranger.

Angus was ten years Irene’s senior and bore all the signs of having lived life at full throttle: bald with blotched tattoos, skin like worn-out elastic, the vocal timbre of an old dog choking on its leash.

“Here you are.” 

Irene passed me the lidless whisky bottle while she sparked up a spliff. The anesthetic burn of the whisky, coupled with our lively conversation, proved the ultimate salve to whatever had gone on before. His gaze fixed on the road, Angus stretched his arm backwards, signaling for me to pass the bottle to him.

School night after school night, we drove home in Irene’s van. Every night I was excited by the endless countryside hills that made my belly flop, by the dubious mechanics of the van, the questionable noises it made, its axles like bones threatening to snap at any moment. With every speed-bump, we’d come to a gasping halt, the van’s metalwork would shudder, and the window panes would violently smack at their frames. I loved how the unpredictability of the country roads would have us arc and sway in the backseat, taking care to balance the booze between us: sometimes whisky, sometimes wine in any old dirty glass. As we took yet another winding bend, my body lifted and careered into the window, while her sparrow-like legs would momentarily crush mine.

“International Women’s Day!” Angus yelled once jubilantly, as we bundled in, procuring three bottles of cheap white wine from between his legs. We stopped halfway at an off-license for tobacco, where there was a beautiful Bullmastiff on a walk on the road opposite. Majestic as anything, flexing its thick, taut sinew with each stride. Irene turned to me.

“He looks just like my Rocco. My Rocco, I lost him."

That night I visited Irene’s house for the first time. They lived a few villages west of the school; village, again, a term strikingly incongruous with the thing it designated. All around were characterless squares of ill-furnished prefabs and happy reprobates pulling wheelies at oncoming traffic. A cavernous hole had been left at the core of the place after the coal mines were shut down in the nineties.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Irene pointed out as we hopped out the van, “but this place is beautiful. I love our village. Look at this ancient woodland all around. This is the one place in a hundred miles’ radius you’ll hear a skylark’s call.”

Irene told me there was an open door policy all around the village. On entering her home I registered a cluster of growling gents in anoraks, proliferating all about the dining table and kitchen benches like a kind of algae. The whole place itself gave off airs of an unattended to spare room and seemed crooked at every angle. Angus thrust a warm can of Scrumpy Jack into my hand and invited me to roll myself a spliff from his Tupperware supply. From this point on, the night twirled all around me in a heady carousel of space cakes, roll-ups, more Scrumpy’s, more spliffs. The door remained open, and a little girl named Star came in and fussed about me, braiding my hair, dancing as if around a maypole.

At some point, Irene stole me away to the quiet of the garden. Angus and his clan—those hungry jackals—continued to congregate excitedly about the platter of intoxicants on offer in the dining room table. With all I’d ingested, I had to focus hard on tuning out the relentless physiological interference as Irene spoke to me in grave and weighty tones. I learned she just turned sixteen when they were married. On their wedding night, he’d chased her round the house with an axe, having regretted it all. The following decades brought four kids who took turns hanging off the pram as she marched to the community library day after day, pursuing three different masters degrees. "Shakespeare, the working class hero" was the thesis of which she’d been most proud. 

The picture she painted of Angus’s own very separate history saw him elevated to the level of folkloric legend.

“He’s a man unto himself. All the women in this village have either wanted to have him or have had him. His cock, I am telling you, is like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

I wondered if it was as wiry and strangled looking as his wrinkled old neck. She told me he let her have her fun too. On her fortieth birthday, he passed her a condom and gave his permission to fuck whomsoever she wanted. Irene had reached that point of inebriety where the urge to share was all-consuming. Next she told me she was a lesbian, could only ever come when thinking about women. The receptors in my brain were straining to compute the flurry of information, to disentangle the scrambled signal, the fuzz that infiltrated my mind.

“I want to tell you something I’ve never told anyone.”

It made sense that she would have been assured by then of my sheer unshockability.

“You know my Rocco I told you about? Well my Rocco and I, we were in a relationship,” she said and paused. “But I promise you it was totally consensual. He would always be the one to initiate."

I nodded, not sure what else to do. All the while I imagined it: Angus fucking his way around the village with his monster cock, whilst Irene sought comfort with her Bullmastiff Rocco. I pictured the power of his strong hind legs, the curvature of his rippling muscle in all its urgent sexuality, her dainty frame curled neatly beneath.

Slipping back into the house, I took to mounting the steep staircase to the bathroom, using my arms to straddle the wall and banister. On my way, I caught an old picture of Irene. I was stunned by the blackness of her hair, as well as her overall startling beauty; here was the original image of which I’d only ever encountered the negative. Was she Rocco’s girl back then? After, as I was pissing, I noted the absence of any type of hygiene product about—no soap, no shampoo, nothing. I remembered how Irene told me she takes a bath every morning, that she never showered, and so must have spent each morning stewing in the brine of yesterday’s filth. 

I tried to get back downstairs, and that’s when I fucked up. I tumbled from the very first step.

***

I woke up to the gentle thrum of Radio 4 and the cold wind that set the window off rattling on the hinge holding it ajar. I was laid, fully-clothed, in their sheetless marital bed, nestled between the pair of them like a fledgling bird. My cracked ribs made it impossible to move, so I lay there immovable for some time after.

***

Irene and I shared goodbyes that were drawn out and insubstantial. I moved schools soon after, and we texted a couple of times. The last I heard from her was a phone call to tell me she’d had a stroke and that she wasn’t teaching Life anymore.

Rocco <3

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AN ALLEGORY by Dan Crawley

Take your brother to the orange grove, and do not let your friends throw rotten fruit at his head, or any other part of his body. Take your brother to Stop-N-Go, and do not spend these dimes on anything else but candy bars for you and him. Take your brother up to bed, and do not hide in the closet and scare him. Take your brother outside to play street football, and do not let your friends tackle him on the asphalt. Take your brother to school, and do not let him gawk and gag at all the dog poop on the lawns. And if he does, please, please, this time do not let him go into his classroom with the front of his shirt covered in his own spew.

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UNCLE CHARLIE’S BICYCLE by Rick White

Esther lived in corners. And behind the backs of armchairs. In the black and white shadows cast by the TV which Ma sat in front of all day. Saturday afternoons was wrestling—Ma’s favourite—and the other kids, the other ‘no-hoper-kids’ the ‘wargs of the state’ all gathered round to watch.‘That’s the Black Bomber,’ Ma would shout. ‘Sergeant Nitro. The Masked Intruder,’ she would shriek and holler from her sunken nicotine throne. Haloed in cigarette smoke—powder blue and sulfurous yellow.Esther was a mark, a low-carder; the perpetual victim of the rowdy, hyped up boys and their fighting ways. Clotheslines, DDT’s, backbreakers, German suplexes, powerslams and piledrivers—all meted out on thin mattresses and worn out sofas. ‘Roughhousing,’ Ma called it.To Esther, all the names of all the moves just sounded like fear, tasted metallic. Like the cat spatula, which Ma used to make scrambled egg on a Sunday and to fling pieces of shit out of the cat’s litter tray into the yard. Esther liked the cat though, his name was Arnold and, well, he’d curl up at the foot of Esther’s bed, on the rare nights when no one came. Arnold was her tag-team partner.When there was no wrestling on TV, and when Ma took to drinking—which was most days—Ma liked to pick two kids to fight in front of her. She’d make everyone gather round and chant FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! while the two chosen contestants duked it out. Ma knew which kids had a mean streak, and she knew which ones didn’t really want to fight. So she’d put them together. Said it was ‘character building’ for the weaker kids. Ma liked to be entertained, so you’d better look as though you were really trying and make it a good fight otherwise you’d be in even worse trouble. When Esther was picked, she made a big show of whirling her arms around to try to land a blow, but she rarely succeeded, and she was always pinned eventually. Esther had come to know only too well, that it’s damn near impossible to shift the weight of a teenage boy once he’s lying on top of you.‘Quit daydreaming and fetch Uncle Charlie’s Bicycle,’ said Ma one afternoon, and Esther flinched at the sound of Ma’s words—they all sounded like wrestling moves. ‘Then you get your ass to the store and get me a fifth of bourbon and a carton of smokes.’ Esther wasn’t sure what those things were.Uncle Charlie lived next door. He wasn’t Esther’s real Uncle any more than Ma was her real Ma. Uncle Charlie was a ‘Handy Man’, which sounded to Esther like a wrestling name. The Handy Man was one of the good guys, a ‘face’. The others were bad guys or ‘heels’ and she had names for them too; The Angry Principal, The Curtain Jerker, The Night-Time Visitor.Uncle Charlie was kind. He’d taken Esther to the drug store on the day Esther had seen the blood in her underwear. She’d found blood there before, but this time it was different, because it just appeared all on its own. Ma said it was Esther’s own fucking problem and if she was old enough to bleed, well then she could damn well fix it herself. Uncle Charlie knew what to ask for at the drugstore, and he told Esther to hide the box in her room for next time.The Handy Man was out back in his woodshed, and Esther walked across the yard to ask him for the bicycle.‘Sure you can borrow it any time, but first—come inside girl, I want to talk to you.’ Esther stood still, she didn’t know if she should go in to the woodshed with The Handy Man, even though she liked him.‘Well now don’t be afraid girl,’ said The Handy Man, ‘just come on in here.’ As always, Esther did as she was told. She stepped in to the woodshed, which was warm and smelt of sawdust and tobacco, just like Uncle Charlie.‘You love Jesus?’Esther nodded, like she knew she was supposed to, and this seemed to make Uncle Charlie happy. ‘Good. You like the wrestling on TV?’Esther shook her head from side to side, looked down at the wood shavings on the dusty floor.‘Me neither. It’s fake you know, all of it. It ain’t real, but you gotta admire the theatricality of it. You know that word, theatricality?’Esther thought she did, but she was just a dumb little girl, that’s what Ma said. So she stayed quiet.‘It means wrestling is all about timing. Timing, and winning the crowd. Me, I likes fishing. Fishing is about patience and perseverance. You run along now to the store or they’ll be a hiding waiting on you from Ma.’There was always a hiding waiting from someone, Esther thought. She started thinking about Jesus, and she heard The Baptist Preacher saying ‘Jesus Saves! Christ is your saviour!’ But Christ was no saviour for Esther. She thought about the wrestler on the canvas—face contorted in pain and suffering—trapped in a figure-four leg lock or a Boston Crab. All he had to do was submit. Just tap out and it’d all be over, the bell would ring and the fight would end. But Esther couldn’t even tap out. For her there was no bell and there was no saviour.Esther thought about the words Uncle Charlie had said to her as she rode the bicycle to the store, at first they didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.Patience and perseverance. Esther got the smokes and the liquor from the store, and when she got back to the house, she took the elbow-drops and the flying-knees and the stink-faces and the full-nelsons and she let Ma call her a dumb little whore when she found the box in her room.Winning the crowd. Esther smiled and told the Angry Principal that she’d just gone and blackened her own eye, that she was always so clumsy even though it was Ma who’d bounced her head repeatedly off the turnbuckle. She smiled at Ma through all of it, and she choked down Ma’s rancid cat-shit eggs on Sundays.Timing. She waited under bedsprings and kitchen tables, learned to play possum. Then one afternoon, when the boys were out in the yard and Ma was asleep in her armchair, Esther took her chance. She tiptoed out from the shadows and snuck up behind old Ma. The one wrestling move she had learned best was the sleeper hold, and she clamped it down on Ma’s neck before she even woke up, gripping on tight for all her life. Esther knew that wrestling was fake, but there was nothing fake about the way Ma’s legs kicked and spasmed as Esther held on to her neck. There was nothing more real than the way Ma gurgled and drooled as Esther crushed the breath right out of her jerking body. Ma scratched at Esther’s forearms, tearing away strips of red-raw flesh. But Esther didn’t feel the pain of it, for she’d learnt to feel nothing at all. Esther rolled back exhausted on to the canvas. She reached up from the mat and tagged her partner Arnold into the match, pulling herself up on the ropes. And to the roar of a thunderous crowd, the two victors left the arena as the bell finally rang, Esther the Shadow Girl and Arnold the Protector, riding away on Uncle Charlie’s bicycle. He did say she could borrow it any time, and she hoped he wouldn’t miss it too badly.
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TWO TIMES BELOW by Ben Segal

For once I was leaving well enough alone. The rain was harder than average. My sweater was coming apart at the sleeves. This was when I was officed by the Pacific and could walk in the waves during lunch. This was when my colleagues wondered at the afternoon damp at my ankles, at the slight briny scent that came from below my desk.

I placed a huge jellyfish over my head. It slipped on wet against my scalp and face and dangled plant-like to the edge of my collarbone.

I thought of words like tendril and vine. My bald patch soothed beneath the creature’s moist insides. 

When I walked back to work, I was thoroughly soaked from the rain. The jellyfish gave everything a cloudy look. The world appeared viscous, smudged. My office was cold, as always, so I wrapped my body in the patterned wool blanket I stored in the filing cabinet and poked my hands out to reach my keyboard. There were reports to complete.

No one saw or spoke to me. I drafted a report and then another. The sun sank and an electric light turned on automatically above my head. The jellyfish had started to flow downward. It was thinning at the top and gathering mass at its lower points, like glass sped up a thousand times. I removed it with care so it flipped inside-out but remained intact. Then I took the inverted invertebrate and left it spilling out of the small wicker basket in which our snacks were stocked. 

I drafted and sent another report. I drove an old car the long way home.

*

In my troubling younger years, I’d have danced jelly-headed in the reception area. I’d have sung loudly and flung its body at a slim and gym-toned client. Mine was a history of soft assaults and early dismissals.

*

These days the seas are overfilled with jellyfish. They breed well in the warmer water and have started to crowd out most other kinds of life. A whale stores the carbon of a whole small forest, I heard, but a jellyfish? They bob and refract the light. They mass on the water surface and are nearly as wet - an uncanny colony, a shifting almost-film. 

The one I grabbed discorporated over Cheezit bags.

The work I did was likewise vaguely disgusting. It was difficult to discern its purpose. What I mean has something to do with rot and discarding. 

*

Two years later, I removed myself to a prairie suburb. The city it helped ring was industrial, fading. I took on another job there, a mortgage. I purchased a membership to the community pool and wore no creatures. Kids in the drought year danced in terrible parody. My soft spot for the grotesque had firmed into a tight knot of self-contempt. I held a broken stick in their direction. Another couple of years passed far from waves and salted pleats. I carved divining rods on weekends.

I had learned, that is, to look for enchantment in folkways and ridiculed rituals. I had abandoned rupture, or at least novelty. I followed my gnarled rods over gentle glacier-carved hills that were dewy when the sun rose. I used phrases like “dewy when the sun rose” and stalked between the moraines with my old wool blanket around my shoulders. 

This was not better or worse than any other choice, for me or in general, except the obvious advantages of exercise and fresh air. My legs grew strong and I smelled often of sweat. A neighbor built a house of concentric circles with rooves of wavering heights. Another neighbor died and was replaced by his sullen adult child. My job permitted me to work remotely, and I performed a task that remotely resembled work. 

*

I carved a rod and followed it to water. 

Miracles are easy in a region of lakes. 

Freshwater jellyfish are tiny and translucent and beautiful. I scooped them with my hand from the pond bottom, lay down half in the water, and released them over my closed eyes. I felt them wash and trail against me. Some died, no doubt, from the trauma. I am so often both ambivalent and wet. 

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THE CLOCKMAKER by Lucy Zhang

Far away—further than the deli store only frequented by the patrolling police officer and a few custodians, further than the farm with three cows and a horse and several chickens guarded from preying hawks by a fishing line ceiling, further than the white oak tree and its branches striking outward, and certainly much further than the borders of the city—is a cottage. Planks of wood bar the windows shut; mold creeps across the brick walls; pipes wind down from the roof to the ground, and the sound of water dripping on metal beats steadily to the murmurs of wind against loose shutters.

Don’t go there, it’s dangerous, parents tell their children. The parents think the basement must be full of human limbs hiding in coffins, cleaned and dusted daily, the work of a madman. They think the cobwebs are part of the madman’s machinations–to prevent anyone from looking further and seeing the incongruous gleam of a lab of bodies, the sanitized Erlenmeyer flasks, the flame of a Bunsen burner, the yellow glow of liquid metal held in a crucible. The parents think their children will vanish should they take one step towards the cottage, bodies never surfaced, and the adults will be forced to live on silently, listening to the rhythm of the morning forecast and traffic jam, holding their breath when the newscaster mentions a child kidnapping off the streets of their city, grinding their teeth at night when they dream of their shame–the shame of losing a child to a reason they can’t put into words. So they live silently. 

Among the children, a few know the truth: the cottage houses a clockmaker.  

The clockmaker cuts and sands the teeth of his own gears from wood that he later stains and seals to shield them from the years to come. He knows the escapement wheel must be cut perfectly, or else the clock might skip teeth, might not run, and time stops for someone. 

One day, a girl ends up at his door. He is assembling his clock with dowels, adjusting the escape wheel until the pallets ticked and tocked against the teeth without seizing up when he hears the knocks. He pulls open the door, a creaking monstrosity he prefers to keep shut. The girl asks for a job. She says she wants to learn to build a clock so she can gift one to her family for the holidays. 

They don’t already have a clock? he asks.

Only one in their bedroom. None in the kitchen, even though there is plenty of space on the wall beside the parrot ceramic tiles and free grocery store calendar. 

You’ll have to walk all the way here every day in the cold, he warns. The tips of the girl’s ears are bright red, and he wonders if she can feel her feet in those perforated fabric sneakers meant to let feet “breathe.” But the girl stands in front of him, head over her shoulders, the top of her shoulders over her hips, unwavering in her posture despite the wind cutting across her back. He admires her resolve and finds himself unable to say no. Not after years of living alone, secluding himself with his craft, immune to the city’s noise.

Making clocks here is dangerous work, he tells her on the first day. Everything needs to be handled with precision, or else your clock won’t function.

The girl nods as she begins to draw two concentric circles on the Alder wood sheet with the stub of a pencil, his only pencil. He no longer needs to sketch, the pattern now ingrained in muscle memory. He watches her lift the tip of graphite again as she marks off lines with a protractor every thirty degrees, connects the intersection points for the teeth, attempts to correct the uneven line of a tooth when her grip falters, sharpens the edge, cleans the line again so there’d be no confusion over which line to follow when slicing through the wood. The teeth need to be the same size, he tells her as she begins to saw through wood. It takes ten tries—ten abandoned wheels—before the girl gets it right.

When they take breaks to wash their hands of wood dust or stretch their backs and necks hunched over more often than not, they sip Lipton Black Tea out of Styrofoam cups while eating graham crackers, the sole snack in his cabinets. The girl speaks little but listens to him with an unfamiliar attentiveness—the kind where people don’t quite make eye contact, but look up at you with wonder, and somehow they forget that their leg is bobbing up and down or that their tea has gotten cold—and he feels flattered. He tells her how he has long forgotten how he came to stay at this cottage, how he sells clocks to ghosts lost in their time, how he saves souls from wandering and waiting when the pendulum halts, how he has not aged in years. In turn, she tells him of how she would cook chicken stew with more potatoes than chicken because russet potatoes are filling and cheap, how at eight pm she’d reheat up the stew for exactly two minutes in the microwave so the food would be warm when her parents came home, how she’d eat the leftovers the next day when she realized her parents did not return home on time and must’ve gotten a takeout meal instead. She tells him of the one time she could not find her stuffed rhinoceros and later discovered it suffocating in a trash bag left outside the door for Goodwill, so she rescued her rhino and rubbed its soft body against her cheek and nuzzled her nose against its stomach, which smelled of cotton and old shoes, before returning it to her bedside so it could sleep.

The girl finishes the clock early spring as a belated Christmas present to her parents. Flowers blossom on the once barren trees, the mold on the walls that once looked black lightens to green, and the cottage no longer appears haunted, but rather like a place where children get spirited away by faeries. She holds the clock under her arm, gripping the bottom edge until the whites of her knuckles contrast her pale skin. Good luck, the man tells the girl, wondering if he’ll see her again. 

To his surprise, the girl returns the next day with the clock. It stopped working, she says. He looks at the clock. The second-hand makes its way around the center in one quiet sweep movement; the minute hand adjusts itself forward. The girl follows his glance. It wasn’t working a few hours ago at home. 

Then we’ll just have to make another one, the man says without noticing pollen drift from the clock’s frame onto his finger. It is always winter to him. 

In the city, where the days are a bit longer now and cherry blossoms bloom along the apartment sidewalks, a family disassembles a bed and places it into a cardboard moving box for Goodwill to pick up. They briefly wonder how the stuffed rhino made its way back to the bedroom before placing it into a Glad trash bag of children’s dresses and sweaters. It has been almost two years since their daughter went missing and the mother and father know better than most how time heals many wounds, but not all. It has been one month since the police reported their discovery of a girl’s body, dead from hypothermia. It has been one day since they could no longer silently listen to the morning forecast, the sizzle of eggs against oil, the carols of robins roaming the streets for food. The family thinks of moving far away—to leave it all behind. 

In the cottage, a man and a girl build clocks. When winter returns, they sip hot Lipton Black tea and tell the same stories to each other, as though the season never dies off only for another to follow in its demise, as though time has never passed. Because it hasn’t. Not for them. 


Lucy Zhang is a writer masquerading around as a software engineer. She watches anime and sleeps in on weekends like a normal human being. Recent publications include: Porridge, Ligeia, Ghost Parachute, Twist in Time, MoonPark Review. She can be found at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

 

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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SPAWN by Isabelle Correa

I was a thing among other things in the hazy scene of his bedroom after shotgunning a beer for the first time. I remember the red pocket knife and the aluminum bending into itself to make room for the blade so that the hole I pressed my mouth to was an inverted flower. I remember finishing first. I remember finding his room and collapsing on the bed in the wrong direction, my legs where his head would go, my bare feet propped against the wall on the bottom of a poster for an alien movie I’d never seen, my toes covering the names of producers and directors. I thought of the game we had played earlier that night of Never Have I Ever. Never have I ever sucked someone off. Never have I ever seen this alien movie. Never have I ever been so dizzy. I closed my eyes and went elsewhere, to the last time it felt good to be wild.

***

In creek water up to our knees, she lifted a two and a half foot carp with her hands. She scooped it into the bed of her forearms, held it like a baby in a tantrum, then tossed it onto land where it flopped convulsively to death. Usually, every spawning season, we killed them with pitchforks our dad provided (invasive mud-suckers, he muttered), but that year there were so many of them you could practically cross from one side to the next walking on the slimy brown backs of them, so we rested our bloodied tools on the rocky bank and went straight in. I tried to follow her lead, as little sisters often do, but I kept lunging at the water and coming up holding air. She mocked me, as big sisters often do, saying I looked like I was trying to make out with myself. She turned her back to me, wrapped her wet arms all the way around her torso, becoming two people suddenly instead of one, moaning, mmmm, yes, mmm. She grabbed a fistful of her own hair, the other hand reaching hopefully for the pocket of her jeans. 

Disgusting, I told her. 

Like you would know, she said. 

Like I’d want to, I shot back, as again I thrust myself into the water and came up with nothing. 

Then we went back to spearing them. You had to get one at an angle in the gut, and when you did, they lashed out in every direction. The wooden handle became alive with the fight of them. It was a deep vibration, like the time the boy down the road dared me to touch the electric fence, but a reversed feeling, like this time I was the fence.

Then we sat on the rocks taking count. Eight mud-suckers scattered about us. 

I asked her, what was it like? 

She said, kissing is like swimming forever but never getting tired. 

I said, gross. I meant how did it feel to catch one like that? To hold it? 

She shrugged. I guess it felt good? Or whatever? And why do you care? She cupped her face in her hands with one scale the size of a penny stuck fluttering on a knuckle, a translucent white flag. 

Looking dreamily across the creek to the pasture of dairy cows she said, last night, Jeremy kissed me with tongue. It was weird and wet but good, like the movies.

I rolled my eyes then watched one carp still gasping at my feet, the circle of its mouth shrinking and growing and shrinking and growing. 

I told her, I can imagine.

***

Years after the creek day, weeks after the shotgun night, our dad kicked me out at the age of not even old enough to drive for the crime of useless slut what were you thinking. My sister stopped me mid-manic-bag-packing as I was wondering what does a girl even need, really need, to leave and keep going (a jacket, a bus ticket, a reason), held my bruised cheek in her palm and said, he’s dead to us, then followed me down the long dirt driveway. 

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DURING THE YEAR OF RAPID WEIGHT LOSS, I BECOME UNCHARACTERISTICALLY EXHIBITIONISTIC by Amy Kiger-Williams

I’d like you to really look at me. You will see less of me that you would have seen before, but now I will let you look longer. This is where the inherent irony lies. As a consequence, you’ll see more of me than you ever would have before.

Undressing in front of a stranger is a vulnerable thing. Your scars, your roundness, your concavity: everything that was never up for discussion before is now fair game.

Bikini tops, wife beaters, hip huggers: these are all I wear anymore. The tighter, the better. Less is more.

Still, there is a comfort in the hiding. An oversized hoodie is a homebaked apple pie. It’s a pile of mashed potatoes with gravy, a bowl of Rocky Road, a buttered roll.

When you look at me, ignore the things I don’t want you to see, which is really everything.

When I shed a layer, I became someone else. 

And it’s easier to be someone else, even though there’s the maintenance! It’s unrelenting, staying where I am. I’m so hungry all the time for parts of the person I used to be.

When you turn out the light, this is when I will undress. I will imagine the scars, the roundness, the concavity, both mine and your own, and the darkness will envelop us, a hoodie, a pie, potatoes, ice cream, a buttered roll.

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DEADBOLT by Kami Westhoff

In her dreams, she can walk. She unclips the cord that connects her to the Emergency switch, swings her bloated-log legs from the bed until her feet find her one-in-a-million prints in her purple slippers. Though it’s been over a year since she’s stood unassisted, her legs neither quake nor collapse. Her wheelchair sits next to her nightstand, a foam donut pillow the color of bile positioned just-right by her caregiver.

She thrusts her foot forward. It meets the earth as though it’s the ice she and her first husband carved into arcs and spirals, tufts of ice fluffing the pond’s surface. She shivers at the wind blowing from the north valley, her feet numbing through slippers. Her husband navigates the ice like a first language, bending to steady wind-milling children, scooping the fallen into his arms. Something clenches inside her when he lifts a fallen girl, and their plum-sized baby in utero flexes fingers into fists.

Her roommate’s bed has not been remade since she was relocated. She lifts the afghan, fluffs it until it lays flat on the bed. The wall above the dresser is decorated with photos of children, grandchildren, siblings, spouses, some might be her own, but she doesn’t stop to wonder. She’s had to make certain sacrifices to walk.

The hallway is an illuminated labyrinth. She smells a uric twinge, nothing like the tang of the cotton diapers of her daughter. It’s ranked by haloperidol, clozapine, memantine, valium. Her hands flutter and clench, roll and gather as she changes the soiled sheets from her daughter’s bed. The world was too much for her daughter, her body determined to starve her before her first birthday. The doctor once called her “tiny on the inside,” urethra too narrow, uterus too petite, wrists too delicate for the heavy-hold, ankles unsteady, even on friendly terrain. Her daughter had been trying to sky since birth, while her mother, heavy in all the wrong ways, was born to burrow.

A strip of light slashes the carpet’s taupe. The room it comes from belongs to “Dante Simpson.” The “D” drags her to Dad, who is only allowed one function in her memory: he must save her. She’d read that a parent saves their child’s life an average of forty-five times before the age of two. This saving is a last-second lift from the neighbor’s German Shepherd, Bode—her father tells her this story every time her fingertips navigate the zigzag scars on his calf. Her own scars are like fissures beneath the earth of subcutaneous tissue. The scar from her daughter intersects the one from the hysterectomy. Sometimes she wakes too early from the anesthesia, and the doctor behind the shocked-white barrier sheet, nothing but a strip of eyes between scrub mask and hat, says something that sounds like a prayer, and she’s back in the hallway.

Above her, higher than the second floor where people are in early stages, the third floor, where caregivers smoke and gulp coffee to get through weeks of doubles, is an August sky she hasn’t seen in two years. Stars spatter pinpricks of gas and dust people mistake for light, which is to say, for life. Sky is no longer sky for her. If she were to punch #3194# into the number pad at the front door, drift from the exhalation of the all-but-dead, the thrust of last words love ones carve into tongue, throat, gut to try and fail to translate later, beyond the streetlamps that pale the night, and if she were to look up, she’d see the storm of black and violet erupting on her cheek, her lip stitched with tiny black crosses, blackhole thumbprints twinned on her bone-bright throat.

Something somewhere cries: maybe a fussy hinge, or a northern mockingbird, and she lifts her newborn from its crib. The effort cricks her—the baby’s shoulders nearly split her into one only days earlier. Her breasts throb with the rush of milk that pricks like something barbed. And there is that fence on their property line that plucked tiny bulbs of raspberry blood on her back when she didn’t crouch deep. It’s hard to hold onto a baby sometimes, no matter how hard you try, and everything around you says let go. He’s there again, his voice a bomb in her kitchen, the baby a lit fuse against her chest. She believes him when he says he’s not fucking around, promises to forget it ever happened, what she thought she saw. 

Laughter scatters across the hallway, but it’s trenched before she can ride its wave. It’s maybe what she misses most, laughter so expansive it cannot gather sound. Like a scream underwater, or into pillow, or in the woods past the barbed wire fence the night she thought he was too drunk to notice her slink from their bed, the baby’s grunt and whimper, the clunk of the backdoor deadbolt.

In this place, all hallways lead exactly where you started, though it always feels like the first time. Her room is as she left it—all at once her childhood bedroom, the room where he reminded her he could take anything he wanted whenever he wanted it, the room her second husband moved her bed into when he couldn’t stand the trench her body caused the mattress, the room where she pressed her mouth to her baby’s ear, voice a steady hot hush of Shhhh, palm a cradle beneath its moist diaper, the room where she lay, feet, pale and useless as fish in a fistfight, hands in a constant flurry of fuss, heart refusing to untether her body from the stubborn habit of beat.  

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PETS: AN ANTHOLOGY edited by Jordan Castro (Review by Matthew Boyarsky)

Pets: An AnthologyEdited by Jordan CastroReview by Matt Boyarsky

I’ve been bitten by a dog exactly once. The dog’s name was Nelly. She jumped on me in what I thought to be a gesture of playfulness before she tore into my forearm. 

Nelly’s owner screamed. How could someone so good at making her happy do something horrible? “Do you need help?” she asked.

I told her I was okay, that the dog was just doing her job. A dumb thing to say.

The owner seemed the type of person to have her animals up to date on their shots, and I wasn’t the type of person who had health insurance. So I walked away, bleeding under my sleeve, because there was a sadder story waiting for Nelly, and I wasn’t in it. 

Almost every story in Pets, a new anthology about animals from Tyrant Books, levels with death in some form or another. Some of them even deal in killing. When swimming through this death, the book asks in waves, calmly, What kind of person are you? 

It’s a humbling reading experience. One that makes me wonder if there is any truth to the brutal pragmatisms of Instagram captions. Sayings like: “If my dog doesn’t like you, then I don’t like you,” painted in white cursive on a block of wood hung with rope. In the book, I get to see people through the eyes of animals, through the eyes of characters who become animals —their animals—for better or worse. 

This is where the anthology begins with Michael W. Clune’s story, “The Measure of Love.” It follows a narrator walking around town with their claws drawn in defense of their rescue dog called Burt. Burt has learned love slowly, despite being hurt in the past, and the owner’s love of the dog grows to crush their love of people. Primal allegiances prevail when ape meets wolf, and no one is safe because the defining lines of species have dissolved. 

After that dissolution, people both loved and hated appear in the book’s pages. Freeloading reptiles. Birds who shit on art in protest. A puppy who enables his friend’s addiction because he doesn’t want to kill the vibe. There are cats that refuse to die, despite their hatred for life. Characters get kidnapped, drugged, and forgotten.  There are tears, teams to root for. Investment. Sadness. In cycles.

The pattern is not coincidence. When thinking of a pet in the past tense, a person can only float among the hundreds of warm stories orbiting one massive, gaseous, horrific, inevitable story. I don’t believe every writer included in the collection got on a conference call with a plan to stab readers in the heart. They have, however, taken the unspoken terms and conditions of caring for an animal and rewritten them so a reader can see the fine print for themselves. 

These writers—Ann Beattie, Chelsea Hodson, Scott McClanahan, Patty Yumi Cottrell, Blake Butler, and Tao Lin, to name a few—take turns in poetry, prose, and art to tell some of these stories. Individually, each storyteller uses their space to make peace, to reckon, and possibly move on. But as a collection, Pets rewinds. It hits pause and stares until the pixels of memory blur into something else. Hard earned honesty, even when it’s lies. 

A good book is one you want to give to a friend. In this anthology, art and friendship share a long, shaking hug while shedding hair and wiping snot on each other’s shoulders. During and after reading the book, you think a lot about who you’ll pass it along to. 

I will lend it to my sister-in-law, whose sixteen-year-old cat I used to watch and once almost killed by starting the dryer with her in it. I will lend this book to my girlfriend, who sits through videos of cows getting shot in the head with a bolt gun to keep her vegetarian streak strong. I will lend this book to my old friend who likes reading books. 

I don’t know what reaction the book will provoke from each of them, but whose fault is that? By the time you’re done reading it, Pets is a mirror most of all. 

What kind of person are you?

I’ve been watching some ethically questionable reality television in my time alone. I am not causing anyone direct pain, as far as I know. But I’ve been eating meat from a can— still warm with life at the time of its packaging. And I can see the teeth marks of Nelly the bodyguard dog through the thin hair on my arm when I look real close. 

Pets: An Anthology edited by Jordan Castro
Order from Tyrant Books HERE
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EVERYTHING ELSE IS JUST EXPOSITION by Gauraa Shekhar

  1. Carefully coded a fake Myspace account for Joel Madden—copied the URL from his skull-and-crossbones profile, pasted it into a Layout Stealer, added Steve Aoki and Junior Sanchez to my Top 8
  2. Sent myself love letters from the account
  3. Showed off love letters from “Joel Madden” at band practice
  4. Threw some antihistamine pills from the medicine cabinet into a zip-lock bag. Kept the pills in the back of my school locker to feel beautiful and bad like Winona Ryder and the disaster girls on TV
  5. Once, during a middle school lunchbreak, made an elaborate display of secretly spooning a home-cooked meal into the trash, so the other kids would get off my case about being fat
  6. Had “Joel Madden” message my friends about the dangers of my eating disorder
  7. Drank only cappuccinos for meals to get cast as Christine in the high school production of Phantom of the Opera
  8. Made a display of slowly nibbling at baby carrots backstage so the English teacher slash director would get off my case about looking a little too thin
  9. On the night of graduation, after my dad’s friend handed me a going-away gift, told everyone the tucked lavender note in the jewelry box only said love, henry
  10. At the end of an above-average date, on the drive back home, when “The Boys of Summer” came on, and as my date drummed his fingers passionately on the steering wheel, loudly proclaimed: “when did Don Henley cover The Ataris?”
  11. Hung out with Nick Ramirez freshman year only because he had a poster of Nico’s Chelsea Girls taped to his wall and I liked sneaking 2 AM cigarettes with him in the boys’ shower room 
  12. Once, after chain-smoking Marlboros in the boys’ shower room: scribbled a menacing note in glitter gel and snuck it under an ex’s door with Nick Ramirez
  13. Abstained from correcting the professor’s pronunciation of my name
  14. Intentionally mispronounced my name for efficiency on the phone to customer service 
  15. Kept myself from ascribing names to any first-person narrator I write
  16. Smoked the second cigarette only as excuse to stage a casual run-in with the author after a reading
  17. Knew that getting drinks with my ex’s best-friend’s wife’s mentally unstable ex-best friend was probably a bad idea but I was craving crisis
  18. Lost twenty bucks playing chess in Union Square
  19. Told friends I won twenty bucks playing chess in Union Square
  20. Twice, at a karaoke bar in Chinatown: kissed the same pilot in exchange for my tab
  21. Dropped a blanched broccoli rabe on the kitchen floor next to the mouse trap and bent down with my fork to eat it straight off the ground
  22. Masturbated ten hours after finding out my childhood home was robbed
  23. Couldn’t finish because Bella Donna was on and it was impossible to think about anything besides the white cockatoo resting on the delicate slant of Stevie Nicks’ fingers
  24. On a drunk afternoon in Alphabet City, with an unrequited lover, borrowed a line from a CW show for tragedy points: “I think I could set myself on fire and nobody would notice”
  25. Set my bangs on fire while smudging the apartment with sage; no one was home to notice
  26. Wanted to sleep with someone from the band but instead fell into bed with the sound pretengineer
  27. Double-texted him
  28. Studied the senseless succession of blue text balloons on my phone screen
  29. Semi-confidently, and over fourteen-dollar spicy brunch margaritas: “I make forty-six a year” 
  30. Spent too long surveying tattoos on the backs of strangers
  31. Sleepwalked to the kitchen and came to in the refrigerator light, the soft leathery warmth of leftover pasta clumps on my tongue
  32. Took a year off to write a book about boy bands
  33.  Spent most of it listening to One Direction
  34. Wrote bad poetry on July 4th: and the fireworks looked like cupcake sprinkles 
  35. Had sex while both the dogs were still in the bedroom
  36. Didn’t do laundry all of that September because I relished an excuse to not wear pants
  37. Spent my last two dollars on gas station caramel iced coffee
  38. Only volunteered at the event for the free food that came after
  39. Invited all New York exes to the same party because the rest of the week had been uneventful
  40. Left New York
  41. Missed New York
  42. Wrote about New York in honeyed inflections, first as prophet then as fool: unfinished apartments, creative class appalachian towns in the middle of a city. memories- good and bad and all mine
  43. Half-watched John Cusack films under white linens and fell into soft, three-hundred-thread count naps on embezzled Xanax
  44. “Freelancer” rolled easier off the tongue than “basically unemployed”
  45. Ritually painted my face every unemployed morning to softly make-believe I had somewhere to be after
  46. Moved back to New York
  47. Got a job working the front desk at Gizmodo
  48. Asked if I looked bigger than the woman on TV only when I knew the answer was no 
  49. Lied to a boyfriend about liking Radiohead’s Ok Computer
  50. Slept with someone from the bar, someone who didn’t like Radiohead, while boyfriend was in Stockholm
  51. Told the truth a little too truthfully 
  52.  
  53. Whenever a car blasting reggae music trailed along the block, thought: I could be a person who drinks daytime beer 
  54. Stuck a note on the desktop to tell my boss I quit
  55. Stuck a note goodbye on boyfriend’s fridge
  56. Read the news but didn’t throw out my Ryan Adams records when everyone else did
  57. Let the call go to voicemail because 
  58. I never really liked my coffee black; it just had fewer calories
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A HOME by Sasha Tandlich

Don’t look at me. Don’t look at me! She covers her face. There’s nobody there but the cat. The cat yells, jumps at something. See, it’s not just the cat. There are also the ants crawling in a line, stampeding through the too-big crack under the front door. She leans forward. Creak. The chair moves with her, rocking forward as rocking chairs do. This chair didn’t always live here. No. She didn’t always live here, either. There was the house with the porch. The house with the porch and the rocking chair being pushed forward and back by the wind. She wasn’t in the chair then. Not then in that house. When she was in that house, she buzzed around inside, carrying the children here and there, the way the ants are handling those crumbs that are a little too heavy but they won’t dare drop. There aren’t as many crumbs as there should be. The house is dirty, yes, but food is required to make crumbs. To get food there is the cooking of the food. To get the cooking of the food there is the shopping at the grocery store. To get the shopping at the grocery store there is the driving of the car, the leaving of the house, the standing out of the chair, the… 

In the other house, there was the view. The waves of green cornfields where the kids would get lost and call for her, frantic. She didn’t always take time to look at that view. There were vegetables to pickle, lunches to pack, a husband with needs she had signed up to meet. That husband lives in the photographs now. Sometimes his ghost talks to her, but she asks him politely to shut up. She is already haunted; she doesn’t need a single more ghost. She sits close to the TV when the people start jumping off the Titanic. She has an old VHS player and she only ever plays the second tape. She can’t go backwards, to that time of richness and hope. She pictures the waves are made not of ice, but of corn, that they land in a place of comfort. She hums along when the band comes back for one more song. 

She’s started scratching the faces off of her pictures. She takes her keys to them as she makes her way to the toilet once, maybe twice a day. There is no other use for the keys. She doesn’t lock the door. Nobody is coming, and the ants don’t need a key. They don’t need a welcome mat, either, but she leaves hers out there. Maybe one day the mail man will come up to her door and feel that he is welcome and drop off that piece of mail that got lost years ago. She waits for it. Surely, there is news for her. She’s not sure who the letter is from, just that it holds the key to something. Key—there’s a key again! It has to mean something, but nothing means anything anymore, and now she feels her sock slipping. It’s a prim thing, with a lace trim. She has dainty little feet to pull it off. Her husband loved holding her feet in his hands, rubbing them when she had a hard day which was always. She wears her socks and shoes inside in case he comes by with a good proposition and whisks her away. So far, all her ghost husband has brought up are stories from the past and the past is pointless because it is past. You can’t unsink the Titanic, and you can’t make your children forget the cat piss smell stuck to these rotting floorboards. 

Some of the ants might be termites. The ones making their way up the wall with wings they never use. “You’re not using your full potential” is something people used to say to her often. Now they say, “Get the fuck out of the house, Mother. If you choose to live like this we give up.” She doesn’t blame them. She gave up once, too. 

Sometimes she mistakes the painting on the wall for the TV. She watches it, and she’s not surprised by its lack of movement because everything in the painting moves exactly as much as everything on the TV. She doesn’t remember buying this painting, hanging it up. It’s there the same way the bad art is up at the Holiday Inn before she ever even arrives. It has a history without her, just as she has a history without this house. Is it even a house? It might be a townhouse, or an apartment, or maybe she lives on a ship. She can’t recall what it looks like because all she can recall is being inside. That other house she remembers only in flashes, like the flashes of light when the cat comes in and out. She doesn’t feed the cat, and she’s not sure if that’s why someone put in the cat door. It’s possible the door was already there and that’s how she acquired the cat. The cat doesn’t seem to care for her either way, but sometimes when she’s so still the chair doesn’t rock a single bit, it will jump into her lap and purr. She doesn’t pet the cat. She covers her face to hide it away.

It’s never silent inside. The TV is always on. When the power goes out, which it does sometimes, there’s still the sound of the ghosts, the wings of the moths fluttering inside the closets. There was a different kind of noise in the other house. Laughter, yes, screams, of course, but also that low constant hum of desperation, of a need to get out. It called to her in the droning of the Frigidaire inherited from her mother-in-law. Get out get out get out. Mostly, she stayed. Then one day she didn’t. 

When she gets out of the chair, for her trip once or twice to the toilet, her back never straightens out. It retains the same bent shape. That is her body type now. Bent as a spoon. Creak. The chair keeps rocking and the cat jumps in for a ride. She passes the wall of faceless photos. It looks like a horror movie, but it’s not, because no one is coming after her. On the TV, a body sinks into the water and another exclaims in a voice so quiet it might as well not exist. She wonders if she would sound like that, were she to speak. She never spoke then either. Her children cannot recall the sound of her voice. They remember the cornfields, though, and they are filled with a sense of comfort. That’s all she ever wanted. 

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REYKJAVIK by Jane Snyder

We took the kids on a tour of Iceland for winter break last year. It was Carrie’s first year of college, Tad’s third, and I wanted to do something as a family while we still could.

The sun didn’t rise the whole time we were there but everybody seemed to be having a good time. The kindergarten class leaving the National Museum as we were going in, for instance. The children had big bags of candy and were laughing so hard they couldn’t stand it. As soon as they’d start settling down one of them would say something that sounded to me like “Rootie Tootie” and they’d laugh more, harder.

“They came to see the Yule Lads,” Gurri, the tour guide said. She’d told us about the Yule Lads before. Icelandic Christmas trolls. Back in the day, they were real bastards, stole the bread from the mouths of widows and orphans. Now they put apples and little toys into children’s shoes. “The Yule Lads tell them stories and sing songs and then they all dance around the tree.”

“Roocha choocha,” a little girl in a pink snowsuit called out. “Toocha poocha.”

The children screamed with laughter, their teachers too.

The Yule Lads had left the building, Gurri told us when we said we wanted to see them, but she was sure we’d enjoy the museum and we should meet her in the gift shop in an hour. “Nobody ever needs more time.” 

She took us to a downstairs room with props and costumes. “Here you can dress as authentic Vikings.” 

The rest of our group, younger than my husband and me, but older than Tad and Carrie, fell to at once, grabbing wooden swords and their selfie sticks. “Thwack!” “Let us capture the maidens of this village, Leif, for they are a right comely lot.” 

The kids would have loved it when they were little but they’re too self-conscious now. “Vikings rarely raped and pillaged,” Tad said primly. “They married local girls and raised crops.”

Carrie reminded us she’s an Art History major, saying, “It would behoove me to see as much of the museum as possible.” But there wasn’t a lot to see, nothing like the Louvre or the Met, other museums they’ve been to, and they quick-stepped through The Making of a Nation, the upstairs gallery’s permanent display.

A Viking drinking horn carved with pictures of Judith slaying Holofernes and Jacob slaying Absolam. A statue so old and beat up no one knew if it was Christ or Thor and another figure they knew was Christ, even though the cross was missing, because of the holes in the thickest part of his feet. The figure was crude in comparison to the marble crucifixes and pietas we’d seen in Italy on another trip but his face held our interest. Kind and bewildered as if he hadn’t seen it coming.

The display on the 19th century infant mortality rate was distressing. Almost half the babies born in Iceland then died before they were six months old, starved. Icelandic mothers didn’t breastfeed. No one knew why. In the rest of Europe, I read, everybody breastfed or got a wet nurse, and the infant mortality rate was much lower.

The part about dusa, a pap of chewed up meat and butter the babies in Iceland were given as a substitute for milk, disgusted Tad and Carrie.

I speculated the aversion to nursing might have come from the old idea that breast milk was the menses stored in pregnancy. In some cultures, I told them, menstrual blood is considered unclean. 

“Would these be the same cultures that think water is wet?” the kids asked and went on, leaving me behind to be sad for the babies. 

I read about a belief, “widespread in the 19th Century” that elves would steal a baby while its mother slept and replace it with an elf baby. Perhaps, it was thought, this was a way to make the mother less fond of the baby. When it sickened and died she would think it was the replacement baby and grieve less. 

When I was having my children pediatricians told you breast was best; it’ll help you bond. But it seemed to me those mothers chewing scraps of food fine enough for their baby to swallow without choking, chewing to keep their baby alive, must have formed a bond too.

After supper that day, we got on the bus again to see the Northern Lights.

It had been a long day and Carrie put her head in my lap. “Wake me if it’s good.” 

When we passed a cemetery outside of Reykjavik I let her sleep, while I looked out at the strings of colored lights draped over the stones. In winter, Gurri said, families liked to go walking in the dark so the churches decorate the cemeteries to make it nice for them. When I looked at the lights through the falling snow they changed from sharp points to blurred stains of soft color. The babies had been dead now for longer than they would have lived. Their flesh and unformed bones had dissolved long ago. I imagined the bits of color as something left of their sweetness though I knew the Christmas lights had nothing to do with the babies.

They’d been sick, fussy, hungry all their short lives. They did not become elves. They did not become the soul of color. 

Behind me Tad was telling his dad the geyser we’d visited during the day reminded him of a pimple popping. “A really large pimple.”

Carrie’s long bright hair was splayed across my lap and I touched the end of a strand. It felt coarse and I remembered she’d complained that soaking in the Blue Lagoon had trashed her hair. “But my skin’s awesome,” she’d said, and held my hand to her cheek so I could feel how soft it was.

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AFTER A MONTH, WE MEET FOR DINNER by Francine Witte

First thing I notice, new haircut, the grays dyed clean away.

I’m careful with my words. Nice shirt, I finally say.

I’m aware he never dressed this nice for me.  I found it in my closet, he says.

The waitress brings a basket of bread.

You look good, he says.  I can smell the scratches on his neck.  They smell like blood and sex and another woman.

Would you like some bread? I ask.

Cutting down, he says, pointing to his stomach, flatter than I recall.

The waitress returns, and we order small.  Nothing that will take too long.

The bread is piled high in the basket.  The smell is filling up the air between us.  When I look at him again, he has the eyes of a ghost.

My shoulders sink, and I grab a piece of bread.  I bite into it, final and hard, because, frankly, it lets me.

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GOD AT 60 by Bill Merklee

We started as marginal Catholics, going though the motions. Now I was having dinner with Kenny, the only one of us who’d stuck with it. Father Postlewaite to his parish. It’d been too long.

“Andre still an atheist?” he said.

“Yup. In Oregon. Found himself a nice godless girl.”

“And Coyne?”

“Still waiting for Armageddon.” Kenny grinned without looking at me, eased back in his chair.

“Remember that comparative religion class? All those speakers trying to explain their faith before the bell rang?” 

“The Baptist preacher in the powder blue suit? Right out of central casting.”

“They’d never get away with that now.”

“And Malathi the exchange student telling us about Hinduism. She planted a seed,” I said.

“Ah, the corrupting influence of public education.”

“Well, she was cute. Even so, back then I thought the rabbi and the priest made the most sense.”

“Thank you for that. So why Zen then?”

“No dogma. Only took me thirty years to find it.” I held my cup with both hands, elbows on the table. “Listen, I’m sorry about all the Jesus jokes. Most of them, anyway.”

“You’re forgiven, my son. I’m sorry I didn't come to your jukai ceremony.” 

“No worries. You know, with these knees I meditate in a chair now. Most times I nod off.”

“It was important to you.”

“You thought I was going to Hell.”

“Oh, you’re still going to Hell. But I should have been there.” 

The server who’d come to top off our coffees eyed us like she expected a brawl. Kenny and I burst out laughing. Back in the day he’d passed silent judgement when I told him about the abortion I’d paid for. And again about my vasectomy. It had gotten between us. What a relief to finally just say what we’re thinking.

By the time we got our coats I’d forgotten how I got there. It was dark and misting in the parking lot.

“So how do I get back to the highway?”

“No GPS on your phone?”

“I don’t even text. Phones are for talking. And calling 911.”

“Follow me then, old man.” 

The wipers beat a slow rhythm like a grandfather clock. I followed Kenny until the blurred halos of his tail lights blended with so many others, all of us going home.

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PROBLEM CHILD by Ellen Huang

Ariel often got in trouble for trying to escape. That was how he saw it, anyway. He spent much of his time enigmatically testing the limits of his body, such as a current frustrating inability to become liquid. "If cats can do it, why can't I?" he'd grumble. He'd try to vanish into the air but trip over balls of yarn left around the house. He was losing the skill of leaving his body. He was losing memory of transcendent experience fast. 

They considered him distracted. His eyes were often elsewhere, in a different time and place, some good old days no one here would understand. Coma, lucid dreaming, and Peter Pan Syndrome were offensive nonsense words to him. He'd stew in the shadows at the staircase, grumbling at this illusion of these mere mortal adults being his senior.  

Sometimes, he'd spin around fervently, in delusional attempts to become a tornado, feet flying. Then he'd get scolded as if he had spun the entire room around him. No one cared that it was the small bed that spiraled into his way first. All that mattered was he had knocked into it, making little Fey cry again. 

He didn't know why Fey made such a racket. She wasn't a baby. In fact, she was rather a bit of a prodigy as far as creatives went. At only four, she was making pretty little cats out of fabric, quite possibly on the verge of giving them life in the future. 

Ariel also got in trouble for telling Fey what the wind said on stormy nights. He told of how he had been a force of nature in a previous life, and thus once able to become the wind. Now, he could only interpret what ghosts on the breeze were saying, and embellish as he saw fit. 

If he was feeling especially irritated about serving his sentence in this mortal shell, he would tell Fey the howling wind was saying very gruesome things. Four-year-old Fey had to hear that the wind was saying it'd rip out her hair and grind her teeth into bread for elementals in the afterlife. Or that the wind was getting angrier for missing one if its favorite gods (as Ariel often bragged he was), and the wind was going to vengefully destroy the villages while dumping Fey in a giant mixing bowl. 

One night, Fey accidentally stepped on his cloak and choked him. Ariel wasn't used to such things as he expected to poof into air if anything got him. The wind was mild that night but angry Ariel was still able to scare the girl by saying: "The wind is saying it'll wait until you sleep first. Then it's going to wrap you up and throw you far away, to get caught on a telephone pole. And then the telephone pole will unravel your innards. And then, when it's had its fun, the wind will empty out your head like a melon." 

"Noooo!" cried Fey, holding the button-eyed patchwork cat she had.

But then Ariel jolted when he actually did hear the wind speaking. 

It was howling louder outside, but nothing in the house seemed to be disturbed. Ariel's eyes felt like they were going to pop out, but now that he was a mortal they remained secure. 

"Ariel," boomed a voice in the wind. "Why are you tormenting your sister?" 

"She's not my sister!" Ariel huffed, hands over his ears. "I'm not meant to be a babysitter. When will you let me go?" 

"Ariel, you fell out of your own accord. Do not blame the child."

Ariel groaned. "I am a DRAGON. I am an ELEMENT. I am the SLEEPING GIANT BENEATH THE SEAS. And in this life, if you insist...I am a BOY. I don't settle for tea parties with lost girls!"

Then the wind got into his head, where he could not escape. "You are still made by something and will fall by something. Take the chance to become something more than a fool." 

Suddenly, Ariel began to tremble. The wind had never gotten into his head before, commanding silence in the unsettled storm in his head. A whirlwind of suppressed thoughts, perhaps hundreds of years old, suddenly ceased. There was only the voice, a whisper in a closed, empty room. "Don't bother Fey again." 

So for the rest of that night, Ariel did whatever Fey asked. He baked the cookies, set up the tea parties, flattered her eleventh thrown-together-and-not-yet-live cats. He let her try his black cape and he resisted all urge to tighten it until she squeaked, for fear the wind's voice would shut off all sweet room tone, all white noise, all other dreams. He gritted his teeth and held himself together while Fey drew on his face and braided his short flame of hair. He resisted all desire to burst the tiara into flames. It was surprisingly easy.  

He caught a glint in the little girl's bright green eyes, a concentration of power the neighbors feared. People around here had fearful tales about black girls with green eyes, as if she were some possessed gris-gris doll and not a little girl at all. Yet the voice told him such tales only planted forces of hatred in this world. The voice told him within her was the tested, resilient, blinding power of good, that many would not understand. They would be responsible for not provoking each other. This practice of shaping life in the moment and being slow to anger, this gradual cultivating like waiting for yeast to rise in the blip of mortal life—that was where the wind was present. Ariel was going to have to understand that. He had never noticed Fey's irises, gleaming with other lives, too. He let goosebumps crawl on his bare white arms for the first time in ages.  

"Your Papa sure loves you, I'll give you that," he muttered as the girl finally went to sleep with a smile on her face.  

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DOING IT IN PUBLIC by Angela Miyuki Mackintosh

Joey likes to do it in public. Other guys prefer the privacy of a locked door, a secluded bedroom, drawn curtains. Joey likes to do it that way too, in the bedroom or the kitchen or the hallway, pushed up against a wall or shoved into the carpet, but he’s not afraid to do it in front of an audience.

The first time he did it outside of our apartment was at a party, after he caught me looking at another guy. He said, “You want to fuck him, don’t you?” I guess it made him really hot, got him going and whatnot. We went at it on the concrete stairway outside—my ass against the railing, then on the steps, my fingernails digging into his flesh, moaning and screaming. We were so loud that everyone in the party came out to watch. I felt a deep sense of shame while he was doing me that first time. 

The second time he did it, I felt my shame start to evaporate. It was in the parking lot, after a nice dinner at Angelo’s and Vinci’s, and I’d ran into the only guy I’d dated prior to Joey and hugged him. I guess knowing that there was someone before him made him want to do it. He did me on the hood of my Honda, and then on the yellow painted lines of pavement, our takeout pasta spilling onto the sidewalk.

After the third time he did it, the shame disappeared and I felt nothing at all. We were at Lake Havasu on spring break getting fucked up on piss warm Tecates and tequila, a sea of boats docked side-by-side in Copper Canyon, me in a neon thong, Joey showing off his newest tattoo of a lion with skulls intertwined in its mane, and he wanted to do it in front of everyone. I guess me deciding to dive topless off Jump Rock—heck, it was tradition—and the fact that our friend Sean slapped my ass, made him want to do me right there. Sean even tried to get involved, so did strangers on nearby boats. It was a real show.

Most of the time, Joey liked to do it at band practice. He was a drummer and I sang backup vocals. Our band performed covers of Rolling Stones songs at parties, the occasional Black Sabbath cover, and we always had a jam session. Joey liked to show off by doing drum rolls. He kept a real steady beat—you can imagine how this came in handy—his muscles flexing, the tightness of his neck, his strong hands, him pounding me—bam, bam, bam. I was always sore the next day.

After a year of doing it in public, the last time he did it was after we split up. Our group of friends would go to Magnolia’s Peach on Thursday nights after band practice for Reggae Night because they’d let us in without IDs. I had just slipped by the bouncer when I saw Joey out of the corner of my eye on the side of the line. “Hey!” he yelled. “She’s not twenty-one. You let her in and not me, what the hell!” I was glad he didn’t get in. We had a rough breakup, I swallowed a bunch of pills, and the police were involved. I wanted to forget all that.

Magnolia’s Peach served Budweiser long necks, and to save money I’d stash some in a cooler in my car, go out the side entrance, and sneak them back in again. But I wasn’t going out for a beer that time; I was going out for a cigarette. The sun was just setting, the sky filled with orange and purples, fading like a bruise into grainy grey dusk. I opened a new pack of Camel Lights and lit one, feeling the smooth burn against the back of my throat. Right as I exhaled, Joey walked up. “I saw you dancing with that black guy,” he said. My body tensed because I knew what he wanted to do. It was the same song, every time. Before I could turn back towards the side door, he grabbed me and threw me against the brick wall, pushed his body against mine and lowered his voice. “You want to fuck him, don’t you. You whore.” 

I looked around to see if anyone was watching, but they weren’t. A row of empty black metal tables on the side of the building, shaded by large palm trees, the spotlights under them buzzing then flicking on. My nerves were ramping up, my skin now slick, wet. “Yes. I want to fuck him. That’s exactly what I want,” I said. The next thing I felt was my cigarette going into the side of my neck like the hot sting of an angry bee. Then a blow to my left cheekbone. My ears ringing like the feedback from an amp, the world spinning around me. I fell to the concrete, struggling to find footing in my heels. He pulled me up by my long brown hair as I screamed, grasping at his hand, a clump of hair coming loose in his fist. With all my ninety-six pounds of strength, I pushed him away and started to run. He caught me mid-air and hurled me back against the wall, clutched my neck with one hand, and ran his sharp fingernails down the front of my face with his other, forehead to chin, dragging my flesh with it. Then there were people there, watching the show, trying to get involved as always. A man confronted Joey, told him to stay away from me. A woman called the police. Joey ran. The police arrived. 

I was sore the next day, as always. 

This isn’t a love story. 

Never said it was about sex.

Joey’s version of doing it in public was a black eye, a scratched face, a cigarette burn, and the ever-present fingerprint marks around my arm. Other times it was a cluster of purple bruises around my neck and a hard lump to the back of my head. That’s how Joey liked to do it.

I’d like to say that the incident at Magnolia’s Peach was the last time Joey did it in public with anyone, but it wasn’t. Twenty-something years later, I look up his full name on Google and find his mug shot. It says that the 45-year-old, 5 ft 11 in, 200-pound male was arrested in Colorado for the Felony Crimes of Domestic Violence: Coercion, Assault, and Strangulation. Apparently, Joey still likes to do it in public. He just does it with other girls now.

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I TOLD HIM I WOULD by Steve Chang

Before his accident, he’d called to ask if I’d go drinking with him. I told him, No, not tonight. I’d started writing again.

Wow, he said. That’s cool!

I guess, I said.

We both listened a little longer on the phone. 

*

I would tell myself—in the months to come—that besides the lateness of the call, I’d had no reason to suspect anything might be wrong. I would tell myself that he’d always been fine, alone. I would tell myself all kinds of things before I could, finally, imagine us talking.

Alright then, he said, getting ready to go. Write something good and tell everyone you’re my friend.

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WE COULD BE ANYONE by Alicia Bones

I knew I should feel sympathy for Laura, but her fire-bright face in the Abernathy-Smythe backyard unsettled me. She was telling me the details of her life, the really private, personal ones, though we’d only met a few times at parties hosted by shared acquaintances.

“My father is a drunk, and my mother is sociopath,” Laura said, staring off into the fire.  

Jesus Christ, was all I could think as I twisted up my fingers. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t even think of what I should say. I was well-adjusted, a truth about myself that had bothered me for years. My parents had always been appropriately-boundaried, so how could I relate?

“When my mother forgot my high school graduation, I cried for days,” Laura said with stage-direction movements: look left slim-lipped, look right.

I stopped myself from rolling my eyes. The confessions kept coming in cliched absurdity. They weren’t fireside dredging of deep-dark memories, either; Laura had told me the high school story twice before.

“I’ll never forget how our cat looked,” she went on, “after my sister ran over him with her car.”

 I looked at her in alarm. I’d drifted for a second—and now a dead cat? Laura hadn’t asked me for my compassion. I’d planned for an easy night of talking about The Bachelor and Harold’s trip to Mexico. Instead, she’d foisted her dead cat onto me. 

She was too much, no matter how polite and self-loathing I was, so I said, “I’ve got to pee.” I went inside and didn’t plan on coming back. Laura would forget I was gone; the night was chilly and someone else would sit next to her. That person would be as good a confessional as I had been.

I angrily poured myself another drink. Self-involvement was an epidemic.

Laura had exhausted me, but I had to make myself aggressively cheerful. This was a party, after all, a beginning-of-summer party thrown by Melinda and Janet Abernathy-Smythe. They were the first of my friends to buy a house with a backyard; most of us still rented. I wasn’t anywhere close to buying property, but I served my purpose at social functions anyway: providing amusing anecdotes about my hapless dating life.

Inside, party-goers held drinks and stood in corners. These were the friends I’d cobbled together in my childless, partner-free twenties for my childless, partner-free thirties. They weren’t the friends I’d wanted, but they were the friends I had. Here they were, speaking passionately about a television show, effusively commenting on the Abernathy-Smythes’ new cabinets, cooing over photos of Helen’s new dog. Without them, I would never receive compliments on my new haircuts or shoes; I would exclusively rely on my own judgment.

I glanced at the fire through the open door to the back patio. Laura was talking to someone else. I was sure she was telling them exactly what she’d told me. I hoped they could think of reasonable ways to respond to her.

I headed toward the ficus in the living room to chat with solitary Harold about Mexico. He’d liked the beaches and warm water and the food. Did he actually want to tell me, “The food was spicier than I thought it’d be!” or did he feel obligated to say it? I couldn’t tell. I asked him how much his trip to the Yucatan had cost, and he said, “Cheap!” I didn’t know how to make him tell the truth, but his daughter was starting college in the fall, so maybe he was mourning.  

Sam joined us, and Harold asked her about her new house. I told her I was hoping to buy in her neighborhood. She looked with me with derision because she’d purchased the home with her husband, and I had no husband. She scoffed, “Good luck!” though she also smiled, like I was a pathetic child with an impossible wish. In fact, I had no strong feelings about her neighborhood and remained unsure if I had ever visited it.

Later, three drinks in and pouring myself a fourth, I talked to a new person in our group, a rare friend of a friend. For some reason, I told her about my nerves about commitment, about how I feared my life twenty years from now would look the same as it did now.

“Life always changes, whether you want it to or not,” Tammy said, making sincere eye contact. I felt real empathy from her and was surprised.

 I was grateful that my sister had never killed our cat or that I’d never had the impulse to lie that she had. “If you say so,” I laughed.

Behind Tammy, I saw Laura through the kitchen window. She was talking to someone, maybe even a third person, though I could only see the back of their head. I should have been angry about the anonymous way Laura collected her self-aggrandizement, emptied her mind onto a held-captive acquaintance. Why could only some people have authentic exchanges; why did only some people want to? 

I suddenly realized I had no idea which type of person I was. 

In a moment of compassion, fueled by drink and goodwill towards Tammy, I felt sorry for Laura’s isolation, which was even more impenetrable than my own. Secrets were stand-ins for authenticity, but Laura didn’t understand that. She didn’t know why she failed to connect. My stomach lurched in customary empathy, but I suspected my feelings were only habitual, a knee-jerk reaction to a stimulus that could have come from anywhere.

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THE PUDDLE BOYS AT NIGHT by Hadiyyah Kuma

Though dripping a little, the puddle boys are no longer melting. It is late nighttime. They don’t have to sleep because there is nowhere they have to be for now. They hope they never have to sleep again, but of course this is idealistic. The puddle boys know this too, but it is nice to ignore, it is nice to be fully conscious and in love. Crossing the street is the best excuse for holding hands. Cars echo away from them; some move through and splash people’s face. Everyone forgives them. The puddle boys' backs become green then red. Their hair moves with the wind, so moved, it sheds a tear. 

*

The puddle boys drip into a cookie dough shop and practice spelling each other’s names. 

“Devonte.”

“Rehan.”

“De-von-tay,” blows Rehan. 

“Ray-han,” giggles Devonte. 

The puddle boys tingle as their spirits align and their skins connect. They pass breath between each other. Devonte is excited about mint-chocolate cookie dough and he peruses the menu for a price. Rehan waits patiently behind him with a strawberry sharpie. As Devonte orders for the both of them, Rehan sneaks the marker under Devonte’s shirt and writes, “sanctuary.” Devonte ripples and shimmers. 

The server says the cookie dough will take a few minutes; there was not enough mint left, and she has to get some more from storage. 

“Can I hold the bags under your eyes?”

Devonte considers this and sees a horse outside, muddling through the street with a police officer on his back. “I could never draw a horse.” 

“I never cared for horses very much. I like seashells.” Rehan knows that to be an artist one does not have to know how to draw horses. He reminds Devonte of his beach painting, of the way the seashells seemed to be sharp, yet malleable. How it seemed like a prize just to kiss the hand of the artist who made the world look soft again. 

Devonte describes the feeling of being artistically inadequate as building a house with smaller bricks than everyone else, but the house has to be even bigger than every other builder. “It’s okay if you don’t understand what I’m saying.” 

Rehan sits on the floor because he understands perfectly. The tiles are a jade-blue and white checkered pattern. They’re not innovative, but their simplicity gives the puddle boys a place for standing water. Delicate in their way, the puddle boys hug the grooves of the floor and change the subject. They are masters at subject-changing. They tell each other all kinds of things about shoe sizes and pony rides and simulated car rides at their respective local malls. There is always something new to talk to about. Water accumulates behind Rehan’s nose each time Devonte says the word, “probably.”

The puddle boys talk big, and soon they are shouting but not at each other, as the woman who entered the cookie dough shop would like. She has a son, he is young and smiles at the puddle boys. The woman’s thumb is ready on the record button of her phone. There is no drama to see. The puddle boys shout different animals’ names, but it’s not a spectacle; it’s two boys shouting about animals. Rehan touches Devonte’s laugh and there is no obstacle. Rehan likes donkeys and Devonte likes cows. These are their favourite animals. 

*

From the outside the store glows white, and an accountant in his office across the street sips his coffee, rubs his eyes, checks his phone for missed calls and finds none. There is a text message that reads: have you eaten today behta? He texts, yes Ma, and puts the phone out of sight. He sees two boys yelling without making a sound. It’s not a dream. He would like to watch them forever but knows this will always be impossible.

*

Rehan has Devonte’s dark circles in his palms as he licks the cookie dough. A park bench at night becomes a test site of resilience because it’s not clear or dirty; it’s just somewhere to spread and spill. The puddle boys are even darker than before, their calves resting on each other like no simile can describe. It takes forever for a streetlight to come on, but it does. “Your tongue is my fire,” exclaims Rehan. 

Devonte chews slowly, watching a man pee behind a tree. “I’m so glad I’m not that tree,” says Devonte. “I’m so glad I’m not that man,” says Rehan, “Alhamdulillah.” “Thank you, Jesus,” says Devonte. The puddle boys unlearn all the rules and discuss how trees can grow both up and down, but also side to side. They can break through and out of the earth, but they can extend as far as they want to go. It is hard to see the trees in this light. The puddle boys’ eyes are glinting, illuminated the worn skin around their cuticles. 

Devonte sucks in the air to feel the mint aftertaste cool his mouth. “You can give them back now.”

Rehan places his palms on Devonte’s eyes and returns to him the dark circles. 

*

The streets flex upward and back down again as Devonte and Rehan flood them. Love is big, and there are not a lot of places to hide it. An avenue opens into an alleyway, and the puddle boys crouch behind a crate of onions. They breath droplets and exhaust are the friction in each other’s collarbones. The world’s heat is turning thick and orange. It is not a good sign. 

Devonte notices something behind Rehan’s hair. It is a carving made by a key or sharp fingernail. It reads, “Baby Boy and Baby Girl for life babyyyyyyy.” The many Ys lump in Devonte’s throat because he has too many wordless questions. “I wish I could last a day,” he says. 

Rehan agrees. “I wish I could own a body.”

“It’s not the same as having,” says Devonte. “I’d build a city of Lego for you.”

“Build me legs and arms too, so that I have the strength to build you a better one.”

*

A tall man arrives. He smells like Vicks medicine, and he sweats out violence and cuss words. He mumbles, “goddamn” and “motherfucker of Jesus.” Tightening the grip beneath his shoes, he lifts the crate of onions onto his right shoulder and carries it away as if it were light. 

“I don’t like men who say ‘goddamn’,” says Rehan. 

“I don’t like men who make heavy things look light,” says Devonte. 

“You are the best.”

“No, I feel myself giving up.”

The cement is a lighter shade. The avenue closes again, and there is nowhere to be but in the bright. Car windshields flash fire into everyone’s eyes. A cellphone reflects the light, piercing Rehan’s chest. He wobbles but is still breathing. “I feel myself giving up.” Devonte holds him by the waist.  It is not easy to keep going when the dawn is so violent.

*

The sun becomes hotter and people pour into the street. Devonte and Rehan are smaller than they’ve ever been. They share memories of the night so as not to lose its darkness. They subject change to the red lights into green lights and green lights into yellow and then back again, and there are cows, but they are all sick and no milk can be obtained from them. The city is thirsty, and so it becomes careless. The puddle boys grow angry, but never at each other because they have hope and that deflects rays, sometimes. They start to yell again, but no one hears them. They try to laugh, but it is difficult with disappearing chests. There is another police horse, and the puddle boys hide under a car to avoid his hammering hoofs. Weight like that is definitive destruction. The streets flex downward and there is no stopping them. 

“There is nowhere to hold you anymore.” The puddle boys’ backs are missing. All that’s left is the beginning of a name.

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CHAMP by Emma Hodson

The man smells like smoke. He is moving into a new apartment on a street that used to be a bustling thoroughfare, but now is just another grey road. That is, the apartment is new to him, but not to this world. It’s close to his old spot, just a few blocks, but it’s noticeably more decayed. A beige building shoved in between a Thai place and pay-per-hour motel, a single tarnished mini van parked in the driveway most days. The apartment was built in 1973 when mom-and-pop shops dotted the street, bubbly hand-painted signs, and women doing their grocery shopping with babies in tow. People walked more back then. Now there is a hardware store and a forsaken donut shop, glaze hardening and cracking untouched under glass while the owner watches the Mega Lotto with a toothpick hanging out of his sour mouth. After the move, the man’s hands are shaky and he reaches for the drawer. 

A while later, months maybe, the drawer starts to fill up with empties again and the bills keep coming and the donut shop is gone and its owner and his Mega Lotto toothpicks are gone. In its place is a Juice Shoppe where everyone can go to feel better, thank fuckin’ God. The man laughs darkly to himself and honks his deluged nose into a tissue as he walks towards Ol’ Yeller Lounge.

He’s been going to Ol’ Yeller for 36 years. The outside is fashioned from large stones cobbled together, like a liquor castle, no windows so it can be properly dark inside. The sign is yellow neon and it flashes, beckoning, above the rounded doorway. Inside is what you’d rightly expect from a dive. The bar is long with peeling stools lining it all the way to the dimly lit back wall, illuminated mostly by a clutter of arcade games. A jukebox with a handwritten sign taped to it: QUARTERS ONLY! WE ARE SERIOUS!! There are a few booths with wooden tables to the right, but you can’t get a good look at the TVs from there, so the man avoids them. 

He sits on his stool, the same one he always sits in, and nods to the bartender who adds a Jack n Coke to his tab on the regulars chalkboard that hangs behind the bar. Most of the regulars are gone nowadays. Big Jim disappeared after one too many visits to detox. They say Paula got sober, and maybe it’s finally true this time—he hasn’t seen her in months. Ralphie moved down South when the rent got too high, and his new neighbors started complaining about his cats and their cat smells. Bogus, he had said sipping on his G&T. Absolutely fuckin’ goddamned bogus. Roberta’s still around, and so is Doug, but they won’t come in for another hour or so. It’s just the man and a bunch of kids huddled in the corner booth.

The man watches them while he waits for his drink. The boys (and they are boys, really, hardly men) wear clear-framed glasses and ludicrous sock caps, tiny ones, that they tuck behind their ears with their cigarettes. They smile white smiles at the girls who wear pants that don’t flatter their pretty faces. The boys order beers, the expensive kind that Ol’ Yeller has only started offering in the past few years. They sip them and laugh and a girl reaches out and puts her hand on the skinny tattooed arm of the boy next to her. The man wonders if he was ever like them, once upon a time, but immediately scoffs at the thought. His laugh comes out in short gurgly croaks. He imagines himself, back on the docks, unloading heavy boxes of grapes from the ship's belly, his ears burning from the crisp morning air under his hardhat. He remembers standing, arms locked with his crew in the picket line, his sock cap, wool and itchy, covering his ears. No, he was never like them. Not even close.

Truthfully, he doesn’t mind the kids all too much. They come in and buy their expensive beers and the bar stays open, and the man can play his pinball game in the back. He’s had the highest score for as long as he can remember. Someone got close once, but it never happened. After his second Jack, he strolls over to the games, expertly flicks the dial to send the ball soaring into a land of flashing crystal balls and genies. The whiskey is warm in his throat and the heat flows through him, his hands finally steady, as he racks up dings and dongs and the points tally higher and higher. 

When he finally heads back to the bar, Roberta is there, early today, and sitting next to his usual spot. Her hand covers his seat. Eighty-two years old, sharp as a needle, and tattoos covering every last square inch of her large, worn body. Roberta has been coming to Ol' Yeller ever since the last of the lesbian bars closed downSally's and The Fur Pelt, leather vests and cigarettes, tender kisses in the corner. Red lipstick permanently stains her glass.

“Pinball again, you old bastard?” she says. 

“Sure as eggs is eggs!”

The bartender nods his head to his stool. “Speaking of which, we figured it was about time we did something about those scores of yours,” he says. 

The man approaches his seat, and sees that they’ve switched it out with a brand new stool, cherry red, upon which they’ve sewn large white letters, like a high school varsity jacket: CHAMP.

The snake tattoo that curls down Roberta’s wrinkled arm seems to slither as she laughs, one of the best laughs the man has ever heard. “Some things never change,” she says.

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MARKS by Monica Dickson

‘The phantom scribbler strikes again’ – Biro on gloss, 1976

The cubicle door is freshly scarred, blue ink on institutional green. This is where John learns to read. John has been constipated since he started school. His mother takes him to the doctor and they send him to hospital where he drinks barium, so they can see what’s wrong with his insides. They let him take the x-ray home. There it is, a white cloud shaped like a question mark.

 

‘Fuck exams’ Compass on wooden desk, 1981

John could do better if only he would apply himself. John is of a higher ability than his results indicate. John is not giving his ‘all’, which is a pity. John should attempt to have a more open and positive attitude instead of fostering a negative and often critical outlook. John’s success in the 11-plus requires sustained effort and full commitment, and success only comes at a price. A rather more respectful attitude to those in authority might benefit John in the future. John has a flair for the written word. 

 

‘When two tribes go to war’ – Black permanent marker on red bus shelter, 1984

John’s mother has left John’s dad and has started going on CND marches. The shelter where John smokes is directly outside the church hall where John once went to playgroup. Play was curling up on a camp bed, under an army blanket, pretending to be asleep. Now John pretends to read the bus timetable as he makes his marks. He notices the sticker on the bin that says Keep Britain Tidy. Somebody has tried to burn a hole in the bin, and the melted plastic has hardened and curled into a black tidal wave. 

‘Neither work nor leisure’ - Matt white masonry paint on viaduct, 1990 (‘heaven’ style)

John has been signing on for two years. He is told that he has to take Action For Employment. He turns up at the dole centre every day and writes stories about job-seeking for job-seekers with a ‘positive outlook’. Sometimes they print them, unabridged, in the A4E newsletter. When they are not arguing, he and his mate, Dave, an unemployed photographer, wander round the city centre talking to other unemployed people and taking pictures of buildings where employed people work. Back at his bedsit, John practises writing upside down and right to left. One night, when the tracks are quiet, John hangs over the side of the bridge. His message drips onto the empty road below. 

‘More than words’ – Cursive on mashed potato (Shepherd’s pie), 1993

John has cooked the tea. Dave has gone off to Uni to study photography and his was-girlfriend, Sal, has moved in with John. Sal is having his baby so John and Sal are trying to get to know each other, sober. Sal is an artist too. She makes work from found objects and creates installations. John studies the signs next to her exhibits and tries to make sense of them. Sal heaves herself and her materials around the studio, repositioning, taking things away, making tiny, important adjustments to what she is trying to say.

 

‘This family is fake’ - High performance acrylic paint in red on exterior wall of 3-bed semi, 1997

Solvent Dave 

MET:

Practical Sal 

AT: 

Dave’s graduation

TO: 

Act like they’re happy 

HE SAID:

I’ve got the time if you’ve got the inclination

SHE SAID:

What could possibly go wrong

SO THEY:

Bought a Barratt Home near a primary school (Good with Outstanding Features)

AND THE WORLD SAID:

Can you blame them?

 

‘The habitable biosphere is illegal’Black spray paint on permissive path, 2001

John cycles along the canal, where the water is fringed with a cappuccino-like froth. He brings his daughter, Jess, to school this way and she stops to look at the heron, the kingfisher, the fly-tipping, with equal awe.  They see another sign, upright on the towpath. Beneath the tags, the local authority typeface warns, ‘Defacing this notice can result in prosecution’. 

‘Dirtier than an MP’s expenses’ - reverse graffiti on white van rear, 2009

John has moved on and John is stuck. He is tired, all the time. John knows that the wrong is outside of him, that x-rays and tests will show nothing. He drives to work. He drives home again. He listens to the news then uses his flair for the written word to sign online petitions and argue with strangers on BBM. Jess kisses his cheek, calls him ‘armchair activist’ and ‘dickhead’. John could do better if only he would apply himself. 

‘Life not death for my grand-kids’red, eco-friendly chalk spray on stone cladding, 2019 (stencil type)

John and Jess make cardboard banners while her baby sleeps. They work quickly, using throw up and blockbuster lettering, simple, like the children’s messages: There is no planet B. Denial is not a policy. John studies their signs, and the words of the children, with equal awe. One, in particular, sticks. I could be learning history but I’d rather be changing it. John is giving it his all.

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PISS SHORTS by Doug Ross

Kyle got his piss shorts ready. They were his last pair, he would have to wear jeans for rafting.

He took the bag that held his snacks. Dumped them onto his sleeping bag. Stuffed the shorts in. He couldn’t do knots so he spun it until the handles wrapped around themselves. 

He left the tent, looked outside. The timing was right. The boys had eaten breakfast. They were all watching smoke on the one mounted TV, listening to the teachers talk about how they would get home now, if they would need buses. 

Kyle walked away from the campground and into the trees. 

*

He passed the rotted log, the strange white tube left in the dirt. It was a good sign that no one had come for it.

At the edge of the hill Kyle re-spun the bag. The plastic was stretched clear in places, but nothing soaked through.

He descended, using roots as footholds. His pants slipped without a belt. He had no underwear. He went handless to pull the jeans to his waist. The snacks were supposed to make him heavier; he’d left granola back in the tent and chocolate chips and special bars with men on the wrapper.

*

The tree was straight ahead. No tag on its trunk. One branch stuck out so low and separate it looked about to break. 

He got the shorts out. They hadn’t dried at all. He thought, as always, that it was too much, that another boy must have helped piss them. He carried them by the drawstrings towards the tree. They sagged, lengthened with the weight, like a puppet trying to get free of him. 

As he went around the base of the tree something stepped out.

--Sorry, Kyle said.

It was a soldier. He wore green and black camouflage, the stripes flowing sideways.

--As you were.

The soldier turned and gave Kyle space. He wasn’t very tall. His belly spread the middle of his shirt open. 

Kyle continued to the spot.

The leaves had been cleared since yesterday. The hole, which he’d only managed to dig a few inches with a stick, was even deeper now, but empty. He stood over it with a drop of piss crawling down his forearm.

--You can let those down. That’s fine, the soldier said.

Kyle dropped them. They fell fast to the dirt. 

The soldier came near. He stared down at the hole and said something Kyle couldn’t understand. Then passed in front of him. There was a backpack leaning on another part of the trunk, the soldier took a can of football chili out and tore the lid and ate with his hands. He offered some to Kyle. The can said HUNGRY across the top. Kyle did as the soldier did, but the ground meat slid off his fingers, he could only get beans. 

--They’ll clear the whole place soon, the soldier said. He hit his knuckles on the bark. --Wipe it out. Are you ready for that? 

Kyle wasn’t sure. --Yeah.

--Won’t get scared?

Kyle shook his head. Not far away, he saw his other clothes lying on a white bedsheet. The cargo shorts and the madras and the velcro swim suit and the samurai boxers, first to be buried. Everything looked smoothed out and unwrinkled.

The soldier noticed him. He stood, marched to the sheet. He set his legs wide and bent down, considering each piece thoughtfully, without touching it. Eventually he settled on the madras. A pair of underwear. He folded them in three moves. Before returning to Kyle he stopped at the edge of the hole and pointed down.

--These stay, he said. --But that’s one less. Do you understand?

Kyle did.

*

The rafting was canceled and the canyon and the dam. Kyle’s track coach said they would be sleeping in a parking lot tonight. 

During lunch it started raining. It didn’t stop so they canceled the parking lot as well. 

They were told to pack and be ready by seven a.m. Everyone got a payphone call before bed; Kyle left a message. 

*

He woke up. Usually that meant piss but he was catching himself, the first squirt of it warming his thigh. He dabbed it with the shorts. Got up on one elbow. Clenched. 

Rain picked up again. The bathroom was on the other end of the campground, by the teachers. He knew he would have to walk in the dark and be heard. 

Then there was movement outside the tent. Footsteps on wet ground.

Kyle watched the zipper trace along the yellow flap.

It peeled open. The soldier stuck his head in. He had a cap on now and leafy makeup, almost like the stripes had grown since that morning.

The other boys kept sleeping. Kyle had gone to bed early so they could slap cards on their bags.

The soldier held out his hand. He moved it back and forth. 

When he met Kyle’s eyes he didn’t stop right away. But his expression changed. He lowered his hand. Nodded at him. Slowly, he backed out, zipping the flap shut.

Kyle lay down. He unbuttoned his shorts. They slipped easily off him, and his boxers. He was bare against the nylon. He listened to the rain, for the footsteps to reach the next tent over. Then he went back to sleep.

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“THE LINE” by Michael Seymour Blake

 

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SOMEPLACE ELSE by Emma Stough

I am here now. Wide unexplained sky. How did I get here? Wait. Let’s stop. No, let’s start.

We are here now. Again, I think. 

Purple wallpaper. My family huddled around the TV watching Seinfeld re-runs. I am squeezed between Aggressive Older Brother and Sensitive Younger Brother—I am boiling with discontent. 

My family huddles like this for decades. The living room stays the same: plush green sofa (embedded with chips and cat hairs, is the cat still alive?) and purple wallpaper. Purple like the dregs of the bitter plum tea. Purple like the dying breath of stormy sunset. Purple like purple knows best. 

Dark walls shelter my family forever. Safe.

I go to school because someone has to learn something. My best subject is shapes. I fall in love with shapes and refuse to let them out of my sight. I am put into an independent study because that’s how good I am. My mentor is a bristly old man called Stanley. Our relationship is loving because he trusts me and I am eager to be trusted. When I struggle or get angry he tells me to close my eyes and picture the most comforting thing I can imagine:

Purple wallpaper: Mom, Dad, Aggressive Older Brother, Sensitive Younger Brother, cat. Popcorn and silly TV glow splashed over our faces. We are full of understanding and empathy. We’ve been watching people playact for years. We pretend.

I get so good at shapes that they recommend me for a special program upstate. I pack all my belongings: secondhand copy of The Road, silverware, patchwork quilt that someone else’s grandmother made. When I am ready to leave, I find my family where I left them. Wrapped so lovingly in purple wallpaper. Safe together.

Goodbye, I tell them. I love you very much.

On the TV someone says, I didn’t think this was a serious relationship, you know. I didn’t think this would last. 

What amount of distance is too much between who you used to be and who you will become?

In my special shapes program, I meet people that have never seen purple wallpaper. They are from faraway states and countries with long histories. They have beautiful faces and stories filled with grief. I want to hold them and listen to their breathing. They politely laugh at how serious I am.

I enter a strange shape of my own: lonely, discontent. I take up water aerobics and befriend women that have lost husbands and brothers to wars. I float in the water on my back, tracing the shape of the white-rafted ceiling, static rows of rectangular light. It makes me feel better to think the ceiling is likely never to fall into the water. 

I call my family and Sensitive Younger Brother talks to me for hours and hours about the shows I’ve missed. He says, We noticed you left because your shape is missing from between our bodies. Where did you go?

I trace the cord of the phone between my fingers. It spirals boldly. This is a message.

I live in an apartment on the top floor, the fifth floor. It is small but sufficient, teeming with ferns and ill-matched patterns. Sometimes when the elevator is broken, I pause in the stairwell to think about what kinds of shapes might be waiting for me elsewhere. I start wearing mostly black and grey because I think that is the person I want to be.

There is a girl in my classes with lilac hair. Hints of purple wallpaper. She shows me new shapes; Honeysuckle-filled vase on bedside table, imprint of each head on each pillow, what saddened pit my heart becomes when I cry. Hold me carefully, she warns. I’m about to fall apart.

You have to be romantic to think that here will lead to anywhere else.

One day I graduate with accolades and handshakes from those who taught me. I feel incredibly brave. My family sends a card and apologizes that they couldn’t make it: The new season of their favorite cooking competition show aired, and they didn’t want to miss it. I write back a long letter full of new shapes and include a purple leaf I saved especially for them. 

My lavender girl takes me to a fancy restaurant and asks if I plan to stay or go. I ask her if she would pose the same question to a river. She says if you feel like water then let me drink you in so you can hold up the shape of me. I ask her how she feels about cooking competition shows.

When I return to the purple wallpaper not much has changed—is there one less brother? The TV light has aged my parents beyond their years. They held me as a child and reach their hands out to me, draw me back into the glow. This is my heart, I say, and they look up at my purple-haired heart. They think she is another TV she is so beautiful. They are confused; is she pretending? They begin to feel unsafe. They begin to question. I try to reassure them. I point to all the reassuring, familiar shapes around us: circle lightbulb, rectangle picture frame, diamond clock, star lampshade, zigzag carpet, octagonal shelf, square TV. Square TV. Square TV. 

It’s okay to look at something else, I tell them. I am whispering from my throat. It burns, suddenly raw. My family is scared of me. The purple wallpaper dims. Who is retreating from whom?

We leave that place. I find the shape of the sky—wide, changing, indefinable—reassuring. Like a warm wool coat. Wrap it around me.

My lover calls to me and says some things are mean to be held at a distance. Keep the purple, leave the rest. I guess that’s where we started. And where are we now?

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RIGHT BEFORE WE FALL APART by Elizabeth Crowder

We sit in cooling sand. You reach out a gritty palm. I don’t move closer. Eight years ago, on this same stretch of beach, with our swelling son arching your back like a comma, we vowed to love each other forever. 

“Let’s play a game.” You twist kinky hair around a dark brown finger.

The last game we played was at your parents’ Christmas party. There, in your three-bedroom, one-bathroom childhood home with the red door, you unclenched. Your voice became salty and slippery, an oyster shucked from its shell. You loosened, darkened, said the n-word with a soft “er.” My mouth soured at your pantomime. 

I started it. I usually do. You escalated it. You usually do.

We sat at the dining room table waiting for your mother’s “famous greens” to finish cooking. They bubbled in chicken stock and pork fat on the stovetop, shimmering with delight at the thought of stopping my Caucasian heart halfway to a beat.

“Let’s play a game,” you said. 

“Okay.” 

“Tell me something I don’t know about you.”

“My mother, for all her flaws—” I started to say.

“Racist tendencies,” you interrupt, which is a part of our problem.

“At least she doesn’t cook with salt,.” I said.

“For all her flaws, at least my mother does.” 

That night, you got whiskey drunk and whiskey mean. You whispered, “You ruined my life,” as you fell asleep in the twin bed next to mine. Sentiments shouted in anger can be amended, forgiven, washed away. Sentiments whispered in anger are written in stone. 

Back on the beach, the sun opens its veins in the capillary waves.

 “Let’s play a game,” you say again.

“Okay.” I indulge, which is a part of our problem.

“Tell me something I don’t know about you,” you say.

I don’t remember my brother’s face. Only the dark brown cowlick on the back of his head that I wanted to press down with a spit-dampened palm as we exited the school bus. Only that he was the same age then as my son is now. Only that the truck that separated him from his shoes on that dusty stretch of Lincoln Highway didn’t even stop. Only that we never found the person who killed him. In a world so ephemeral, the concept of forever makes me feel claustrophobic.

“You know everything about me,” I say.

You flush burgundy like pink skin slapped. Your frown comes quick, a herald for your tears. 

“I’ll go first, then,” you say. “I never spell the word poignant right on the first try.” Your smile is a quivering olive branch. It’s toothy. It doesn’t reach your eyes.

Something dislocates inside of me. You and I slipped from nothing into something into nothing while I was looking the other way. She felt like a choice. Her pale hair, her widow’s peak, her arched pout. I’m sure she could spell the word “poignant” on the first try. 

I think: I’m in love with someone who isn’t you. 

I think: I’m in love with someone because she isn’t you. Because I recognize myself in her. Because her mother also doesn’t cook with salt. Because she doesn’t whisper “You ruined my life.”

I say: “It’s getting dark. We should head back in.” 

We sit in silence until the sand grows cold around us, until we slip back into nothing.

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NEIGHBORS by Will Cordeiro

It was an in-service day at school, and the bus dropped me off at home three hours earlier than usual. The doors were locked. The extra key was gone. I tried to wedge a screen-window open. The neighbor saw me trying to break into my house. He invited me over. Reluctantly, I said okay. 

My neighbor had me sit on a big velvet chair and handed me some chocolate milk and a plate of vanilla wafers. After I’d eaten them, he said he wanted to show me something. He opened a door to what looked like a closet. He entered a narrow vestibule, a corridor of some sort. He waved back at me. I followed him along the length of a gently sloping hallway by focusing on the bald spot at the top of his head. Otherwise, he almost vanished down in the darkness. Just when I thought I’d lost him, a light snapped on; a row of glass cases glared back at me. 

I was blinded, squinted, stared while grimacing at distorted faces half dissolved in the sterile halogen radiance—at my own face multiplied and floating in the mirroring glass until my eyes adjusted. “My collection,” he said, sweeping an open palm around the room. 

He had been living in the house next door for as long as anyone remembered. My father rarely exchanged more than a couple words with him, though. My father distrusted most people, especially after mother died. Consequently, I didn’t know my neighbor’s name. 

“What do you think?” the man asked, smiling. He ran his fingers through a wispy tuft of hair, pushing it over his bald spot. He leaned in toward me, and his eyes disappeared behind the milky luster reflected in his pinched-looking wireframes. He breathed out an odor of sourdough and ripe mayonnaise. 

I concentrated on my environment: on the gallery-white walls, on the close musty air. I turned to gaze at the surrounding cases. Inside them, I could now see, were little mousetraps of every description, coil-loaded ones and glue traps and ones that captured the rodent alive. Strangest of all, each one was baited with cheese or peanut-butter, set and ready to spring at any moment. 

Disoriented as I was, I suspected I must be standing directly beneath my own house. In fact, underneath my own room, if my sense of direction could be trusted. I heard footfalls, muffled shouts from above. I thought I heard my pull-string robot, its voice repeating, There’s a snake in my boot! Someone’s poisoned the waterhole. Reach for the sky!

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A EULOGY by Michael Hendery

Cynthia B. Hurley, known online as @iBrake4Corgis17, was a well-connected woman visible across the social media landscape. Her beloved Instagram feed totaled 12,574 posts, and she amassed 836 followers after more than twenty-five years of daily engagement with the app. Cindy’s all-time, most-liked post was a photo from October 2031 of her wearing a Davy Crockett raccoon-skin cap, pretending to strangle the eight-foot-tall stuffed grizzly bear in the lobby of the Fern Creek Lodge which garnered 529 likes and spawned dozens of comments, including the expected accolades from her dear friends @tango4one and @winediva77. This post’s popularity surpassed her previous record for the selfie she took in front of copulating zebras during her well-documented safari trip to the Serengeti back in the winter of 2029.  

Cindy’s YouTube channel was a hallowed storehouse for her personal concert recordings, including a third-row video capture of nearly all of Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” live from the Hollywood Bowl that, to date, has been viewed more than 8,200 times. She also leaves behind a nine-part series of how-to videos for removing stubborn stains from a variety of fabrics. Cindy’s upload demonstrating how baking soda and vinegar can be used to get a dark roast coffee stain out of a hand-tufted wool rug has gotten nearly 5,000 views, and it ultimately earned her an invitation for a featured segment on household cleaning tips and tricks on Wake Up Bakersfield!

While a perilous allergy to pet dander rendered Cindy incapable of keeping a dog in her apartment, she nonetheless maintained an active Tumblr account where she collected innumerable photographs of dressed-up Corgis. Her favorite was of a Pembroke Welsh outfitted with a deerstalker hat and wool tweed jacket to which she added the caption, “the Corgi of Baskerville.”

On Twitter, Cindy only followed celebrity chefs. She liked their weeknight recipe links, and appreciated their reluctance to discuss politics in public forums. Cindy had registered accounts on Linkedin, Pinterest, Snapchat, Pastiche, Splay, among others; however, it was her Facebook presence that most endeared Cindy to hundreds of family and friends throughout the world. Her profile picture—a brown-and-white cartoon face of a pointy-eared Corgi, sporting a top hat and monocle—became iconic among her followers. This tiny portrait was framed next to each of her comments, linked Instagram photos, and witty status updates. “I forgot to workout today; that’s nine years in a row!” was posted at 8:52am on the day she passed.

On Facebook, Cindy was known for her tenacious commitment to celebrating birthdays within her vast circle of friends. She developed something of a trademark for the occasion, writing “Feliz Cumpleaños” squeezed between two maracas emojis for each friend on their special day. On her own birthday, Cindy would respond to each of her well-wishers with personalized GIF reactions and emoji sequences tailored to their particular connection. 

Although she could be playful, Cindy did not shy away from important global issues. She received 345 likes and 97 sad-face reactions for the article she shared about the devastating flooding and refugee crisis in Cambodia and South Vietnam. Her powerful post that simply displayed the block-lettered phrase “dog fighting” within a red circle and backslash had a similar kind of impact on her followers. 

While Cindy’s passing is sorrowful, she did opt-in for Facebook’s Posthumous Content Generator, so it is comforting to know that her spirit will live on with posts authored in her likeness, originating from her account forevermore. The first such post, Cindy’s Life Retrospective, is now live and can be viewed at her profile page, or at her memorial tablet onsite at Hillcrest Cemetery.  

#pour1forCin #CorgisRpeople2 #mother_of_4 

 
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ONE DRUNKEN M. LEVAR IN RELATION TO SMALL GROUP by Scott Malone

 To ease elaborations, an assumption will be made for the reader. That, from sober perspectives, stupor-induced antics most commonly associated with alcoholics are the chaotic, frenzied movements of temporarily broken brains; they contain zero scientific insights. This case intends to show Academia why the understanding is incorrect. And that, under objective lenses of scientific method and reason, significant behavioral patterns emerge in those chronically inebriated. 

Like moths to light, Drunks are attracted to groups of people. More so, if the group is standing. A strange phenomenon—especially considering a Drunk’s near-constant lack of balance—that’s generated a sort of mythos-cult following in underground psychology. However, regardless of notoriety, no peer-reviewed articles exist concerning correlations between a) size of group and/or b) subject’s inebriation level with c) likelihood of unsolicited intrusion. 

Until now. 

One Drunken M. Levar in Relation to Small Group proudly announces the first documented case of Group-Influenced Drunken Intrusion, or GIDI. 

Catalyzation Group size, shockingly small: Amethyst standing beside Trudin and Baco’s booth for drink orders.

Considered the local drunk by the local drunks, Mitch (male, 49, Drunk) was known by Pub’s bartenders as the regular whom under no circumstance should be served liquor, lest ye wanted a gremlin climbing the tar-stained walls, wielding darts, threatening whichever unlucky bastard nearest the jukebox with acupuncture if they dared not play “Behind Blue Eyes” again. 

Sidenote: Mitch’s eyes are blue.

After stumbling half-zipped from the men’s room, Mitch shuffled toward Trudin’s booth and managed landing a heavy hand on Amethyst’s shoulder for balance before anyone realized what was unfolding. 

“CIGARRETTE,” Mitch announced, limp and slack-jawed. 

Labored breathing, its flammable scent, increased agitation flickering behind sunken eyes—all clear evidence that, somewhere throughout the night, Amethyst had made the crucial mistake of serving Mitch the Evil Spirits.  

“What?” Trudin asked the Drunk.

Mitch gave a cross-eyed smoking gesture for clarification and Amethyst shook his hand off her shoulder, tipping the belligerent forward, palm-to-table, where he vented halitosis fumes at Trudin with closer proximity. 

“A CIGARETTE,” the Drunk elaborated.

Trudin faced Amethyst, avoiding the brunt of vile breath, and said, “Just the tab, Amber-thyst,” before directing full attention toward the GIDI.

“What about a cigarette?” Baco chimed in. 

It’s believed Mitch planned on saying, “DO YOU HAVE ONE?” But this is unconfirmed, because the question never aired. His brain was instead forced to make an emergency interruption, updating the body on the severity of its equilibrium crisis. Firing last-ditch messages at the legs, the brain alerted both to spread out: WARNING, GAIN WIDER STANCE IMMEDIATELY.  

Unfortunately, brains are also quite susceptible liquor, sadly, and left leg information was accidentally sent to the right. The result: a catastrophic crossing of extremities. 

Mitch—legs buckling inward like a full-bladdered schoolboy—was spun a sharp 180° and sent staggering away from the booth, collecting speed while the brain calculated adjustments needed to offset its acute angle with the floor. Feet pigeon-toed, flopping onto locked knees, desperate to stay ahead the leaning tower of drunken mass. Acceleration continued along this trajectory until critical velocity was reached. Then, breaking into a spastic run before feet lost all contact with floor, Mitch was sent free-falling toward the bar, headfirst. 

Lacking a proper variable for drunken luck, it’s unknown mathematically how Mitch’s skull missed the bar—forehead grazing the corner’s edge close enough to lift a tuft of thinning hair. And thus, thanks only to probability, damage sustained from the fall was mitigated to a 1/4” gash on Mitch’s chin where he’d caught a barstool’s polished seat and added four wooden legs to his already horizontal two. 

Impact with Pub’s floor culminates the first recorded GIDI, concludes “One Drunken M. Levar in Relation to Small Group on a successful note. 

With Mitch’s life-threatening response validating the alternative hypothesis, this groundbreaking case raises many questions, insinuates underlying cause. Chance a deeper meaning lurks within the phenomenon alone warrants future research. 

Acknowledgements: There’s no denying the burden placed on those unfortunate enough to have crossed Mitch’s path that night, but it’s Academia that’s truly indebted. 

So, here’s to you, Mr. Levar, for all that was sacrificed as tribute to knowledge. 

And, in summary, one final commendation is required for the way Mr. Levar concluded the GIDI. Because Mitch didn’t simply prove his case, he rested it with style and grace seldom seen by Science: disproving long-held standings that a Drunk’s actions possess no inherent value while simultaneously paying homage to History’s most iconic science experiment with his very own rendition of Galileo’s “Falling Objects” test.

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MY TORNADO by Joshua Bohnsack

While I could reach outside my tornado, it was still difficult to hug my date at the end of the night. He never asked me specifically about the tornado, but he did keep asking if I was okay.

I said, “Yeah. Sure. Thanks for asking,” and knocked the saltshaker over. 

He took a pinch of salt and threw it over his left shoulder. “For good luck. It fixes it.” 

“Ah.” I tried to do the same, but the salt grains got stuck in my tornado and I became reminded of my failure every few seconds, when the salt would wrap around the cyclone into my field of vision.

When I back away at the end-of-date hug, he says, “I had a nice time, at least.”

“Me too,” I tell him. “Right now is just a weird time for me.”

He crosses his arms. “I get it. I’m just a stock character who you’ll remember as ‘The Salt Guy.’ I’ve been on dates before. I know how this goes.”

The salt guy walks away from my front door and calls me a tease. I watch as he disappears off set.

My roommate asks me how the date went, without turning from the reality show she’s watching. She gathers a handful of popcorn from the bowl in her lap.

“He called me a tease before he walked off set.”

On the TV, restaurant employees look for love, mainly among the rest of the staff. I take off my shoes and they start to circulate around my shins until I kick them out of my tornado’s pull. 

Through a mouthful of popcorn, my roommate says, “It’s tough out there.”

I don’t say, ‘You wouldn’t know, you’ve been in here for months,’ but I do tell her it was okay. “It’s the same as the last one. He’s fine, but I’m not. Or at least not right now.”

In the reality show a bartender named Harper tells the camera, “I can have any woman I want, but I want Jessica.” It’s romantic, in a way.

Jessica asks the camera, “Why would Harper want me? He can have any woman he wants.” A customer in the background asks for the check and Jessica continues to talk about Harper and his ability to have women. 

“He didn’t say anything about my tornado.”

“Oh honey, you can hardly notice it.” She ingests a handful of popcorn. “That’s good though.”

“He did keep asking if I was okay.”

“That’s bad.” 

I reach into her bowl and watch Harper pour a martini for a bar patron who says, “I didn’t order this. I ordered a Hamm’s. It’s a beer. They’re different drinks.” Harper winks at Jessica and my roommate says, “Aw. That’s what you need: someone who feels about you the way Harper feels about Jessica.”

I swallow the popcorn. It’s bland and dry, missing something.

“How can I find someone to feel that way about me if I can’t feel that way about myself?”

She shrugs and eats some popcorn. Jessica tells the camera about Harper’s hair and the general manager says, “You have drinks up at the bar.”

Jessica turns to the camera and says, “Harper is always leaving me gifts like this.”

“The customers are angry,” the manager says. “Our Yelp reviews have been plummeting since you all started doing this.”

Jessica picks up the drinks and Harper leans over the service station. He starts to tell her something, but pulls back and looks to the boom operator. “What’s my next line?” he asks.

The camera pans to the boom operator, who shrugs. There’s a silence between the scene and the commercial break. All I can hear is the crunching of my roommate’s popcorn and the whoosh of my tornado.

“This is bland,” I tell her, meaning the popcorn. I put my hand up and grab a handful of air and salt that had been spinning around my head. I throw the salt over the bowl of popcorn and eat some more. 

“Better?” my roommate asks.

“Better, but it’ll never be good enough.”

My roommate looks at me for the first time since I came home from my date. In an ad for a nationwide neighborhood grill, the spokesperson asks why millennials don’t love them. 

“Our apps are so cheap. We thought you loved apps. Please come back.” 

“This is bland, too,” I say. “Everything about this world is bland.” I stand up and my tornado whooshes. “I don’t need love, and I don’t need any of these things the TV is pushing at me.”

“Don’t bring the TV into this. You’re being salty about your date.”

“It’s not just the date.” My tornado roars around me and my roommate’s popcorn gets sucked in the cyclone. “They’re selling us love while they sell us apps.” The remote whirls around my waist like a hula-hoop. “They sell us love while they’re selling us ad space and air time.” My roommate holds onto the couch to avoid getting sucked in while the furniture skids across the floor into my vortex. “I’m salty, but only because I need something of substance. I’m salty because I’ve been out there trying to find a connection like these two,” I say, thrusting my finger towards the encroaching TV screen, “when all I need is myself.” 

The winds around me die down and the furniture lands with a thud. “It’s not even Harper or Jessica’s fault. I mean, he can’t even remember his lines.” 

We’re quiet in the wreckage around us.

“I’ll grab a broom. Then I’m going for a walk.” 

As I leave the living room, I hear Harper say, “Well, yeah, but I usually know my lines.

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OUR LADY ENTERS THE CITY [IN THREE ATTEMPTS] by Sarah Arantza Amador

1. The caravel moaned as it crept up the wide, drowsy river mouth, and it was met at the city limits by crowds of urchins, prostitutes, and thieves in the early dawn. The city’s soldiers dropped the corroded chain between the twin fortresses on either bank of the river, and the caravel continued its lumbering penetration of the city. The boat finally pulled into port just as the bursars were roused from their beds, brought jostling through the crowds to meet the returning fleet. Down the gangplank came the parade of the king’s bedraggled men, the king’s bags of raw gold dust, the king’s parrots and anemic flamingos, the head of a desiccated royal palm, and select nightshade varietals in moldy hemp sacks. And, finally, her: gift of the Holy Ghost, down the gangplank came she, locked in chains, more valuable than the contents of any war chest.

2. “Watch yourself--don’t get too fucking close to her,” hissed the noseless lieutenant to his men. They were exhausted, shuffling from bare broken foot to bare broken foot, avoiding their superior’s glare and watching impatiently from the deck as the caravel crept through the flotsam and garbage floating down the Guadalquivir. Dawn rose over the minarets in the center of the city, and they were spotted by ruffians camped along the riverbank. “Ring the bells! Ring the bells--by God, they’ve returned!” First it was one scabby boy, and then it was all of them, sniveling and crying. The men sobbed as they hurried down the gangplank and pushed into the crowd of jeering drunks and tavern cheats who met them in port. The lieutenant brought up the rear, his coconut-carved prosthesis sliding roughly over the gaping hole of his exposed nasal cavity. They unloaded the booty and the half-dead and wilted specimens. She was brought out last--as lively as ever--and they kept the chains taut on her, her jaws snapping in her beautiful face.

 

3. They say that a holy light emanated from the caravel as it floated silently up the river--that it sailed like a beautiful angel, its white bosom rising softly over the water lapping at the bow. It appeared in the dawn as though trumpeting the sun’s arrival, and the people cried and cheered, the youngest and strongest walking out into the waters to meet her. They say that the city’s soldiers wept as they lowered the great chain. They placed their hands over their faces and washed their fronts with their tears at the sight of her. When the sailors put down the gangplank and disembarked with the king’s prizes, the last feet to grace the boards were those from which the light shone. The Lady’s brilliance stunned the crowd, the scales along her naked body dazzling them all as they shimmered and pierced their eyes like the cleanest ice, Blessed Mother. Never before had the people beheld such pulchritude, such grace, such magnificent terror. 

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FACT: HANNAH AND HER HUSBAND USED TO BE HAPPY by Jennifer Todhunter

Hannah passes out with the lights on again, the room as bright as day. Her phone is almost dead from staying up late sexting, slipped underneath the pillow on a bed that’s not hers—a bed she borrowed so she can sort her life, a bed too short for long legs, bent like figure fours on unfamiliar sheets. Hannah preset an alarm (and a backup and a backup for the backup), but she wakes when the alcohol abandons her system instead, her stomach pinched with unease, her brain brimming with a laundry list of what-ifs, always landing on the worst-case:

What if we divorce? 

or: 

What if we stay together?

On Hannah’s way to work, the train and bus are filled with people wearing face masks, the hysteria surrounding the epidemic-almost-pandemic a fever pitch. The thought of putting something over her nose and/or mouth, the thought of breathing in her own breath despite having brushed her teeth three times since rising, recycling the fumes from last night, the wine and clams and fries and garlic, makes her want to barf.

Hannah and her husband married on the edge of a river, fifty feet from the spot they’d chosen, and neither one of them noticed they were in the wrong place.

Hannah and her husband honeymooned on Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, and spent the whole time shitfaced. 

Hannah and her husband both know the Spanish flu is the worst pandemic to-date, killing over 100 million people, yet they’re planning a return trip despite this other flu taking hold—a trip with their kids, so their kids can swim in turquoise water and gorge on calamares a la romana and patatas bravas, while Hannah and her husband revisit the place they first fucked when married to see if it jolts something inside. 

Fact: The odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 3000.

Fact: The odds of being struck by lightning twice are 1 in 9 million. 

Hannah knows in the base of her being, the crunch of her heart—she’s not going to be struck back into anything.

Fact: Hannah’s husband hasn't struck her, but he's struck the wall next to her head and that was close enough.

Hannah stands outside her office building in an inappropriate jacket and casual shoes because living between two places is a bitch and one rarely has what one wants. She watches rain run off the bridge overhead, opens her mouth and feels it fall against the scum on her teeth. She wishes the rain were mucus slipping inside her, pandemic-flavored mucus, the slip more of a twist and a thrust like she told the guy she was sexting last night, and maybe she’ll get infected after all and Spain will be off the table.

Fact: Hannah’s husband is sober but wasn’t always sober.

Fact: Hannah drinks now but didn’t always drink drink. 

Every Tuesday, Hannah and her husband carpool home from work so they can both watch their son play hockey, and they always pre-agree not to talk about anything meaningful or difficult in terms of their relationship on this weekly ride. (Fact: Months pass quickly when counted by weeks.) Hannah always buys each of them a coffeeespresso, milk, honeybefore they start on the long drive to different homes in the same community, veering in and out of gridlocked traffic.

Fact: Hannah would prefer to be on the bus or train, but there’s the damned epidemic-almost-pandemic, and she can’t bear to bring sickness home to the kids she sees only three-and-a-half-days-a-week, so here she is, in a car with her sort-of-husband. Again.

Fact: Kids under five are more susceptible to the flu. 

Fact: Only 30% of women have more than two children. 

Fact: Hannah had two back-to-back babies and was done forever.

Before Hannah’s husband stopped drinking, he liked to explode her friendships. To this day, Hannah isn’t sure whether this was something he did on purpose, a control mechanism, or the booze telling him to act like an asshole. 

This is what keeps Hannah up at night when the booze isn’t.

Fact: Hannah is aware of the irony.

After this week’s hockey game, Hannah and her husband will sit at the dining room table, listening to their kids talk excitedly about Spain, about its sunshine and seafood, about the novelty of going together. Hannah will sip a glass of wine, consider what it means to move on, how moving on is just taking up space in a different moment, moment after moment, and how all these moments equate to a lifetime. 

Fact: Hannah and her husband have one life each of indeterminate length. 

Fact: A life has a start and an end.

Fact: Marriages, however joyful, have a start and an end, too.

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THE FALL by Sara Lippmann

Last night I passed out as you fucked me for 100 hours for 18 years on the living room floor. The mood was right: kids out, throw pillows deftly arranged, fire doing its snap crackle pop, flames licking the grate. There was wine and weed—an empty house!—so it could’ve been the freedom alone and not the fucking though I believe it was. We all believe something. I also hadn’t eaten and you know how I get (after a day, 100 hours, 18 years.) Your words: A woman needs food, sustenance. 

A woman needs (insert here) 

What I remember: four posts (two hands two knees) on the floor, skin burning wood. In another life this might qualify as harness breaking but I was no horse I was already domesticated we were married this was our kind of violence (our love) on the living room floor there was no breaking free. We fucked so long my head swelled (bloviated!) my body ballooned until it ceased to be a body but a bounce castle to pound and sink into I yielded like a catcher’s mitt you tunneled then I tunneled we mastered the slippage for a period of grace but after eternity images break loose, vision blurs, as a child we watched stations of snow and test patterns we’d watch anything but (snow is a relic) I can no longer work the TV—anyhow, here we were, streaming!—there was no getting off only giving in, a distant cry from the sidelines of tilt-a-whirl: no stopping a moving ride once it’s started.

How easy to lose track of time when things take forever. I am quick. Call it manners. Women are taught. I’ve never made you wait, whereas you were taking your sweet time, well beyond sweet, this was neither prowess nor stamina, this was—who is she, who is he? All I could think: Surely, you’re cheating. It was that long. I may have growled it. I cannot be sure.

Again, maybe it was the wine or weed. It’s not like I’ve ever been fucked unconscious. Poke that feather in your slot, hubs, and puff it.

The fire spat like party snaps, rolling papers pouched with gravel and gunpowder and given to kids by the fist. Not enough to do anything serious. It sounded like a gun going off but nothing went off, least of all you, I grew older I grew a beard I lost myself—sometimes you lose—we were motion not matter we would die here beside the burning hearth until (finally! unceremoniously! Pfft!) you went off and I stood, plugged for the powder room, but when I came to there I was naked and bent like a thief, leaking spoils on cold tile.

Later, there’d be the goose egg the 3 a.m. scare the rainy ride to the ER the throbbing wait the moon rock knocking of the MRI machine you’re in luck it could have been worse the brain scrambles in the aftermath of seizing a mysterious pair of thumb-sized burns stacked on my back like a colon.

But now—

Now, there was only me, swirling, looking up from the living room floor: What happened?

And you, looking down: Oh. Baby, you fell.

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“PANDEMIC WAVES” by Michael Seymour Blake


Michael Seymour Blake is the author of the art book 12 Days of Santa Crying. Shirts featuring his art can be seen on hot bodies around the world. He eats, sleeps, doodles, writes, lives in Queens, NY. He easily gets lost.

Instagram: @michaelseymourblake
Fabulous (It's True!) Website: MichaelSeymourBlake.com

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MURMURATION by Daniel Fraser

Chip Disco hated chips, and disco. He only ever danced alone. Chip worked the skeletons in the Blackpool Ghost House and had done for three years. Four rooms in, the skeletons crept out from a false cupboard that looked like it wasn't part of the house at all. Everyone said it was the best bit.  

The timing was everything; the timing was Chip's special skill. Just when the customers thought they were safe, after fleeing from the slime pit and the array of plastic bats, Chip would catch them unawares. A camera hidden in a pumpkin took a picture of their faces distorted with fear. There were three photo points in the Ghost House but Chip's sold the best. He always knew the perfect time. 

The Ghost House was part of Adventureland, a complex of amusements and arcades knocked-up in the shadow of the tower for those who couldn't afford the Pleasure Beach. The owners were too cheap to buy a sensor, but Chip's boss Graham still threatened every now and then to replace him with a little red light.

'More reliable too,' Graham would tell him, and then laugh like any of this was new.

They weren't allowed to call them customers, in the park they were always referred to as adventurers, 'to make it seem more real,' Graham said, 'a fully immersive experience'. Chip and Sally, who dressed as a clown and came down the last corridor with a kitchen knife, smirked at one another.

'An immersive experience,' said Sally afterwards, with a face that said sarcasm but also said help.

'Like sticking your head in a toilet is an immersive experience,' said Chip, grinning.

Chip and Sally were friends. They watched DVDs in bed together and sometimes had sex.  Sally liked to watch a whole series in one night and Chip slept badly so they got on just fine. They had another friend named Benny who worked as a dolphin in Splash Town, the place for the under fives. Benny worked part time and employed two boys, both inexplicably called Jason, to sell drugs in nightclubs on Friday and Saturday nights. Benny never paid entry in to anywhere and said he did the dolphin thing 'just for fun'.

It was a bad week in the Ghost House; the season should not be ending so soon. Graham was dragging everyone to team talks and going on about the ‘Adventureland family’. One evening when they were in bed Chip caressed Sally's head and kissed her dark neck softly and sweetly. She asked if they were 'becoming more real,' and Chip said 'maybe'. They put the TV on low and held one another in the fuzzy light.

The next day Chip and Sally met for lunch at the Blue Dragon Chinese buffet. Benny joined them with the dolphin folded up inside a big sports bag.

'How are you?' Sally asked.

'Kweeeh,' said Benny. He had to stay in character all day in Splash Town so he didn't spoil the magic for the children. Sometimes he kept it going for a laugh. The first time Chip called him 'Marlon-fucking-Brando' and Benny did a version of the dolphin noise mixed with the Godfather and they laughed so hard that Sally nearly choked on a fried tiger prawn.

'It's bad today,' said Chip, 'I feel down or something.'

'I know,' said Sally, 'I feel it too.' She was staring at a piece of sesame toast like it was a playing card.

'This place,' said Chip.

'Yeah,' said Sally with a vague kind of long-term sadness.

'An immersive experience,' said Chip.

'Kweeeh,' said Benny. They laughed and went to get a second plate of spring rolls.

Benny asked if they wanted to meet up on Friday and go to the big hotel. There were bands playing and Benny could put them on the guest list. They both said they would see later on. Benny nodded and clicked his tongue. They paid £5.95 each and Sally held Chip's hand. Benny went to the bathroom with his bag and came out dressed as the dolphin. The waitress in the buffet shrieked with laughter and the owner pretended to chop Benny into pieces with a meat cleaver. Then they went back to work. 

It was early afternoon. The day was cloudy. A mother and son had just gone in. Chip sat in the dark booth waiting for them to enter the skeleton room. He waited. The woman and the boy did not come through. Chip checked the camera in the slime pit but found no one. He used the intercom to ask the vampire (an acne-ridden teenager called Joseph with a deformed hand following an accident with a deep-fat fryer) if he had seen anyone pass through. Joseph said he hadn't.

Chip wondered where they could be. He snuck out of the booth and up into the place where the mechanism moved the skeletons. From there he pushed through and out into the Ghost House. Chip looked at the pumpkin camera, trying to think if there was a way to take a picture of himself. He went backwards through the slime pit, feeling the strange texture of spider webs and furry bats brushing through his hair. At the entrance Chip saw Sir Spooks-a-Lot manning the ticket booth. Spooks-a-Lot nodded, his plume swayed. Chip nodded then turned back inside the house. He carried on through his own room, climbed back into the skeleton cupboard and left through the staff entrance. Chip walked round to the exit tunnel and waited. No one came. He went to the shop and asked Jenny if anyone had collected any photographs. Jenny said ‘no’ and blew a bubble of yellow gum that inflated and swallowed up her eyes.

Chip went outside and stared at the pin-board covered with photos; a selection of staff favourites mixed with the most recent visitors. He saw the wall of faces, terrified for their lives. Lone adults, limbs distended, shaken white. Little boys and little girls, clinging to their parents for dear life. They seemed twisted with pain, wretched before the skeletal creatures that stood slightly out of frame. Chip looked at the ground. A thick lump of feeling grew inside him, a dark pain or a kind of sickness. He walked away from the Ghost House and through the turnstile exit of Adventureland.

Chip wandered down along the waterfront, following the coast south. A heavy wind was blowing across the grey expanse of sea. A few gulls swept up into the cloud. It felt big, he thought, bigger than anything he could imagine. Some vague stuff about life and death drifted through him and he felt as though the wind might tear up all the land and the ocean and carry it away into the sky. He imagined the Ghost House and the whole of Adventureland breaking up over the Atlantic, the debris swirling like a great murmuration of birds. 

A lone donkey trotted in the damp dunes, unattached to any purpose, its rope bridle dragging in the air. Chip bought candyfloss from a yellow cabin and waved the chewy pink stick in front of him like a lance. Further down he came to a windmill rising from a traffic island. It had been painted white and black. The blades were completely still, like someone had broken it on purpose, to make it just for show. It looked like a sad giant, he thought, frozen and bleached by the cold. He passed by a statue of a footballer, standing with one foot on a copper ball. Chip walked on. He thought maybe he could just keep walking until all the land ran out. The Ghost House, the adventurers, the dolphins, and the flat screaming faces pressed down like a weight against his chest. 

Chip looked up again. It was cloudy—the same cloud as before. The same sky. He wondered if he would feel better if it was blue. Rain started and then stopped. The wind carried on. The big feeling came back, whirling through him like a storm. He felt sad and thought for a moment he might cry. There was a little spark in him—he knew that. Something worthwhile. Everyone had one. On bad days he wanted the spark to go out. Work was easier then.  

One autumn Sally convinced him to go to night classes at the college. He took one on photography and one on literature. When he told the photography students about the pumpkin they all laughed at him but the teacher said Chip had a fantastic sense of time. He liked reading too, especially the old classics, big tales of demons and adventure, but afterwards they all got confused and he couldn't separate them. Even so, there was something inside him then, a spark, another big feeling—different. A kind of moving forward.

Chip realised he had reached another town. He saw it had the same mud, the same grey sea, the same run-down arcades, but all the names had changed. Chip thought about the woman and the boy who had vanished, about whether they might be trapped in the Ghost House, the horror turned real, desperate and unable to get out, or if it would turn out they were just in his head, part of his imagination—a vision of lost innocence, his failed youth—or some other cheap trick. Chip laughed out loud, the heavy feeling was pulling free. He felt loose and light. Sally called and asked if she could stay over. He said he'd like that, and he would buy her dinner. As Chip went to say goodbye the last thing she said was lost to the wind. He ended the call and felt a little warmth rustle in his body.

Chip entered an amusement park called Virgil's with a pirate-alien in a red spacesuit moulded in plastic on the outside. He put a pound in a slot machine and got three back. He played the Evil Claws game and won a level-two prize. Chip took the ticket to the counter. The owner wore an eye-patch but no other pirate clothes. The wind was flicking hot sand into his mouth. He made a halfhearted pirate sound and handed Chip a cuddly leopard. Chip decided he was 'on a roll' and played the ice hockey machine. He won 3-1 against the Devils. Chip went further inside the amusement arcade, grinning at the bright lights and strange games. In the very back was an empty dancehall. Chip ducked through the red curtain and went inside. Down there you could not tell day from night. There was the warmth again, a little spark. As the music pulsed up through his body, Chip began to dance alone.

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THE SWADDLE by Janelle Bassett

I am at the sink, rinsing a food processor blade, when I hear the cry of a tiny baby. Carrot bits go down the drain, easy, but the insistent wailing isn’t going anywhere. I assume the sound is some sort of inner-ear repercussion from the electronic-tornado buzzing of the food processor, yet the sound continues even after I open my mouth wide to pop my ears. A baby is definitely crying and it’s an I’ve-been-left-alone-which-I-am-not-built-for cry.

I look up and think back, “Didn’t my babies grow past the baby stage?”

I consult the refrigerator where, sure enough, their recent school pictures confirm that my children are old enough to wear collars, sit upright, have teeth growing from their gums, and act natural when exposed to sudden flashes of unnatural light. 

Have the neighbors left their baby outside? I don’t judge other parents (except constantly, inside my head) but I might have to call someone if the Rheingold’s have forced that baby to do yard work. 

I walk to the other side of the kitchen to get a clear view of their backyard. No baby. Just an upside-down bucket. I don’t think the Rheingolds would leave their baby outside under a bucket—they put an awful lot of effort into their Christmas decorations. 

I swear the crying must be coming from my own yard. It’s that close—I feel a certain duty. I dry my hands and head out the back door.

The baby isn’t even hiding, it’s on top of the picnic table. The baby would make a terrible picnic host— swaddled arms cannot scoop, serve, fetch or pour. All those tears would water down the potato salad. I say “shhh” to my incessant inner chatter and to the swaddled baby crying atop my backyard picnic table. 

I realize the baby is translucent and that this means that I am having some sort of breakdown. An auditory hallucination led me toward a visual hallucination. I don’t like where this is heading. If this baby has a smell I am really in some trouble, mentally. I bend down and sniff. When my face is so-close the crying stops, or the hallucination mutes. The scent: a mix of blood, leather, and that smell the furnace makes the first time it kicks on for the season. 

The baby and I stare at each other. It looks up at me with such love and acceptance that I feel rather guilty for looking back down with eyes that make accusations like, “You are not real. This is not happening. You are alarming evidence of my deteriorating mental health. You look a great deal like my father-in-law.”

The crying resumes. I’ve broken whatever promises I made with the earlier proximity of my face. I pick up the baby because it seems healthy to follow your instincts even as you’re falling apart. As soon as my hands touch the baby its skin and blanket become as solid and opaque as everything else in my backyard. Now the table-baby and the heartleaf brunnera are on an equal footing. 

It stops screaming and I know it is my baby because I hear a voice in my head saying, “I am your baby.”

“You can talk? That doesn’t make any sense!” We both laugh at that, my laugh emitting out into the grass, the baby’s giggling between my ears.

“If we are touching you will know what I’m saying. I am the baby you are too selfish to have.”

I turn the baby over to see if it has a tag or a tether and also to punish it for calling me selfish. 

I use my maternal-wisdom voice to say, “It’s not selfish to know your limits.”

Okay Mommy, I am the baby you are too limited to have.”

My other children are also smart asses. My other children have also had my number from day one. I kiss the baby’s forehead and ask how it ended up on the picnic table even though I’d diligently prevented its existence. 

The short answer is that I wanted you that badly. I wanted you enough to manifest on my own, all while knowing you don’t want me.”

Look baby, this is exactly the kind of hungry need I was avoiding when I decided not to have you.  “Do you have a name?”

Lou.”

“Do you have a gender?”

Why? Would you have me if I came with a certain gender?”

“No.”

If you want to know my gender you’ll have to birth me and then keep me alive me long enough for me to know myself.”

“That’s a lot to ask.”

“Admit it, you think of me just as much as I think of you.”

I stick my face into Lou’s neck. “Of course I do. I am a walking hormone swamp. But it would be irresponsible to bring you here now. The planet is dying.”

“I’d love to witness a thing like that. What a gift you could give me: consciousness with which to view the great collapse.”

I cup Lou’s cheek. “If I had you, there would be fewer resources for your siblings: parental attention, money, hot water. It wouldn’t be fair to them. They got here first.”

“I’ll have you know they pushed and shoved to get to the front of the line. They maimed and belittled!”

“I’m sorry, Lou. Are you cold? Do you want to go inside?”

“Inside your womb?”

“No, dear. Inside the house.”

Lou cries a bit, setback, and then says, “I will love you completely despite your many faults. I’ll never ask for anything. I’ll wear hand-me-downs and eat table scraps. If you don’t like the name Lou I’d happily be called after one of your great-grandparents or the offspring of a bottom-tier celebrity. You don’t even have to look me in the eye! I just want to hold a bug in my hand and taste vanilla bean.”

“Oh Lou,” I say. “If you promised to never come out—a permanent pregnancy, an ongoing residency—then I’d do it. I think I could carry you as long as you were forced to go where I wanted.”

“Is that your best offer?”

“Yes. I’m not proud of it.”

“That helps.”

Someone nearby starts a lawn mower and I instinctively pull Lou into my breasts.  “How do I put you in there?”

“Wait! Are you sure this is your best offer? I will wear any Halloween costume you choose and let you take as many photos as you’d like. I’ll pose without any regard for my own self respect. I could even carry a small broom and dustpan and sweep up all my own footprints and crumbs. And… I don’t mean to brag, but I will be your favorite. Hands down, your favorite. A joy. A delight. A human stocking stuffer.”

“You sound like the perfect constant presence, Lou—a right-nice inborn companion.” I squeeze so tight and push so hard that if Lou’s body were real it would be in great pain. But instead of being injured, Lou is being absorbed. 

Lou quickly says, “You could be more generous. You could challenge yourself and then grow from it” before being fully smooshed into my body. 

Lou is gone from my arms. I remember the stew I was making before being summoned outside. Lou says, “Can I have stew?” from within and I sigh so heavily I wonder if Lou could’ve been dislodged. 

Before going inside, I place my hand on my belly and we settle our terms. Lou will remain quiet inside me—observing, recording—until we are in bed, alone, the siblings asleep nearby. At that point of the day I’ll be available for questions—we will engage, we will process and if Lou wants to jump and flail I’ll put my hand on the site of that jumping. 

I go in and Lou goes quiet. I finish stew preparations, wipe the counter, and send my closest friend a text that says, “I hope menopause comes for me soon because every month my PMS gets deeper and stranger.”

I walk to the bus stop and retrieve my children. I greet them and in response they hand me their belongings so they can run ahead, unburdened.

I can feel Lou wanting to ask for a backpack. 

At dinner my partner asks, “Since when do you put ketchup on cornbread? Don’t you hate ketchup?” I couldn’t tell him, “Lou wants it. Lou needs it. Lou is ecstatic about experiencing ketchup.”

After reading my children a chapter from a book about a family of bickering yet relatable armadillos I say goodnight, kiss their necks and try not to picture them forcefully kicking, slapping, or shoving Lou away from the front of the line. 

Downstairs, my partner and I read and hold each other’s feet. Then he’s shaking my foot, waking me, telling me to go to bed.

I’ve barely laid down before Lou asks, “What did that tweet mean… about how people who are reluctant to pee in the shower probably have sad inhibited sex?”

“You can see out of my eyes?”

Of course.”

“This is not how a pregnancy works, Lou. You’re supposed to be captivated and fulfilled by the sound of my heartbeat.”

“We both know this is a special pregnancy. Get up. Let’s go outside and lick the grass! I want to taste grass immediately.”

“No, it’s time to go to sleep. These are the rhythms of a day. Let’s talk about the sunset.”

What was that feeling we had when we closed the door to my siblings’ room? I didn’t like it.”

“That was relief and regret and longing and tenderness.”

“What was that sensation whipping us as we rolled in the trash bin?”

“That was wind.”

“Why did you scrape the dinner plates into the trash?”

“That was waste.”

“Can we lick the grass now? I’m awake to it all. I’m not a bit tired.”

“No, Lou. I am going to fall asleep.” I put my hand on my lower abdomen. “I can touch your dance first, if you’d like.”

“The grass the grass the grass.”

“I said no and I meant it.”

Lou adds movement to the chant—pendulum elbows poke and stretch my skin to the beat of “grass grass grass.”

I roll onto my stomach, pressing my weight into the bed, trying to end this day.

“You push me and yet I can… feel myself growing. My intestines just developed a new capacity. My forearm can nearly flex. I think the spurts come when you deny me the experiences I need, Mommy. If you don’t respond to my impulses I’ll become a head to push. Life is insistent, Mommy. I’m a steamroller, Mommy. It’s all chemical, Mommy. My growth is your growth is all toward the end, Mommy. The grass grass grass. My lightening could be your strike, mommy. I could. Let me! Let me. And when I’m all said and done we can call it your decision.”

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EVERYTHING I’VE LEARNT FROM THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND by Rick White

1

The vicar is an old friend of your mother. You don’t like him. When I ask why you say, “He didn’t give me an orange when I was little.” The orange represents the world; the candle is Jesus, “The Light of the World.” The toothpicks with sweets on them are the four seasons (of course). I have so many questions but I don’t ask, lest I burst into flames. “I like the liquorice all-sorts,” you say, as you pop one in your mouth. 

2

I’ve always had a stutter, though I’ve learnt to control it over time. Whenever I got stuck on a word as a kid I would pretend I’d forgotten what I was about to say. Then later, as an adult, I discovered that shouting FUCK! mid-sentence actually helped. Now as I stand, waiting to say my wedding vows, I’m painfully aware those strategies aren’t going to work. Then you walk into the church, and when you reach me you hold my hand. I’m not sure this is allowed—if it’s somehow not showing the appropriate amount of reverence—but we stay this way throughout the service, and when the time comes, I speak.

3

The day of your grandmother’s funeral, we meet at her house. A glass of water still sits on the nightstand in her bedroom and it makes you cry. I think of her placing the glass there, as I think of the words we’ll hear today: in sure and certain hope of the resurrection. I guess we all need a little faith, otherwise how would we ever do anything as terrifying as speaking to a pretty girl, or lying down to sleep every night?

4

I help carry your grandmother’s coffin. It’s trickier than it looks, especially as your uncle is six inches taller than I am on the opposite side. When we set her down, I notice my suit jacket is covered in sawdust from the bottom of the box. I try to brush it off without being too obvious. You can’t stop giggling, because you know I had my suit dry-cleaned yesterday. It’s the first time I’ve seen you laugh in weeks, and I laugh with you, quietly. I tried my best to look smart for Granny, and now I can’t get rid of the damn coffin dust.

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EXPANSE by Tyler Dillow

She talks to me at the bar. She talks about him. Him, the fucking bastard. How could you not fall in love with him and how could you not hate him? She talks back at me.

On the front patio of the bar, she lies next to me and the inner mass of a star collapses inside her. The star collapses inside her earthly body. The star collapses the lives of crumpled people—people shrinking, people expanding. 

Have you seen that Lars Von Trier film—fuck—what’s it called? You know the one where the leading actress is blonde and white and she lays in the river or whatever in her wedding dress. You know like Ophelia.

I don’t know her name.

I say to her, Do you remember when this state was asleep? Heavy air surrounds us, but we are just sitting. Am I him? Am I the him she talks about, that fucking bastard. I hope not, but I hope. She says, We were always asleep, we were aware of what surrounds us.

Maybe, I’m this man. Do you believe in heaven?

You’re talking about Melancholia. What about it? That Ophelia metaphor was always a little too much for me, I say.

She’s always collapsing, always frantic, always calm—these are the signs of my favorite people. The kind of people I fall in love with, the kind of people dipping spoons into the universe.

I leave her. I go home.

She calls me. She is at some truck stop. Her car got a flat. She breathes through the phone. She breathes like the flints hills—this is the sound of her crashing. Can you come? Will you help me? 

I do not care. I drive to get her. I breathe and she breathes. We are at a truck stop—inflating and deflating. 

She holds my hand. She feels like every shock of wheat—dirty, holy, filthy.

She eats M&Ms, one at a time, and sips Coke in-between bites. She laughs. The creamy pastels from the sun in the skyline melt into her. When she looks at me, I see her. She looks at me as if she is alone. And she is.

When you hold my hand, I’m connected. I’m running through a wire and you’re the transmission signal, I say. 

Water drops and fog stick to her apartment. I kiss her. She tastes like sweet grain.

Do you believe in heaven? Like a heaven you can touch?

I stretch across her. She talks about that man again. She talks about how he understands her. How he believes in her without a word. It all sounds made up. It’s all sounds made for hate. I hate him. She exhales and constellations beat my chest and he beats me. He beats my chest. I collapse. I collapse and come together through her body.

Thick grassland and hedgerows roll by the window as we drive. You shake just like the trees. The trees stop shaking and her hair is frizzy. Her hairy is frizzy and moves like the light of a star. I’m as real as everything. I breathe like she did. The car stops and I breathe like I did before. 

She leans on my car. Smoke billows out of the hood. The wind picks up. She walks to the ditch and picks a wild flower. I used to put these in mason jars when I was little. My grandma and I would add food coloring to the water and in a few hours the petals wouldn’t be white anymore. I think about her as a child. I am convinced she is real. 

She walks into the field. Grass and weeds up to her knees. She spins and spins. She spins, until I want to spin, but I don’t. I stay next to the car. A weight presses down on me, the soil quakes, I feel her breath. I take from the world. I take and I want to give, but I can’t. My feet drag forward. 

She collapses.

I know the answer now. This is as close as I will get to believing.

She hasn’t gotten up yet.

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LAST WORDS by Jayne Martin

There’s usually two of us, but it’s Christmas Eve and I got nowhere to be. Anyway, she’s just a little bit of a thing, barely 90 pounds from the looks of her. I can roll her onto the gurney. 

The Super found her after complaints about the smell. I don’t smell nothing no more. Fucking freezing in here. 

“No rent. No heat,” he said.

Asshole should be charged with murder. But who’s gonna complain? 

Place is neat as a pin. Something my mom used to always say. Neat as a pin. Still don’t know what that means. Mom would have been about her age if the cancer hadn’t gotten her.

Not much in the fridge. Lettuce, brown and wilting. One of those single-serve cups of ice cream in the freezer. Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. I find a spoon.

“I was a Deadhead,” she says. “Followed them everywhere.” 

I dip the spoon into the ice cream, raise it to my lips. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Oh heaven’s no. No reason for it to go to waste,” she says. “Sorry to inconvenience you on Christmas Eve. I thought I’d be found before this.”

People who say those that have passed are “dead and gone” don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. 

“Where’s your family?” I ask.

“Why, they’re all around. Just waiting. Don’t you see them?”

The room swells with Christmas music as children sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and dance around a brightly-lit tree. Grownups sip eggnog by a mantel hung with stockings with the names Charlie, Susie, and Mary.

And there in the middle of the room, she stands, looking vibrantly alive, her arms outstretched toward me. “You’re welcome to join us.”

It's not the first time I was made such an offer, and I can’t say I'm not tempted. I toss the empty ice cream container into the garbage and walk over to the lifeless form on the floor. 

“I’ll take good care of you,” I say and gently place the sheet over her unseeing clear blue eyes.

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I FIRST MET ZAC SMITH IN A BARN by Giacomo Pope

I was 250 miles from the nearest streetlight, and my shoes were covered in horse shit. In the centre of the barn was this dude standing on the stacked hay. He was foaming at the mouth and shouting at overfed livestock.

Zac was watching these chickens try to kill each other and they were making all this noise, but over the top of it, you could still hear the poems crashing against cracked red paint. 

The chickens were the stuntmen from Die Hard, and I was reaching into popcorn between my legs. I was sweating. The bigger chicken was digging its face into the other one (which now wasn’t moving or making a sound). The bigger chicken relentlessly pecking into fleshy feathers, and Zac was doing these little hops on the hay with a Cheshire grin.

It was all red and gore, and the hay was clumping up with chicken blood. The horses eating around it, drool and yellow teeth scraping the dirt for lines of hay. 

I think about this day in the barn with Zac, and I think about how it wasn’t actually a barn, it was at a reading in Brooklyn, and how the cops were called and the bigger guy was dragged out the bar. The other dude melting into the floor with a face full of beer bottle. How fucked up it all was. How Zac and I couldn’t stop watching the grey mop pushing brown glass in puddles around the smaller guy while we waited for an Uber to take him to the hospital.

Okay I lied, we were never in a bar watching someone get murdered.

We were in this barn though, and the chicken was totally fucked. I held the chicken in my arms, my hands getting all sticky. I was feeling pretty anxious. Zac stepped down from the ladder in the middle of the barn and said he’d light up the BBQ. 

I was feeling stressed out about how to pick out all the shards of glass from the meat, and the bar was closing up. The cops were asking us a bunch of dumb questions like “Did either of you know the stuntmen?”, “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?” and “My favourite type of open-door building is a barn.”, which isn’t even a fucking question. Cops man, they’re dumb as hell. 

The other writers had left the reading after the guy’s head had cracked open. They had taken all the horses, but we had both forgotten our boots anyway. Zac took a couple dozen copies of the books which were left behind the bar. We burnt them under the stars. The chicken was soft and fell apart in our mouths. I picked Zac’s teeth with hay, and we walked together to the subway. Our feet caked in the beer and blood from the floor, we dragged them through the muck to clean them up. At Zac’s stop, he turned around before the doors shut. The match caught against splintered beams. It was all so warm as the train screeched through the tunnels back home.


AVAILABLE NOW.
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THE COAT by Sheldon Birnie

“Hell yes,” Dave answered when his cousin Lisa asked if he’d like to see something weird.

Dave followed Lisa off the deck and back to where the cars were parked as the sun was sinking in the west, cutting through the trees in brilliant bars of gold. Down by the lake, children shrieked and splashed in the late afternoon heat. He was sick of answering his family’s questions about his dumb job and why his girlfriend, Sandy, hadn’t made the trip out because they’d “sure like to meet her.” Something weird, whatever it was, was certainly a welcome change. 

 “Dave,” Lisa’s husband Rick said, glancing back as he rummaged through boxes of clothing in the back of their Golf with one hand. “Wait till you get a load of this...”

Rick and Lisa ran a vintage clothing store, and Rick had just finished a buying trip to the small town thrift shops in the area. Dave kept up with their latest finds on Instagram. While he could appreciate their taste, he didn’t quite understand how the market for such kitsch actually functioned profitably. But he certainly envied their ability to make a go of it. 

 “Here we go,” Rick put aside his beer and pulled out an old suitcase from beneath the mound of clothes. Carefully, he laid it down on the bed of dried pine needles that covered the rocky ground. Lisa and Dave leaned in to see as Rick popped open the brass clasps. A mosquito buzzed in Dave’s ear. 

Rick checked over his shoulder to see that nobody had drifted over from the deck. Out on the lake, a big engine whined. Then he opened the suitcase and delicately reached inside, pulling out a black fur coat.

“Feel it,” Rick said in a hushed voice, holding the coat out before him as though it were an offering. 

“What is it?” Dave asked, running the long, twisted strands of jet black hair between his fingers. It was soft, almost delicate, yet also thick and grainy. The lining was torn, the pelt cracked at the left shoulder.  The thing had to be a hundred years old. “Bear? Fuckin otter or something?”

“No,” Rick answered with a conspiratorial grin, brown eyes glinting. “Gorilla.”

The hairs on the sleeves danced in rays of sinking sunshine. Repellent as he felt a coat made from the skin of man’s closest evolutionary relation should have been, he was curiously, undeniably drawn to it. What would it be like, he wondered, to pull a gorilla’s skin over his own? 

“Can I try it on?” Dave said.

*

Later that night, Dave slept fitfully while his younger cousin Frank snored like a log on the bunk beneath him. In the morning, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d been dreaming, dreaming of gorillas in the damp city streets, their deep bellows and shrill cries echoing off the drab grey buildings. Dreaming he was one of them, proud, noble, and strong.

After returning home following the long weekend festivities, the dreams seemed to follow him. Dave also found himself thinking about the coat more and more as the days of summer flew by. Sitting in his car, in his office, chewing a sandwich at lunch, he thought of the weight of the coat on his shoulders, the way the hair glistened in the setting sunlight. How it felt between his fingers, so unexpectedly soft. 

When he and Sandy first saw each other after the long weekend, they spent the night fucking with vigor that left the both of them breathless and sweating, raw and exhausted.

“What’s gotten into you?” Sandy asked, red faced after their second round. Lately, if they did it at all they did it sporadically and in a desultory, mostly missionary manner. “You’re like a goddamn animal!”

“Dunno,” Dave panted, surprised himself at his own sustained virility. “Must have just really missed you, I guess?”

Yet as he lay next to Sandy, raw, spent and slipping towards sleep after their third round, Dave suspected the uncharacteristic verve he displayed had something to do with the dreams he’d been having where he was a silverback gorilla roaring into the darkness. 

That it had something to do with the coat.

*

 “Yo, careful with those clasps there, Davey,” Rick said.

Startled, Dave realized he had begun to finger the delicate, finely crafted clasps that ran down the front of the coat, from the neckline to the waist, slowly doing them up one by one. The coat fit surprisingly well, though a little tight across the shoulders, the arms perhaps an inch too short. Otherwise, it was perfect. Dave felt as though he could wear the coat forever, summer heat be damned.

“What’s something like this set you back?” he asked Rick.

“Hard to say,” Rick shrugged. “Got a super sweet deal. Estate sale outside of Detroit Lakes. Lady had no idea what it was. Goddamn, eh? Thing’s, like, basically fuckin priceless, right?”

Rick maintained that while it technically wasn’t illegal to buy the pelt of an endangered animal, had the lady who’d sold it to him known what it really was, she could have found herself in some hot water. 

“Don’t ask, don’t tell, man,” he’d said. “Fucked eh?”

Dave just nodded, lost in a misty day dream.

*

At work, Dave became increasingly distracted. When he was in front of the computer, he found himself drifting into Google searches, keywords: “gorilla + coats.” He’d wade through fashion op-eds decrying some celeb or another for sporting one to some event or other, animal rights sites calling for the heads of anyone who’d even think to buy or sell one, blogs extolling the virtues of faux fur over the real deal, whatever, so long as there were photos of the coats in question embedded in the post. 

Hours disappeared. He shuffled between work and home in a haze, thinking, coveting the coat. Evenings in his empty apartment it was more of the same. Dave stared at the blue screen as light faded from the summer sky outside, imagining how it would be to live within the gorilla’s skin, to live as a silverback among the misty mountains.

As August long weekend approached, Dave casually mentioned to Sandy that it might be fun to take a little day trip to the zoo. 

“Why?” Sandy scoffed. 

“Why not?” Dave suggested, feigning nonchalance. Of course, he hadn’t told her about the coat. He couldn’t exactly place or explain the fascination the coat held to himself, let alone to Sandy. Instead, he kept his budding obsession private. He wasn’t sure she’d understand. Then again, she hadn’t really seemed to notice, anyway. During the week, she was either working, at her parents, or out with her friends. The few hours they did spend together over the weekend mostly involved eating, sleeping, bickering and the occasional fuck. “When’s the last time you went to the zoo?”

Sandy had rolled her eyes, yet when Saturday morning came around they drove to the zoo. The day was a hot one, the air at the zoo humid and pungent. Dave and Sandy saw bears, wildcats, muskox, all manner of exotic rodents, and a tiger lolling in the shade. There were monkeys -- zany macaques and bored chimps -- but no gorillas. 

On the way home, after a lunch of chip truck burgers and fries, Sandy coyly suggested they pull over into a nearby park so they could make it, hot and heavy, in the backseat. 

“How about a bit of that jungle love?” she said.

But Dave just shook his head and kept driving.

“Not really in the mood,” he sulked.

*

Later that night, as Sandy lay sleeping while the oscillating fan moved the muggy air in the apartment around, Dave lay wide awake. Sure, they’d gotten it on, but the spark that had been there that first night back from the lake and those first few nights that had followed had already faded away. 

Hours later, when Dave finally fell into a fitful, sweaty sleep, he dreamed yet again of great apes and mountains shrouded in mist, of big guns blazing and the belching of a steam-engine chugging full throttle up a dark river. 

*

When Sandy left the next morning, back to her parents’ house, Dave shuffled into the shower, hoping a cool blast off would clear his muddy mind. Instead, he wondered if gorillas ever luxuriated in the midst of a tropical downpour. Did they enjoy the respite from the sweltering jungle heat? Or was it just another meaningless change in the weather they had no choice but to endure? Dave rubbed shampoo into his hair, thought about the soft, thick gorilla hair that had hung from his arms, the odd golden lock that caught the fading sunlight off the lake. 

He wondered if Rick still had the coat. 

Why, it occurred to Dave, don’t I just ask him?

A moment later, he sprang from the shower, leaving the cold water running. He grabbed his phone, scrolled madly through his contacts until he found Rick’s number. His wet thumb hovered over the screen. 

What would Rick and Lisa think of him, Dave worried fleetingly, obsessing over some dusty old coat? 

What did he care, though? Really. He only ever saw them once or twice a year, anyway. 

If he had the coat, what did he care what Rick or Lisa, or Sandy, or Simon or anybody, really thought of him? At the end of the day, he would be the king of the jungle, or as close to it as you could expect to become in muggy old Ottawa after 5 p.m. What does the noblest of beasts care for the opinions of others?

Not a goddamn bit. 

 Fuck it. Dave pressed the green call button.

“Dave?” Rick voice crackled after a couple rings. “What’s up my man?”

“That coat,” Dave said, stumbling over his words in haste. Shampoo ran down his face, burning his eyes. “The gorilla? I know you said you can’t, like, sell it or whatever. But I was hoping, maybe, we could, like, come to an arrangement or something?”

“Oh man,” Rick laughed. “That old thing? Sorry bud. No can do.”

“Why not?” Dave stammered. “I got some money. I’ll pay whatever.”

“No, no,” Rick continued. “It’s not that. I don’t have it anymore.”

“What?” Despite the swampy heat of his apartment, a chill ran up Dave’s back. “But you said, you know, you couldn’t sell it, or whatever. Right?”

“Didn’t sell it. Made a trade with a buddy of mine out west. He collects weird shit. Freaky stuff. Had him in mind when I first picked it up. Sorry man.”

Dave stood staring in his bathroom mirror. A pathetic, pale and mostly hairless monkey stared back at him. His bottom lip quivered. 

“Dave?” Rick’s tinny voice chimed from the forgotten phone in his hand. “You still there, buddy? Dave?”

Tears ran down Dave’s cheeks, softly at first, then following fits of wracking sobs. The tear had nothing to do with the shampoo in his eyes. Nothing whatsoever.

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BABY DINGO by Emily Harrison

Boy finds Baby Dingo in the swell of the high noon heat. He waits for any signs of Adult Dingo, adjusting the too-big-for-his-head trucker cap. At home, Grandad is snoring heavy on the sofa. 

Boy likes to wander off on weekends. 

He wants to be a great adventurer. 

Maybe today he is. 

He checks his watch, surveys the dust bowl surroundings. The nowhere town below. Baby Dingo clambers across Boy’s lap and pushes its nose into the sweaty creases of his knees and armpits, licking the salt. There is no sign of Adult Dingo. 

Boy pulls Baby Dingo up and holds it like he used to hold the stray cat that occasionally came by the house for food: face perched over the back of his shoulder, torso and hind legs buoyed in his arms. He twists himself over the wire mesh fence and ambles back to the house. 

***

He keeps Baby Dingo in his room. It’s too hot for bed sheets so he sits Baby Dingo on the bare patterned mattress and strokes its soft tail. 

Despite waking as Boy returned, Grandad is none the wiser. It might be on account of the fact that Grandad is old. Older than Boy. Boy had only learnt to count as high as Grandad’s age in winter. Even now, Boy has to concentrate to make it to such a number. 

When Grandad calls for him through the walls to go and fetch some milk and bread from the store, Boy asks Baby Dingo to stay put. He whispers it right into Baby Dingo’s ear and presses a kiss to the top of its head. Baby Dingo tastes of sand and sun. 

***

On the way back from the store, Boy spots dead Adult Dingo by the side of the road. He runs home so fast that his knees shake and his feet stumble. 

He decides not to tell Baby Dingo. He thinks Baby Dingo might already know. 

***

Boy introduces Grandad to Baby Dingo by accident. Boy is in the bath. A cold bath. A bath to keep the heat at bay. 

Grandad disappears outside to talk to the stones, so Boy sneaks Baby Dingo into the bathroom. Baby Dingo sits on the toilet seat and laps up the bath water. Boy doesn’t hear Grandad return, not until Grandad has opened the bathroom door to tell him not to be long because food will be ready soon. Baby Dingo jumps from the toilet seat and scuttles back to Boy’s bedroom. “Was that a dingo?” Grandad asks. Boy confirms that it was Baby Dingo, his new friend.  Boy asks