MOTHERS by Melanie Czerwinski

Liv’s mother called, but Liv’s mother always called. I imagined her eggshell sheets on what would soon be her deathbed, the waxy fake ferns in the corner of the nursing home room. I imagined her bloated face on her dead body, as waxy as the fake plants. Disgusting.

The aides were the ones who actually called. They would hold the phone up to her mother’s cheek, and she’d huff into the receiver about how she missed her daughter and how she should come visit. She was always out of breath. Liv would listen to the messages, then delete them without calling back. She’d go back to clacking away at her laptop keyboard, pronounced taps when she hit the spacebar, as if nothing had happened, as if her mother wasn’t on hospice.

Months ago, Liv’s mother was biding her time in the nursing home simply because she was overweight. Immobility due to obesity, the doctors told her. It pissed her off. I could understand some of her anger. Her father, a spindly man, spent his last days caring for her, wiping her ass, all of that. He had a heart attack and dropped dead at her bedside and she only bothered to call 911 after he was still for half an hour. She admitted to this, for some reason.

She had a custom-built wheelchair to accommodate her size, but I don’t think it got much use. Probably only to transfer to the toilet and shower. It wasn’t cheap, since it was outside of what insurance would cover, and Liv always regretted getting it. She should just squeeze into a normal one, she would say under her breath. She cursed her mother’s otherwise good health as those who she deemed more worthy of living passed away one by one. It just isn’t fair, she said, she doesn’t even try. I wondered if all those curses were what made the cancer suddenly sprout in her mother’s uterus. Liv nearly sounded happy when she received the news, and I swear I saw a devil’s smile pulling at her lips as she held the phone to her ear. She figuratively swatted Satan’s hands away from her mouth and forced a frown.

We drove to the nursing home. Things weren’t looking so good, according to the doctor. It was the beginning of March, but it was 76 degrees out with a slight breeze. Birds were tweeting, little frogs were peeping. But there were no bright flowers or green leaves, just empty branches and tan, dead grass. None of it added up.

My mother had a story for days like this, when people enthusiastically rolled down their windows and hung their arms out of their cars.

“When I was in high school, I was on the bus,” she would start, “and it was a totally normal day. There was this guy in front of us in a Cadillac with his arm out the window. He swerved too close to the other lane, and the car coming the opposite way took his arm clean off. I remember all the blood and his arm laying on the pavement.”

I never believed the story, and I had heard it since I was in middle school.

“Never put your arm out the window,” she always ended the story with, wagging her finger. Once I got my own car, I did it just to spite her.

I would have been more comfortable if Liv were preemptively mourning her mother. She had a quiet excitement around her. This was her first time visiting since her mother’s diagnosis; they only ever talked on the phone because of Liv’s compromised immune system. She was risking getting sick just so she could see her mother with tubes hooked up to her, her eyes barely opened.

I dropped Liv off and drove to a nearby Starbucks to wait. Indie pop was flowing from the hidden speakers. The inside smelled astringent, like it had just been cleaned top to bottom with assorted chemicals after a murder. I ordered a caramel macchiato and sat. The woman to my left was wearing a taffy pink sweater, the same color as my compact of birth control from high school. The vent behind her legs rattled. Caramel sauce snuck onto my upper lip when I tipped the cup to take a sip.

I scrolled through my phone, smiling at something on my feed then actively stopping myself. I was trying to blend in. I thought about Liv’s dying mother, and the smile easily went away, hiding, like thinking of unsightly things to kill an erection.

“If it goes any further, I would call the police,” the taffy woman said to one of her friends. Their conversation then shifted to whispers so I wouldn’t hear, but I strained my ears anyway. Something about an elementary school child divulging a story of abuse to a guidance counselor, but that could have been an unrelated story. Despite the temperature, the heat was still on, and the small of my back was starting to sweat. I was thankful when my phone rang.

“Come get me,” Liv said, sniffling. She was crying. I had no idea why she was crying. Was it because her mother hadn’t died yet?

I walked out of the Starbucks and paused when I got to the parking lot. The frogs had gotten louder as the sun began to set. There was a chill in the air now, and I briefly remembered scrolling past the weather report saying that temperatures were going to be dropping. I suddenly felt aware of my place in the world, an arresting feeling. My place was equally as important as Liv’s mother and the people who passed who she viewed as more important. I wanted to tell her about my epiphany, but as I plopped myself into the driver’s seat, I realized she wouldn’t want to hear it. Hearing that her mother had an important place in the world would infuriate her. I muted the radio and drove.

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CHANCES by Conor McNamara

I’ve been exchanging letters with an inmate at Downstate Correctional Facility, the friend of a friend. In my letters I talk about my work, the woods and the hours. Even though I scoff at Lena's "attracting happiness" theories, I encourage my friend's friend to "keep his head up" and I assure him that he is loved. I decided that when I got laid off, I would drive to Fishkill, New York and visit him. Leaving my cellphone and wallet in a drab locker room that smells like puke, I cross the metal detector. And then I'm in the visitors’ center at table 5-3, waiting. A young man plays dominoes with his mother. Another eats M&M's with his girlfriend. In a play area for parents, a laminated sign taped to a kiddie slide reminds inmates to "clean up after your children." My friend's friend doesn't know that I'm coming. I feel anxious, but not really in a bad way. I'm just unsure of where to rest my eyes. I've made money and I've pawned X-Box games. I've gone months without a decent meal and Pablo and I have made ourselves sick at the Brazilian steakhouse on Lehigh Street. I’ve brushed up against a lot of strange that eventually became comfortable. But rarely have I felt so out of place. Do I look at the correctional officers? Will my gaze interrupt the few minutes of peace a young couple gets to spend in each other’s company? Should I just stare at the floor? My friend's friend walks past me. Neither of us knows what the other looks like. The correctional officers point him in my direction. He’s tall and moves with athletic grace. He tells me about his job working in the prison's kitchen. His cellmate doesn't shower. I buy him a soda and some boneless wings from a vending machine. I microwave the wings. He doesn't have the freedom to do that. On the floor, red electrical tape indicates to the inmates where they can walk and where they can't. He tells me about his daughter and how she’s learning the alphabet. When he talks to her on the phone, he plays dumb, stumbling over the order of letters so that she can correct him. I know once I leave the prison, I'll be rushed back into the grittiness of my own life. Loneliness broken up by sports podcasts, strip malls, half-read collections of poetry in my glove box, and laughs with Pablo. But at table 5-3, I'm humbled and I can't escape the overwhelming reality that my life is as good as any. I rest my eyes on my friend's friend. I do my best to listen. Suddenly our time is interrupted by an alarm. Visiting hours are over. We shake hands and hug, and I'm shuffled out of the visitors’ center with crying loved ones and loved ones hardened by years of this routine.

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CONNECTICUT VAMPIRE by Adrian Belmes

This is what we burn. The dead. Our ghosts. And illness, like a brand, held long above the fire. Our misunderstandings do become our monsters we admire, for fear is nothing if not love of sorts, obsession. The village men below this home implore upon my grief and seek solution, save their wives, forgetting mine, your sister, and my dying son. You are not a killer, my unrested child, but these men do not know you as I did: a daughter and a weeping lung upon a bed that lies an empty tomb. What sins do we exhume for peace of strangers. Buried deep into the snow, your ruddy face is like you never died. This is the myth, so the liver they must take and wound you. Your brother takes into his mouth your heart, the viscid flakes, the frozen liquid in half-rot, abrasive on his tongue, and summons in his gut a nausea, an ancient violation. Old kings ate their fathers to sustain their lion hearts, but God does not abide by these pursuits. Not years before, these fathers burned such sins upon a witch-like pyre where now these desecrations are communion, Christ-like healers, tonic-waters. Your consumption kills. The men of the village sleep calm inside their homes that night and in two months when little Eddie dies, I bury, and they hold their wives in satisfaction of a prophecy foretold, an obsession that they laid to rest. But science will not know this for another many years. In five, you’re born again and offer up to man a devil we don’t know that you had written. Long buried in the heartless mire, your cold blood does sail a thousand tales. Our misunderstandings do become our monsters we admire.

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ETYMON STREET VIEW by Mike Corrao

She (subject) receives a note which says, “I am without past.” On the backside is a photograph of a street sign: Roberta Ave. The crossroad is obscured. What used to be green is now dull and graying. Its metal spine curves to the left. Backgrounds are warped by time. The subject is tasked with determining the origins of this symbol. Finding what has been vacated of context. Erasures performed without audience. Certain criteria are arranged to flesh out her process. Suites are dressed in ethernet cables and blue light filters. Rounds of copper are blanketed in rubberized shells. She moves through a set of localized databases. Dragging her feet along the surface of the excavation site. Playing with direct keywords and terminology. Each result yields answers specific to its location. One meaning does not proliferate into the next. One prominent figure does not name a second street after themself. In Waukesha, Wisconsin she finds a Roberta without a source. The avenue appears without momentum, emerging quietly from a larger grid. Harrison, Frame, Wabash, Estberg, Douglass, Roberta, Coolidge, Hoover. Incipit formulas and procedures are unveiled:

  1. All names have an origin. If they are one word, they will come from one place. If they are many words, they will converge from many places.
  1. In the case of the former, said source might be of significance to specific people involved in its creation, zoning, or development. Specific Robertas. Those famous or related.
  1. If the name has no origin here (which it does not), then its origin might arise from better hidden minutiae. Roberta who performed a charitable act. Significant strangers. Offhanded mentions of artists or architects. Misheard introductions.
  1. When a street is unimportant, that is to say, not worth thoroughly documenting, it might appear to abruptly jump from not existing at all to having existed forever. Somewhere between the years of 1974 and 1986, Roberta Avenue is conceived.
  1. An unspecified individual (under government employ) signs forms that are assumed to exist and names the street after someone (something, somewhere) for some particular reason. The individual then shifts interest to another street and loses any tangible connection to Roberta.
  1. Over time, the relationship between land and language become obscured. What was once straightforward can quickly spread into endless and ever-changing labyrinths. The entropic nature of duration disrupts these pathways. A mountainside road becomes Silver Lake Drive. A coastal boulevard becomes Pine Street.

What is left is hard to identify. She sways through luminous corridors. “My tactility is measured in lumens.” Her hands collapse around strands of frayed monitor hair. What is visible is rendered haptic. What is spoken is rendered real. New data accumulates. Particles of dirt climb from key to nail bed. Neural structures materialize in the periphery, but again this etymology is without its source. Metonyms form chains, linking from part to whole. From whole to greater whole. Roberta extends her reach across liminal spaces. Ennui in posture. Dancing around the virtual ballroom. “Your physiology is tested for anomalies.” White text crawls across the screen, but she does not pursue this lead. Instead, she continues her excavation. Old web pages map outdated countrysides. Where roads crawl through unwieldy topographies, each hill flattened and repurposed.

She skims a series of land acquisition and zoning documents. No new information comes to the surface. Phone calls lead to answering machines and non sequitur transfers. Landlines form matrices under guise of the rhizome. Disembodied voices dictate a lipid yawn. Keys displaced by an external pressure. She sifts through prophetic audio files and CCTV footage. The natural slouch of the human physique makes her nauseous. Each figure that wobbles across the monitor. The slow pan of the camera. “Towers form under veil of ash.” She returns to the photograph. Searching through image aggregators and video archives. Long-dead strangers construct each house in zig-zag patterns along the avenue. Surveys form jagged plots of land. She again shifts focus, moving from historical evidence to abstract representations.

Foreign documents rise out of the engine. Where dataplasm has begun to coagulate. Radio waves are dragged under the surface by spore densities “I speak to you as if we have not spoken before.” But this is a lie. There is a familiarity in the candidness of the white text. “We reconvene after the fires are out.” Roberta Ave consumes its own identity. The machine feeds on its own afterbirth. Nourished by the infrastructures which reveal its parentage. Clergymen divinate the body in paraffin. In this web of connections, each thread has been severed. White text mocks with conspiratorial glee. “You see only what has been present.” Phantom limbs caress her interior, feigning their introduction. In which these new appendages might continue her search while she is away—passive and unconscious.

Roberta Ave taunts her with hints of information. “SUBJECT gifts [redacted] namesake to new passage.” The sign mutates. The metal spine straightening its posture. Anachronistic compulsions render previous data collecting methods obsolete. Street names rearrange themselves. Harrison, Roberta, Estberg, Douglass, Coolidge, Hoover, Frame, Wabash. Script removed from its plate. She fears that each name is without purpose, without origin or incipit. There is no event to create this creature. It stumbles haphazardly through time, appearing before and after its predicted creation. She finds obscured photographs and scrawled notes.

Computational deities form a new lexicon. She watches as they reorient each previously scanned and cleared database. Roberta Ave disappears from familiar places, and reappears in previously unseen alcoves. The machine unhinges its yaw. And the subject is gifted the phantom limbs that she has been promised. New appendages climb from her hips and shoulders. Anatomy expanding / Exoskeleton forming. She feasts on etymon. With tendrils latching to electrical currents and expanding the circumference of the circuit. Molluscular mouth siphoning power for the ever-growing mechanism. A new praxis must be organized. Where these phantom limbs may continue working through unconscious states. Collecting and categorizing the mass of data as the body lies dormant. She allows these sentient extensions of her self to carry on through intermission.

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A BIRDWATCHER’S JOURNAL by Alexander Perez

Snowy egret overhead. First sighting of spring. A circular flight performed for a mate hidden deep in dead river reeds. He drops out of sight. Nothing except gray sky.

(My script walks across the page like sandpiper prints in wet sand.)

A fisherman floats by in his canoe, through the thin ice floes. (Floating mosaic of ice, geometry of winter’s disrepair.) He’s spectacled, black bearded. Mid-thirties? Despite the cool morning, he takes off his blue flannel overshirt. Strong arms. He casts a shining lure.

A northern pike! The fisherman holds it up. I wave.

We see a female mallard appear out of the muddy bank of reeds and dive into the river. Seven ducklings follow behind. Small, downy bodies. They swim rings around their mother. I count seven, six. So hard to count! Playfully they dodge each other, making slight chirping sounds. Then one disappears underwater. I think it’s learned to dive. But it comes up injured, flapping. My god. The mallard and her remaining babies disappear quickly back into the reeds.

I call out “Help!” The fisherman scoops the injured duck into his net, right before a pike surfaces, then he paddles to me.

“It’s going to die,” he says. But I pick it up off the floor of the canoe with his shirt and examine it. I hold it gently like I would another man’s hand. (I recall those nights that winter I held my husband’s hand.)

“I could bring it to the shelter” I say.

“Don’t bother. Let me take care of it.”

Then I push him away. He almost falls, grabs and pulls me towards him. We’re locked in a sort of embrace. I look down at the duck and it’s dead.

“You’ve killed it.”

He takes it from me and walks back to the riverbank. He places it on the icy waves.

It floats on fledgling feathers. It will never fly.

A red-winged black bird bounds off a cat-o’-nine tails. Show off.

+

Yet, it had taken my husband how many hours to die. I will never forget the anonymous hospital room: worn linoleum, walls a faded aquamarine. A cooing pigeon on the window ledge.

Today I saw death’s mouth rising out of the dark. Death’s mouth swallowing all. Weightless feathers the color of mud. The fisherman holding me close. In between us, a tiny bird heart.

+

The night of my husband’s overdose, he’d played the Van Dyke. His fans sent flowers to the hospital. I took the white calla lilies, the small fragrant saxophones, home, and spread them out over the bed.

+

Nightmare: a flock of ducks, their webbed feet encased in ice, frozen in flight, squawk like a section of saxes out of tune.

+

I go to The Pink Triangle. Sit at the bar and order A Crazy Lady. The glittered twinks pay me no mind. The mustachioed hipsters in rolled-up jeans and suspenders strut by.

I imagine the dance floor is a lake covered in lily pads and lotus flowers. Hummingbirds and dragonflies flash. There in the middle the fisherman floats in his canoe. His pole extends out over the side. I dive down. Creatures rare, common, foolhardy swim in the lake. We’re all darting for the bait.

Then the vision dissolves and the dance floor forms just a single shadow that breaks apart and rejoins itself.

(The music stops, the lights go up, and I’m drunk.)

+

Nightmare: I fly over the river at night – hunting ground of the screech owl. Bones of mice crack in my bill. Moonlight bandages the bay. Then I’m submerged and grow fins that carry me deep. I drop down into the weeds to escape the hanging hooks. I watch the bottom of a canoe loom overhead. Surfacing suddenly, I lose oxygen. My gills harden into razor blades. Every move cuts.

+

I go to a psychiatrist. She puts me on antidepressants. Now I’m happy and miss my one companion, my migratory sadness.

+

Black-crowned night heron. He danced for me. In his mouth, he carried fresh reeds, an offering. When we made love, we were covered in black feathers. Nested in mist, singing, our notes learned to fly.

+

I imagine it differently: we take the duckling to the wildlife shelter. They fix its wing. We go back to his house. I tell him he is a hero. He pecks me on the cheek, clutches me.

+

How do I molt grief? A soft falling of feathers. Birdcalls. Pain mimicking the call of love, love mimicking pain.

I return to the Van Dyke one last time. A bass soloist beats the rhythm. The piano fights a familiar melody. Where’s the sax, the victim’s cry? It sits in the corner of my bedroom, silent.

+

A red-winged black bird bounds off a cat-o’-nine tails.

He comes back and says, “Take my hand.”

I hold the hand, the hand that held the bird that died, the bird that died in my hand, the hand that held the hand of him who died holding my hand.

I do not want to hold anymore hands that hold the dead.

So I let go.

+

Lake, river, ocean, inlet, estuary, bay. I am searching for the fisherman. I have my binoculars. I ask around. He’s spectacled with handsome black beard. Mid-thirties? Despite the cool morning, he takes off his blue flannel overshirt. Strong arms. He casts a shining lure.

+

My psychiatrist tells me to attend a grief group. I am too distracted to listen to the stories. Instead a middle-aged woman looks like an ostrich; a young man with mohawk, a red breasted merganser; a petite young girl, a zebra finch; a quiet elderly woman, a mute swan; the loud moderator, a Canada goose; me, a mockingbird.

+

Jazz composition for a dying husband: monitors beep, nurses buzz, bass of sobs.

+

Husband in the afterlife. First sighting of eternal winter. A broken flight performed for souls hovering like mist in these dead river reeds. He drops out of sight. Nothing except souls frozen in state.

(My script walks across the page like carvings on gravestone.)

A ferryman rows across a single flowing river. The river runs between walls built from a static mosaic of bones, a geometry of winter’s despair.

The ferryman’s angelic. Ageless. Despite the cold, his bare skin steams.  

He holds a pike for stabbing at the souls.

Appearing out of the reeds, angels dive into the river. Small, downy bodies. They swim rings around each other. Then one disappears underwater and doesn’t resurface. God!

I call out. The ferryman stabs at the water with his pike.

“It’s going to die,” I say. But it rises from the water impaled on the tip of the ferryman’s pike. I want to hold it gently like I would another man. (I recall those nights I held my husband.)

“I could bring it to shelter,” I say.  

He pushes me away. I almost fall but grab him and pull him towards me. We’re locked in a sort of embrace. I look down at the angel.

My husband floats on fledgling feathers. He never could fly.

A red-winged devil bounds off a cat-o’-nine tails.

+

Birds that haven’t flown. Fish that haven’t swam. I am writing to you. Nameless when you are born, your hollow wings may not carry weight, your bony scales not give you speed, however, when we, your divine predators, are extinct (as our element carries the judgment of unnatural laws), you may still be free.

+

(A story can retrace itself like the flightpath of a barn swallow.)

A fisherman paddles his canoe. He watches his line with iridescent green eyes framed by square, stainless steel glasses. He’s turned forty-four this summer, shaved his greying beard, but despite his age, some think he is still in his mid-thirties. (The paddling keeps him young!)

I sit in the stern with my binoculars and journal. I forget to watch for rare birds. Deep in my memory, a snowy egret flies overhead. He performs a circular flight in gray spring skies for a mate hidden deep in river reeds.

But I choose to remember, not that first day I saw the fisherman, but the second day, in grief group, a year later, when I saw him again.

He looked smaller, as if the moment his son died, that moment when a life story is shortened to a singular event, compressed his body down as well. And although I was glad to see him, I knew that his grief would become mine, as all our griefs in the group had been shared and our burdens divided.

“My son died in a boating accident,” he disclosed that first meeting. (I later learned that seventeen-year-old Slate Jr. had been drunk on the river with his friends that Memorial Day when it collided into another boat.)

After the meeting, Slate Sr. came up and said he recognized me from the spring incident the previous year.

“Birdie, I’m sorry for what happened…”

I laughed at the nickname.

“…Well, you know, I didn’t mean to crush the poor duck. It was an accident. And I want to make it up to you…”

So, while driving to dinner, we tried to agree on a restaurant, but because I don’t eat meat (I am a vegetarian) we decided to stop at Whole Foods, and, on the way, I showed him the animal shelter where I had wanted to bring the injured duck, and he laughed and said that I needed to forget that duck, or bring it up in grief group, which I thought was funny, so I kissed him,  and he had to stop so we could make out, even though were both starving, and afterwards, we skipped Whole Foods, and ended up eating cereal in bed.

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HAVE YOU HEARD THE GOOD NEWS? by Darren DeFrain

In spite of my better judgment, I remain on Facebook for that awkward blurring of my professional, personal, and public lives. In that domain, I recently received a friend request from an older relative. Just a glance at this request and I knew it was the same advance-fee scam I’ve encountered a hundred times over; someone had acquired my relative’s likeness, name, and a few scant details. I decided to take the opportunity to create a reply with two primary goals in mind: 1) wasting the offender’s time and 2) creating a sustained and satisfying narrative arc out of the encounter. What resulted was a mixture of fiction writing and Improv. Aside from changing the format to be more “reader friendly”—the dialogue soon involved a third character on a different platform—I made no changes whatsoever to the text.

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THE INENARRABLE HEAVINESS OF SEEMING by Will Bernardara Jr.

“Perception of a state is not the state.”

M. John Harrison

A teetering bulb of dread and dream referred to – sometimes, by some – as Wes Boolean walks into a hardware store, his/its synapses scintillating with composite images of saw-teeth and conceptions of disjoining girl-parts.

(Interjection: The “bulb” of the foregone ‘graph isn’t a floating sci-fi brain. It [the bulb] is impounded in the standard ossein case of a bipedal primate “person” = Wes Boolean.

Thing is, the lump of gray mind-goo is the person; i.e., the “person” is a pattern ejaculated out of cerebral media, and so it’s [awkwardly] precise to state that a glob of neurons, glia, and organic miscellany walks into the hardware store.

[Moreover, it’d be less accurate to say, e.g., “Wes Boolean walks into the hardware store.”])

The hardware store, Doblhofer’s Drills ‘N Whatnot, enfolds mallets and monkey wrenches and fitted blades and omnifarious screws nails bolts nuts within a brick tetragon architecturally emblematic of Main Street, USA.

Wes, substrate of vortextual feedback (a.k.a. a “person” [which, tantalizingly, tellingly, probably comes from the Greek prosopa, which means mask]), browses Doblhofer’s dust(insect waste, dirt, husks)-diffused aisles, its timeworn bins and mummified 3-D, with the mien of a mako roving for a soft belly.

person = mask

self = feedback pattern

Posted by Anonymous on September 18, 2002 at 11:41:19:

Special orders don't upset us, we have any special cuts of meat of Teri Salsbury that your hungry for.She is primce USDA grade A meat and we are selling choice cuts of her for $1.59 per pound.We have Chuk Roast of Teri SalsburyWe have Ham Hocks of Teri Salsbury

We have breast fillet's of Teri SalsburyWe have prime rib's of Teri SalsburyWe have cunt steak of Teri SalsburyWe have shoulder rounds of Teri Salsbury

Come and get it special orders don't upset us. 

(Interjection: Charles Crumb, artist R. Crumb’s older brother, never got around to reading Kant or Hegel.)

Perceptual impressions are notoriously, platitudinously labile… e.g., a building housing devices parts machines. For most, maybe, this is received sensorially as a structure that stores tools for, e.g., making a cabinet or fixing plumbing or crafting a lazy Susan. For some, like Wes, the same structure is interpreted as a den of murder implements for, e.g., slaking a bloodlust or hacking apart a lazy call girl named Susan.

Let A(x) be an arbitrary formula of the language of F with only one free variable. Then a sentence D can be mechanically constructed such that

F  D ↔ A(D).

It is a beautiful world.

Help you with somethin’?

Deo volente.

Pardon?

Nothing. Let’s see. I’m a burgeoning… Well. I need to, like, break something? And then uh… Well… Disassemble it?

Huh.

Yep.

  1. Right. Got it. So you’re lookin’ to do some demolition? For the home? And then some dismantling? For your house?

Close enough.

So this is home not commercial?

You know, rethinking it, I really just have one question.

Shoot.

Dismantling something… err… subsistent.

Pardon?

When cutting up something living or recently made dead –

Like a buck? There’s a Goose Peak outlet over in –

No, no. You have saws. Say for instance you wanted to dismember an antelope.

Dress it?

Sure.

Well.

Would you use an electric – like a buzzsaw or?

No.

Chainsaw?

Nothin’ like that. Hell. It’d fling bits of flesh and blood everygoddamnwhere. Christ.

Good! Good. See, this is the sort of wisdom I was angling for now.

A nice sharp knife and a hacksaw’s what you need.

Knife. Hacksaw.

Nothin’ electric. Christ, that’d make one helluva mess. The churning teeth you know would spit meat and blood back at ya.

Where’s the aisle with the hammers? I think I need to pick up a nice ball-peen hammer. In addition to.

For any statement A unprovable in a particular formal system F, there are, trivially, other formal systems in which A is provable (take A as an axiom). On the other hand, there is the extremely powerful standard axiom system of Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory (denoted as ZF, or, with the axiom of choice, ZFC), which is more than sufficient for the derivation of all ordinary mathematics. Now there are, by Gödel's first theorem, arithmetical truths that are not provable even in ZFC. Proving them would thus require a formal system that incorporates methods going beyond ZFC.

Wes plumbs the depths of the Internet. Tor Browser. Tails OS. Dark Web. He lurks electronically, fishing through the hidden digital murk for vile links and files containing repulsive material. He views heads shotgunned to gushing, sloppy fragments by ISIS weapons. He sees kittens suffocated and roommates dismembered. He watches as a feed reveals a child sadistically molested and abused in a bathtub.

And worse.

Posted by S.C on April 25, 2002 at 23:26:22:

I have frozen male members and human fat candles and soap my slave did a good job and I have a bit extra scraps to if you have a dog or like scraps. 

Posted by Joe Chef on March 22, 2002 at 22:36:11:

I need young female longpigs for live roasts, live butcher, or if you want you can be beheaded or hung before butcher, or how ever you want it, the choice is yours. Applicant requirements are:Be willing!!!!Be between Ages 16-40(the younger the better).Be Physically fit.Be free of communicable deseases.Be able to realize and accept their own fate.Be able to compleatly disappear with no trace except to false locations.Be willing!!!!!

The street appears skewed and, due to some actinic phenomenon of rabid complexity, the streetlights stain the curb and stores and road a preternatural pink, like watery blood or light through a glass of Robitussin DM.

Night in all its protoplasmic enigma.

Wes meanders along Thrill Cherry Rise, the road a clotted municipal gut of liquor stores laundromats bowling alleys tattoo parlors etc. He emphasizes and exaggerates the aimlessness of his gait, to fool the maggots.

It is always possible to pass, purely mechanically, from an expression to its code number, and from a number to the corresponding expression.

Maggots are ubiquitous, pole to pole. They’re basically the not-Wes, the squirming pointless – coils of distorted info convinced they’re “people.” Maggots operate motor vehicles and bake casseroles for church potlucks; maggots rent silent movies and jerk off to streaming Yhivy porn; they spend (unconsciously) most of their days and nights trying to not be maggots. They are thralls to impressions, illusion-addicts, thrashing dumbly in the liquid fray of sentience. Maggots are paradoxes gone kinetic. They are, most categorically, rapacious with a demand and need nature cannot sate.

But, Wes concludes, halting the introspective litany of maggoty definitions, coherence is hostile to vision. So fuck it, if not entirely at least in part.

For any 1-consistent axiomatizable formal system F there are Diophantine equations which have no solutions but cannot be proved in F to have no solutions.

Time shreds itself to quantal bits of chronofractals; inwardly, all becomes a bleeding echo chamber of languor. Life is spawned in delirium and promptly crushed inert by sheer lethargy.

Weltschmerz informs everything.

Murder stimulates.

Wes reads prodigiously, the moon’s bone-colored light glimmering in the sprawl of black sky. He focuses, letting the text sink into himself, the words of On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems amalgamating with Vasili Ivanovich Komaroff’s 33 victims. Slashed throats and bludgeoned craniums; for any set of axioms and inference rules proposed to encapsulate mathematics, either the system must be inconsistent, or there must in fact be some truths of mathematics which could not be deduced from them.

A surge of compulsion, a jolt to see something horrible; brainwave entrainment, the practice of entraining one's brainwaves to a desired frequency. The frequency of death, of maiming, of illusions and lies pouring out, of blood and gore. Wes sweeps the numbers book aside and searches the Net for war atrocities.

He watches Liberian kids in bootleg 2Pac T-shirts cut each other’s hearts out and devour them. He looks at streaming video of machete fights in the Dominican Republic. Rapists beaten with pipes and set on fire by villagers. Crush videos – high heels and fur and small animals squealing.

What differentiates Wes from the larvae: Wes allowed his mind to turn in on itself, utterly. Wes looks around and sees not “humans” but carbon-based snarls. The system of configuration had retroflexed somewhere in the phylogenic trajection. This “turning back” educed tangled webworks of repercussive data that believe they’re “selves” and “individuals” and “identities” and bipolar comptrollers and suicidegirls and Nabokovian novelists and dentists with erectile-dysfunction issues and Spinell-esque pederasts with suburban Oedipal complexes and Jews for Jesus and feminists with erotic cyborg fantasies and Abel Ferrara and Tom Jones and Alexis Dziena and Nixon and Wesley Snipes and Lord Byron and Michael Dudikoff and Shadoe Stevens and Tony Robbins and Ortho Stice and Isidore-Lucien Ducasse and Morarji Desai and Coffin Joe and your mom and Gorbachev and Robert Gordon Orr and Brinke Stevens and Levi-Strauss and this writer and Nicola Sacco and Maurice Sendak and Gilbert Gottfried and whoever owned Orlando’s Mystery Fun House and Zapffe and Russell Edson and Ariel Rebel and MC Ride and Osamu Shimomura and E. LaFave and Vigny and Andrei Tarkovsky and Peter Weller and Derrida and Xenophanes and Mussolini and Emile Zola and Eliphas Levi and Peter Scully and GG Allin and YOU.

Snarls, all.

Where A is a name of a sentence of the object language, and B its translation in the metalanguage. If the metalanguage is identical with the object language, or is an extension of the object language, B is simply A itself, and the T-equivalences are of the form:

True(A) ↔ A.

At the risk of coming off rhapsodic, I’ll say you looked like an inebriated angel stumbling along the sidewalk just now.

I’m not drunk.

No?

Bath salts. And gorilla glue. Or sour diesel. One of the two.

Sure.

I’m fraying. Eroding.

I’m Wes.

April. Not an angel, unfortunately.

Fortunate for me though. Accounts of encountering angels – ancient accounts – describe it as a terrifying experience. Sublimity’s close to horror, you know.

So what are you into?

Skeletons of DMT and GenX. Bacteriophage 0X174. And orthogonal shadows.

Ha. You’re funny.

In Rome around 1451 AD, a woman, according to more than one written record, was enthralled by a demon. Lilith. The succubus and queen of crib death. The story goes she woke up one morning and knew the demon was inside her. So she swaddled her baby and took it to a bridge, then she threw the infant over the edge into the canal. The instant she dropped the child, the spell broke. The demon fled. And this is what makes the story so horrific: the second she let go of her baby the possession ceased, and she screamed and wailed and killed herself later that same day. Opened her wrists. Have you ever felt possessed, April?

April Brighton has buttery black hair dyed blue in swaths. Her face is model-pretty and her body same. She looks like a garbage angel churned out by some grunge chic fabricator. She wears a Minor Threat T-shirt and a thrift-store skirt, combat boots and fishnets. She exhibits a lot of silver jewelry, rings, a platinum (fake) barbed-wire-necklace thing, and a pierced nostril, the silver stud so tiny it’s barely visible, just a pinhead twinkle in the skin there. April is easygoing and fun and relaxed. But April isn’t a human being. April is just noise adorned in fabric and metal. A maggot. And what Wes does to this thing that calls itself April is, he makes a mess of her/it using various tools bought from Doblhofer’s.  

Posted by charlotte on October 10, 2001 at 11:17:11:

I only just found this site, after being a regualar user of the IRC channel for ages.I love the format, I could be tempted to apply to be livestock myself, as long as I get to be live roasted 🙂Just wanted to post a post anyway XD

Looking for anyone that would literally like to cut my butt off for eating, I would also like to have my feet and legs cut off, I have always wanted to be eaten since I was a kid and now I'm ready, I'm 27 y.o, nice looking male,very clean d/d free, drk. blonde hair, green eyes, 6ft,200lbs. I would like to be gutted and have a spit put into my anus going through my mouth, I'm looking for serious replies only so no fantasies.I will send you a pix.of me when you respond, you can e-mail me at: keen_31@yahoo.com

Keith 

There exists y such that y is the Gödel number of a proof of the formula with Gödel number x, AND there does not exist z smaller than y such that z is the Gödel number of a proof the negation of the formula with Gödel number x.

More formally:

Prov*(x) =def y[PrfF(yx) z < yPrfF(zneg(x)))],

where PrfF(yx) is the more standard proof relation discussed earlier.

(Interjection: By the time Wes Boolean was five years old, he’d already displayed, chronically, two of the three behavioral characteristics outlined in the Macdonald triad. I.e., he set fires constantly and tortured small mammals purchased from pet stores. [Guinea pigs, mostly.] These behaviors were habitual compulsions lacking any sort of credo or rationalization.)

April had her shirt off – no bra – and just as she was about to remove her skirt Wes whacked her with the hammer. An awkward, glancing blow that stunned and shocked, blood slithering down her neck from the gash in her scalp – but nothing potentially fatal. April started screaming and Wes began screaming too, mimicking her, matching her volume. He struck her twice more with the hammer, this time with the claw end, and the second impact caused the split-and-curved side to break through skin and skull and lodge there, stuck in April’s forehead like a new and extreme piece of facial jewelry. Fascinated, Wes stumbled back and admired her: she was still alive and conscious, a hammer stuck in her forehead, some homemade unicorn, a brutal chimera, her shrieking now degraded into a kind of stutter-scream. Wes wished he had an endoscopic gyno-cam to film the wounds in slow-mo, rip off the zygomatic process to reveal the wonders inside: the symphony of neurological dissonance, landscapes of gum tissue and deep muscle geographies that would resemble something Other; optical deformation, maybe, enhanced by software-based filters or Rutt/Etra, that would show in April’s glitching gray matrices the hexagon atop Saturn, observed by ritual and satellite alike. Sharp force trauma to the temporal region: prevailing cartilage, scant bone, composed like a Bach translation of a brain-pogrom only visual, not orchestral.  

Wes tried to wrench the hammer loose from April’s head; her eyes had rolled back in their sockets and twitched repulsively. The hammer wouldn’t detach. Wes as not-Arthur, April’s head as the fabled stone.

Rapturous thoughts and equations blitzed through Wes’s mind-stew: rend the “person,” the body that generates the “persona waves,” and by doing so rend the illusions – the noise of seeming cuts out for fucking good. The inenarrable heaviness of seeming.

For any consistent system F within which a certain amount of elementary arithmetic can be carried out, the consistency of F cannot be proved in F itself.

Do this enough times and you’ll transcend the status of maggot – maybe, perhaps, could be, right?

NON SERVIAM

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IN PATIENT by Jenn Stroud Rossmann

When the IV pump pings to warn of an occlusion, she no longer waits for someone in scrubs to respond; she unkinks the tubing herself. In the hierarchy of beeps the IV occlusion alert is low, outranked by the chirping pulse-Ox monitor and the angry squawk of the bedside fall detection mat. King EKG checkmates them all.

He dislikes her charts and schedules, cringes when she calls the nurses by name and remembers their children and hobbies. Order is a dangerous illusion. He imagines himself on a science fair poster, her little bean sprout in a milk carton. He is in exactly the same position on Monday when the nurse from Friday says, Yes, the beach was lovely, thanks for asking. The beach can go fuck itself.

She has noticed they’re the youngest people here. They are the ward’s doomed lovers: buds severed before blooming and all. Yesterday she saw a patient making her shuffling rounds, hugely pregnant, her belly a prow. He was sleeping when the woman walked by. “Perspective,” she tells him later. “I can’t even imagine.”

His hands and feet are numb, rubbery and distant as if he’d sat on them too long. Barefoot on the sand would probably feel like walking on the moon. Compression boots on his calves perform a programmed sequence of rhythmic squeezes. A gentle hiss accompanies each release. In the time it takes to count to eighty-seven, they will begin squeezing again.

She can imagine, she has envisioned all the worst things. Each prognosis a coin to flip: an 84% chance of five more years leaves 16% of design space. It was her job to create optimized solutions for stakeholder specs, before it was her job to dose him with Ativan and rub his extremities with mint oil for the neuropathy. This is the only time he does not shrink from her touch. He says he feels unlovable this way. But she has already imagined that this may be the only way from now on; this may be the best it will ever be.

Again with the damn peppermint oil. Somebody on one of her message boards must’ve claimed it gave auntie or grandma relief. He hasn’t been online in weeks, but he is tempted to grab her phone to broadcast: The oil is bullshit. Also, forget the antinausea diet, smuggle in burritos. He misses food that wasn’t engineered to be bland.

His first week in the hospital, she was putting away his laundry when she found the ring box. She does not know whether he’d bought it before the diagnosis. She does not know whether she cares.

On the TV mounted in the corner, he watches nature shows. He resisted these – a message board favorite – at first, afraid of zither music and gazelles loping in slow motion. He does not want to be lulled into anything like comfort. Yet he’s compelled by the red foxes taunting a grizzly bear lumbering behind; the squirrel who thinks he’s outsmarted the hawk only to be swooped upon by a thunder of talons and beak.

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THE SWANS WHO SAY MOM by Amanda Claire Buckley

The mother punches a mouth in the wall, and we climb through it. The mother punches a throat in the wall and the father puts a picture of daisies over it. We walk along the linings of the lungs and whisper we love our mother quietly to ourselves. We walk along the wall until it becomes the bottom of a lake. We walk along the bottom of the lake in the wall and we murmur to each other about our situation: our murmurs rise up like captions to cartoons. The bubbles fall out of the mouths of swans—we love our mother they say on the surface.

The mother bakes a soufflé with the father. The mother bakes a scuffle with the father. The soufflé sits on the windowsill until we love our mother too loud from within the walls and it breaks. The mother punches the pore of a sponge in the wall and we absorb the shock of it. The scum from the pan where the soufflé sat cooking in butter is caked on the edges of the holes in the sponge. We stare at the grime and ask innocent is what we’re supposed to suck on? The mother punches a fried egg in the wall and the father puts a hand over it, breaks it like the soufflé. He spackles we love our mother inside and we read it out loud as punishment. We suckle the sun yellow paste dry.

We crab walk with our noses scrapping against the inside of wallpaper towards the kitchen every morning. We crabs, with our translucent baby shells, move within the walls towards the kitchen as if from sand to water. We can’t make it to the table, to the sea, even though the father pulled out the chairs as far as he could—the mother’s lungs get in our way. Even from within the lungs we smell it: burnt toast, oh boy (eyes exploring the underside of our hairline) we love our mother. The house is the mother. We live inside her.

The timer goes off. The mother soufflés and we will be scalped. The wall’s lips purse and ours shut. We’ve learned how to choke from the asbestos. The mother soufflés and her throat runs like yolk and she tosses the sponge into her bag and puts her mouth to the ignition of the SUV don’t tell her, father we dropped her wallet and keys into the batter on accident we swear father and baked it at 375 degrees. She put it on the windowsill herself, though. That wasn’t us. It wasn’t our fault, but now we are hot boxed in the walls. 375 degrees. We are baked within her. We attempt to walk the circumference off. Around and around the bottom of the lake with the creamy water on top of us and the captions to the cartoons are written on the beaks of the swans following us.

We step on a packet of ketchup on the floor in the walls of the lake and it explodes we love our mother and the bubbles of red sugar float up to the top. The swans swim over the innards. Tomato blood trails their belly feathers and when other families visit the lake, they wonder what went wrong with the red belly beauties. The swans respond, mom. The swans honk, mom. Mom. Mom.

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THE WHOLE FLOW by Angie McCullagh

I try to become liquid like she told me. I pour myself into heavy-bottomed glasses and over nubby sofas and down rucked, tan chests. I puddle onto the floor and sometimes throw myself into the wind only to splash back on bug-splattered windshields.

To survive, she said, you have to learn to go with it. But my mother’s advice is bad. I learn this when my boy is first diagnosed and I think we can do it, I am flexible, Watch me drain my whole body into his syringes and make him better. I will do anything, anything at all.

The first night in the hospital I settle, like a pond, around his little frame and burble his favorite songs. I don’t sleep, not even for a second. In the morning his dad visits and says to me, you look like shit.

He sits with our boy while I shower in the bathroom with no soap and hold the safety bar to keep from slipping down the drain.

*

We are back at home where his dad doesn’t live. Wind shakes the walls, roaring that I should’ve prevented my boy’s illness and I dissolve in my own salty tears. It is darkest December, but globules of insulin gleam from needle tips, reflected in multi-colored holiday lights.

I’m hurting him. He yells and cries. I’m so sorry, I say before every poke, my heart pounding like a shaggy, water-logged thing.

After a few months, he stops crying, only bites his bottom lip hard and looks away.

*

She comes to visit with her tequila in a peroxide bottle and miles of beaded leather wrapped around her wrists. It’s too bad he got sick but you will adjust. Life is fluid.

She is her own undertow and I splash wildly, finding that fight is a solid object to hold onto.

When she watches the boy so I can take a run, then lets his blood sugar drop so low the juice box in his hand shakes as he tries to lift it to his mouth, I tell her to leave.

*

My new anger is hard and heavy, an anchor that has always been there without my knowing. I feel no ire toward my boy (why would I?) but fury at everything else – his disease, my mother, the man who promised his life to me until things became difficult and sodden and he breast stroked away with hardly a glance backward.

It is now just the boy and me and boxes of a chemical his own body can’t supply and also the beta fish in a bowl I bought to cheer him up. We sit in a small rowboat, bobbing. If you were to pull back from the tiny craft, a sunset pink behind us and a whole gray ocean slippery with fish and other sealife below, we would look like two brightly colored scraps barely tethered by my outrage, which is better, at least, than liquefying and drowning.

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DEAD MOTHER’S CORN OIL by Diane Payne

Long Distance Lover was happy I finally agreed to spend time at his dead mother’s cottage in the middle of nowhere.  I already lived in the middle of nowhere. After making the 850-mile drive to spend a week or two with him at his house in a real town, with real things to do, I dreaded heading out to the place where he longed to retire.  Ahh, her teapot wallpaper in the kitchen. Ooh, the moldy carpet in the living room. Woo, the surprising amount of kitschy lighthouses though we were nowhere near the lake. Then the biggest surprise. His dead mother’s old king-sized bed.  I knew she died at home and hoped it wasn’t on this bed. “I remembered what you said about lubricant,” he said, coaxing me to the bed. The plastic, mostly empty bottle of his dead mother’s corn oil, was awaiting me on the bedside table. I knew this romance would be over long before either of us retired.

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LIKE A FIRE DRILL by Gary Duncan

1

They found him in the stairwell, two days later. Wedged behind the door, his hand still clutching his chest. We had to evacuate the building and wait in the car park like it was a fire drill. All in our designated places, like we’d practiced. Editorial near the gates, then IT, then Sales, then Warehouse and Support. Some of the salespeople sloped off early, said they were going to the pub to sink a few for him. It’s what he would have wanted. He didn’t even drink. One of the women from IT, the one he liked but was too nervous to talk to, asked if I was going to join them. “Me neither,” she said, crying. “Poor guy, I didn’t even know him.”

2

I mean how terrible is that, someone dying, actually dying, and no one even noticing. The poor man, I just feel so awful for him, for his friends and family. I can’t stop thinking about him, lying there in the dark on his own, behind that fire door. I didn’t even know him, not really, but I wish I’d said something to him, just hello, you know. Made the effort to say just one thing to him. One of the guys from Editorial, he was crying and I was crying, and we just stood there crying together, not knowing what else to do. They said we could have a few days off, to grieve, but I don’t want to stay at home on my own, not now. But I don’t want to go back to work either.

3

They said the fat bastard had been there for a couple of days, but you ask me, it was probably more like a week. One of the security guards, one of the lads who found him, said it had to be a week, the state of him. You know what he said? He said the guy’d shat himself. Said the place stunk to high heaven. Flies and everything. We didn’t know that at the time of course. We didn’t know much at the start because they dragged us outside straight away, into the bloody car park, in the rain. Not really rain, more like a heavy drizzle, that thick drizzle that clings to your clothes, you know, so me and a few of the other sales guys we thought fuck that for a game of soldiers, let’s nip over the Red Lion for a pint. Make the most of it, make an afternoon of it. I didn’t know the guy from Adam, to be honest, but I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded.

4

I didn’t think anything of it. You don’t, do you? Just a niggle in the chest, more towards the shoulder really. A twinge. I thought I’d maybe pulled something when I was loading those boxes onto the trolley. Printer paper, boxes and boxes of the stuff. Thought I’d be clever and do it three at a time, even though we’re not supposed to do that, what with health and safety and everything. But it was just a twinge, nothing to worry about. I’d forgotten all about it, then it happened again when I was going up the stairs. This was different. Scary. Like someone had reached into my chest and ripped it apart with their bare hands. Christ, the pain. I was near the fire door, at the top of the stairs, and I thought I’d be fine if I just sat down there for a while. So that’s what I did.

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HOLD YOUR BREATH by Spencer Litman

Meet your wife in the hallway. Do not make the door handle click by turning it with too much force. Avoid kicking the toys scattered like landmines on the carpet. You do not want to wake your daughter, but you need to see her breathing. Walk to the crib rail like a procession of two. Place your hands on your wife’s shoulders in case she melts like she did when she found your son cold-dead in the middle of the night. Repeat this ritual while your daughter sleeps every forty minutes for the first six months of her life. 

Try not to blame yourself even though you heard him crying much earlier and rolled over thinking, he’ll go back to sleep. He always does this. Babies are resilient, and I am so tired.  

No matter how many times you have gone back and forth reassuring each other that there is no blame to be had, there is a chasm of rumpled sheets on the bed. In this forty-minute reprieve you feel close to her. Maybe if you do this enough, it will be a habit, this closeness, something you both do without thinking.

Your little daughter sleeps on her stomach, face pressed into chevron patterned sheets, butt sticking up into the air, snoring just loud enough to hear it over the soft ocean roar from a white noise machine. Your wife rests her head on your shoulder. Feel her exhalation, her relief when she sees the shallow rise and fall of your daughter’s back, unlabored and steady. 

Breathe to this fragile rhythm that only you and your wife know is fleeting, capable of slipping off while no one’s looking to somewhere implacable and permanent.

Leave the room. Close the door, still careful not to catch the mechanism in the handle. Lay in bed. Make your leg a bridge over the chasm and feel your wife’s cold toes against your shin. Hold your breath for thirty-four minutes.

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THE GHOST OF 623 LAMPLIGHTER SQUARE by Alex S. French

“Good morning,” she says, coffee buzzing in her grip.

“How’s it going,” Mike states, doesn’t ask.

“Living the dream,” Dave quips. Sarcastic? Who can tell.

“Do anything interesting over the weekend?” she tries.

Mike staggers to the bathroom. Door thud her only reply. Dave surveys the break room awkwardly: ceiling panes, Nestea packets, trashcan—anything but her eyes. She sighs and walks away.

#

Meeting Agenda:

  • First item: The jokes.
“Happy to gather for another meeting that could have been an email,” Stan chuckles.

“Ope, looks like Greg’s got the Monday face,” Andrew pokes.

“Did I have a hard weekend, or hardly any weekend at all is what I always say,” Jerry says, like always.

Peanut brittle laughter snaps between their jaws, staccato starts finish with chewy, contented murmurs. She never liked such sugar.

  • Second item: CEO Carl walks in late. Begins meeting with a greedy clap.
“So the numbers, the numbers are looking good. Up 12.4 percent over last March, but that’s counting NB3s like they’re NB1s…” Pinging jargon ricochets round floating clichés. She waits for one to hit. Hopes that it kills. Unreferenced numbers provide the backdrop, a gray curtain of statistical rain. The assault continues for 28 straight minutes.

“Look, our top priority is the bottom line, so trust the metrics, guys. We need to follow the actuaries’ roadmap if we want to land this plane with a boatload of goodies. Questions?”

  • Third item: Argument.
Jason pipes up, all folded arms and knitted brow, “I need the UWs to lower premiums if I’m going to be able to compete on top level firms.”

“We can’t go lower than our state approved rates,” Chester shrugs.

“That’s true,” she says, “but we can use the new metrics to apply to the state for a transition flex to bring down premiums on business that we really want.”

“What about the flex rate? I know Barry’s used a flex rate before!” Mark yells.

“We need to reapply for the transition rates,” she helps.

“We don’t have a flex rate.” Reggie objects.

“We can get this—we just need to apply!” No matter how she says it, no one seems to hear. She spins around in her chair, but no one seems to notice. She coughs and speaks again, but no one seems to care.

CEO Carl interjects, slaps his hands on the table. “Ah, I love this dynamism! This is what it’s all about! A back and forth, to and fro battle that’s going to paddle us forward. Good work, everyone, let’s make this work great!”

  • Final notes: No solution reached. Circle back on it next week.
(Remember donuts for Jerry’s birthday.)

#

Taylor from accounting saunters into the cubi-pod. “What-what, you turds—bonuses have arrived! Who’s ready for a li’l Shots Roulette? Bonus picked out of the hat pays the bill! Mike, Dave, Stan, Greg, Andrew, Jerry, Jason, Chester, Mark, Reggie: I know you bronanas are in!”

High fives are exchanged. Coats are grabbed. The digital clock strikes four and the room empties. She is alone. Her bonus envelope lies abandoned on the floor. But when she picks it up, she finds another underneath. Clean of footprints. Uncrumpled. Her coworker Barry’s name printed on the front. He didn’t make it in today. He doesn’t make it in on a lot of Mondays.

It isn’t right; she slices open the bonus letters.

She knows it isn’t right; she looks at her check amount, sees an extra digit in his.

She’s always known; she was right.

She doesn’t even bother resealing the envelopes. Her face falls Zen. A smile flickers at her lips. And sparks alight in the irises of her eyes.

#

There were lots of stories as to how 623 Lamplighter Square burned down. Electrical fire. That coffee pot was always sketch. Insurance arson. Apparently the business wasn’t doing well; they’d fallen behind the market’s current premiums and rates. Teenagers. Because.

But no one blamed the ghost. How could they blame someone whom they refused to notice?

She’s moved on to a better place now. Some think it’s Canada. Some think it’s the future. She calls it a place her own. Either way, she lives in limbo no more.

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RELATIONSHIP MONTAGE by Derek Andersen

Just as the conventionally attractive couple locks eyes, igniting a passion that burns with the fury of a thousand supernovas, “I’m a Believer” begins to play. / Cut to a long shot of the conventionally attractive couple skipping through an idyllic meadow, chuckling as they pursue a yellow butterfly. / Cut to the conventionally attractive woman massaging the man’s shoulders as he steps up to a carnival booth. / Cut to the conventionally attractive man ensnaring a bottle and bestowing a massive plush bear upon the woman. / Cut to a crane shot of the conventionally attractive couple breaking out in a meticulously choreographed dance routine in a public square, compelling onlookers to toss aside their belongings and join in. / Cut to the couple locking lips in the eye of a hurricane, too absorbed in one another to notice the debris swirling around them. / Cut to the conventionally attractive woman helping the man’s mother plant a row of tiger lilies in her garden. / Cut to the man toasting a beer with his father, who nods approvingly from his lawn chair. / Cut to a tracking shot of the conventionally attractive couple trailing a real estate agent through a cozy, cottage-style home. / Cut to the couple assuming the missionary position in their new bedroom. / Cut to the conventionally attractive man balanced atop a two-story ladder, hanging Christmas lights. The backing track skips as the conventionally attractive woman rocks the ladder, cackling maniacally. / Cut to a close-up of the man cautiously climbing down, pale-faced. / Cut to the conventionally attractive woman ambling into the man’s study. Even as she insistently kisses the back of his neck, he remains fixated on pinning a green butterfly. Zoom out and pan over his boundless menagerie—wings of magenta, indigo, chartreuse, fuchsia, etc.—trapped in eternal flight. / Cut to a reaction shot of the woman rolling her eyes and tossing a baby blue specimen to the floor. / Cut to the conventionally attractive couple holding hands atop a white tablecloth. The candlelight throws shadows into the woman’s cavernous eye sockets. / Cut to the man strolling to the bathroom, leaving his phone facedown on the table. / Cut to a closeup of the phone, faceup, as he returns to his seat. / Cut to the conventionally attractive couple locked in unremarkable coitus. / Cut to a Dutch angle shot of the conventionally attractive woman placing a box cutter in the man’s hand. Zoom in on her blissful expression as she guides the blade into the tender flesh of her ribcage. The backing vocals in “I’m a Believer” erupt into shrieks as a single drop of blood crashes onto their pristine, white bedsheets. / Cut to the conventionally attractive man gagging as his father carves the Thanksgiving turkey. Pan to the woman passed out, a pair of empty wine bottles before her. / Cut to a shadowy shot of the conventionally attractive man drawing the blinds of his study, plugging earbuds into his phone, and dipping his hand in Vaseline. / Cut to a low angle shot of the woman slamming her fist against the door, nostrils flaring. / Cut to a high angle shot of the man fumbling to wipe the Vaseline from his fingertips, frantic expression illuminated by his phone screen. / Cut to a Dutch angle shot of the conventionally attractive man, again, pressing the box cutter to the conventionally attractive woman’s ribcage. / Cut to a closeup of the woman grasping his trembling hand and hungrily forcing the blade deeper. A crimson rivulet oozes forth, gleaming in a flash of lightning. The backing track slows to half-speed, perverting the singer’s voice into a nightmarish baritone. / Cut to a closeup of the woman’s eyes rolling back into her skull like a euphoric junkie. Pan over the legion of purple scars, crisscrossing her abdomen. / Cut to the conventionally attractive man answering his phone and making a “whoa, slow down” hand gesture. / Cut to the man’s mother, on the other end of the line, breaking down into sobs. Zoom out over her garden, viciously choked out by the tiger lilies. Continue zooming out until the mother is a pixilated speck in a fiery orange jungle. / Cut to a long shot of the conventionally attractive man writing in the jaundiced glow of the moon. The wings of his specimens drench the room in mournful shadows. / Cut to a quick closeup of the phrases “something missing,” and “dying spark” penned in impeccable cursive. / Cut to a longer-lasting closeup of “what is broken is broken.” / Cut to the conventionally attractive woman slumbering in their bedroom. The man tiptoes into the shot. He sets the letter on her nightstand, looking her over. Her chest rises and falls in a delicate rhythm, expression lost in some blissful dreamscape. Grimacing, the man snatches the letter and tucks it back into his pocket. / Cut to a closeup of the woman shooting one eye open as he slinks out of the room. / Cut to the conventionally attractive man cinched in the woman’s embrace. Pan behind his back to reveal a pregnancy test clasped in the woman’s hand. / Cut to a nurse lathering gel on the woman’s stomach. Pan to the man and zoom in on his bloodless face, as the backing track’s vocals skip “I couldn’t leave her—I couldn’t leave her—I couldn’t leave her—” / Cut to the conventionally attractive man stumbling into the house late one night, visibly drunk. As he chucks leftovers into the microwave, he spots his office door ajar. / Cut to a high angle shot of the man collapsing to his knees. Pan over the man’s butterflies strewn across the office floor, mutilated beyond recognition. Keep panning to convey the sheer scale of the decimation—several carcasses have been decapitated, others de-winged, and a choice few stomped into a pulp. The man’s letter lies at the center of it all, ripped to shreds. “I’m a Believer” cuts off. / Now, in silence, cut to the man slamming his fists against the bathroom door. / Cut to the conventionally attractive woman slumped naked in the bathtub, legs spread. / Cut back to the man repeatedly throwing his shoulder into the door, until he collapses. / Cut to a closeup of the woman unraveling a coat hanger. / Cut back to a closeup of the man, unleashing an anguished shriek that causes the projector to sputter maniacally, machine-gunning an incomprehensible blur of frames. / Wait for a moment as white engulfs the screen—an immaculate, all-consuming white, like the first glimpse of daylight from the womb. / Pan across a wine-dark sea, catching faint glimmers of moonlight. / Continue panning until the beach comes into view. And then the crackling tongues of flame. / Zoom out slowly, deliberately over the flames. Give the viewer a sense of their breadth—their sprawling, football-field breadth. / Stop zooming when the conventionally attractive man and the conventionally attractive woman come into view on the left and right side of the flames, respectively. The woman’s stomach is flat. / Cut to a medium shot of the man, face contorted in a constipated grimace. Several other conventionally attractive couples line the frame behind him, doling out shoulder rubs, we’re-here-for-you’s, and other gestures of support. / Cut to a closeup of the woman, shot through the fire. Between red and orange undulations she can be seen gritting her teeth, the cords in her neck springing forth. A single tear trickles from her left eye as she charges forward. / Alternate between closeups of the conventionally attractive woman and man. In each of these shots, the woman grows more agonized, her shrieks of pain piercing the night like daggers, growing incrementally sharper. The man, meanwhile, becomes increasingly distraught, until the couples must band together and restrain him from dashing headlong into the flames. / Cut to a long shot of the conventionally attractive woman emerging before the conventionally attractive man, unscathed. The couples release the man from their grasp. He doesn’t say anything. He stares teary-eyed at the woman, nostrils oozing discharge, lower lip trembling like a child’s. The woman bows her head, awaiting his judgment. Let the shot marinate for several moments. / Pan across the faces of the crowd, each more spellbound than the last. / Cut back to that same long shot of the conventionally attractive man and woman. At last, the man rushes forward. The instant he embraces the woman, “I’m a Believer” comes crashing back through the speakers, undistorted, in a triumphant tidal wave. / Cut back to the crowd, hysterically applauding and hooting and whistling (with one man even pantomiming ass slapping). / Cut to a long shot of the sugary beach, the conquered flames, the jubilant crowd, the man hoisting the woman above his head and twirling her in a spasm of joy—capture it all. Hold that same long shot as fireworks crackle through the sky, their blue and yellow shrapnel cascading down in the shape of butterfly wings. / Roll the credits. / At the conclusion of the credits, cut back to the conventionally attractive man, still twirling the woman counterclockwise. / Zoom in on the woman’s back pocket, until a slender white tube comes into view. Draw into focus the words emblazoned on the tube: Lidocaine Topical Numbing Cream.

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LITTLE SISTER, WHY HAVEN’T WE HEARD FROM YOU? by Timothy Boudreau

We remember the shy teenager who visited aunts and uncles with a novel and a piece of knitting.  The adult in an over-sized sweater, huddled in a corner over a cup of tea.

Though separated by ten years we had similar interests and for a time considered ourselves creative people.

We always meant to collaborate.  What happened?

*

Especially now I feel you may have insight to offer.  Wisdom from a place unknown to the rest of us.

Thus enclosed find a few ideas.  Feel free to alter them in any way.  Merge your memories. Melt your vision over mine like caramel over an apple.

*

Our story about a brother and sister.  Begin as children, the brother thirteen, the sister three, sitting in his lap with a book.  Enchanted castles, blue cheerful moons, talking animals, silver stars shining. His eyes on the page, her head tilted to watch him as he reads.

A sense of trust.  A sharing of words and imagination.  Her then soft hand on his knee. Her shaking laughter, curls bouncing, when he mimics the animal sounds.

*

We must allow ourselves to make brave mistakes.  There will be opportunities for lyricism. There should be a place for deep feeling.

*

Her heart.  A condition she was born with.  Poor circulation; its inefficiency.  Later this might be a metaphor for other things.

The essay she writes in her single semester at UVM, detested by her sour coven of dormmates.  Her brother tries first to bully her into believing it isn’t any good. We must tell it from her side.  Stress its shimmering quietude. Its common sense and strength.

*

Sister, while you consider this know also that Uncle Fred and Aunt Josie miss you terribly.  Mother awaits word. She sits near the phone while looking out the kitchen window. Lights a candle; listens for the wind.

*

In our story perhaps the brother finds for a time a female companion.  Jittery, frail, tongue-tied with strangers, his hands fluttering birds—yet still.  The family at a loss how to explain his good fortune. Sensitive to his sister’s loneliness, when he calls he tries not to sound giddy.

It would be realistic to write a scene after the brother’s companion breaks it off.  The sister is called, a sobbing message left. He mangles and repeats the phrase, But I didn’t do anything wrong.  The words likely unintelligible due to the sobbing, though he’ll never know if his sister listens.  Or if she does whether able to understand.

*

The sister calls some months later.

“I’m sorry but I can’t be there.  Seeing Mom now makes me crazy. I have to get away.”

“Away” is a series of apartments in towns no further than an hour distant.  “Away” is a bedroom to which she returns after work to read and knit, as a wind rattles the windows.

On long winter nights she masters a variety of stitches.  Cabled, seed, herringbone. Waffled, cross, garter, farrow.  Dreams of the undulating line formed by a succession of purls; knit stitches in mounded V’s.

*

Little Sister, as you read these understand we’re trying everything.  Mother’s idea to spend time in your favorite places. At the Reading Room in the Prescott Library; on the bench next to the birdbath; along the winding path through mother’s birches where we try not to imagine you as a fallen leaf fading into the forest floor.

*

The sense of dislocation, a misplacing of years, when the older brother at last visits one of her apartments.  After not having seen or spoken to her. She has called because she needs money. Her building is dark, shabby; the apartment cramped.  Around the living room saucers with crumbs and saucy smears. Empty wine bottles under an end table with cracked legs.

“I’m working again.”

“I’m glad to hear.”

She asks, “Are you still at the office?”

“Yes.”

“Do you still hate it?”

He spends at most an hour.  The sister is experiencing various ailments and takes miscellaneous prescriptions.  She wears several sweaters. Her hair is gray at the temples though she is twenty-eight.  The brother’s hair entirely white.

“The blue and white pills are for my heart.  They regulate the pulse.”

“What are the yellow ones for?”

“Anxiety.”  

Her skin a pellucid blue the paleness of water-reflected moonlight.

“Do they help?”

“No.”

*

Had we known your heart was as serious.  We worried but didn’t know it was worse than suspected.

We swear we would’ve been there to put our arms around you.

*

Near the end of our story he runs into his sister at an outdoor event.  She wears a paisley blouse and skirt; she is drunk, perhaps high. Hair short, wrists and shoulders tattooed, wearing sunglasses though rain threatens.  Her fingers sketch intangible shapes in the air. She is with an older man with a cane, shawl and silver medallion. He is charming, in fact riveting. The brother knows at once that they are involved.

The man’s handshake is firm.  “Ah, the brother. I’ve heard so much.”

After they part she watches her brother’s bent figure walk away.  “Bye now. See you never.”

*

Little Sister, we wonder about your modes of communication.  Mother’s clock that mysteriously stops and starts; inexplicable slamming doors; phenomena of other kinds.  We want to believe these are signs.

We can’t be sure the extent of the powers you’ve grown into.  We wonder by what hidden currents you’ll arrive, via what vivid strikes of multi-colored lightning.  Some of us are afraid but we feel sure you’ll make the attempt.

*

No reason for our story to conclude with her body in bed, limbs splayed, eyelids frozen open, tongue visible between parted lips.  But the family has read that approaching the final moment the dying sometimes experience an enveloping warmth and comfort. An immersion in an embracing light.  Perhaps later the opportunity to reach out for those left behind. Little Sister, please don’t tell us we’ve heard it wrong.

 

 

 

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THE VAMPIRE BOYFRIEND by Jessica Drake-Thomas

I started ghost writing romance because it was under the table. I make good money, people are reading my work, and best of all, no one has to know where I am. These days, paranormal romance seems to be the big thing with humans. Specifically, Vampire Boyfriends. I don’t mind werewolves, aliens, or even dragon shifters. They’re all harmless enough. But I refuse to write about Vampire Boyfriends. When you live in the shadows, some things just hit too close to the truth. Anton Chekhov had a theory about guns in stories — if a gun is placed into a narrative, then it will go off, sooner or later. Like Chekhov's Gun, the Vampire Boyfriend has a timer, as well — once he’s in your life, it’s only a matter of time before the trigger is pulled and he loses control. He’s hardwired to desire you. Your blood sings to him, and he’d like you to believe that it is only he, and he alone, who desires you to the exclusion of all else. But what calls to him is his hunger. Do not be fooled. The way to the Vampire Boyfriend’s little dead heart is his stomach.

The Vampire Boyfriend is the ultimate apex predator. His physical beauty is staggering — he reminds you of all of the greatest sculptures — every feature has been polished to perfection by immortality. He has it all — the face of an angel, the mane of a wild stallion, the six pack of the Gods, the bone structure of Khal Drogo. You can barely contain your desire for him, and it sparkles through your eyes, seeps out of your pores. It’s like perfume to him— almost primed to perfection. He’s studied all of the great romances. He was alive to see them for himself — Antony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Iseult, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. He is able to mimic the correct movements and brings out all of the trappings of the perfect romance—perfectly aged wines he bottled himself, bouquets of roses like blood splatter, his hand placed just so on your lower back. He makes you wait just long enough to move on to the next step, until your need for him is so great, it’s consuming you like wild fire. He’s had centuries to practice, and his timing is on point. He wants you to be intoxicated, so you miss the red flags. He wants to own you, to possess you, wholly. You are the queen of his heart, and he will tell you: you are his.

The Vampire Boyfriend, despite living in a world that contains feminism and women’s rights, has still retained his antiquated notion that the object of his affections requires around the clock protection. He will call it “old-fashioned.” He will call it “chivalry.” You will not have to lift a finger, pay for a thing, or worry about other males ogling you. He moves faster than physics can explain, he has more money than a dragon, and he can easily hold all weaker males in check. Despite your claims that you are a modern woman and wish to be treated as such, he will gnash his fangs and turn a deaf ear in your direction. He’s stuck in the Dark Ages, when women were thought of as property. When women existed only to please men. When women were too delicate to stand alone. Let’s call it what it is: defending his food source. He’s trying to put you in a box. Literally.

You’ll stay, despite your misgivings. Despite the little slips, here and there. You will always stay, because you believe in the façade that he has created. After all, he looks so human. And he cares for you, as if you are a garden. Heed this—Dead things cannot nurture. They can only support growth through rot. The Vampire Boyfriend is incapable of decomposition. He is like a stone. He’s just so good at playing the loving partner. You’ll stay, of course. You’ll stay despite the fact that time, for you, is running out.  

You’ll fight, naturally, because you’ll feel strangled by his over-attention. He’ll say that he’s trying to protect you. That he’s afraid of losing you. That the world is a dangerous place for humans. Chances are, he’ll be proven right because if one Vampire Boyfriend exists, then there are others who think and act just like him. Chances are, another Vampire Boyfriend will smell the combination of your blood mixed with desire, and come hunting. Or, perhaps, he has a long-standing grudge with your Vampire Boyfriend, as they do. Chances are, he’ll attack you, leaving your current Vampire Boyfriend the opportunity to become your hero.

You will become comforted by his attentions whilst you are healing after the attack from the rival vampire. Your Vampire Boyfriend will care for you in every way. He’ll blind you to his faults with his displays of goodness, snuggle you with his ice-cold arms. Stroke your hair with long-nailed fingers. He’ll make you forget everything — like his recent tantrum, your fight last week, that guy from the bar who he murdered for looking at you. He’ll whisper sweet things into your ear, nuzzle his ice-chunk nose over your carotid artery. He’s not really thinking about you, but the delicious river, oozing beneath your skin. How the scent of your blood seeps through the bandages. Now that he’s fought another vampire, he’s starving. Everything he says and does will lull you into a stupor, so that you will not fight back. He will make you forget everything, who you are, who you were, and the gaping wound of his tooth-filled mouth as he finally loses control.

There is a door that I could open, in order to tie this up with a neat bow. But I won’t, because he might be lurking on the other side, waiting to be invited back in. I have run too far for him to find me now. The scars where his teeth tore open my throat have not been smoothed away by time or immortality. But know this: a story about a man who wants to possess you isn’t a romantic story. It’s a story about a beautiful, cold monster and lengths he will go to satisfy his hunger.

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BUMMING by Chelsea Harris

Were outside the corner store bumming smokes off each other. Hes a redhead, says hes got a bad habit of picking his face. The whole thing covered in craters. Our friend shows up, Andy. Hes got something to show us. We take a drive.

Up the road theres a car. Totaled. Hit a tree. We get out of ours and I slam the door, hard, a privilege. Theres someone inside the wreck. A crumpled napkin. A pair of puckered lips. Andy tries to pull her out but her body has been deflated. I poke at the airbags. Shes dead, the redhead says. He isnt wrong. We head back to Andys, a real shithole. He gets a beer, leaves his fridge wide open. We join him out back, on the porch. He says, I look at it two ways. Either we do something with the body or we dont. Redhead smiles, his fingers scratching at a fresh one on his cheek, What did you have in mind?

Before I knew it we were hauling her onto the pavement. Her hair matted in jellied blood. Arms twisted up like a pretzel from the fair. Her eyes had popped from the impact. Face swollen. Andy jabs at her sticky thighs with the toe of his boot. What now? I ask. They scoop her up by her arms, drag her to the edge of the woods. Redhead hocks a loogie back towards the car. Squeezes a big one by his eyebrow, rubs the goo between his fingers. I tell them we should leave her. I tell them we should call the cops. They both laugh, turn around to look at me, nothing but a Barbie, a toy for them to play with. Dont be a pussy, they say, Check her glovebox. Inside I find some money, a joint, a weathered photograph. Its of her and a woman. Theyve got their arms draped over each other like a shawl. Theyre laughing. I shove it in my back pocket, take the joint over to the boys.

It takes them an hour. Their hands choked in blood. Redheads got it all over his face in big smears like jam on toast. They leave her body, the hole in her chest clogged, her clothes in a heap beside her. We drive back to Andys, the radio buzzing. Redhead holds it in his lap like a puppy. They roll down the windows, barbed gusts of wind slashing my face. The night a hole, waiting to swallow me up. When we get back, Redhead plops it on the kitchen table. A gummy, tacky mess. A wad of chewed gum. A punctured water balloon. The boys take turns snorting snow. I sit against the wall, the clock above me pulsing to the beat of itself. My shoes stick to the kitchen tile. Want some? Andy asks. Redhead blows snot into his hand, wipes it on the back of his jeans. I join them at the table.

We wake to sirens. Our bodies spliced together on the floor. I pull a sweater over my head, gather my hair into a bun. Before I have time to stand Andy is by the freezer, his head buried deep inside, a fog of frost folding over him. I feel Redhead behind me, his presence a cloud suspended over the back of the couch. He puts his hand on my shoulder. Time to play, he says, silent enough that only I can hear it.

On our way out of town we pass her. A string of yellow tape tacked up around her body. A tow truck in the midst of hauling her car away. We listen to the news on the radio. Redhead and Andy snicker in the front seat. We pass exit after exit, every sign a blur. Three hours in we stop. A rest area. The boys pull the cooler out of the trunk. Open it up. Touch it, Redhead prods with a smile. His teeth are brown, gums bright red, the toilet after a period shit. He grabs my arm, yanks me close. Come on, its got special powers. Andy laughs. I pull myself away, away from them, away from the car. Youre a fucking pussy, Redhead coos. Andy runs at me, eyes thumping like a drum. I race towards the bathrooms, hoping I can lock myself inside, but Im too slow. His hand catches my wrist, nails scraping my skin like hot iron. His way of branding me. He pulls me to the pavement, pins me down, climbs on top of my chest. His face plump with rage. He socks me once, then again. My head goes numb. Vision dim. I hear Redhead slam the trunk shut, feel them scoop me up, toss me back inside.

We make it to a motel outside of Denton. All of us pressed into a full-sized bed. The boys strung out, their hands on my thighs. The TV blinking a scramble of shifts in front of us, the bed illuminated in a blue pixel haze. I reach for the remote. Outside, Andys car is on fire. I hear a boom, glass bursting onto the pavement. People yell, their voices strangled by the flames. The motel manager knocks on our door. Three long whacks. I scurry off the bed, out from underneath them. They roll over to face each other. Redheads got a few new ones busting from his forehead. A cluster of fresh eggs. The motel manager tells me I better get dressed and get down there, tells me hes already called 911. I shut the door, look down, untamed pubes erupting from my panties. Andy sits up, wiping his eyes. I take a beer out of the fridge, park myself beside him, offer him a sip. The cooler is in the car, I say, waiting, holding my breath. Redhead stirs behind us. Andy takes another drink. I expect it to hurt, but I barely feel a thing.

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NILSSON SCHMILSSON by Anthony Sabourin

I was outside on my street watching an apartment building on fire. I was watching it with the people who lived in that building, the people who’d left it. At three floors, it wasn’t a big apartment building, but it was a big fire. It was crackling, and flames were shooting out of windows and smoke was filling the night sky.

I looked at everybody. It was nighttime when the fire started, and so you could see these snapshots of how people were living inside their homes. A couple wore rumpled office clothes paired with sweatpants, caught between two routines. There was a guy in a misbuttoned janitor outfit. There was a family with four little kids, crying in mismatched pyjamas. The parents looked lifeless and hollowed out, leaning against each other like dead trees. There was even a guy who looked like Harry Nilsson on the cover of Nilsson Schmilsson, standing lost and gently wasted in a bathrobe. Instead of a hash pipe he was holding this big lamp.

That was the other thing too; people had brought all this stuff with them. But it’s hard to figure out what’s important when you are trying to not die in a fire. Like honey grab that toaster, we need to get out of this fucking building on fire. And then you’re in this rushed procession, everyone wanting to move fast but there’s so many of them that they can only move slow, this urgent slowness, bodies pushed out of hallways like toothpaste, and you’re holding a toaster. Or you grab a box of shit you never unpacked from when you moved in. Or your daughter’s favourite stuffed toy but it’s the wrong one, and now she’s crying on the street and her memories are covered in flames. Outside we were huddled together, we could all feel the warmth.

Finally we heard sirens. A fire truck honked at us because we were all standing in the street and firefighters started to get off and we moved to the crabgrass of the lawns of the row of houses across the street from the building. There was one house where the shutters were drawn though, and it looked like nobody was home. That house was my house. These people were on the street because the building they lived in was on fire. I was here because I wanted to breathe in a new kind of smoke. I was inhaling their lives. The family pictures, the drawers of junk mail, the jars of small change, the piles of unfolded clean laundry, the unworn jewelry passed down from mom, the overdue bills and lost TV remotes, the blankets, the books, the old vcrs, the stuff, all of it smoke rings floating skyward. These people didn’t know that instead of living they’d been gathering kindling.

Another firetruck and a couple of ambulances came, and I got to watch people at work. Some firefighters were spraying the building with water while other firefighters were going into the building. I didn’t know what was happening but it looked coordinated. It made me think about how when you are a firefighter nobody knows when you are doing a bad job. Like there are people who are bad at their jobs everywhere, so there must have been people who were bad at fighting fire. Firefighters with dull axes and weak muscles, firefighters who got lost on the way to a fire, firefighters who dropped old ladies onto the floor like they were heavy groceries - all heroes. As long as you were showing up to the fire, you were doing pretty good.  As long as you do did some baseline firefighting shit, low expectations were their own reward.

I had to pay attention now because a quiet came over the crowd. A lull accompanied by craning necks. I looked with them and I saw it; I saw a life being saved.

The front doors of the apartment were being opened, and there was a firefighter cradling a man in his underpants. The man was almost hairless, heavy - his body a series of soft, round shapes folding in on each other. His skin was reddened, splotchy. It looked like the firefighter was carrying a newborn baby, the man was that helpless, and for all of his size he was being carried with such ease and tenderness.

The man was crying, and he was talking to the firefighter. “Please let me die,” he said. “Please let me die.” His sadness was baby-like too. It was pure and unsullied. “Please,” he said. “I want to go back in there, please. Please.” And the man did not protest further as the firefighter carried him to the paramedics, who strapped him down into a gurney. We all watched this.

I had never seen a life saved before!

We stayed to see what would happen next, but in the end the fire just died. The firefighters were turning away people who wanted to go back, and the crowd dispersed, formless - in the end just more smoke, only I no longer wanted to inhale. Watching that man’s life being saved was akin to saving it myself. I felt a fullness. I walked and walked, directionless, heroic in my wandering.

The streets were broken up by dogshit on neighbours’ lawns, by gum dotting the sidewalk, by shards of broken glass, unclaimed garbage, the smell of marijuana from backyards and balconies. There were signs for missing pets - Charlie and Waldo and Blackie, which was the name of a black cat, which was questionable. The sounds of porch conversations and laughter, of hazy bass reverberating through houses, the sounds of nothing, of my footsteps, of crickets. I felt infused with a sense of community.

There was a lawn of knee-high weeds, overgrown from neglect. I saw a letter on the door of this house, and I walked up to the door and read “JANET ITS YOUR NEIGHBOURS PLEASE CUT YOUR GRASS,” and Janet, you wonder, you holy ghost, I hope you never change. Please let me die? And miss Janet cut the lawn?

It was funny how often you could see into the houses. Most windows were closed off, but there were so many left uncurtained, unshuttered, wide open. The green snatches of plants, or of bookshelves, or of unadulterated, unchanged 1970s decor. Of giant flatscreen televisions, shooting out images of big faces mouthing words at each other, of news anchors commenting on the moving pictures in the box adjacent to them, of tiny men playing baseball, of netflix menus.  There was also the shock of people - an old man moving in his kitchen, a man and woman putting food into their open mouths, of a woman adjusting a stereo, adjusting a bra. All obstructed, cut off, edited to fit the aspect ratio of windows; the 16:9 of living spaces beamed outwards. Pause - that couple asleep on their couch, crashed and leaning against each other under the glow of a screen paused on the option to “Continue watching.” I stood and thought to myself about how even dog shit left on someone’s lawn was life. Even broken beer bottles on the street came from living. From drinking that beer and making the earth your garbage. I checked my phone, saw angry messages, looked up and saw that the sleeping heads were now awake and looking at me.

Cut to curtains closed ineptly, a man opening the door, coming fast and saying “What the fuck’s your problem?”

I tried to talk about how full of life everything was. How even Janet was trying her best, or not, but it didn’t matter as long as she was still here. I couldn’t think of how to start, so I asked if he heard about the fire. “Fuck you!” he told me. He looked like he was going to punch me so I ran down the street.

I was sweaty and out of breath when I got to a park entrance. I was lost, but I had my phone so I wasn’t really lost. An unused playground gave way to an unused soccer field, and a path cut through the field, leading to a small forested area that was dwarfed by three apartment complexes. The trees swayed, emasculated, and I walked towards them.

It felt nice to not know where I was.

The forest was lit erratically by my phone flashlight. There was a man-made structure, a long sloping tree branch used as the spine for kind of tee-pee made of found branches. I looked inside and there was nothing. I swatted at mosquitoes and thought about living in here. Thought about being a caveman. Watching fire and living in the dirt. Scrawling madness onto walls. There was a crackling of branches and a flash of red, a soft thumping noise, a cardinal twitching on the ground.

The wing was bent obtuse, wrong, and there was more red than just plumage.

The bird was making noises and I was the only one around to hear its song. I didn’t know if it was dying or what. The bird was flapping on the ground but it couldn’t get up. It stopped and was still. I bent down to look at it. “I can save you,” I said.

I held it in my hands and for a moment it did not stir. It was so light. The red in my hands was almost weightless - almost nothing.

I started to get up and what was in my hands bucked and thrashed. The bird started to pick at me and bite, and I dropped it on the ground. It lay there hurt and screaming. I could see now that there was a lot of blood. If the bird was dying I didn’t know if this was a list of grievances or a confession or a final wish. I tried to pick it up again and it bit at me. It hopped on the ground and fell for a final time.

Its squawking died out, finally, and I was able to hold it in my hands once more.

If the bird was dying I didn’t know what to do.

In the dirt of the wooden structure, I dug a tiny hole.

After that I walked home. The shutters were still closed. I slid my key into the lock and opened the door. I turned on the hallway light and my wife appeared by the stairs. She was wearing an old sweatshirt, baggy and stained. She smelled like sleep and milk. Her upper lip was tight and the lines around her mouth formed a sad shape, and she wanted so badly to shout, but she knew she could not. She had to whisper. She had to whisper that I was a lazy husband and a bad father, and where was I, what right did I have to be such a disappointment. This was anger without catharsis. You can slam the curtains shut, but it’s just fluttering air. Her eyes looked so hurt. So tired. So sad. I couldn’t focus on her words anymore, the harsh sibilants that couldn’t rise to the level of a shout. And even though she was careful, there was a crying from upstairs and I was saved. My wife looked at me a final time and floated back up the stairs.

I grabbed a beer from the fridge and drank it in front of the television as sports highlights played in a loop at low volume. The television flickered and when I woke up no light crept through the shutters. I put the bottle on the kitchen counter and I crept up the stairs like a fugitive. Upstairs I opened our daughter’s bedroom door and looked down at our sleeping baby. I picked her up and rocked her in my arms.

I am saving you, I thought.

Please let me die.

I am saving you.

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BLOOD! by Oliver Zarandi

The elderly lady bleeds every day in my favourite cafe. The owner accommodates this and surrounds her with buckets. He mops it up. Sometimes he puts her in a bathtub, right there in the centre of the café, and she fills it up, laughing and bleeding. People applaud and remark on her unique nature.

I hate her, I tell my husband, I hate her with all my heart.

He says nothing because he’s a coward. He carries on reading his newspaper and ignores me. He has beady eyes and untrustworthy hands. He has the bony toes of a medieval Jesus.

I tell him don’t you ignore me. Don’t you remember my life?

I remember, he says. Your life is one filled with tragedies. I may order another soup.

My parents were two torso-less lugs who beat me silly with rolled up newspapers. They made me eat sharp foods and made me sleep in difficult spaces, cramming me in suitcases, washing machines, dog houses. Of course, my parents were taller than me, so I only remembered their feet. Mother and her painted toenails, father and his cracked ones.

But I grew up. I grew taller, taller than my parents and I came to know them only by the tops of their heads, two dumb scalps that got smaller with time until they both died of a cancer I didn’t care to know more about.

I demanded to know why this old lady was allowed to bleed so freely in the café.

I click my fingers at the owner. Why, I ask, why can she bleed everywhere?

I’m sorry, but she’s a regular.

Everybody was afraid of the old lady, I thought. Today, for example, she bled so hard that it came out of her ears, her mouth and eyes and made several toddlers vomit over their eggs.

I turn to my husband and pity him. He’s smaller than I am. His hair is a badly formed birds nest on his head, a whirl of thin twigs. To carry on the bird comparisons, may I add that he has a pigeon chest?

We do not get along much anymore. He’s a pint sized intellectual and like most men, he doesn’t say he knows more than me, but his eyes do the talking. I sit there and look at him and he can feel me seething at this bleeding old lady and he glances up and blinks twice, slowly, and his lips purse as if to say shush shush my darling wife of mine, don’t cause a scene.

Don’t cause a scene, I say to him. Don’t you know what I’ve been through in my life?

He says he does, but the old lady is old and she’s rich, richer than us, and there are certain times when we have to allow certain things, times when we must concede and just let it happen.

We go home that evening and I look at our house with scorn. Everything in that house was his decision. The bookshelves, the carpets, the sofas, the ottoman and the paintings, the spice racks and kitchen island, everything. Maybe because my wonderful husband is so small, so miniature, the house is an extension of his body. We go to bed inside his body and I sleep thinking of the bleeding lady and how she is celebrated.

The next morning, I decide to see what my own blood looks like, so I take a butter knife and drive it into my arm and twist it this way and that. I’m screaming, but the scream seems so dramatic, so utterly ridiculous that even my husband laughs.

Ha ha! What a terribly witch-like sound, my darling wife, he says as he take the knife and butters a croissant. I realise how ridiculous I’m being and sit down with him at the breakfast table and read the morning news.

A terrorist attack has killed thirteen people at a metro station in Paris.

My bleeding stops but my anger doesn’t. I sit there at the table as my tiny husband wears tiny Trotsky glasses, as he reads and his brain gets fat with facts and there I am, ignored, thinking of those people dead at the metro station, all their blood pooling into some huge jar somewhere in my mind. I feel an agitation in my body and I start shaking. The breakfast table starts to rattle with my convulsions and the toast rack falls down, the eggs on my husband’s plate wobble and jump, the tea pot jerks and the croissants shed their skin entirely.

My husband laughs and shakes his head and says thirteen dead! Trust the French to moan about such a low number! Try a hundred! Try two hundred! Now that’s really dead.

We return to the café for lunch. We order sausages and hash browns, coffee and tea and we sit there and glut ourselves on everything in an attempt, I believe, to fill the void that is our lives.

The waiter today looks like a rat with good clothing.

I’m unhappy with our marriage and I’ve been masturbating next to your face for thirteen years, I say over the sausage to my husband.

That’s just great, he says. I’m happy for you. But he’s engrossed in the bleeding lady. Everybody is. Chairs are positioned to look at her and people even start to touch her.

The more the merrier, she says in a bathtub of blood. She slams her chubby gout hand on the side of the tub. Bring me a mug, friends! The waiter brings her one and she scoops out a mug full of blood and passes it to my husband.

Drink up little leathery man, she says and he does. She repeats this for everybody in the café and there they all are, drinking this fat wenches blood, the centre of attention, finally validated.

I stand up and leave the café.  

I’m in the car and I pass other cars, beeping my horn the entire way. Out of way you bastards, I say and my voice is swallowed in the sound of traffic, the sounds of screaming and talking.

I arrive at the top of the mountain that surrounds the city and I think of that fat bleeding bitch and scream loud and hard, hard enough that I feel my chest go raw and for the first time in a while I feel like I’m being heard, even if it is just the wind listening.

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TIME PASSES FASTER AT SEA by Graham Irvin

In Korea everyone called my grandfather Pete because they didn’t know he was going to be a grandfather some day.

When my parents got married Pete punched me in the face. He wanted me to grow up tough.

My mom won’t forget the stories Pete told her about working radar in the belly of a battleship, seeing big green blips of terror appear and disappear. He told her they were bigger than the ship, by two or three times.

My mom says, ‘What could that have been?’

When there was a big green blip approaching on the radar Pete thought, ‘I’m dead.’ And when that big green blip disappeared Pete thought, ‘I’m not dead.’

When Pete was my grandfather he told me to never grab myself when I jump off a battleship. It’s the one sure thing he learned in the Navy.

He said, ‘It will rip your stuff right off.’

He asked me to paint his red weathervane like a confederate flag. I said, ‘I don’t feel like it.’ Then he died.

Pete’s battleship crossed the international date line in the Pacific Ocean every few weeks. He wrote in his diary, ‘There is no tomorrow.’

He wrote a poem about being the world’s loneliest soldier.

He wrote his girl Jen and asked if she was seeing any of the neighborhood men when he was out of town.

Jen was what people called my grandmother before they knew she was going to be a grandmother.

When Pete was in Japan he met a woman called Mitchi.

When he was in San Francisco he met a woman called Ilene.

When he was docked in Alaska he saw a seal carcass with blubber that moved like hair.

He wrote a story longhand about a girl who put a garden hose inside of herself before having sex with her brother. Then the girl had sex with her aunt. And then her brother and aunt at the same time. Pete bought a manual Underwood to type a second draft.

My grandfather lived in the hospital with cancer for a week. I sat in the backseat of my mom’s car and listened to Death Cab for Cutie on a portable CD player on the ride there.

When he died my grandmother gave me his old guitar. I learned to play Title and Registration and then gave up.

Pete played mandolin in a gospel band with his brother and sister. They even recorded a song for the radio once.

Then Pete joined the Navy.

Pete wrote in his diary, ‘Some days are Monday and other days are Tuesday.’

And, ‘Everything written is written in blood.’

When Marines from Busen left bags around the ship, Pete stole their guns and boots and sent them to his brother.

After kissing Ilene in San Francisco, Pete called Jen and asked, ‘Have you been faithful?’

And Jen said, ‘Yes.’

The next time he could afford a train to China Grove, they got married.

Pete wrote in his diary about their wedding night, ‘Four times.’

In Florida Pete and Jen took a canoe through the everglades. Alligators rocked their boat.

They had a kid and had a kid and had a kid and had a kid. One of them found Pete’s diary in a barn and wrote their name on a page that said, ‘Time passes faster at sea.’

Pete hid the diary until he died. His stomach turned into a garbage disposal and took him with it.

It was quick.

Jen lived forgetting until she forgot the final thing.

It was two days after my birthday. We celebrated with pulled pork and potato salad.

No one called her Jen.

No one cried about it.

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IN COMMON by Chance Dibben

Our heads were a perfect match for each other. Inside mine, a wasp that wriggled in and built a nest. It leaves periodically to get pollen, do wasp things, and then returns to the cavern of my ears. Initially, I couldn’t handle the itchy sensation the wasp made when it corkscrewed back into my head—my shoulders rising as if pulled, my spine wound in terror. Enough of anything, though, and you’ll get used to it. How the wasp has lived this long, is a mystery. Maybe it’s not the same wasp.

Inside Amanda’s head is a thunderstorm. I thought she was being cute and flirty when she told me, but no, she shows me a photo taken by an endoscopic camera. Sure enough—a miniature anvil cloud rumbling with purple lightning. “Now that we know we have something in common—how about another drink?” she asks.

Seven PBRs later, we find ourselves enmeshed into each other’s bodies in her apartment. We make love as people living with foreign entities in our heads only can—furiously, passionately, with a pinch of anger. Laying in her plush bed, her hand on my breasts, she begins to sneeze violently. Flecks of light glow in the soft white of her perfect nose.

“Everything okay?” I ask. Amanda blushes and chuckles.

“It’s… know how people get butterflies in their stomachs?”

“For most, not literally.”

“Right. That feeling, that’s what I got now. Hence the rolling thunderstorm, extra rain.”

I smile. Come here I say and pull myself over her.

I am a late sleeper, so when I open my eyes the next morning, I find that she is already looking at me admiringly, with a fresh cup of coffee in hand. We do that disgusting “hey” thing that new lovers do and then I accept the mug. The coffee is enriching and tastes expensive.

“You’re beautiful,” she says to me, leaning in for a kiss. As we connect, a tiny bolt leaps from her nostril and hits me on my mouth. Initially, it smarts bad, then becomes a warm buzz on the nerves of my lips.

“Sorry.”

“No,” I say, grinning.

My wasp courses the ceiling and lands on the pillow, waiting to come back in. I lay down.

“Where does it go?” she asks.

“I never know. It always comes back.”

“What’s it like?”

“By now, it feels amazing. I actually get headaches when it leaves.”

The wasp begins to crawl toward my ear, then zags over to Amanda’s head.

“What’s it doing?”

“It’s trying to get in. Never gone inside another person before.”

“Huh. Should I just let it—“ The wasp burrows into her crisply carved ear. Amanda’s torso vaults up. She ahhs in pain, then moans deeply in pleasure. She pulls my hand over her crotch. Her thunderstorm billows out her open mouth and funnels through my eyes. The light I see and the heat I feel make my head infinite and ever-expanding. It is in this moment I realize I’m going to marry this woman, can almost sense it as clear as taste.

We make love again. After, I suggest breakfast.

“There’s a great place near here—"

“Wickman’s!” Amanda says, finishing my sentence.

On her stoop, as she closes the door, we hear a monstrous buzzing. To the left, a cloud of wasps, murmurating. Down the street, I see an old man step out on his lawn to investigate. I give Amanda a I don’t fucking know look.

To the right, we hear a slow rumble—a thunderhead popcorning high over the horizon.

We shrug. I hold her hand and we walk toward Wickman’s, the storm and swarm following us the whole way. The world is ours for now and the first step to figuring out what to do with it is a big ass breakfast.

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MICROWAVE OVEN by Estrella del Valle (translated by Toshiya Kamei)

Don't say my name, don't say my name, when you know I have died, don't say my name.

-Roque Dalton

I don't know how it happened. I only remember walking in the woods with my strawberry basket. I wanted to pick a lot of strawberries on the way because my grandmother likes homemade cakes. She used to make them before she bought her house and had to spend many hours outside. She made them with egg white foams. The secret is to beat yolks and butter well, first yolks, then butter, and whip it for a long time, pour in the mixture of flour and milk. Finally make half of the egg whites fluff up. It's easy, no? She cuts the sponge cake horizontally in thirds with a thread and on the first layer she puts walnut custard, made with real walnut, strawberry jam, made from natural strawberries, not the kind you find in a supermarket. Then she puts the last layer, which she bakes in the oven. She starts decorating it with meringue. She makes a lot of figures, roses, leaves, and faces. She can even put the birthday person's name with one hand. She's an artist. I kept walking, looking for strawberries for her cake, but I didn't find any. That's why when I saw you coming in. I thought you were a doll, dressed up like that, so elegant. You even look like Ken, Barbie's boyfriend. Then I thought you came for my grandma's cake. But I know that man sent you here. Well, tell him no. I'm tired of playing house. Like I said, I'm sick of playing husband and wife. I lost interest in cooking a long time ago, after the day when I was so hungry I went to look for strawberries for the cake and couldn't find the woods anywhere. Nobody knew where the woods were. I was tired of asking directions, so I left and walked along Broadway, from West College to Seventh Street. I kept walking with my basket until it became dark, and I didn't know how to get back home. When I realized I was lost, I thought about going back the same way, but I hadn't left breadcrumbs because with this husband we never had enough bread to put into our mouths. When we got married, my dad told him, "Take good care of my little princess." That's what my dad told him, but he didn't even listen. I walked to Seventh and arrived at St. Vincent Jewelry Center. I wanted my princess tiara to go back to my house, to my dad. I went to the tiara display counter with my empty basket. The saleswoman and other women stared at my tattered clothes and bleeding toenails. I was bleeding all over the blue carpet, my blood, which wasn't blue like the carpet, kept oozing. I don't know how it happened, the lights went out, then screams came. I don't remember anyone coming to my rescue with his sword and white horse. Only you have showed up here, with your doll-like face, your well-ironed suit, and your CD on your back that repeats the same promise you'll never keep because he doesn't want to see me. I want you to know this once and for all. I don't need him anymore because the doctor, who likes me, told me if I continue to be a good girl, as I have been, he'll buy me Barbie's microwave oven, with its flour and all the dishes for the cake.

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GENTLY USED by Olivia Holbrook

I sit outside on the hard concrete, feeling the cold seep through the fabric against my thighs, then through my skin, then to my bones. I hold the mug in my hands, they’re shaking. The warmth feels like something distant, warming my palms, making them sweat, while the air numbs my knuckles. And fingers. I see the light in the clouds, reflecting off of something that only my dilated pupils can see. It’s morning. But we’re still here, and I’m still seeing the patterns in the sky that are telling my brain, “you just might not make it to that dentist appointment later, babygirl." He’s passed out on the couch inside. If I force my eyes away from the colors dancing in the sky and look through the glass, I can see his feet dangling off the end, his skin blending with the mahogany wood as my brain keeps the world melting and twisting. I turn back and try to stare up into the sun, trying to take in all of that blinding beautiful light with my eyes that are so black and so tired from seeing what isn’t really there.

We had dropped at midnight, the acrid taste seeping out from under my tongue. For some reason I had expected the paper to melt, I know paper doesn’t melt, but still my throat had been surprised as the little square, sapped of its chemicals, forced its way down. I look at my phone, nine fifty four am. It has been such a long night. I can feel every minute spent shivering, then curled up in bed, our bodies pressed together in the hope that somehow his skin against mine would force our muscles to relax, our jaws to unclench, the shivering to stop. I can feel those minutes like wrinkles embedded into my skin. I spent so much time looking at the skin. The transparent skin stretched tightly over the writhing, pulsing veins running along my palms, now safely hidden away against the hot ceramic inscribed with: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself”.

I look down at my shoulder. I see the grittiness of my skin, a tell tale sign that I have been sweating, covering myself in salt and life and God it has been such a long night. My eyes, so tired of seeing, but forced open from the drugs still flowing through my brain, land upon lines. Thin white scars, relics from a time when I had not yet learned how to love myself through the pain.

I think of an old denim jacket, hanging up in a thrift store, the edges frayed, the blue, once dark and saturated with indigo dye, faded to something soft, and just a little patchy. The seams are puckering, curling the edges of the collar, from that time, or all of those times, that someone decided to throw it in the dryer rather than waiting for the thick fabric to air dry, telling themselves that it would just make the jacket softer, no harm done. The kind of jacket that makes you go: “wow, you sure have been loved” which really means: “wow, someone took shit care of you.”

I look down at my shoulder, covered in sweat, and hair, and little, smooth, white lines that cut through the pores, and I feel at once all of the hands that have kneaded their way into my skin down to my bones.

I think of thin brown hands with tapering fingers that reach down to a place untouched and push their way through the delicate pink skin all the way up to my chest where they hold on to my heart, only a little bit too tightly, until they decide they don’t want to anymore. They squeeze before letting go, leaving fingerprints that stay embedded in the flesh to always remind me that these hands no longer want me. I think of fingers with skin like mine, just a little too pale to be beautiful, and nails covered with chipping black paint, running along my neck down to my chest with a gentleness that I have never felt in my life. These hands make me feel like porcelain. I think of hands known by sight but never by touch before now, before we are both a little bit broken.  These hands hit me and I learn that it is not safe to have skin made of porcelain when so many hands don’t know how to hold on to something without breaking it. I think of hands that are golden and covered in an ashy layer of chalk or salt. These hands are wide and strong and dig into the skin that I have turned into clay in the hope that it will not break again. They leave white fingerprints wherever they grab at me, trying to pull me closer without letting me get closer and I see that having skin like clay will only leave me shaped into something by hands that are not my own and I think that this might be worse than breaking.

I am the denim jacket, worn and faded and stretched by too many hands. My body, like all bodies, is used, not in the “you only used me for my body, you asshole” type of way, but in the way that makes old denim jackets so much more comfortable than new ones. I laugh as I look at the mug in my hands. How silly to suggest we could ever do anything in the bodies we are given other than to try to find ourselves.

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LIES ABOUT THE WORST WAY TO DIE by Dawson Kiser

There are a lot of shitty ways to die. A quick Google search of the worst ways to die will lead you down a not so wonderful rabbit hole of people drowning, burning, being eaten by animals, even falling in volcanoes. Not that I’m an expert on dying, but I’m walking into the hospital right now for my third year of chemotherapy and I’d argue this must be on the top 10 shittiest ways to die. Burning? That sounds horrific but from my limited research I found out you black out within 20 to 30 seconds. Your worst 30 seconds alive. This has been my worst 3 years alive. Slowly being eaten away by the ravenous monster inside my single lung. My left lung was cut out during my first year. Empty promises of a quick fix. “The tumor is only in your left lung,” they said. “We think you’re in remission,” they said. That month spent in remission ended with me face down in the busy Chicago intersection. Blood flowing from my nose and mouth. Shit and piss down my leg. A crowd of people. Some taking pictures with their phones. Others rushing to my aid but hesitating when their noses reached the stench. Took a half an hour for the ambulance to come. Now they say, “there’s cancerous cell growth around your right lung.” As if they have to specify which lung it is.

The other cancer patients look at me with dreadful eyes. One young woman, who is still very much pretty, is looking at me wondering, “will I look like that in a few years?” Sorry, you probably will. You will probably throw up, shit, and piss more than you thought was humanly possible. You will have no appetite and will shrivel up more with each day that passes, leaving you looking like a stray dog living in a dumpster in a back alley. In your worst moments, you will compare yourself to Jesus Christ as you sweat blood down your jagged face. I pass her and say, “you’ll be alright.”  and use all my strength to give her an encouraging smile and a pat on her (soon to be bony) back.

I’m running a little late so most of the good beds and chairs have been taken. I sit down in an old wooden chair with a penny thin cushion that allows the hard seat to grate on my fucked tailbone. The same nurse as always goes around and draws the curtains. This way you can’t see the other poor bastards turn into zombies. Not that this does much. The noises people make can be just as bad as seeing them turn into the living dead. The first year I tried to sleep through the “therapy” but the visceral nightmarish imagery that flooded my dreams made it unbearable. Now I bring a stack of mindless magazines to read. I tried novels but I’d get bored too easily.

I have managed to get comfortable with the needles and tubes in me. At first, you feel like the patient in the game Operation. It’s been about an hour. Family members of patients are starting to visit now. The support by family and friends in the early stages make you feel like you’re a celebrity. Your brother’s daughter’s girl scout troop sells cookies to raise money for your surgeries. Your mom’s church holds a healing service. Your best friend from high school that you haven’t talked to in years, except for the occasional Facebook message, stops by your house with a casserole and hallmark card. Your siblings and parents come to every chemo session. You get used to their company. But after a year or so the hype around your death begins to fade and less people visit. I haven’t had a visitation in a full year. Not that I care. I can’t even speak during the sessions anymore.

A few curtain rows down I hear sobbing. A young voice. A kid voice. A little girl whimpers, “mommy it hurts,” again and again. Her mother’s voice can be heard trying to comfort her dying daughter. “I know baby, I know. The medicine will help baby,” she says. That’s what we all hope. In my three years of chemo I’ve never shared a session with a kid. I’m focusing on my magazine trying to distract myself from the poor child. Brad Pitt in trouble again. The new Marvel movie broke another box office record. Nameless actress had a nip slip on the red carpet. These are the things that occupy your mind in these circumstances. Mindless pop culture magazines spreading gossip like you’re back in high school. Don’t pretend you don’t like it. You live for it.

My reading is interrupted by the sound of the little girl screaming. I hear the man closest to me ask a nurse for earplugs. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t want a pair as well. You’d want them too.

“Mommy I can’t,” she screams. “Yes, you can Claire,” her mother says with a trembling voice. She has a name. Claire. I feel the devil in my chest clawing at my heart. A name solidifies. It completes. It makes someone’s suffering tangible. A little girl isn’t dying of cancer. A little girl named Claire is dying of cancer.

I unplug all the needles and tubes inside of me. The monitor begins beeping in a fast-steady gallop. The nurse rushes to my assistance. “What are you doing? Where are you going? Are you alright?” she says. I extend my skinny-ass legs until they reach the floor. Using the chair as support I push myself up. I head down the room ignoring the nurse’s plea to sit back down. I shuffle my feet like a toddler learning to walk. All 70 pounds of me walking past all the other patients towards the sound of Claire’s cries. I turn to face her laying in her uncomfortable piss-soaked hospital bed. Her mother stands surprised to see anyone who isn’t the nurse. I fall to my knees next to Claire’s bed. I reach out both of my hands. One towards Claire and one towards her mother. Claire takes my hand and her mother hesitates a little before doing the same. “You’ve got this Claire,” I say, “you’re gonna kick cancers ass.”

I know the pain won’t stop but Claire’s cries and screams did. Another hour has passed and I’m still kneeling next to her bedside with her mother and their hands in mine. The only thing to be heard is the rhythmic beep of her monitor.

She’s asleep now. Her face soft and smooth. Soon she will be frail. Her skin will drape over her twig-like bones and her muscles will shrink. Her half circle eyes will take up most of her face and the skin around them will begin to darken. Her hair will be gone, and she will cover it up with a Mickey Mouse bandanna. She’ll want to throw punches at God, but her hands will be too weak to be made into fists. But for now, I’ll sit here in silence and comfort both her and her mother. There’s a lot of shitty ways to die but I’ll lie and tell them that cancer isn’t one of them.

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AJAR by Ankita Banerjee

He was at the counter flirting with a pixie cut. My eyes followed him the whole evening and I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I ordered my fifth gin and tonic, and when Sofie asked, “Why don’t you go talk to him?” I sniggered.

It started raining outside – the worst kind. He was now purring to the little black dress at the corner table. She was small, with a little hunch on her back. I went out for a cig and argued with the voice in my head.

“Perhaps it’s life coming to a full circle.”

“Or this is how I will again make a fool of myself if I stay any longer.”

“Perhaps he has changed.”

“He was sniffing the humpy’s hair like a wild bunny prepping up for a restroom quickie. So most likely, no.”

I took a deep drag on cigarette under the parking shade when the Apocalypse came.

He said, “So we meet again”. I said, “Shut up” and we kissed - through the cataclysm and until the end of the cervix of etcetera.

Later when we called an Uber and drove past the old town, the wisps of the night harked back to the old days when our world was lit with a thousand glowing worms. Back in the apartment we fucked, like old times - on the couch, against the door, in the tub, on the desk chair. When we craved food, I popped some corns.

It was the next best thing to cigarette after sex.

The sweat still turned the top of his ear bright pink. He still swirled his tongue clockwise inside the mouth like a broken down washing machine. I still felt clouds forming in my belly when he watched me getting off.

I knew him, he knew me, and at that point it was all that mattered.

When the rain softened outside he pulled up the blinds a little and carried me in front of the mirror. In the sodium lights from down the street he glistened like a gorgeous tornado and I melted in his clasp. He lifted my hair and whispered softly, “Are you real?” I think he asked that to the girl in the mirror, hence I said nothing. I wasn’t sure if I knew her.

For the brief moments we slept – on and off – I saw fragments of a dream that never reached its finish line. But he was there, making the same old grunting noises while asleep, and at that point it was all that mattered.

In the morning he left without kissing goodbye, just like old times. Later I found his note on my desk.

When Sofie asked, “Are you going to see him again?” I simply shrugged.

The following year I heard he had joined a cult. One day he just left home and hitchhiked down South to find faith, or drugs, or a secret subway to the heaven.

Sofie smirked. “Who knew he could find a different obsession?” I took a long chug of my beer and pushed down the lump in my throat.

I wondered how he is managing in the cold. He had always been a beach guy after all. I wondered if he has shaved his head now. I wondered if we could find each other across the room ever again.

When I wake up in the middle of the day, feeling like a spurned ashtray, I go back to his note over and over again.

“Until next time”, it said.

But how long is one exasecond anyway?

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THE TROLL BY THE EAST BRIDGE by Helen Armstrong

The thing that very many people fail to grasp about city planning is that a lot of planning goes into it: ha ha. This is always my gag at parties and it very often falls upon deaf ears. I’m uncertain whether people don’t want to find me funny, or if they just don’t understand my humor.

When the troll by the East Bridge - creatively named by Richardson, the city planner before me, whose interests included golfing and beer and golf clubs - demanded a sacrifice or he’d torch the town, people certainly weren’t laughing anymore. And they weren’t laughing when I walked right up to the troll and he ate me - in small pieces, of course.

Maybe he had gum disease: ha ha.

The feeling of having your ligaments torn apart from one another and having your guts ingested is unique, as you might imagine. Have you had a root canal? I haven’t, but I’ve heard terrible things.

It’s also interesting how the mind doesn’t simply disappear. Our thoughts float around through and outside of our brains, our whole lives just- humming around inside our skulls. The synapses light up like the fireflies that children like to catch in the dusk at Hawthorne Field after the baseball games have all wrapped up for the evening.

Those summer nights are the best, and perhaps it would be easier to describe this feeling of being torn limb from limb not through comparison but rather, by contrasting it. Example: it does not feel like watching children catch fireflies at Hawthorne Field in the dusk.

Example: it may feel more like being the fireflies, captured in a mason jar and forced to suffocate.

The mind doesn’t simply disappear. It scatters. The thoughts that spend most of their days floating around Hawthorne-Field-my-brain-my-skull-et-cetera just kind of...

So forgive me if I’m a little all over the place.

Let’s see - I got my start as a city planner after I finished my undergrad degree in Business Administration. I loved college and as soon as I landed on the hard pavement of the real world, I wanted to scramble back through the glass doors of academia and into my seat in the front of the class again.

So I applied for a Master’s program, and a few years later wound up on the pavement once more but this time, with a degree in Urban Planning. It didn’t make the landing any softer!

People ask me what I do. I tell them: I gather and analyze data to discover the needs of the population and from there, develop both short- and long-term solutions. I review and solicit plans from developers. I know the zoning laws and other regulations - so that you-don’t-have-to. You see?

Frank thinks it’s a great profession, but he’s an artist, so of course he can think that because it pays the bills. The bills that support his painting and sculpting, and recently he’s been getting into tile-making. Which you can buy at the farmers market which I found the space for.

City planners love sustainability. I love sustainability. I was the one behind the rain gardens you see by the roads and in developments. What is a rain garden?

A rain garden absorbs the runoff rainwater from roofs and driveways and lawns and patios. From the sky. According to some studies, they remove up to 90% of the chemicals and 80% of the sediments from rainwater runoff.

That’s a good thing. It means more water soaks into the ground.

That’s a good thing.

That’s a good thing.

See it sinking down, now.

Frankie also stands up for me because he loves me. I don’t mean, in my last few moments of consciousness on this realm - or, perhaps, any realm - to indicate that he is anything less than a gracious and loving partner. We did not meet at a gay bar. We met in the library. We were both checking out books on gardening.

Neither of us are gardeners.

Go figure, ha ha.

Is there a joke about green thumbs here?

Perhaps. But I don’t have the time.

I’d like to make it clear how important it is to invest in renewable energy and open spaces in our town. I know that it can feel hopeless, at times, to be up against climate change, because there’s Al Gore out there and ice caps melting, sloshing water up onto the land and killing millions of people, like they’re tiny ants. We can drown just as quickly as ants, is a fact-that-is-not-fun.

Their brains must scatter as well but into the ocean, and so the water becomes a vast repository of all the knowledge and experience that everyone whose lives it’s claimed has had. Picture that: krill floating among the memories of prom nights, and a whale may accidentally swallow the whole of a brain surgeon’s knowledge, which she’ll then spout out and fling into the air, careless with it.

Perhaps the troll could become the next city planner.

Wouldn’t that be something? I don’t think he’d fit behind my desk, ha ha.

Frank would think that’s funny, but it’s more you that I’m interested in.

What’s the point? The rain gardens are great, the farmer’s market draws people in from out-of-town-if-you-can-believe-it. Is a legacy only as worthwhile as the people around to make it into one would consider it to be?

I’ll tell you something important. No one cares about local issues.

I’ll tell you something else important because I think I may be running out of time. When they made it the law of the land he proposed to me but we never got married.

We’re still engaged.

I guess I’m old-fashioned. I guess I didn’t want to hear you all talk.

And set to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel as that is what is playing in my head in my last moments: last last last:

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EXCERPT FROM ‘ALL PRETTY SORE’ by Alec Berry

David met me at the McDonalds and we bought McChickens before walking next door to buy 40s / Went to his apartment and drank, and then his roommate’s girlfriend came by and she told us how she slept with a dude in his 50s because it’d be something to write about / Ended up drunk late in the evening after the 40s because David kept a case of Hamm’s in the fridge, and then we called Walker, and I met Walker, and I realized Walker was weird, and we ran through the streets to my apartment and partied with the college boys I lived with / A few weeks later David said I should move into the empty sunroom where there isn’t air conditioning or furniture or a bed because I wouldn’t have to pay rent, and so I did this, and I never paid rent, and when we finally moved out months later his other roommate realized this and gave me the silent treatment and insisted I contributed little in my time at their apartment / He was sort of right / I spent a lot of alone time in their sunroom laying out on the hardwood floor, never buying a bed, usually eating those 3 for $2 chocolate chip cookies from the Holiday gas station, thinking about how I fell in love once, or what John Casey might be up to, or the old apartment on Cobun, or how I was happy to be away even though I seriously missed it all / David, Walker and I went out one night to the Otter and got real drunk and depression hit real bad, and I went outside and ripped a gutter off the apartment building on 7th street / We drove through the McDonalds drive through and I bought seven McChickens and ate them in the parking lot, and they laughed and on the way back some radio station played Nevermind, front to back / We had the windows down with the volume up in stopped traffic, and David couldn’t quit laughing / This was about as good as the time on the Fourth of July Walker and I went fishing, and then we came back to the apartment and partied with the roommates and their girlfriends and their friends, and at some point I went into the sunroom, pushed open the doors and blasted AC/DC’s “Riff Raff”, and everyone left, and I laid out on the floor / Towards the end I was eating breakfast and Cori sent me a text to say Alex Gavula died in New York City / I called his phone and an NYPD officer answered, and I broke into tears right then because it was a plain metaphor that simply said you can’t go back / I thought about the last time I spoke with him, when I asked for help covering the rent / the check never came because he wasn’t reliable / Felt bad I ever reached out for this and that I’d been angry about the let down / I think I know despite his troubles he was a good guy waiting for a chance to do good / now i feel bad it may have been another moment of mistake for him / An instance he had to say to himself, “not another one” / It would have been nice of me to say, “hey, I got it figured out. No worries.” /

The above is an excerpt from Alec's novel, ALL / PRETTY / SORE. You can check it out here.

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MEALS OF OUR CHILDREN by Will Gilmer

I put chicken breasts next to the eggs to thaw and wonder if these eggs were born from the birds whose bodies will become my dinner. I pull out oil from olives that will never become trees and baby bean sprouts who will never know pods of their own.

I make double in case Trevor decides to come down for dinner. I know it’ll matter on how many pills he took, how much he slept today, and if he’s even here. When he vanishes I “run the circuit”, drive from flop house to flop house scanning over the buffet of now familiar faces until I find his.

Each time a little more of him is gone, consumed by a hunger no home cooked meal can sate.

Gnaw marks, like the ones on his old teething ring, appeared when the doctor gave him Tramadol after hurting his shoulder during the Homecoming game. Incisors scars ran up his arms when they moved him to Norco after X-Rays showed a labrum tear. Now I’m losing him, one mouthful at a time, as broken needle teeth pile up next to the burnt spoon on his dresser.

I try to make him unappetizing; season him with love, baste him with therapy, dredge him in rehab. But he was too tasty from the start.

I know the day will come when I’ll run the circuit for the last time. I’ll find him like leftovers; cold, flavorless, forgotten. In those dark hours after the “I’m sorrys” and the “If there’s anything I can dos”, after the hushed whispers of “He should have been a better dad”, it’ll lick its lips and come for me.

I’ll make the perfect dessert.

 

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SPORES by Łukasz Drobnik

The superhero needs to save the city, but there’s a drunk man in her kitchen. He’s eating a banana. The way he snaps off the stem and peels the whole thing in one brutal movement is all too familiar. She closes her eyes, just for a bit, and thinks of the cool forest air, her cheek against the damp moss, his coarse hands under her blouse. When she lifts her eyelids, the peel is already lying on the stained blue tablecloth, as lifeless as roadkill.

Outside, the supermarket is being attacked by red-furred flying monkeys. They grab trolleys from the car park and toss them at frightened customers, rows and rows of teeth inside their black hole mouths rotating as they do so.

She should be there, protecting the little girl from abduction, the middle-aged man from being torn apart, but she knows he wouldn’t let her. The monkeys can see her from afar with their laser eyes, their shark-like teeth glistening in the dark. When he tries to pull her closer, bits of banana flesh still on his fingers, she instinctively recoils.

Later they watch a medical drama, pretending nothing has happened. He sits in the centre, in front of his grimy laptop, drinking another beer straight from the can, while she peeks at the screen from behind the yucca plants — a mini-jungle in this otherwise barren room. She keeps track of his beers. One more and he’ll get sentimental. He’s just two or three away from waking the Beast inside him.

He drove her to the woods to take her mind off that boy. They walked over a floating mat covering a lake. Holding hands, they joked you’d think it would feel more like a waterbed, but that one was pretty solid. The layers of moss under their feet were the colour of surgical drapes.

They heard a sound as if of a bursting beach ball. Then another. And a few more. Through numerous punctures in the mat, with a horrendous, multiplied hiss, came fumes of red granular matter. She started running, as fast as she could, among the newly erupting jets. When she turned around, he was still in the same spot: waving at her, consumed by the clouds, completely oblivious to the hundreds of spores entering his mouth and nose and ears.

A rain of starving hearts from the sky. Clouds of capillaries forming into force fields. Cardiomyocyte bombs. None of her many superpowers could save him.

He chased after her, his eyes full of rage, each of his steps sending a ripple through the mossy mat. She reached the shore and ran into the trees, but now the whole forest was under the Beast’s spell: every root and stem and insect at its ruthless command. It must have summoned some brambles that trapped her legs like barbed wire. She only remembers falling through the cool air, her cheek smacking against the damp moss, his coarse hands lifting her from the ground.

The Beast’s lifecycle is a complicated one. First there are the spores. Once they find themselves inside a human host, they form a mycelium of sorts, which plants its roots deep in the brain and spinal cord, taking control of every neuron. It can last anywhere from days to years before it tells its host to hide in a cellar or dead tree trunk, crawl into a ball and disappear in an opalescent cocoon. From the cocoon sprout the deadly vines, which slither through the sewage system and underground car parks, feeding on rats and stray cats, leaving behind leather-like fruits packed with monkey embryos. The fruits pop after several months to release swarms of murderous winged primates. After they’ve had enough human flesh, the monkeys dive into lakes or ponds or rivers, where they turn into bloated, spore-producing, living furry bags.

The boy’s heart looked like a frightened animal. She’d done it dozens of times before. Her movements were slow, steady and precise. She never expected the bursting artery, the bloody deluge, the flatline.

He keeps the Beast’s spores in prescription vials, but she won’t be fooled. She has mastered the art of hiding them under her tongue. Before they have any chance to sprout, she walks to the kitchen, past the inebriated man, and hides them deep inside the banana peel, which she throws into the bin. On her way back, she glances at the gaping hole where the supermarket used to be. The monkeys feast on bones.

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WE ETERNAL BEINGS by Jody Sperling

Mary died earlier this week: went into the hospital for routine foot ulcer debridement—common with diabetics—developed a staph infection, went under for a lung treatment and never woke from the anesthesia. We knew Mary from back in the day. I’d moved to Omaha to live with my grandparents, found Jesus (it’s not what you think) so I sent my buddy to live with them (proselytizers got to be proselytizing). My grandparents prayed before every meal.

Mary was a banker who worked with my buddy in Omaha. Obesity led to her diabetes, which triggered her demise.

Demise. What a word. It sounds too clinical for its purpose. Demise is the word doctors use to justify premature deaths: stillborns, sudden heart attacks, “complications with x,” drug overdoses. Arise rhymes with demise, as in “Arise, Lazarus come out of the grave,” which is what Jesus said to his buddy, dead in the grave four days.

 

By the time my buddy moved to Omaha to live with my grandparents I was a recovered alcoholic, well on my way to conservative Christianity. Recovered is a loose term, given my troubles in years following, but this isn’t that story.

I’d taken work on a rat and mouse rig in the Uintah Mountains. When my buddy called I requested vacation, because he told me he’d gotten his second DUI. I came down hard on him. “You’re on an arrow’s path to hell,” I said. “You need to repent” (a fancy word for “move to Omaha”). My harsh tone surprised him. The old me had been soft: understanding and compassionate. We talked for a while and I said, “Pack your shit. You’re moving to Omaha.”

*

The demise of my water pump occurred just outside Big Springs, halfway between Denver and nowhere*. A local repair shop charged me eight hundred: five for towing and three for service. That set me back a ways, but I still can’t remember where all the rest of the money went, because I worked for years in the oil fields. Hemorrhaging cash is almost as common a disease in America as diabetes.

*Rabbit trail? Nowhere might have a secret meaning: “no-where” or “now-here.” Odd insights seem profound when you’re writing alone in a hotel room far from home.

The mechanic had my Blazer hoisted six five feet in the air. There were several five-gallon buckets nearby, all full of Unleaded 85. The smell of gas most closely resembles the flavor of MSG. The mechanic said, “It always happens this way, right after you’ve filled up.”

 

My grandparents agreed to house my buddy because (a) I talked about him often: what a dear, dear friend, what a good, good guy, what a rough, rough hand he’d been dealt, and probably (b) I angled the whole he’s-close-to-accepting-Jesus-as-his-personal-Lord-and-Savior card, but mostly because (c) I told them how he’d saved my life once (good story for another day).

 

My buddy got a job at US Bank, he called it “Us Bank,” as in “we,” and that is where he met Mary. Mary in the Bible was the sister of Lazarus. This is not significant outside of the active whirring of my brain to see the connection: a false corollary like so many others.

I had complex feelings toward Mary. On the one hand, I found her funny. She was one of those women whose egos had no bounds. She really believed the world owed her. If there was ever anything wrong at work it was someone else’s fault. If anything good happened, she had made it happen. I am drawn to people with outsized egos. But also, too, Mary had a slight odor, mildewed, washed but not dried, perhaps lusty: Does lust have an odor? If I remember correctly, she brushed her teeth with hydrogen peroxide because she’d heard on some TV doctor show that toothpaste caused brain damage.

My wife’s father recently stopped drinking sodapop because it causes brain damage. Apparently a megastudy found that those who drink twelve ounces of carbonated, sweet beverages a day experience a shrinking of the hippocampus. Don’t bother me to look this up, but I seem to recall that the hippocampus is where emotion lives.

 

Mary and my buddy and I met one day sometime after midnight at VI off L Street. We drank coffee heavy with cream and ate French Silk Pie. I think highly of France, love silk and adore pie. The three together are, today, the only trinity I care about. Between every bite of pie we drank a cup of coffee, and since we couldn’t eat another bite until our coffee was full, we’d leave our jackets on our chairs to signal we’d return and go outside into the windy cold of Nebraskan November to smoke cigarettes and shiver.

My buddy only ever smoked socially. He could go weeks, even months, without a cigarette and not suffer. Then, in one night he’d smoke a pack—a whole pack—with no consequences. Mary and I were both card-carrying Mentholites.

 

I briefly worked myself into a two-pack-a-day habit during my stint in the oil fields. I worked with Chris the driller on a two-man, rat and mouse crew. Chris was big in the naturally-born-to-kill kind of way. He was thick everywhere. Thick legs, thick arms, thick neck, thick nose, thick tongue, he was thick, thick. Chris smoked three packs of cigarettes daily. When he wasn’t smoking he hung suspended from a tree by tenterhooks pierced through his shoulder meat. Suspensions create a religious high, they say. Look it up. People do it.

Because Chris smoked so much, I smoked a whole lot more. Odd as it may sound, if I smoked, I couldn’t smell Chris’s smoke, and I’d just get so damn tired of smelling Marb Reds all day long. Smoking was a break from smelling smoke so I smoked and smoked and smoked. That’s how it goes.

 

I didn’t actually answer when my buddy called me about Mary dying. I was checking into a hotel: I’m on the road this week in Albuquerque for work. When I dropped my bags on the hotel bed and as I was taking a dump, which is a sacred routine that helps cleanse me from the day’s troubles and reorients me to the important matters that lie ahead between end-of-work and time-for-bed, I saw he’d called. I called back and we talked work. Where I go, he goes, so we’re coworkers again which is how we met over a decade ago at a restaurant where he served and I hosted.

I’m the big cheese now, and he’s the little cheese—title-wise—but it’s not that way between us. I rely on his good reputation since he was a referral of mine. The more he succeeds the better I look: if I’ve learned one thing about Christianity, it’s all about appearances.

 

My buddy just got back from Spain, where he spent a week with his wife. They got free lodging over there through a friend of his. I’ve never traveled abroad. Not really. I spent a day in Juarez many years ago on a church mission trip. My grandparents wanted me to experience Christian Charity and since they footed the rent, what could I say? (That’s not charitable. I wanted to go but for all the wrong reasons. Remind me to tell you that one some other day.)

The kicker is, my buddy’s wife didn’t have a good time in Spain, he tells me, because she didn’t get to call the shots. He says she doesn’t do well when other people are leading and planning. Apparently his wife has a strong personality, he said. “Like you,” he said.

I don’t want to be compared to his wife. She is not on my list of favorite people. I wonder if she’ll need surgery someday. We all need surgery from time to time.

I’ve risen twice from Propofol (since they say the third time’s a charm, I won’t be going under again). The first time I was a baby in need of some kind of urethral correction. I guess I was born with six or eight holes perforating the length of my shaft. The other surgery was to repair my left ear, which heard so well it bled constantly. As a four-year-old I could hear the whispers of the dead, and it kept me awake at night. They said, “Call us out of the grave. We eternal beings. Arise, arise.”

 

 

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D1NAH BREAKS THE SET LIST by Anna O’Brien

G1rl on the Road

If, and this is an astronomically huge if, D1nah makes it through this song without her throaty howl cracking during the third refrain, Fage the drummer owes her $27.39. This is the cost of a soy caramel latte plus interest compounded weekly, the frequency of every gig the band now plays. So far, the wager has been compounded eight times. Fage is confidant that she'll never have to pay up even if, on their five-hundredth gig twenty years from now, cynical, saggy, broken, and bionic, D1nah holds that "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh" in "G1rl on the Road" for its full ten bars because who says lattes will even exist then? Plus, D1nah's a push over.

The audience watches D1nah's lipstick #10 ruby red mouth open like a cave with ancestral winds gushing out, the power of all of the folk singers before and after squeezing her lungs like you would hold a dying child because there's nothing left to lose, and shit, she's done it, just now.

She actually held it.

Fage huffs.

The small crowd in this stuffy, dark, mildewed venue is going insane, arms up, their own mouths open in response, pulsing collectively like one giant vital organ, the band's own heart and soul supplying the nourishment needed to keep coming back. D1nah looks behind her shoulder, a joker's grin stretched beyond her cheeks – Christ, how does one smile encompass an entire room, she'll eat everyone alive – and her iron gaze spears Fage.

The drummer smirks back. D1nah's missed her lead into that extra bit they added to the end, the best part really, because it ties it all together. D1nah's fucked it up again. She's reliable in that way. It's sort of comforting.

Blue Jays and Biscuits

An artist who proclaims she'll never be a sell-out has never had the privilege of having the option. This is what D1nah has always said but this time, looking back at the band bathed in blue light, during an intimate interlude where Carla the guitarist has a solo and D1nah sort of stands there and moves her hips, she thinks they've already sold out on each other.

Fage the drummer is now gone, her replacement one of those sentient boxes, an amalgam of circuits and software that produces the perfect beat. It's – she's – not even a person much less a gender but the band covers the matte silver edges with femininity for comfort. It's fine – she's fine – but D1nah still isn't used to the visual amputation of the absent ten-set drum piece behind her, no chrome glare off the cymbals. There's more room to move around on the stage now even in the smallest of venues but D1nah's here to sing, not gyrate. Still, the crowd screams loudest when she swings that curved cradle that sits on top of her femurs and yes, she's sold out, she decides. Once and for all.

Throwing the mic down, she stalks off the stage. Of course she'll be back – she's gotta eat – but for this set, she's toast.

Rotten Egg

D1nah's performing tonight with something stuffed in the back pocket of her green jeans which is odd because she loathes being tied down on stage with objects. She's said before (to journalists, sure, so it's bound to be hyperbole) that really if it were a different time, a different place, she'd be on stage naked. What's double odd is it's an envelope containing a letter. D1nah, like the rest of the band, has no permanent residence and it's hard to believe she'd keep a post office box.

From this, it's clear someone wanted to find her.

It's exhausting being the front woman in a band. D1nah stares tonight at the audience and accidentally smudges her mascara. A local reporter will write as witness that she was crying on stage which is simply not true. Later, D1nah will smile and thank her many gods with their individual shrines that burn in the band's van and have scorched the shag carpet that these local journalists and rabid groupies from nowheresville are too focused on the stage and not on what's behind the curtain to dig and find out she was hatched from an egg, her real mother one of those giant birds from one of those labs and the back pocket letter tells D1nah her adoptive parents have died.

D1nah will burn the letter immediately after the set. The letter is dated eight months ago. All ties lost, she's been free floating and not even aware of it.

This is her biggest secret, bigger than the drugs and flare ups and occasional self-harm but it's all there for everyone to see if they paid enough attention to her art.

Ironic, then, that she's singing this song, "Rotten Egg." She gnaws a cold sore on the inside of her cheek and tastes her body's brine. She forgets the second verse and the band just has to continue on.

Fight the Homefront

On stage D1nah thinks: I am not your tree. She moves her feet so as not to root. A sidebar feature in a national magazine described the band as "willowy" and in an extended arboreal metaphor, referred to D1nah as "barking."

In a moment of vocal silence as the drumming box does the same solo at the same point in this song without the feeling of angst or breathlessness that Fage used to give it, D1nah realizes maybe "barking" was intended as more canine. As in bitch. As in –

There's a boo from the crowd.

Shit.

D1nah's missed her cue.

She flicks the audience off and sneers, tossing back heavy hair that makes her neck sweat, a quid pro quo. You want makeup? You get zits. You want hair? You get a greasy curtain.

You want it all?

You get nothing.

A train wreck due to a thousand tiny causes is still a train wreck.

Move Those Sticks (Legs)

D1nah's really hungry, famished she might say, depending on the audience. The whole band is gaunt, depleted. No one has a day job anymore. They play five nights, five towns a week.

They like to clink glasses "to art" in the dark when someone else is buying rounds. But eyes shift, grow wide, then narrow. Soon – how soon is anyone's guess – it will be every man, woman, xi, android, egg hatcher, diploid, and hyperbiome for themselves.

But until then, there are still the fans. And some have money and pay for tickets and merch. Yes, they want (demand) more: backstage passes turn into all night babysitting, exclusive interviews turn intrusive, social media expects (Jokingly? Hard to tell.) your relic social security number, your replacement barcode, your medical history, tattoo cover-ups, and rehab. You're just like us, they coo, but they want to peel you apart just to make sure.

But the band can't stop now. How could they? The band (the music) is everything. OK, the guitarist has been replaced three times and the drummer and now keyboardist are boxes but D1nah, the front woman, the headliner, the one they come to see, is rock solid (when medicated), a creative genius (when drunk and not depressed), is drop dead gorgeous (with shellacked makeup and two surgeries), kind (no, not anymore), a push-over (now she pushes back).

D1nah stands in front of the crowd, houselights low the way she told them. She can't recall her last full meal.

She almost wrote a song called "Beef Jerky" but the title would only get lost to vulgarities. The band is old, for an inclusive bunch. D1nah is proud of that, mostly. Somewhat. A bit.

There isn't even any satisfaction in the fact she lands her ten bar "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh" in that deep cut "G1rl on the Road." Hell, she gives twelve bars, then sixteen. Her lungs are massive, her diaphragm strong, her larynx unstoppable. She gives and gives and gives until her band mates look at each other behind her back, roll their eyes, shrug.

"Diva" is a word tossed around occasionally in the press like a rubber ball; it's fun to play with but you get bored quickly. The "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh" goes on so long the drumming box gets confused (a first in a line of malfunctions that tellingly doesn't end up in replacement) and begins the track for the next song. The keyboard box picks up the signal and off they go, leaving D1nah to howl alone.

Into the last song of the set list, a list so incredibly short these days because no one has an attention span longer than fifteen minutes, ten minutes for art, five minutes for art without sex hidden or promised somewhere in the folds, D1nah finishes her twenty bar hold on a singular note from a song she wrote ten years ago, her longest hold ever. She stands literally breathless and stares out at the crowd as her lungs grab air. Everyone is looking at her, really looking for once. She has their raw attention in the palm of her shaky hand. Her fingers curl over an invisible egg in a delicate clutch then she squeezes her fist closed. She picks up where she left off, jumping headfirst into the very last song like she always does. Like she always will.

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SARAH W. by T.S.J. Harling

There is not yet a ghost in this place, but there will be.  A long time ago there was a school, then another school, and then different offices. I lived in a house with an upstairs and a downstairs, a basement and an attic. We were a family. I was a girl. This is what I remember, not what I imagine. Although nothing can be verified without a living body, here with me, to speak and either object or affirm.Then, I was always in an act. Of laughing, talking, dancing. There were others around me, other girls, and we made up our own music. One of us was often upset about something. I was there, I was real, I was one of them. We drew breath. Then I became someone else. I live here now. The other girls live in their own houses. We can only communicate telepathically and in silence. I listen not to their voices but to the drumbeats of my neighbours around me on each side, which both hem me in and keep me alive. I think I would stop breathing if they quietly left, one by one. For now, each day and night they come and go; footsteps back and forth, submerged voices, TVs going on and off, doors opening and closing. Meanwhile I cling to the floor for dear life. Don’t leave me, I say. Don’t leave me. I am still here. I live. Feels like I can feel the circulation of the earth, a slowed sensation, ever turning away. Gravity isn’t strong enough. Not like it used to be. While they sleep or when they go out I have to listen for other noises to keep me in the room. The low hum of the fridge. The click of the boiler resetting. Air moving in and out of my nose. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, the rain falls against the window, or a dog will bark. I am in all parts of this home. In the corners of the ceiling, when I can’t get back down, scratching the walls. Behind the door. In the corridor. Standing on the rug in the centre of the room, smiling as you walk in. I’m here, I know I am, don’t say I am not. I have opened the doors of the cupboards in the kitchen. I have pulled the chair up to eat at the table. I have slept on the sofa. I have run the taps in the bathroom. I have looked out of the window, waiting for him to come home. I have tidied, cleaned and put away. I have hung my coat on the hooks by the front door. You don’t believe in ghosts. You will be ok.

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D-O-D-E-C-A-P-H-O-N-I-C by Bryce Jones

The composer used his Guggenheim and several other grants for the purchase of twelve children. Pitching for conditioned octave he specified three teens with tinsel, flinty, and flintiest timbres, five prepubescent boys whose vocal chords had rashes of uniquely layered crackle, and four soprano toddlers of separately valued screech. His house’s twelve TV rooms were built for private occupancy. In one the tube was empty and the toddler hit the screen. Enacted blurs of violence against the reflective surface. Posing afterwards flexed muscles, elbows out-crotched biceps straining. Kissing a mirage of Barbie while she lasted hand-lined in the air. The screen was beat-up, the toddler’d been tough and had seen it was good.  Still an icon of themselves that dissipate to unreflected flesh. The toddler took the screws out and peeled back the TV’s carriage. Crawled inside and stayed there. Scheduled variegated winks that shadow mask their vision, splotched phosphenes on the screen’s inside and elide them with the medium.

A man crouched up a mountain. Or watched a woman take a bath. Or grew ficuses from out of his head. The boy couldn’t tell. But he wanted the man to see himself back to the bath.   

One teen watched a GIF of their face turning “pretty” – resuming back to “ugly” –  back to “pretty.” One teen watched a GIF of their sperm turning moldy. One teen watched a GIF of everything they ever wanted.

A different toddler learned the functionality of language as taught to them by webinar – stroke of paredoliac light moving “mouth’s” of data – that removed the T/V schema of deitic utterance. Said there is no you or your or me when speech has taken over. What there is instead’s a mucus-y infection of slurred out individuals. Try unsyntaxed antimeria so separate from coresense for freedom.

All twelve children were formed of isolate abstractions.

The composer rotate soloists, duos, trios, quartets. Made two sextets (unfixed members) and a sole dodecatet.

Tonal clusters of antiphonal collapse.

Movement 1:

[The toddler speaks from the grille of their degut tv]

– I just hum [humming]. It fills me up and empties me if I don’t move the hum. Just float out of breath on an unchanging tone. Though there is rhythm of my choosing underneath the surface. If I want. I don’t always. Or usually. I just hum. When it’s desealed from my lungs completely I still hear it in the TV. We cancel each other out. The TV and me [humming].

Movement 26:

[The three teens]

– I can’t air myself out. Like open up a window maybe open up my mouth ma – You two need to be stuck somewhere else, somewhere not with me, okay? Be – uchs seem nice. I’m a couch potato, couch protector –  different if it’s on the inside on the outside’s worse – I was talking. I can’t believe I’m blabbed out. I liv – We’re dimorphs of pretty and ugl – rncob me? Thank u, next – dden in virginity or something taking over?

Movement 53:

[A toddler who watched Skinemax, the one known boy so far, the second teen, a boy who watched laparoscopic footage]

– Detective Moist Mackintosh made the scene – Yes, generic, better – Hostage situation: a female sex-addict overtook the volleyball team – I’ve forced the impulses of arousal to signify disgust – He should have dual the footage and let audiences vote: a scribbled hillbilly or naked woman – vomit’s not as gross as mold – Mack goes in. A pro – The focus on exteriors is tautological. A kino eye should roam inside – A masterful retcon: Mack gets horny.

Movement 94:

[The toddler taught through webinar, a boy who stared at static and one who saw 24 Hour Psycho, a toddler          who watched AI created music videos, and a boy who saw slideshows of clickbait]

– “Put on your doll faces” – paraorganed throughin musical.ly – Every star visits this denture doctor – Bad biddence childisms – I’m numb – “In paradise” –  Debunked claimant: Had he been kissed by God his face would have vanished – We shed the varnish of our body with every movement – “I’m a human being” – Spillish of (d)ef(f)ecting communicants – I stay nicely numb – Deblooded – Where there is no temperature.

Movement 151:

[Together]

WJHKDSFMJKSDFAISDHIFDFBTQLKSEO

HJHKDSF IDFFSDFASFSFSFSI E DFSDFD

AFEFEZSI GDFGDFGRSFGDFHFDHZCXI

TEEVSDF HDFIMLESSEDVVDSFSDFVAI

ESADEHII TBYZXCMASS0DKSSFKFSDM

ZLKOSRBFBFHNJKNLINOISEASCZSFSDI

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NAKED STEW by Michael Graves

Today is Saturday, another date with my kitchen floor. While Gram’s famous hot dog stew simmers, I admire the double-mopped laminate that has already been host to four veteran potlucks.     

Kurt’s pickup bleats, turning into the driveway. Spears of oak and birch fill the sagging bed. Kurt sees me at the screen door and side grins, his cauliflower ears pink from the chill.

“Floors are dry,” I holler.

He almost tumbles from the cab. “You sure? Want me to drive around the block a few times like last week?”

“Just don’t get shit all over. Please? You’re covered in sawdust.”

Kurt thumps the hood, smirking wildly. “Jesus, Henry! What do you want me to do?” He hops up on the porch.

I smell schnapps, gasoline. I smell Kurt’s smoke-drenched hair.

“Don’t fuck my house up,” I say, eye-smiling.

He stamps off his boots. Wood flecks ping about. He strips his sweatshirt and his under shirt. A pale yellow spotlight of dust quickly surrounds him.

“Ms. May will call the police again,” I say.

Scrap has even nested in Kurt’s crooked trail of navel hair. He unzips his jeans and wrestles them down.

“What are you…?”

“If I take everything off, I can’t make a mess.” He steps from the puddle of denim.

“Unbelievable. Punk." I say and smirk.

With a rude boy grin, Kurt strips off his boxer shorts, faded tan lines agleam. He knocks on the prosthetic arm he calls Bixby. “What about this old bad boy? Want him off too?”

Ms. May’s drapes part. “Get inside,” I say, coughing from my laughter.

**

When preparing Gram’s hot dog stew, I become steeped in the fixings. Onion, celery, and basil stitch into my flesh for days.

I pass Kurt the thawed bread heels. After chugging a glass of milk, he arches over a large bowl. He slurps and gobbles the brew of discount links.

“I hope you don’t catch cold,” I say.

Kurt glances down at his bare cock. He snickers.

“How was the wood haul?” I say.

“Not bad. Jessie’s chainsaw shit the bed by eleven. That blew. Filled up all our trucks though. I’ll get one more load if it kills me.”

“Channel five said a nor’easter might be on the way.”

“They don’t know shit.” He crushes two heels and begins to smear them with crumb-speckled margarine. “I’m gonna pack our porch, Henry. Biggest wood pile you’ve ever seen. Keep us warm all winter.”

I stare at Kurt’s new eagle tattoo, scabbing on his chest.

“This tastes great,” he tells me. “Best batch, I’d say.”

My entire face crinkles. Immediately, I’m huffing. “I followed her recipe. It should be the same.”

Kurt mimics my sigh in jest. “Yours tastes different.”

“It shouldn’t.”

Shrugging, he says, “But it does. Better maybe. It’s so good, it’s giving me a chub.” Kurt begins to swill the stew loudly, defiantly. He grins, a potato chunk clinging to his lip.

I swat the air.

He says, “Hey…how ‘bout you take off your clothes too? Shouldn’t have to be naked all by my myself.”

**

Cars stream by, chugging toward Sunday services. Some tap their horns, and we wave with Irish coffee smiles.

Clad in cowhide gloves, I stack wood, row after row, tidy and flush. I hear a pop and then scuffing behind the pile. “What the fuck?”  

Kurt bends down and aims his cell phone flashlight into the rear gaps. He kicks the heap thrice. An opossum thrusts out its pointed white face. It lunges. It hisses.

“Jesus Christ!” I vault backwards and drop a wedge of oak.

Kurt cackles, his breath prancing in the frosty air. “I can see a family of ‘em.”

“Don’t get bit.”

“They don’t bite, Henry.”

“Yeah, they do,” I say. “They have teeth, right?”          

“She’s just protecting her babies. Anyway, when opossums get really, like really scared, they play dead.”     

I shed my gloves. “That fucker will attack me. Like when I’m taking out the trash.”

Kurt shakes his head. He points to the opposite side of the porch. “Let's put the wood over there instead. Move the boot trays, the shovels. I’ll get a tarp or some shit.”

I grind my slipper into the cold slate. “Can’t we scare them away?”

“Naw.” His face softens. “We’ll leave ‘em. They’re just tryin’ to set up shop. Same boat as us.”

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PRINCIPAL ALPACA by Richard Leise

Interim Principal Gregory Jenne has Alopecia universalis.  But he is accustomed to this; has dealt with the condition all of his life; survived the childhood taunts; rationalized the rejections; no longer dreams of eyebrows and eyelashes.  Having recently celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday, he assesses his present position. He finds that he is satisfied, proud of his accomplishments. Lesser men would have created excuses.  Weaker individuals would have hidden in their parents’ basements. He likes to think of himself as methodical. Scrupulous. Tall, his arms are longer than they should be, and this makes it difficult—no, this makes it impossible—for him to find suits that fit.  What he has done—resorting to slacks, shirts, bowties, and sweaters (having no body hair, and the building being so cool, the sweaters function rather favorably)—has, while pragmatic, made him, enigmatic. More than this, though, and he swats a fly from his phone, dials the number on his desk, he has made a name for himself.  The students like him. They call him Principal Alpaca. Ha, he thinks, whenever donning one of his sweaters (brown and beige cashmeres) hand-picked to better fit the part. That’s funny. He’d love to know the name of the child who—

“Oh, hello,” and he grabs his phone from the desk, silences the speaker.  “This is Principal Jenne, from Endwell High School? Am I speaking with Mr. Nye?”  

Silence.  Just the buzzing from the fly, circling his head.    

He is not surprised.  As a point of fact, he is impressed that the phone is even connected, and, to that end, that the boy’s father has bothered to answer.  

“Mr. Nye, I’m sorry to have to call, but—”

“What’s he done?”

“Pardon?”

“Bobby.  Just tell me what he supposedly done and get on with it already.”  

There was a time when Interim Principal Jenne would have pitied Mr. Nye.  When he would have told his wife that the man suffered from what he called ‘honest ignorance.’  But his son’s particular sort of prejudice? No sir. Not on his watch. No matter how regularly he came into contact with these hillbillies, this was something that, as a graduate from, and now Endwell High’s building principal, he resolved never to accept.  The fly lands upon his desk.

“Well Mr. Nye,” and he clears his throat, “Robert has been suspended.  We’re going to need you to come down to the school and pick him up. Directly.”

The man laughs.  “Oh yeah? Directly?  You planning on telling me what for?  Or’d you rather I guess. Who’s to say it ain’t his word against yours?”  

“I can assure you,” he says, swatting the fly from in front of his face, “there’s no doubt.  I wanted Robert—”

“Bobby.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Nye, Bobby.  I wanted Bobby to explain, to report, I should say, his actions.  But your son. Well, Mr. Nye, I’m not quite sure how to say this.”

“How about you use your words.”  

“Honestly, Mr. Nye?” and Interim Principal Jenne straightens.  “Honestly? It disgusts me to report that Bobby called a classmate the N word.  And you need not take my—”

“Is he?”

Interim Principal Jenne pales.  He doesn’t need a mirror to know how he appears.  But shock soon gives way to anger. Indignation. Given his own, unique, pigmentation, he is no stranger to slurs.  There are many words he could employ. Names he could use. But he will not stoop to this man’s level. There is no reason to escalate the issue.  He was hired, in part, because he possesses, unlike his predecessor, a level disposition. His ability to handle men, he thinks, whose family tree consists of a trunk.  

The man laughs.  Ripe, fleshy sounds, thick as gunk scooped from a pumpkin.  “You ain’t listening, Jenny. None of you do. Surprise? Who said anything about a surprise?  Listen. Up.”

“Mr. Nye.  Now I’m sorry, but—”

“No, sir.  Nuh uh. Now you listen here, Jenny.  You’re sorry? I’m the one sorry. You call me at work.  You get me off my cows. You tell me you’re suspending my boy for what?  It’s a simple question. Answer up. Is the kid, or ain’t he, a ni—?”

Interim Principal Jenne feels the phone against the side of his head.  The screen warm with electricity. He looks out the window. The fly, like a sick screensaver, slowly rotates against the perimeter of the glass.    

“That’s what I thought,” Mr. Nye says.  And he cuts the call.

It is just now May.  The grass is green. And the sky?  Blue. The fly makes a slow pass around the room, then smacks against the window.  Interim Principal Jenne watches it rise, and fall. Rise, and then fall. Flat upon its back, the fly buzzes mindlessly, its wings worthless.  And then, he supposes, lowering the phone, it died. It was dead.

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WHITE GRAVY by Marcus Pactor

Mother said the old man had never been touched. I didn’t know what she meant by “touched,” but I had heard enough. That afternoon, I leaned over the fence and grated cheese into the old man’s backyard. His cat licked every cheddar shred from the weeds. Its intestines must have gotten clogged, but it lived.

The cat disappeared after city workers buried the old man. Months later, a storm buried the eastern seaboard in golden, blanket-sized leaves. Far south of there, we savored the peripheral breeze. Mother had taught me to savor, whenever possible, the small pleasures which occasionally attended the global decline.

Sarah and her parents replaced the old man’s junk with theirs. I remember none of her words. I remember not even the quality of her voice. I do remember that she stood even less than I for boredom.

She egged the children’s hospital. She set a controlled fire of neighborhood breakfast waste—egg cartons, milk jugs, and pancake mix boxes—in her backyard. She killed two pigeons with a slingshot. At her direction, I nailed them to the fire station door.

Soon after the school year commenced, her cobra died in its sleep, and a custodian touched her in a bathroom stall. The internet led us to his ranch house. We found his pick-up unlocked, and so, when night fell, we popped the hood and flooded the engine with his garden hose. She touched me against the truck’s cab till the streetlights burnt out, one after the next. We set the cobra’s body and a warning note on the driver’s seat. The custodian never returned to work.

Sarah touched me through many school days: while the last frogs watched from the aquarium; while the theatre curtain brushed our calves; while, on the other side of the closet door, the assistant principal drew spirals on his desk calendar. Elsewhere, too, she tied me to any post at hand. I felt neither aches nor blues.

Our fun must have gone on longer than a school year. Her parents must have died one day or another. Mother, too. Everyone must have died. The bodies had nothing to do with us, I thought, till the power grid collapsed for good, and she used a steak knife to draw people on the wall. I led her outside to survey the neighborhood. Paved roads, ranch houses, chimneys, even trees now belonged to us.

“We’ve inherited so much,” I said.

By then, we could set a fire as well as any Eagle Scout or caveman, so we only needed ingredients to survive. We found most of our neighbors’ houses barren, but three spinsters in a cul-de-sac had, in their living room, a hoard of thirty-pound bags of food powder. They had almost certainly stolen them from our school’s inventory. The bags read “Cheese Pizza,” “Beef Tips,” “Egg Noodles,” and “Mashed Potatoes.” According to the instructions, we could reconstitute the powder into lunch by stirring it into a pot of boiling water.

A large part of me wanted to eat a pound of beef tips right then. A small part was distracted by the sight, on the coffee table, of twenty-four Roach Motels opened up and eaten clean. The spinsters’ bodies lay twisted on the carpet.

I touched Sarah’s elbow.

“I’m here,” I said.

We buried the spinsters in the backyard.

Months later, the old man’s cat returned. Sarah and I were naked and weak as ice cream when it crawled from under the fence and nuzzled against my thigh. It smelled like chicken juice left for a week in the sun. We would never taste fried chicken or ice cream again. I strangled the cat. Sarah drew a mean line in the dirt.

That evening, winter came hard, full of snow, and taught us what our last teacher had meant by the word “homogenizing.” Roads, houses, cats, old men, frogs, fallen street signs, caved-in roofs, shanks of glass, planks of fence, parked cars, garbage cans, garden hoses, broken zippers, dead tree trunks, and shed pine needles all went white.

When the sky let up, I skinned and boiled the cat, buried it in salt, and served it by candlelight. She refused her share.

“I can’t eat alone,” I said.

She shrugged.

I began to eat.

Snowfall resumed.

I did not remember then what I remember now: Mother telling me that, at some point, a woman will expect you to lift her heart. She will dramatize her appeal by, perhaps, leaving the dinner table, lying in the spinsters’ backyard, and letting the snow pile upon her.

The day couldn’t end, though, till I finished choking down the cat, so I did. I’ve choked down plenty of cats since then. Every so often, I wonder why they’ve survived better than dogs.

I still do, on occasion, catch myself believing in reasons or presidents or calming, pink streaks on the late afternoon horizon. But if any of those things had ever been truly true, don’t you think that old man’s cat on that frozen day would have tasted memorably worse than any cat I’ve chewed on since?

You’d be somewhat right if you did. It certainly tasted worse than most roasted cats I’ve experienced. A roasted cat has a smoky flavor and charred surface that, when cooked best, can briefly fool you into thinking you’ve lucked into an oddly shaped hot dog.

You’d be entirely wrong, though, if we restricted the question to boiled cats. Every one of them I’ve sampled, from first to last, without exception, has tasted like rancid, rubberized white gravy. With the right mindset, though, you can grow used to any meat on hand.

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PARLIAMENT OF DRUNKARDS by Mbizo Chirasha

In previous years, the Mandozas hosted the New Years’ parties. They reared sheep and goats, and they invited the whole village to enjoy roast mutton. There was beer for the elders, but the young ones were relegated to raspberry and fizzy beverages. I learned about balloons and tissues at the Mandoza household. Mandoza himself was once our Father Christmas, until time burned his years into old age.

But to my surprise, the Mandoza homestead this New Year was quiet. It was as if somebody had poured a bucket of ice-water to wet the embers of life in their home. The silence indicated deep secrets behind those concrete walls. The magnetic ears of the village had failed to attract any news from the walled homestead, so no one knew what was happening.

Despite this, this new year boomed to life with cheap firecrackers, sparking the heavens open for blessings. The faint scent of Christmas had vanished, long since fading into the burning heat. The latest music vibrated the entire village. We enjoyed so many assorted meats, their tastes were all as one in our mouths. Fanta and Coca Cola drinks soaked our okra-hardened bellies. We ate English and drank American that day.

Our farting was American. We called it civilized farting.

We hummed Nigerian’s P-Square. We imitated and recited Pidgin. We did everything, said everything, and ate everything. We even sighed in Chinese, as Coke fizzled through our black, soot-tamed nostrils. Cousins from Egoli and our capital city had brought niceties. Such was the merriment. Everyone present was high-over-the-hills with excitement.

Yes, our joyful morning went by with its gossip-beat; the afternoon elapsed with sweet odors of roasted meat and sunset shadows, and then, the once-silent Mandoza took over our night by spewing gunshots, death threats, and insults.

Through the roasted-meat-oiled air, the moon peered over our land, and Mandoza’s wives--Ndaneta, was leading the pack, followed by Ndagura and a whole swarm of children behind them--dove into our merriment. The fearful intruders sardined themselves into the far end of our packed hut. Mandoza’s lips quivered as he glared at them. He refused to blink.

Merry-makers dumped their drinks. The jukebox screeched to silence. Cockroaches scrambled into their closet. Rats followed suit. Children screamed. Dancers packed themselves underneath dinner tables, and some lucky others ducked out behind the hijacker.

Mandoza cuddled his long gun with that devilish grin each of us knew so well. Our murmuring ceased. I heard nothing but the rippling of blood through my heart, although I knew the elders were wishing Mandoza bad omen. Mandoza fired another gunshot, the echo stirring birds from sleep.

The stampede aroused the headman from his sleep. His eyes were blind with sleep and heavy with hangover. He had been dead drunk an hour ago. Now, he lazily scrubbed the sleep off his face. Mandoza was the headman’s closest drinking mate. They were as close as dirt-water and fungi.

Mothers clutched their breasts, and young girls winced and wiped their tears with their armpits as Mandoza pointed a gun at the headman, who froze before tottering and falling softly as a cotton ball. Mandoza clobbered Ndaneta with the back of the gun. She barked like a wounded baboon as he crushed his clenched fist into her terrified face .A shower of blood sprayed from her mouth, and she fell--thud. The acrid stink of urine wafted under our noses.

Mandoza shoved his steel gumboot into Ndagura’s chest. His daughter waved a thunderous, blinding blow that shook pots and mugs around. It landed on his mouth. He stammered a mouthful of threats. His son gave him another surprising scissors-boot to Mandoza’s throat. He lost control, and the gun fell away from him. His eyes drooped, and he stumbled into the silent speakers with a bang.

What happened to cause all this violent commotion? The gossip buzzed around the room. Mandoza’s family had refused him to bring his third wife into the homestead. They had boycotted his New Year, his goat and sheep meat. They denied everything from special food to new dresses. He was infuriated and decided to kill all of them.

Now, the headman gained his strength and grabbed the gun from Mandoza’s daughter. “Chivara, you want to kill the whole village, vomit your anger?” He dragged him outside for some air.

The headman sent out messengers to bring Jokonia and Jokochwa, the headman’s advisers, and the elders would not sleep without answers. The village court gathered with the Mandozas and all interested villagers in attendance. The council of elders sipped from calabashes of sweet frothing brew (it was their custom).

Jokonia was the strictest of headman’s advisers, and now, he wiped splashes of sorghum off his mouth with the back of his hands before calling the court to order. He read from the Book of Rules and instructed Mandoza to rise. Mandoza fixed Satan’s gaze on him, but Jokonia refused to be cowed. Instead: “Speak! What got into your mind? Speak. The elders want to hear your side. Do not waste our time. The villagers are tired of your games.”

“Jokonia I cannot answer anything. You are a tired, corrupt--corr--corrupt--li--lizard.” He spat in Jokonia’s direction. The court rumbled with reluctant laughter. The headman shook his grey head.

It was now toward midnight. He stood up in haste and waved Ndaneta to stand in the box. She dragged herself from her seat, wiping a rivulet of blood off her face. She made a disturbing loud grunt; she was in deep pain. “Baba want to kill us because we refused his new wife. The new lover is young and is a relative. It’s a taboo. Myself and Mainini, we are enough for him.” She heaved defiantly. The packed court let out another collective, muffled laugh. Ndaneta sat, wiping away a storm of tears.

Ndagura and the children also testified, and the village women wept bitterly. Mandoza shouted more delusional threats. He cursed his wives’ mothers, their cats, their poverty, and their donkeys.

Jokochwa, the self-anointed adviser-in-chief, known confidante of the headman, and staunch drunkard yawned thrice before whispering into the headman’s ear. Jokochwa, who drank everything he could get his lips around--crank, malt whiskies, skokian, traditional brew--and had an insatiable craving for meat and cheap gossip, clapped his hands and pulled a cough from the pit of his tobacco-ridden chest. His dirt-coated teeth were only upstaged by his three missing fingers, lost long ago in a robbery tussle.

He stood up to give the final judgment. With a groan, the villagers lost their spirit for a fair call. Jokochwa folded his torn sleeves, as if he wanted to fight; yes, he was good at dampening people’s hopes. The headman made a drunken grin before he nodded to signal agreement.

“Mandoza, for disturbing the celebration and wielding a hunting gun, you are charged with breaking the peace of happy villagers. You must pay five bottles of Chateau Brandy, three gallons of skokian, and three goats tonight, now. The council needs to enjoy and celebrate the remain hours of New Year--” Jokowchwa grinned-- “and your new bride.”

The crowd waited patiently for more in anticipation of further punishment, but to no avail. “Ndaneta, Ndagura, and your puppies, you have two days to pack your belongings and leave the village. We do not keep witches and killers. You can’t go against the head of the family. Mandoza has the right to marry more women as long as he wants.” He cleared his throat, and with that, the court was adjourned.  

Although the grannies of the village beat their chests in disbelief, it came to pass that Mandoza later married his concubine. The village enjoyed meat and beer, and soon after that, he reclaimed the title of Father Christmas.

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THE HEART OF MORALITY by Austin Ross

Daddys monster is back. That slightly musky scent of sawgrass wafts in across the Everglades as he slides a single bullet into the revolver. This is what I remember, all these years later. This incident with the revolver is familiar to me, a nightly ritual to cap off our evenings of foil-wrapped TV dinners and, for him, nearly a third of a bottle of whiskey. I have learned by now to keep silent during the ritual.

As he examines the revolver in his hands, polishes the silver of the barrel with his sleeve, I think: he isnt such a bad Daddy. His monster is one that only I can see. He still takes me for bike rides, sometimes, through St. Marys Park after school, still holds my hand as we sit in the church pew in our Sunday best. The monster inside him has slowly eaten away at what makes him Daddy. It reminds me of the alligators that I can occasionally hear through my bedroom window during the long summer nights. I can forgive Daddy for what hes become, I thinkif only because it is sadness, and not anger, that made him this way.

Tonight feels different to me, though. We are both sweaty from the oppressive Everglade heat. He has stripped to a pair of pants and an undershirt. I am still in my dress, my feet hot from wearing the shoes and socks of my school uniform. My legs dangle from the chair. I wish I was taller, older. Daddy looks at me and sips from the whiskey bottle. He spins the chamber of the revolver, clicks it shut, presses the tip of the barrel to his temple. He looks me in the eye, smiles sadly, and pulls the trigger. Click. No bullet this time. My heart is beating so fast I think it might burst, but I dont cry. Crying makes it worse.

This is our ritualDaddy will now press the tip of the barrel to my head, pull the trigger, and afterwards we will watch I Love Lucy, neither of us speaking in the quiet, desperate aftermath. Which of us did he want to die more? The girl with her mothers eyes, or the widowed father? I dont know.

Daddy slowly exhales, and I am brought back to this moment, now. Tonight is different: he slides the revolver across the table, removes his hand slowly. He looks at me, his eyes curious, like a wild animals, as though to ask: what are you going to do?

Go ahead,he says. The sound is deafening in the silence. Pick it up.

The revolver gleams on the kitchen table. I stare at it, my heart beating faster with each second.

This is the heart of morality,Daddy says, tapping the kitchen table with his finger. A loaded gun.

I look Daddy in the eye, carefully examine him. His face is expressionless as he watches me carefully, and I wonder: if I pick it up, will it make things worse?

I sense Daddys monster behind his eyes. It had come to live with us after Momma diedslumped over the kitchen table one day, her own monsterbowel cancerhaving devoured her quickly and unexpectedly. Over the years, Daddy had learned to chain the monster up. When others saw him, it was manageable and tame. But I know its neither of those things. It will destroy him if he lets it.

I pick up the revolver, feel the weight of it in my hands, the authority it brings. I open the chamber, see the single bullet resting inside. Tears are streaming down my cheeks. I can sense Daddys immense sorrow. As the tears well and my vision blurs, Daddy shimmers and splits into two.

Do it,they both say as the monster grows. The lights above us flicker as their black tendrils stretch across the table towards me.

I slide the chamber closed again and pick one of the Daddys, squeeze the trigger, and in the explosion of sound, something leaves the room, some massive presence, and I wipe my eyes clear and see Daddy crouched on the floor, crying but unharmed, and I run to him, apologizing, but all he does is say Im sorry over and over and over as he hugs me tightly. In the distance, I can just hear the rumbling growl of an alligator, or perhaps a monster, retreating to the swamps.

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SARCASTIC MIND JAIL GOES TO A PARTY (W/ TRIPARTITE DENOUMENT) by Sebastian Castillo

“If anyone sees that he can live better on the gallows than at his own table, he would be very foolish not to go and hang himself.”

—Baruch Spinoza

for Kit Schluter

 

Another party, and the people who go to them.

My former boss, whom I distrust on a fundamental level, invited me to his retirement party held at his vacation home on the coast. He hadn’t used it since the summer. At first, when invited, I said no. I had to wash my hair that night. But later, as so often is the case, I said yes.

I was surprised, initially, by how many people attended the gathering. My distaste for him was not unique—most people in our office held our boss in contempt, and generally thought it unlikely that he would have people in his life outside of work. We were wrong. Our boss was a generous donor to his former university’s football program, and it seemed as if several generations of players and coaches were present, all thinking and talking about football, a sport for which I don’t care. Men would say, “Football?” to each other, and in response hear: “The football.”

We had reached a lull in the party. Perhaps only an hour had passed, and there was markedly less chatter than when I had first arrived. I spent most of my time eating tiny hotdogs and telling people I didn’t know anything about sports. They would smile sadly, as if I had told them I recently lost my calling in life, or that my dog had died.

A man named Joseph with broken teeth approached me. He said, “I want to show you a party trick that will make you never want to leave this place.” I told him I had very little to lose, and that a gain would be both unexpected and desirable at present. Joseph unzipped his skin, starting from a large copper zipper on his forehead, which I hadn’t noticed initially because of his wretched teeth. Underneath his skin was my dead mother. “See?” he said. I told him it was a tad too autobiographical, and somewhat puerile in nature.

“Oh?” he responded, “You think you’re capable of better tricks? Tricks that would lead the guests of this party to never depart—ever—from the place which they’re enjoying themselves so fully? So harmoniously? So effortlessly? Though, of course, there is quite a bit of effort. The cost of travel is getting pricier by the day. It’s hard to leave one’s room.”

“That’s true, but no,” I said, “It’s not that. I am capable of no tricks. I can barely tie my shoes in the morning. But a stunt as cheap and suburban as yours requires no respect on my behalf. You can take that up with the internet.”

Joseph’s first skin, dangling limply from his calves, was creating a puddle of brownish mucus on the floor. I could see it dripping towards the legs of the grand piano in the living room, which a football player had tinkered with earlier in the evening, admitting that he hadn’t played in quite a bit. He got through the first few chords of the Charlie Brown Christmas song (it was the season, after all), and meekly stopped on a bum note. One of his former coaches slapped him on the forehead and screamed at his wife to get them more treats.

The mucus had, at this stage, enveloped the entirety of the piano in its substance. Now the piano had transformed into my first boyhood crush, albeit in the shape of a piano. I believe her name was Yasmin, though I could be mistaken.

“This is really too much,” I said. “And I should get going.” It was true: I would be flying to Patagonia early the next day. I had been having dreams that I would soon die. The dreams were all different: sometimes an anvil would fall on my head from a high distance. Other times, I was inveigled into a terrorist plot which resulted in the destruction of the United States White House, and my body along with it. Either way—I feared death’s approach was coming, and coming soon. I drafted a list of things I wished to complete before my demise, and a trip to Patagonia was chief among them. The reason was simple: it was far away. I seldom want to leave my room. And so, a trip to Patagonia could only speak beneficently to my character, my belief in historical dialectics, and my hope that the human soul was, underneath it all, good.

My boss approached Joseph and me with a dumb smile. “A trip to Patagonia would prove nothing of the sort,” he said, and laughed haughtily. “My boy, it is true that you will die soon. At least that’s what my own dreams have told me. But to carry forth with this trip is simply ludicrous. You should spend your remaining days in the company of handsome women, like the one my piano has recently transformed into, and in excessive consumption of hard drugs, specifically cocaine. It shatters your heart, I hear, but that won’t matter much to you, will it.”

It was things like this that made me dislike him. What right had he to peer into my mind—sarcastic and witless as it was—and tell me what I should do? What I should think?

“Well, what do you want out of life, Sebastian?” Yasmin asked. The mucus dripped over the floor and approached me. “Really? You have such little time left.” Her kindness, even in that moment, was boundless. I had once purchased a pearl necklace—which I bought from a vendor on the beaches of Margarita—and given it to her, though we barely spoke. She accepted it without reproach, and continued our lifelong silence.

I breathed in deeply, tongued the remains of a hotdog stuck to my teeth. “It’s true that I am not doing well. I don’t know if I’ll ever be doing better,” I said. “And for that, I blame my mind jail. However, there are small changes I’d like to enact in my life. I should eat less hot dogs. I should drink alcohol only when an occasion calls for it, like today. I should get back on my medication, which I stopped taking because I disliked the idea that I had to take it to function in a standard fashion. Besides that, I look forward to the end of winter. When it is warmer out, things will be clearer to me. I will wake up and behave in such a way that I am crossing off the tasks on my list. I will walk to the park because it is a pleasant thing to do, and I won’t have planned it in advance. I’ll go to the park because I can, and want to. When I arrive, I won’t do anything but sit on a bench. Maybe I’ll smoke a cigarette, which I should stop doing, but I’ll allow it in this particular future, because it means that I am taking ownership of my pleasure. I will not feel suspicious toward the things which give me pleasure. I will drink a glass of water that I have placed on the kitchen table because I’d like that, not because it’s good for me. Afterward, I’ll move to a new city and go to the events held there. I’ll talk about things which are amiable, unpredictable, and filled with flowers that others will want to smell. I will want to smell them too, even though they are in my hand, not very far away from my nose.”

The room had stopped. Conversations of football were snuffed out like oxygen leaking from a candle’s flame.

“Puerile,” Joseph said, speaking with my mother’s mouth, though he was gathering up his first skin from the waist up, ready to re-zip, hopefully for good.

“Not likely to happen,” said my former boss. He was already on his cellphone.

“I’d have to agree with the boss man,” said Yasmin. “Too self-pitying. And I never did like you. Your mawkish gifts and ceaseless projections, etcetera.” She played a waltz with her teeth (those were the piano keys) and all in the room danced with vim: the people of football, my co-workers, my former boss, Joseph, even Yasmin herself.

Before I knew it, I was back home. It felt as if I had fallen asleep as soon as I opened my bedroom door. I had no dreams that night—which was a relief—and my bags were already packed. The rest of this story happened in three parts:

  1. In the morning, I hailed a cab to the airport. The driver asked me what I thought about the new song that was getting popular nowadays. “Puerile,” I said, “though, that’s not such a bad thing.” The driver spat out of his window. “That’s enough of your opinions for now. I was just trying to pass the time.” 

  2. At the airport, a TSA agent dumped the contents of my bag into a plastic bin: my laptop, some clothes, a few novels, a notebook. She examined each. I handed her my passport again. “Your name sounds like a weather man. Like the ones on TV.” I told her I had heard that before. “No need to get testy,” she said. 

  3. I boarded the plane, and after seating myself, the pilot greeted me. “Would you like to fly the plane today?” he asked. “I’m unfortunately lazy in temperament, somewhat suicidal.” I said that I would not, and that laziness was a virtue, depending on how one looked at it. People had written books about that. “That’s true,” he said. “Hey, this guy is funny,” he said, a little louder. “Hey everyone, check out the brains on this one,” emphasis on brains. He pantomimed a plane flying with his hand and then crashed it into the ocean, making a child’s sound with his mouth, thankfully his own. “Big brain man over there,” he said, walking back to the cockpit.
 

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dear the eartH by JP Vallières

dear    the eartH

sendar saying maybe the earth help sendaR   sendar in quest of the earth habitatioN sendar from nodaN   nodians now gone inexplicably removed from galaxY

 

dear   the eartH

maybe help sendaR   sendar last one current in nodaN   big day of reckoninG only sendar livinG

  

dear   the eartH

sendar an artisT   before big day of reckoning fatherman saying sendar not be artisT

  

dear   the eartH

when existing fatherman saying sendar achieve license for galaxy rideR   sendar saying galaxy rider does not fit into artist incarnatioN

  

dear   the eartH

sendar now shameful not knowing how to fly galaxy rideR   could come in handy in pursuit of the earth habitatioN fatherman maybe precisE   sendar trying not to think about fathermaN fatherman departeD sendar truthfully wearisomE

  

dear   the eartH

artist forbids practicalitieS   comrade once saying sendar get no femalian without galaxy rideR   sendar write stunning poem of nodan for many femalians but poems transporting no appreciatioN   

  

dear   the eartH

femalians affectioning those with galaxy rider licensE   sendar stuck on regreT sendar trying to forget nodianS  maybe the earth help sendaR maybe the earth fly galaxy rider to nodan for pickuP   maybe the earth teach sendar the ways of meN

  

dear   the eartH

sendar wait long-sufferingly for the earth solutioN   

  

dear   the eartH

sendar noticing distances in galaxY   meaning sendar dreading lonesome infinitieS   meaning agony magnifies in light of daY

  

dear   the eartH

does the earth-artist bring femalian delighT   does the earth femalian agree to artist like-abilitieS   

  

dear   the eartH

when existing fatherman looking northway pointing to the eartH   blue light meaning the eartH fatherman saying it is where men abidE   

  

dear   the eartH

when existing fatherman saying achieve galaxy rider licensE   fatherman saying license engages practicalitieS sendar saying fatherman neglecting comprehension of artisT   sendar so youthful and rageful with fathermaN sendar then going off finding hole in rocK

  

dear  the eartH

in time sendar crawling out of hole in rocK   sendar finding nodan empty of habitatioN sendar waiting good-naturedly for emerging nodianS   waiting for merriment of big jest on sendaR no jibe no jest on sendaR sendar finding only silence under starS    

  

dear  the eartH

now sendar seeking the earth assistancE   now sendar waiting hopeful for successful deliverancE

  

dear  the eartH

sendar expecting increase in communicationS   eons pass sendaR maybe men of the earth grasping all sendar sayinG   maybe men of the earth reflecting on ways of nodaN

  

dear  the eartH

maybe men of the earth will save sendaR   maybe men of the earth will relate communications back to sendaR   

  

dear  the eartH

if only femalian in hole with sendar on big day of reckoninG   sendar thinking femalian would then transport appreciation of poeM   femalian with no other possibilities bringing affections to sendaR femalian would then have no objection to sendar artistrY   

  

dear the   eartH

if only licensed femalian in hole with sendar on big day of reckoninG   sendar thinking licensed femalian gliding sendar and poem to the earth like shooting staR

  

dear  the eartH

sendar giving in to ways of the losT   femalians no morE fatherman no morE galaxy rider possibilities no morE   sendar fading in to the sands of nodaN meaning sendar facing finalitieS

  

dear  the eartH

sendar keen-sighteD   sendar observing the earth blue light diminishinG

  

dear  the eartH  

sendar sending one last star corE   one final communicatioN does the earth retain inhabitantS   does the earth remain existinG

  

dear  the sands of nodaN  

nodan longstanding and graY   no more blue in the galaxY darkness occupying immensitieS   under three moons sendar dreaming of femalianS sendar remembering femaliaN   her body curving identical to ray of lighT

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DAY JOB by Jon Conley

She was a big rottweiler who had had cancer for a time now. She was very big and sad and unable to move well so I went with Dr. Highmore to the house. I brought along a large contractor's garbage bag and I don't think I said anything the whole time. I never said a word in these situations though I had done this many times, been a pallbearer. Although, I would assist in assisted canicides before carrying the bodies away and I don't know that a pallbearer ever assists assisted homicides. Anyway, I’m not a shy person.

With the bag rolled up in my back pocket, I reached my left arm under her neck to put her in a headlock. I put my right arm over her shoulders like a good old pal and she did not care and I grabbed what I guess you would call her elbow, making a tight ring around it with my middle finger and thumb before twisting slightly to make the vein visible. She still did not care. The family cried along and stayed in the room until well after she was dead. I want to say that there was a candle burning but that would be very hopeful of memory. I waited and put my head down but inside I wondered when they were going to move. One of them would eventually take charge and usher the other out of the room to continue grieving somewhere else.

And when they finally did leave I lifted the now piss-soaked towel she lay on top of and I slid the garbage bag under the haunches. If a dog sat long enough that the piss soaked through the towel, the outside of the garbage bag would always get piss on it. And in the struggle to move the body around, the piss would end up on my scrubs, which was common enough for the job but bothered me still.

I tried to lift her with my knees and not my back. She was heavy and Dr. Highmore was built like a reed so I would do it alone. If you lift a body and can't keep her level, there are plenty of fluids beyond piss that would love to take the opportunity to slosh around in the bag. And depending on how well you tie her up, there could be leaks. But eventually I did put her in the van and back to the practice and into a freezer. In Cleveland I would have burned it myself and prepared the ashes but here someone came once a week to retrieve the frozen bodies.

For dinner that night I made spaghetti with a meat and tomato sauce and I washed all of the dishes instead of leaving them to soak until the morning. When I took out the garbage that night I was as scared as I always am taking out the garbage, imagining something or someone coming from behind me as I make my way back.

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INHERITANCE by Cavin Bryce Gonzalez

When she came hopping out of the bathroom holding an instrument that I mistook as a thermometer I was appalled that someone could be so happy about running a fever. She threw her arms around me and squeezed, squeezed like she hated me. But she didn’t hate me. She loved me. And that’s when I saw the two little lines, bright pink, glaring at me.

It’s been four months since then. We’re having a boy. Every day her womb grows, life gestates. All of our friends are so excited. “You’re glowing!” they say. Or “About time!”

Every night I watch him while she sleeps. I imagine a little me in there, stuck to a feeding tube and unaware of the great big world waiting to pounce. My wife will smile while unconscious, sometimes her hands will go instinctively to her womb and move in small, precise circles. That baby is made of exactly 50% of my chromosomes and 50% of hers. Mine are 100% fucked. When our son grows, will his resentment for life grow like an awkward peach fuzz? Will he become angry easily, contemplate killing himself before he’s even old enough to drive?

While my wife chatters about whether our child will play sports or be an artist all I can imagine is our son hiding in the bathroom, running a razor blade across his forearm and sobbing. I imagine our child taking too many pills, driving drunk into a barricade and bleeding out on the pavement; scared and alone and relieved that it’s all soon to be over. Schizophrenia, melanoma, bipolar disorder, acid reflux, overly empathetic tendencies, and a thin skin. Our child will be born broken and it’s my fault. He will try to fill his life with menial time killers; scrapbooking, soccer, friends, drugs. Whatever he may want. At the end of the day nothing will his void. Not fame, not fortune, not love. He will inherit all of my sins. He will struggle his whole life to understand why he feels this way but he won’t figure it out. Not ever.

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DRIVING THROUGH by Bojana Stojcic

We drove through the city today. We didn’t stop. We just drove through. We didn’t want to get out of the truck and grabbed take-away coffee with ground cinnamon in a drive-thru shared by a coffee shop and a bank, which was super convenient so while sipping it we made some transfers and paid bills. In the meantime, it started to drizzle, which was a drag and one more reason not to leave the truck. Besides, we got hungry, and decided to order low-carb turkey club lettuce wraps to go at a drive-thru diner. While listening to the live traffic news, we watched cars creating a line and moving in one direction. After that, we dropped some Xmas cards in a drive-thru mailbox and had our car washed in a two-lane drive-thru car wash. We both find high-pressure water jets ideal for our truck as it looks all shiny and new without anyone touching it, which we hate. B.J. gulped down his food in a split second and pulled into a Sweet Inspirations drive-in for some yummy donuts.

Hiiiiii, the female voice shrieked enthusiastically. What can I get you, Sir?

I’d like two donuts with dark chocolate and coconut, replied B.J. leaning toward the mic.

Got it. Anything to drink, Sir?

Yes, a strawberry-flavored still water and a diet Coke, please.

We had to wait some since it was crowded at the pick-up window, which sucked.

Did you know, B.J. tried to cheer me up, they had an EOTF service in McDonald’s in the UK.

What’s EOTF?

Experience of the Future, obviously. The thing is, there’s a third window.

Third window? For real?

Yes, the person at the second window tells you to pull up to the third one if you have a larger order and have to wait longer than usual. Basically, this fast-forward window cuts down on wait times significantly.

That’s kewl.

Right?

Totally.

Anyway, we didn’t wait too long after all. I was happy we chose a drive-in restaurant this time because it allows cars to park next to each other. We really enjoyed our dessert, watching other cars parking and driving by and the sky turning red. We couldn’t actually see the sunset because of the skyscrapers, but I bet it was amazing. I reminded B.J. of a drive-thru grocery store as our fridge’s chronically empty but we eventually had a change of heart, figuring we’d be better off without as we hadn’t perused Easy Breakfast Recipes yet. So we picked up something light for the following morning: a skinny high-protein Oreo milkshake for me and a peanut butter and jelly protein smoothie for him. B.J. said we mustn’t forget a drive-thru liquor store to buy some beer for later in the evening. It would have been a bummer if we had. We also stopped by a drive-thru pharmacy to get a lavender-based sleep remedy since we have both had trouble falling asleep lately.

Have we mentioned we met at a drive-in movie theater? No? Do you know we got married a couple of weeks later in Vegas? We so did, interestingly at a special drive-thru chapel. Those were the days.

As we’re growing old, we normally talk about death and such. When you die, I told B.J. the other day, I’ll go to the drive-thru funeral home to get your remains and scatter you all over our favorite drive-thru joints.

Don’t you sometimes wish there was a drive-thru hug station, B.J. uttered, melancholically staring into space on our way back home.

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THE FIRST TIME I PERFORMED by Benjamin Niespodziany

1.

The first time I performed in Russia was under the direction of the king. His daughter's best friend's wedding was held in a refurbished factory that once made statues of the great whirling dervishes. I was the third piece of the matryoshka at the wedding, jumping out of a cloud once the song started to play. The fellow who fell after me broke his leg, and the rest of the event was a medical disaster. The king got drunk. We still got paid.

2.

The first time I performed in Penn Station, an overweight man asked me to be his wife. He said he had a basement down the street that was just for me. My top hat grew full of spare change, and an eyeless woman snatched it. She hopped on the next train just as the doors closed and showed me her dead white eyes. The rats fast scurried up my shirt. I ate a napkin, swallowed a receipt. I slept on the floor and dreamed about warmth.

3.

The first time I performed on a beach in Vietnam, I passed out. Woke with nightfall, covered in sunburns. The local entertainers told me to wrap up head to toe in clothing. They wore bandannas over their faces and asked for fast massages. I took off the next week and soaked in aloe vera. Plucked fruit I had never seen from a tree I could hardly reach. I bathed in a cave while the locals prayed about King Kong's promised return. A rude man in my canoe ate my shoes then offered me coffee. I laughed at a three-legged calf. I deserved it. The sunsets were so damn beautiful, less cheap than the noodles.

4.

The first time I performed at the circus, I was a lower-level balancing act. Most of us were hungover, unsober, tip-toeing gracefully into our next sip. I slipped into a spin but caught myself and avoided disaster. No one but the director noticed my error. I was never asked back. As I left, I said farewell to the lion as it ate the trapeze artist's vibrator inside of his cage, a cage nicer than mine.

5.

The first time I performed my last performance was earlier today. The sky was gray, vacant of both sunshine and stars. I was flawlessly processing the Macarena on a tight rope when the opera house caught fire. At first, everyone cheered, thinking it part of the show, but when the song went silent and I properly screamed atop the balance beam, the audience knew it was real. We are all outside now, wrapped in firefighter blankets, watching the building burn, the ash dancing with the already damp sky. It felt like the end of a black and white movie but with fewer cigarettes. I put in my resignation and waited for the curtain to close.

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ARMILUSTRIUM by Rebecca Otter

My dad plays chess like a mathematician. Each of his turns stretch on while he contemplates the board from every angle and I forget my grand strategy. To entertain myself in these gaps, I look where his gaze falls. When he mutters to himself, is he frustrated with my playing? Or is that another tactic meant to confuse me further?

When he finally chooses one lucky piece with a heavy sigh, how that piece gleams in the TV light as he lifts it—slowly, as he does most things. My dad is okay at defense. But he’s ruthless at offense, felling knights who once had no reason to doubt their security, distracting me with someone expendable, all without warning from his cold eyes. After years of losing, I still can’t learn to sacrifice a strong soldier for the good of the army.

After I lose, we sit on the couches for a bit, then the move I always see coming—he packs his computer, laces his shoes, and plants a kiss on my hair. He leaves me with a box of polished wood and returns home to his new queen, unapproachable Venus, the one he readily sacrificed his entire army for. I’ve been watching his strategy for a long time, and so much learning to sacrifice makes it hard to remember when our war should end.

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SHARP PAIN by Andrew Ciaccio

You can get by just fine being dull. You can actually do very well for yourself.

My husband was an accountant in suburban Oklahoma at an office above an Applebee’s. He made six figures and drank from a coffee mug with Mount Rushmore engraved on it. He did this every day for 20-some years. Then on a snowy Tuesday, standing at the microwave in his windswept khakis, watching his leftover casserole go round-and-round, he lost his edge. Out the window, kids skated on a makeshift ice rink in the strip mall parking lot. The casserole boiled over then exploded as he walked out of the building, leaving the dead hum of fluorescents behind.

I was in the kitchen chopping onions for goulash when he walked in and took the knife out of my hand. He threw it in a 50-gallon black trash bag where it clanked against the other serrated knives already at the bottom. He moved down the granite counter, throwing in a butcher knife and paring knife. “Anything sharp has to go,” he said tossing in a peeler. I sat down at the table with tears in my eyes. “Damn onions!” he shouted back, disappearing into the garage with the bag slung over his shoulder.

He emptied the fishing hooks from his tackle box. He tossed in drill bits, needle nose pliers and a putty knife from his workbench. He dismantled the lawn mower and bagged the blades. Then up the stairs to my office. He riffled through my desk, took out a pair of scissors and emptied the stapler. He examined two pencils, threw the sharpest one in. He moved through dressers and drawers, shelves and crawl spaces. When he came to the last closet at the end of the hallway, he stopped. I watched the blood drain from his face like he’d been cut lengthwise. Out of a plastic bin, he brought up a pair of little pink ice skates. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. The blades went out of focus as the sharp realization of what was really lost came clear.

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TO CUT A WIDE SWATH by Therese White

I smell ammonia. Old people. We visit Great Aunt Alma for no reason. It’s Sunday, reason enough. Her room: a single cell, a single window. The bed backs into a corner. Her white bedspread, a canvas. Little blocks, cut from her underwear, lay stacked: pastel patches. Her arthritic finger points to them. Her mouth opens; no words exit. Tan knee-highs choke her calves. Her strap slips off her shoulder. Her feet are firmly planted in sturdy, black loafers.

My grandparents are not surprised; they are blasé.

I stand mute, wondering what language Alma is forgetting: French or English. My plain face stares kindly, as I remember a recent verb conjugation in Madame Lessard’s class: couper...tu coupes...she cuts.

My grandmother wrests away Alma’s scissors. Arms outstretched, Alma breathes in quickly, cups my 14-year-old face, whispering, “Magnifique,” and I blink.

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MY DAYS by Emily James

We hold hands and listen to him read our vows, grey mustache puffing above his breath. I picture him sucking a cigarette outside, a Bible tucked to his body, white robe blowing in the wind. Behind us, my mother's arms hang from the hospital gown, her limp limbs our altar. Her eyes closed, two still coins. Our daughter keeps grabbing the wires. We unclasp our hands again and again. Stop it, we angry whisper. Come back. The beeps are steady, at least. Her moans have subsided, at least. Yes, I will take him, at least in sickness, at most in health. Her body, my life’s centerpiece. Deflated arms dangling, that I watched from the kitchen table kneading dishes in the sink, biceps flexed with the pop of a Budweiser tab, elbows bent so fiercely while sliding open the TV table. And her fingernails that feathered my forehead those nights when the blinds shut out the moon. Now, she is all skin cascading from bone, she is almost remains. I do, I say. I will. His slanted gaze reaching for comfort to hand to me, all sterile pads and latex gloves and Toxic Waste Only bins behind us.  She isn’t dressed, I think again. My eyes stay open, wet, but the images still come. Magenta gowns we would have tried on in front of a three-way mirror, I’d sit and argue hot from cheap champagne, no, that’s better for your figure, no, that won’t be easy with a bra. Fat seeping from her sides that we never loved enough.

I like this one, she would’ve said. It’s kind of nice.

It’s my day, Mom, I’d remind her. My day.

But now, here, as I promise myself to him, my daughter pulling rolling curtains open and closed and open and closed, our rental priest with his to-do list in his back pocket, I can see it was never mine, everything that’s mine belonged to her, because I was her, and without her, I’ll be someone else. This world will be someplace new, the kind of place where you say I do as your mother dies in a metal bed behind you, and there will be no magenta, no music, only fluorescent lights beaming on a beige, cushion-less chair.  We stand boxed in by corners and cracks, dust-covered and uncared for, three generations becoming two. My little girl squeals and jumps on the linoleum, yellow pigtails flying up and down, up and down, and all the days to come unfold before me, they are all my days, they are decks and decks of cards that have fallen everywhere, cutting my palms, slicing me to pieces.

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B.C. by Patrick Reid

I am running as a conservative in the primaries. My name is a big one, recognizable throughout most of the world. Last month I was on a cruise with my wife and her family. There were two formal nights. My belly. My belly heaved and burst over my belt, and on sauce night, I dropped a splash onto my button down, right on the part of my belly that, when I sit down, has the same presence as a balance ball.

In college, a friend and I used the balance ball to do sit ups, 35 each, 3 times, on Fridays, back when my core was titanium.

Crumbs sneak in and around my button down, so when I stood up on those cruise dinners, I left a warm, heart-shaped, crumb-outlined impressions in the leather. I couldn't wait to get off that boat. My wife encouraged me to talk to the natives on St. Maarten, people selling coconuts on the side of the road with a lost look in their eye. The jungle was right behind the main road along the beach where, in the bright woods—it was a windy and overcast day, and the silver tropic air trembled—I saw a few natives kneeling, shirtless, in a clearing, in what looked like a prayer or some voodoo ritual. Off the ferry from the pier to the island, one who had dreadlocks down to his waist shouted at me from faraway. I turned and saw him staring at me through a crowd, pointing, a wild person with a rabid look.

I am still sensitive about taking off my shirt. In St. Maarten, I swam, even dunked my head under. I am 54, young for a politician. I was out of breath quickly.

“It's like a zoo, but all the animals got loose,” I muttered in the general direction of my wife, who floated 5 feet away.

“What's that honey?” she said pleasantly.

“It's like that Jurassic Park movie.”

My voice is often called rich, a deep, gravelly melodic baritone.

People come from all over the world to hear me speak. My expression conveys just the right amount of dry humor, but mostly a sense of severe gravity. I usually have a straight face which appears to many as a scowl but comes from lionheartedness rather than coldheartedness.

I share my rhetoric gravitas and sense of humor with my brother, a (now retired) Miami Dade police officer, who helped us get a massive discount on this cruise, and who texts me daily, finding some of the funniest race- and police-related videos on the internet. I do not know where he finds the stuff. I would go on to text him that night about my day.

Last week I visited my son at Boston College, at his dorm. He said he was completely moved in but needed a desk chair, and our neighbor had been about to throw a perfectly usable one in the dump. My son is 19 and a political science major. He is taller than his father and in better physical condition, though not in as good condition as I was at his age, a little doughy, soft at the haunches, with round, flabby love handles despite a well-toned upper body and core. At Boston College, he minors in Libertarianism, and the two of us discuss what to do about the state of Liberalism in this country. There are people at his school, he tells me, he just wants to pummel. “FAGGOTS!” He sometimes shouts, mid-sentence, even mid-word, a kind of Tourette he has developed since college, which brings his face to shuddering, reddening, then cooling, like a coal, eyes shooting off past me, just over my shoulder, then gradually holding in that phantom direction, as if some enraging and fearful vision squeezes him like a whole-body cramp, then slowly releases its grip.

Bringing the chair to his room, I walked in on him having sex. He was having sex with a girl in the doggystyle position, facing away, so I could only see his ass, her ass, and the back of their heads. I noticed his hair had been cut in an immaculate fade since the last time I saw him. I made an awkward “o” with my mouth and closed the door as quietly as possible. That night he was crying in my lap, apologizing, saying I never should have seen that. Finally I told him all young men experience this. My old man, in my Yale days, walked into my room while I had 3 girls naked at once. I felt ashamed until he told me that his old man walked in on him, his old man on him, and on and on. Of course, this was a lie to console him, and it worked.

I am a very smart man. Always have been. In middle school in the 70s, my best friend was a retarded kid who I would beat up as often as possible. He would try to fight back, but I was too big and strong. I would push him to the grass, put his arms around his back! The fights would often be over wiffle ball games. If I won, he would throw the bat at me! So I would get the bat and chase him throughout the yard! His yard went into the woods, and I would chase him in there, beat him up until he was moaning in the dirt!

I would laugh because he mixed up b’s and d’s. I was always at the house when his parents were fighting. There were several theories that accounted for his retarded state. One, he fell out of a shopping cart three feet onto tile floor as an infant. Two, when he was three, his head was half eaten and clawed into by a Rottweiler. One time he locked me in the shed in his backyard. It was so dark. I was so angry!

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GOOD BOY by Kailash Srinivasan

It was a mistake trusting your parents will come back to get you. It was a mistake turning your back to them, clapping idiot-like at the spinning top that lit up red in the dark. They left for Bombay, leaving you behind in Delhi with your grandma, your paati.

Its summer—the city is a furnace, everything is melting. Your paati slips in the bathroom and fractures both her legs. With weights, pulleys, her legs hang in the air, like the hands of a clock: 2.10 p.m. Her loose, burnt-brown flesh hangs loose from her thighs.

In brown shorts and a white t-shirt with stripes, you have your music notebook in your clammy hand, revealing wet phantom finger-prints around its spine when you change hands. A Donald Duck label in the front has your details:

Name: Sethumohan;

Class: III;

Age: 8 yrs old.

She wants to pee. You slide the aluminium dish between her legs, her thigh-flesh jiggles. You wait for her bladder to empty. When she grunts, you carefully pull it out with both your hands, carry it to the door. You hold your breath and drain the dish, watching the piss form black globules on the dry earth.

She hands you her metal ruler, which you bury deep between her cast and her skin and scratch her calf, her ankle, and with your nails between her toes that wiggle. You follow her instructions: left, no, no, right, up, up, down...ah!

“Okay, leave. You’re late,” she says. “Leave the door open.”

You hesitate.

“Run,” she barks and you’re out the door.

*

“Look everyone, Sethu finally decided to show up to class.” Arun, your vocal teacher, tells the rest of the students, stretching the vowels in your name like a chewing gum. He moves his limp wrists and motions for you to sit next to him. You sing for a bit. Then he asks, as always, for the other students to leave. The house is empty. You know what this means. But still, you try. You get up to follow them. You can’t go yet he tells you. He smiles, his hand is on your thigh. You walk to his bedroom.

Arun turns off the lights and pulls close the curtains, bolts the door. The sudden withdrawal of light, gives the room the cold, dark look of night.

“Let’s begin,” he says. He means the game. He calls it, ‘Adventures of the Night Explorer’: the goal is to identify different parts of each other’s bodies by touching. You know the drill, you know where everything is on his body; however, pretense is a big part of the game.  

It’s your turn first so you feel your way in the darkness. Your tiny hands land on his mouth.

“Your lips.”

“Correct. My turn,” says Arun.  

You lay still on the bed, trying your best to not make a sound. Arun places his sticky, fleshy palm on your stomach.

“Your bum.”

“No, my tummy,” you say, in a condescending tone. He likes it.

“Your stomach?” Arun says and lifts your shirt. He tickles you until you beg him to stop. You have to laugh, you have to enjoy it. Else, he gets mad.

“My turn.” Your eyes have adjusted to the light and you’re able to see clearly, but you continue to pretend like you have a secret. You also reach for his stomach but to make it more believable, you pretend to think.

“You give up?” he says.

“It’s your— .”

Before you can answer, Arun pulls your hand and slips it into his pyjamas, whose strings are already loose.   

It swells in your hand until it’s a Popsicle. You know what it is, not by its official name yet, by what your grandma calls it: Choochoo. You have held yours many times, moving it like a hose to see how far up the wall your pee can go. You know it’s wrong, it’s something you aren’t supposed to be doing. If you tell your grandma, she won’t believe you. You could tell your parents, though your letter will end up like the rest, somewhere under a pile of old newspapers? You know they don’t read them. You know this because once they were visiting and you sat next to your dad, smiling shyly, giddy with excitement, and then blinked at your mum. Surely, they must have got you the latest Superman comic book. But the morning bled into noon and noon melted into night and a whole week went by. They hadn’t, and you never asked.    

Arun wants you to move your hand up and down. How many times does he need to teach you? He makes these little sounds, takes these short breaths, before finally your fingers are wet like you’d just dipped them in a bottle of glue.

“You still haven’t guessed. You lose”

Choochoo,” you say. It’s a game and you still want to win.

“Is that what you call yours?” Arun chuckles. “Let’s see if you have one.”

When you’re leaving he says, “See you tomorrow.” He expects you to bob your head, so you bob your head.

Grandma wants to know about your class, what you learned.

“Sing me something,” she says. You say you have to wash your hands first.

“Good boy,” she calls you. She says you should always wash your hands when you come home from outside. “Wash your feet, too.”

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SOMETHING WRONG WITH MY LIFE by Meeah Williams

I could sense it coming like a mule senses thunder.I had his cock in my mouth and I was trying to keep my neck from being too traumatized when he bucked his hips in short hard thrusts. It was like being a passenger in a car whose driver proceeded down the street by slamming on the brakes every three seconds. I'm getting whiplash just thinking about it. I watched people on the sidewalk stop, stare, and the expressions on their faces said "What the hell is that all about?"I leaned out the window and threw confetti at the parade-goers lining the pavement, smiling like a prom queen, my teeth gnashing together. What I mean is that I smiled like a porn star, a cock thrust balls-deep in my ass."It's okay, ok-k-k-k-kkay," I cry, throwing more confetti, which is actually colored rice, crying, my mascara running, thinking "isn't this over yet?"Thinking, when the birds swallow this rice it's gonna bloat up in their little bellies and they'll explode and die. This bed is like a raft in the middle of the ocean and I'm looking for an island, a tanker, a helicopter, anything to wave my arms at. You're in the helicopter, hovering, but all you're doing is watching. Yes, I'm talking to YOU, the watcher, the reader, whoever. YOU!When you cum--or get bored--you hit the off button. It's even worse when you hit "pause," and there I am, eyes shut, mouth black-ovaled, looking like I'm in pain, the thick shiny thing half in and half out of me, almost human-looking, human plumbing, clogged, and I'm waiting, waiting waiting either for the thrust or the withdrawal and getting neither. Just that clogged plumbing with no flow..."Fuck you!" we both shout, you and I. No, I'm not going through all that again. We're going mad with thirst anyway. It can't be long now. I'm going to test my luck in the choppy water, whatever that means. I'm going to commit myself to the waves.Hello Ocean!"Certain death," he ventures a guess. But he's already commandeered the machete, don't think I don't know it. He's figuring he'll clobber me on the head, cut open some part of me, drink my blood. He's bearded now, maniacal, looking like a two-legged Ahab."Thar she blows," he says and with his pirate telescope points up to the sky which looks like the aftermath of a flash photograph--a flash photograph of nothing—or everything.I slip into the water, where the sharks are slouching about in their leather jackets, cigarettes dangling from their louche lips, posing with self-conscious nonchalance in a way they're well aware shows off their new tattoos to best advantage.Oh the sharks aren't as bad as reported. Fake news, you see. I meet one with a Brooklyn accent and a history of trumped-up mayhem. But he's ready to turn a new clam shell, so he says. I can be a trusting soul, when I'm desperate enough. I jump on the back of his jet-ski and wheeeeeee...We're bouncing over the waves now. My hair flowing out behind me like a banner that says "Welcome home, Johnny!" There's a desert island with your name on it somewhere. But it's not on any map and you have to put your name on it yourself."Who's Johnny?" I yell into the shark's non-existent ear. He doesn't answer. His body is thick, smooth, one big chunk of remorseless muscle built by a lifetime of endless swimming and fed by murdered mermaids. He smells like Brut, not fishy at all. He's got about 300 teeth in that mouth of his. Sure they can reduce me to a bloody hash within seconds. But, wow, when he's in the mood, you should see him smile.

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NIGHTHAWK by Zach VandeZande

There’s a yellowy light. It’s not fluorescent. This is not the IHOP. It’s the other one. The local diner. Yellowed sign, yellowed menus, yellow, yellowy light.

_________

Nothing that happens here is important. Important is elsewhere is the point of a place like this. This place is meant for in-between.

_________

She is at the hostess station looking lost. Looking like a customer who doesn’t know if she should seat herself. The post-bar rush is over. A last-call-at-2am town in a last-call-at-2am state. But: it’s later than all that. There seems to be no one in the restaurant at all. Bacon grease on everything. Pancakes in the very air.

_________

There are some things a body can do, and some things a body cannot do. Some things stand inside the scope, and then some things stand outside the scope, with their mocking smile and wave, with their cannot. The sum of these two types of things together is called a person.

_________

She has always been an IHOP person, if that’s a type of person to be.

_________

A man stands up from the one working video poker machine in the corner. This man has a great quality to his hands, prominent knuckles, a meaty rectangular strength to them. There is a tattoo in the webbing between thumb and forefinger—a small cross, hastily done. He wears a maroon polo shirt with a black collar. His hands look capable of doing things to other things, of being here and then here and then here and it helps or it hurts. He waves her along, leading her to a booth by the window. She will not look at his face. She looks at his transitive hands.

_________

Notably, the drunks have all gone home for the night.

_________

To look at a face is to have a face looked at is to invite comment. She is still beautiful, despite it. She still radiates youth, she still accidentally looks at people in a way that captures their complete attention, despite it. Some things do not change as easily as all that. To say that one thing is the essence of a person is to be naïve. She is in many ways naïve.

_________

She sits at a table. She says “Coffee,” she says, “Water with no ice.” In the blackness of the window she can see herself say these things. The yellow light overhead casts her reflection in dingy ghost shapes. The table lacquer is coming up at one corner, the booth she is sitting in has a slight tear in the seat back. There is damp and ache coming from her breasts. The man leaves her with a menu, which she ignores.

_________

A prison doesn’t require a key, after all. What it requires is belief in a key.

_________

The waiter brings water and disappears again around the corner. Behind her, somewhere, coffee futzes and sputters. He doesn’t bother telling her it’s brewing. She imagines him on the other side of the wall, playing video poker. On slow nights, a waiter might spend more at the video poker machine than he earns. She thinks he cannot help it. His nametag is peeling, his name rolling back into itself. That it were so easy to disappear, just a furl, a rolling in and away, gone.

_________

She finds him, suddenly, boring, wants to stop imagining him. He rubs a dollar against the corner of the video poker, making the money presentable, making it good enough to be accepted by the waiting mouth of the machine. She cannot see it, but this is what he does.

_________

Sitting there, she becomes aware of her breathing. She breathes manually, and then she panics that she won’t be able to stop breathing manually, that her body will never take over again. How long could she last? How long would it be before that responsibility too became crushing and she let herself collapse gasping to the floor? Could she make it through a cup of coffee, through a meal? Could she make it to daybreak?

_________

Never went in for the girl stuff, aside from being deliberate in her beauty. A breath. She thinks of herself as an angular person. A breath. She is all hard edges when she can help it. A breath. Doesn’t brook bullshit from anyone. Sees it as strength. A breath. Was not this for a time. A breath. And now. A breath.

_________

There’s an old joke, and it’s this: What’s the worst thing that can happen in a falling elevator? It stops. And what’s the best thing? It stops. Which isn’t funny, so maybe it’s not a joke. But it’s true.

_________

She tries to calm herself the way she was taught by her college roommate years ago: breathe out twice as long as you breathe in, count it out, name three things you love about being alive, realize that you are only your body, or realize that you are not just your body—she couldn’t remember which it was or if it was both—just ride the wave, live through this and then this and then this and guess what: now you’re living, present tense and actual. Now you’re now.

_________

It could be said fairly that every moment is life-changing, each insuck of air irrevocable. Thoughts like these are banal at every moment they aren’t.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

The waiter reappears, passes her, returns with coffee. The presence of him forces her to be calm. She sits. She sips her coffee. It is surprisingly good. She expected something over-roasted, bile-sour, stale. Something that cried out for the little tub of cream in its basket on the table, sitting by the plastic tower of assorted jellies. There is a kind of betrayal in the robust flavor, in how good it feels to put the warmth into her body.

_________

From the video poker machine, bleeps and bloops move softly through the dining area.

_________

There is an absence of need in her that’s new, or worse, long-forgotten, the mark of an earlier version of herself pupating within her, ready to reemerge. She opens a tub of cream and dumps it in, then another. The coffee grays and whorls. It blooms. The way the black outside snugs up on the windows makes her feel as though she is attenuated to bigger truths lurking in the mundane. She wants things to be this still for her from now on.

_________

She might be connected to something new. A great heritage of loneliness. Nighthawk. That one Hemingway story she hated so much. Aaron made her read it in college, Aaron who got so upset when she didn’t care about all the nada, when she found it too cliché to be interesting. At the time she felt so sorry to hate the story. How often had she been sorry for her own opinion?

_________

She is not quite sure what it will be like, what she will do with so many empty hours, if it will ever feel as though this is what life is instead of feeling like, well, like what, exactly? Like she’s her own ghost, staying behind, carrying on.

_________

A body is still a vessel when it holds only itself. She learned this when the baby was born, and then somewhere she unlearned it, as the baby began to grow and occupy more space, kept finding more space to occupy than she knew was even there in her to occupy. It’s a thing she’d like to know again: how much space can fit in the vessel.

_________

She trembled and slipped back into breathless panic. She thought I fucking told you. She thought Do not think about the Pollywog. She thought She didn’t cry when you set her car seat down on pavement, when you hurried away. She thought She stayed right asleep that scary way the Pollywog would sleep, scary baby too-deep sleep.

_________

The waiter comes back around to see if she’s ready. She apologizes. She forgot about the menu in front of her. He looks over his shoulder to the kitchen and says it’s fine. She is overly apologetic. He says it’s okay, but she persists in performing the act of apology, fingers squirming at the menu.

_________

In some ways she will always be in that two-bedroom apartment, man and baby and her as ghost. She does not want to know this, but she does.

_________

The waiter lingers. The waiter notices the quaver of her and wants to help. He asks her where she’s from and she says, “Here.” He puts two fingers on the table. He says, “No, I mean your peoples.” And she is looking at him, fierce, reddened eyes. He’s from somewhere too, by the look of him. “Guatemala,” she says, “Libya.” He whistles and says, “That’s some mix.” Her shoulders tighten. She does not want to talk to a waiter about anything, least of all this. That a person can reach adulthood without knowing this kind of small talk is terrible, sticking your finger in another person’s nose.

_________

She does not want to be hard angles right now, but she is with the waiter. She wants to be a not. She thinks she might unwrap her fork from its napkin and jab his fingers off the table. He stands there, not letting her be a not, forcing her to be a person in a context that came from somewhere. It’s horrible. He’s horrible.

_________

An in-between is a place like any other. Everybody lives in the present, all the time. Horrible.

_________

She was not always this woman. She learned to be another woman with Aaron. Aaron saw different because Aaron wanted her to love him, wanted that plain, and that came with a desire to bend the will of her to his, get her, the organism, a little closer to her, the idea in his mind. She’s not that idea, though. Not that she blames him. She did it, too, though not so much with Aaron. Aaron was Aaron, without consequence. She did it with the Pollywog. She did it until she realized she couldn’t.

_________

With Aaron she saw she could be not unhappy. Which is nothing at all like happy.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

The waiter stands there expectant and she asks him for a cigarette. He says no. They’re there in his pocket. She could reach for them. She could take what she wanted. She looks up at him. He says city ordnance. He says. She holds out her open palm.

_________

It’s possible to feel weightless, freed, awful. It’s possible to feel everything you know, all at once.

_________

Cigarette in hand, to lips. The waiter nervous. Something electric in the scratch of the lighter, in him bringing the flame to her. The waiter’s hands. Used to trouble, probably. In trouble. She can make him feel a way about her, about himself. She need only reach across with her free hand. She need only grab the nametag and peel it free, and what comes after comes after.

_________

Her biggest regret is that she knows she could become anything at all and didn’t, still might.

_________

She tells him she wants to drink coffee for a while. She tells him he can say he didn’t notice the cigarette, if anyone asks. He nods and leaves her alone, disappears into the kitchen.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

For the pieces of this to fit together, there must reasonably be some measure by which she would consider herself whole. She was capable of things, once. She could read a baby like a tarot card, every burp a star aligned. She could bear the wailing. She could give herself away, all the way. She could be unmade and still be made. Simple enough things.

_________

She takes a deep drag on the cigarette and her lungs fuzz out. Somewhere a baby wakes in the cold. Somewhere a baby. Somewhere a loss without language. Somewhere a light going on at the precinct, a savior arriving, not the wanted one. Somewhere a vessel being made unwhole.

_________

But who has ever been whole. It’s there in the word itself. Whole, hole. Cruelty, homonym.

_________

Three things she loves about being alive:

_________

That coffee goes cold. That dawn comes on. That a different now is on the way.

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THE PROBLEM WAS STARTING by Alex Behr

The problem was coming up with reasons to scoop rice on the plate one more night. The stove worked. She could boil water. Pasta. Rice. Pasta. Rice. Boil and pour and scoop and swallow. The problem was the streetlight. The streetlight leaked through the blinds, and she could put the extra pillow over her head, but she feared the nightmares. She waited until the birds started singing or squawking or whatever they did at 4 a.m. from branches the cat couldn’t reach. 

The problem was her son: she forgot to smile at him. But she scooped the rice. She scooped the pasta. She scraped off the leftovers and filled and emptied the dishwasher. She forgot to shave her legs. There’s hair on her toes. The problem was the weather forecast cycling through the months, and the egg yolk and wine glass stains on the tablecloth. The pieces of dried cat food stuck to the linoleum. The problem was she couldn’t delete the voice-mail messages from her ex-lover.

The problem was that photo of her on his phone (and hers), where she sits on his kitchen chair with orange peels balanced on her nipples. Her tits look fine, but she has bags under her eyes and looks demented. What is happy? This? Coming off sex drugs for the first time in years (divorce, you know) is like coming off cocaine addiction: but she never was an addict. She only saw them on TV. 

The problem was the orange peel photo somehow getting on her son’s friend’s Instagram account. (She never locks her screen.) She wasn’t a follower of her son’s friend, Josh, but she was on the PTA with Josh’s mom, Nancy. She got an urgent text message from Nancy through Instagram with the photo—a black bar over her eyes, and one over her tits. Nancy was Christian. Nancy sent a sad-face emoji with it and had typed many words, but by then the phone was thrown against the wall and the screen had shattered.

Oh, my god. She ran upstairs. Her son was in bed, under the covers, though it was the afternoon. The blinds were down. His phone was powered off, a bad sign. “I have to quit school. I hate you.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I can’t stop thinking about you having sex.” 

“Don’t think about that!”

“I can’t help it. It’s in this part of my brain,” he pointed to his right temple, near a large pimple. Her son was fourteen, and growing so much he went through two boxes of cereal a day, but he still had a stuffed bear under his pillows. 

“You shouldn’t think about me having sex. It’s gross,” she said. “Do you think about Dad having sex?”

“I don’t worry about him.”

He refused to go to school. He hit tennis balls over the back wall into the Georges’ pool. She watched him from the screen porch. It was easier to be silent with her son, too. She replayed the dead sex in her mind. The brain lit up the same parts through memories as if they were happening. Her ex-lover promised they would forget each other. He got colder the more she cried. She wondered how memories shifted and moved to different parts of the brain. Like clothes in a dry cleaners. 

Late-night Google was her companion. Dopamine and acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, helped form memories and damned her to nightmares. Her ex-lover said she was exquisite. He’d had cataract surgery; he couldn’t see her clearly. Did she end up in a Mary Gaitskill story on purpose?

The whole thing, all thirteen on/off months, was like having sex in a hospice, waiting for the death tone, but in this case the music was the krautrock group Can. They met in her ex-lover’s four-poster bed, whenever the wife stayed at her sister’s, or hotel rooms with wrought iron bedframes. Yoga straps. Useful. Do anything. Don’t leave marks. He can bruise. You can’t. Don’t look when his phone lights up. Don’t assume others. We are holes. 

Her son didn’t go back to school. Everyone he knew had seen his mom’s tits. She told the school counselor she would homeschool him. Instead, she bought them two prime tickets to see the Australian Open, blowing out the last savings from the divorce.  

She’d lost language during sex. Language rushed back on the plane with crying babies. Her son’s head rested on the fold-down tray table, while air currents buffered the plane above clouds. A red gash between them. Only in the air did people walk up and down aisles with blue pillows around their necks. She’d had a pain in her shoulder for months, during the sex thing, and her left hand would go numb at any thought of him, or any story that required empathy. 

When the wife came back for good and the marriage closed down, he said it might still open for others, but not her. The parts that want to come close and insert into other parts ... that he would put the same parts into strangers, and them in him, and it would be the same release as with her. That is one clue. But he memorized her taste. 

She’d almost left her purse and iPhone by the charging station at the gate. She forgot to pluck the dark hairs on her chin and didn’t monitor her butter intake. The problem was her ex-lover’s last email. He’d love to be friends, but casual. The words vibrated on her new screen. He has no headroom because this is the worst, most harrowing time he has had so far with his wife. He wants her to be a friend who won’t care about him. She—with the perfect tits (maybe the wife’s are too)—is sincerely great, but he is not coming on to her. Gifts are forbidden: friends don’t send friends chocolate.

She had to scrape her skin off and grow new skin, reconstruct her body from the nights of drinking scotch, being thrown on the bed, dozens of times, but never food in the fridge. Cookbooks of the married kind. Never opened. Don’t spill lo mein on the sheets. 

Before the flight she’d texted, No, we can’t be friends, and more words in anguish, and a few clever things, and he texted, Peace. Healing. Respect. And his initial. In case she forgot. 

He bites her all over in a public park. He wants on the Fuck Train, and then he wants off. His head is on a stake. The problem are all the skulls, lined up on stakes, the sweet procession of ex-lovers, and now one more. 

A baby was wailing behind them on the plane. She said to her son, in the chill, “Should we kill the baby?” She tested out her old personality. Could she mother again?

He beat on the tray table with his knuckles, listening to Queen. Bopping his head. Took out his ear buds. “What?” She repeated herself. She hated doing that. 

“Think you’re funny?” her son said. “Think you’re funny about killing a baby?”

“He’s crying.” But she laughed. It felt. Good. She woke every morning feeling dead. Her secret. She monitored the icon of the plane on the map of the Pacific, not letting herself think of what would happen if it, and them, fell.

“Did you know when you were little, we put the toilet seat up on an airplane, and you put your balls right where men pee?” She would crawl out of this bad thing. 

“That’s sick. That means my balls have been to exotic places.” Her son showed her his phone. “If it’s 11:59 a.m. in Melbourne, tomorrow, why can’t they predict the future for us?”

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LEPIDOPTERA by Shelby Colburn

She told me she caught a moth in her throat. We sat in a roadhouse munching on fried pickles as snow fell past the window. She reached into her mouth with a finger and pulled her right cheek to the side like a hooked fish. I leaned closer to her face and peered down her mouth. There it was, a grey moth lodged in the opening of her throat. Its small wings fluttered behind her uvula and tonsils. She popped her finger away, closing the opening to the moth’s new home.

“It chose me,” Priv said as she attempted to clear her throat, “I felt it one day and there it was.”

She took her hand from under mine and picked up her glass of seltzer. She sipped a few gulps while I watched as the condensation formed moisture against the edges of her chipping maroon nail polish.

“I feel it against my neck if I press hard enough,” she said, “And it won’t tell me why it chose me,” Priv put down her drink and folded her arms against her chest, “It speaks to me. Tells me what it wants.”

I popped a pickle in my mouth letting the juice trail down my chin. Priv sucked a glob of ranch off her fingers. I wondered if the moth would spit the dressing down into the cavern of saliva and mucus. What if Priv displeased it—would it stretch out and choke the air from her trachea? My sadness formed a lump in my own throat.

Priv smiled and swallowed another pickle.

***

When the last traces of snow melted into the earth, I saw the effects of the insect spooning itself against Priv’s pharynx.

I was reading a book when I looked over and saw Priv staring at her lamp.

“The lights are magnificent,” she told me, “They look like life and death.”

I asked her what that meant, but she reached up and lifted the shade from the LED.  

“I see pixels and swirls of purples and pinks. Oranges are mating with yellows to create greens. There is black behind every surface mixed with scarlet.”

I reached over and turned off the light. Priv blinked her eyes and turned her head back to me. Her pupils were dilated enough to leave no white.

“Return them to me,” she said.

I pulled the string down, and she reached her hand towards the burning bulb.

***

When I saw her the next day, Priv was sitting on a stool slumped over her kitchen island. Bags hung below her eyes and the paint from her nails had been chewed off.

She was whispering and placing her index finger in her mouth. I watched as she chewed the tip of the nail with small nibbles. “Your fur scratches my throat,” she said quietly while tipping her head back. She hocked, but smiled as she rested her chin against the grain of the island.

I leaned down beside her and tilted my head to meet her blank gaze. She turned her neck slightly towards me, her pupils still large in her eyes. I asked her if she wanted to try and get rid of it. She chomped down hard on her nail and tore a crescent from her finger. With a gulp she sent it back to her throat.

“Why?” she said, “Jealous?”

A glint of spit dripped from her bottom lip.

***

When bulbs began to bloom, I watched as bandages replaced her fingers. Priv munched her nails down to the lunula. Her shirts and sweaters grew damp with drool while she sucked and nibbled at the edges of her sleeves.

“I don’t want to do that,” she whispered to herself one day, taking her sleeve away from her mouth. I stood back from her and she began laughing, “I don’t want to drink the flowers.”

I asked her what that meant, but Priv told me not to worry about it. “Moth things,” she said while sticking her sweater over her tongue.  

I tried taking the sleeve out of Priv’s mouth, but she pushed me away.

I didn’t want to smother her, so I let her be.

***

Two days later I found Priv examining her garden, her hands digging into the dirt to tear up her credenzas’ roots. I watched as she plucked the flowers from her garden and tilted the head of the plant to her lips, her tongue soaking up the morning dew that rested on the surface of the florets. She crushed the flower in her hands, looking up at me with a yellow-green moustache; her smirk tainted with a clear syrup falling down her chin.

***

In mid spring, when her garden was strewn with the corpses of tulips, hydrangeas, and camellias; Priv began to tear and gnaw her clothing. She plucked with her teeth the cotton and polyester blends that scooped around her neck. Lint caught between her incisors, so she flossed with loose strings from the leftovers of her rags.

“I can’t eat anything else,” she said, her eyes circled with faint black rims, “Nectar and lint…”

She walked over to her sink and ripped the curtains hanging over the window above. She tore at the sewn chickens and apples, ripping the cloth into samples that she could plop into her mouth. She swallowed and I could hear a buzzing form in her throat.

“I always hated mom’s curtains,” she said chewing. She clicked her tongue in her mouth, her eyes beginning to squint with thought. “I wonder what sweat tastes like?” she said turning to me, her teeth holding a brown Welcome sign in the gaps of her gums.

***

When the humidity of July drenched our bodies with salt, Priv began to lick her arms and hands, wiping the drops of moisture from her forehead. When she tried to lick me, I pushed her back, telling the moth to stop it.

“It’s not the moth anymore,” she said, her voice wild. She climbed up her stairs and left me alone by the entrance of her porch. The light hanging over her door frame had scratch marks.

***

That night I sat in my bed and felt the fan blowing warm summer air on my body. I was unable to fall asleep as the muggy heat held me down on my sheets.

As I scrolled through my feeds, Priv’s face popped up in front of me. I answered her call.

“I need more,” she said, her voice sounding desperate and dry.  

I buried my face in my pillow, my sweat seeping into the synthetic fibers.

“Can’t you do anything for me?” she said, her voice booming in my room.

I didn’t answer her.

“You never cared.” She hung up.

***

“I need more,” a voice said coming from my window. I opened my eyes and twisted my head from my pillow. I saw Priv’s blue glare gleam as a car passed on the street below. My window fan lulled beside her.

As I wiped dried tears from the corners of my eyes, I heard Priv whispering to herself:

“I need something I haven’t tasted before.”

She opened her mouth, releasing a red string. It floated above her head in the current from the fan.  

She inched closer to me, eyeing the sweat that was forming under my hairline. She lunged at me, pinning me down against the fabric of my sheets. Before I could scramble away, she locked my arms down with her knees and opened her mouth.

“Just a bite,” she said while licking the side of my face, her breath smelling of nectar and Nike. I tried struggling beneath her, but she engulfed me. All I felt was the strange sensation of wings batting against my consumed skin.

***

When I came to, green scales clutched the caves and crooks of my epidermis, and I was struggling to breathe in a suspended world of metamorphosis. I could hear Priv’s voice shake the cavern around me: Just pretend to like it.

I looked down at my body and saw that my limbs were forming branches of black with spikes of hair. How long have I been down here? I thought, disbelief running through my mind. I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t alive. What was I?

My eyesight was beginning to merge into millions of diamonds, and I felt my head sprout two antennae. My blonde hair fell from my scalp into the abyss below, followed by crumbs of tonsil stone. I brought my fingers to my disillusioned eyes and saw my red blood had turned yellow.

I looked around. I was twisted and snarled within a golden-brown cocoon just dangling below the rounded hood of Priv’s uvula.   

I’m not ready to swallow you, her voice echoed around me. She laughed, swinging my cocoon back and forth. You tasted so good.  I had to save you for later.

***

My fingers were beginning to form as one when I heard a voice in my ear begin to speak to me.

It’s almost over, it whispered. It didn’t come from Priv’s throat—the sound was too clear against the ringing of my ears. But the soft cadence of the voice died against the shuffling and scratching my cocoon made. As I searched for the sound, I found my diamond eyes locate the red reflection of gems hiding behind the scars of forgotten wisdom teeth.  

She doesn’t like to swallow, it said raising its voice, She wants to absorb us. The moth’s proboscis did not move with the words that formed in my head—we were connected by the tissue that held us above Priv’s throat.

What can I give her?

Everything I couldn’t.

***

You think changing will help her? Priv’s throat said undulating. It didn’t help you.

The moth crawled into the red glow that shown from Priv’s cheeks, the outside world just out of reach behind flesh and veins. The moth’s white fur clashed with large red eyes, its hair coaxed in bits of lint and sap. Its left side was torn with bite marks forming over ripped trunks of leftover legs and torn aileron. Yellow blood splashed up against the thorax.

She tried eating me but she liked the taste too much.

Priv laughed again.

The moth climbed over my cocoon and began nibbling the seams that kept me suspended.

Make the decision, its voice called to me as its front leg stepped on my ridged home.

My surroundings vibrated with my every shake.

I didn’t want to leave her. It said while snipping away at the branches that held me up above the gaping esophagus. Even when I turned, she didn’t release me.

The green scales of the cocoon tightened their grip on me with every utterance. They snarled at me and dug into my furry skin.

Do what I should have done.

Priv’s jaw began to move, clipping the moth against her back molar with a large clush. Her throat motioned in repeating rows that drew back pieces of the moth.

I’m done with you, Priv said.

With one last slash, the moth tore open my cocoon and looked at me with its red eyes. It opened its mouth and screamed at me.

Priv’s mouth opened and a bright light filtered in past her gums. As her tongue bashed the moth down into her body below, I leapt forward. Two orange and black wings opened from my shoulder blades.

I flapped out of Priv’s mouth. She chomped at me with a lunge, but I soared out the gap between my fan and window. Her ethereal cries echoed below me.

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THE PASSENGER by Anthony Dragonetti

When I can’t think of what to do, I have no choice but to go fast. I grab my car keys from under a pile of crumpled receipts by the door. I’d throw them out, but what if I need them someday? I could be audited. I could need an alibi. I focus back on the keys. It’s important to avoid rabbit holes. I can feel my tongue in my mouth. It’s time to go.

I get in my car and fly out of my condo development’s parking lot in reverse and swing forward towards the ramp to I-295. It’s a little after midnight, 25 degrees out, and I love New Jersey. I should open the windows. The cold air might straighten me out a bit. My instincts are taking me to the Turnpike. Okay, I tell my instincts, that is where we will go.

I’m cruising up 295, but not too fast, not yet. The cops have nothing to do and they like to sit on the median. I think I see a cop car up ahead and glide over into the right lane, slowing down, signal on like I’m preparing to exit. Good evening, officer. I’m on my way home from work. Late shift, you know how it is. Newborn at home. Me and the little lady haven’t been sleeping much, as you can imagine. You got kids? I’m still working out the script when I roll by the shadow that I thought was a cruiser. I say goodbye to my new wife and child.

Fate is funny. I mean like a joke. The shadow cop sends me towards the offramp where my headlights catch a stoned looking teenager on the side of the road with a thumb sticking out half-assed. He isn’t even looking in the direction of traffic. For a second, I think this is part two of my imagining things, but he is quite real as he jumps out of the way after I almost bump him with my fender. I roll to a stop alongside him.

He vaguely looks pissed, more confused. I lean over towards the passenger side window to talk to him.

Man, what are you doing out here? Who even hitchhikes anymore? It’s the middle of the night.

He tries to focus on my face and process my words. He says he got into a fight with his girlfriend and she kicked him out. He’s seriously fucked up and can’t get himself home. His phone is dead, and he’s broke. I tell him to get in before he freezes to death or someone decides to chop him up.

We’re riding up 295 in awkward silence for a bit. I realize I forgot to ask him where he’s headed, and it doesn’t seem to dawn on him he should be asking where I’m going.

Uh, where should I be taking you? Your parents live nearby or something?

“No, I don’t live with my parents. I’ve got a friend a few miles up the road I can crash with, if he’s home. Got to get off at 36.”

Providing that information seems to have used up his brain reserves and he slips back into half-consciousness. We’ve got a little time together and sitting in silence with another person in close quarters makes me nervous. I turn on a playlist of classic hardcore to keep my energy up. GBH kicks on and my mood stabilizes while the opening chords of Sick Boy scream out of dying speakers. I feel electric again, licking my lips.

My passenger rouses out of his stupor, agitated by the metallic noise. He’s looking closer to being part of this universe.

“Come on, dude. Can’t you put on something chill? I’m dying here.”

Hey, I’m the one giving you a ride out of the goodness of my own heart. You’d still be standing out there in the cold or a cop would have picked you up by now. Then where would you be?

“I’ve been arrested before. Who cares? They throw you in rehab. Juvenile records are sealed. At least I could sleep there.”

I lower the music as a compromise because now I feel bad, but I need to keep it on to maintain. My cortisol is on a steady drip. The road is empty ahead, so I take the kid in all sullen, skinny, and hooded. Painfully typical and therefore someone I want to protect. I ask him what his name is, and he says Tommy.

Tommy, Tommy, I say.

“Yeah, man. What’s yours?”

So, I tell him.

Then we sit quietly again until he blurts out that he wants to die. I turn the music off completely and ask him what he said. He repeats his wish. My brain is white lightning.

I say Tommy. Tommy, you can’t think like that. You’re just a kid. Shit isn’t even bad, yet.

“You don’t know anything about me. My parents are fucked up. I don’t talk to them. School sucks. I’m failing. I just ruined things with my girlfriend, who is basically the only thing in my life that isn’t trash. I make things worse for everybody. Seriously. Who would want to deal with me? I don’t blame her.”

“Okay, that sounds bad. But that doesn’t mean things will stay bad. You can turn it around. You seem like a smart guy.”

“Dude, I’m stupid. Smart guy. I wish I was dead. I’m so sick of this.”

You don’t.

“I do.”

Are you absolutely sure of this, says the heat rising in my chest.

He nods at me.

If you say so, man. And then I floor it.

We’re hurtling down a dark 295. There are a few cars on the road, but they stay away from the left lane when they see me coming. I look briefly over at the kid and notice traces of concern. I decide to commit. The engine is trying to kick back but forget it. The machine will hold up because I need it to. I’ve never needed anything so badly. Tommy squeaks.

“36 is coming up!”

I peel over across 2 lanes and brake tightly to make the offramp. The kid’s holding onto the dashboard.

“What are you doing!”

I know this whole area. I know every backroad. This entire state is mine. Everything you see is mine. We’re flying through the streets. I’m getting lucky with the lights. No one is out around here at this hour and I know where the cops usually wait. The elementary school isn’t too far now.

“Please, stop! We’re going to crash. Jesus Christ. Oh, Jesus fucking Christ. Please, dude.”

I ignore him. It’s hard, I won’t lie. I must stay the course now. We reach the school. It’s one of those long straightaways into a parking lot deep in the property. The lot is empty. Perfect. The car hits the entrance and we’re flying straight towards the school building.

“No! You’re going to kill us! Stop the car!”

 Yes. That’s the idea.

“No stop stop please don’t kill me please don’t. I don’t want to die.”

I slam on the brakes and spin the wheel. The tires scream loud enough to shatter glass, I would think, but nothing seems to explode. We’re spinning. I’ve done all I can. It’s luck now, so I close my eyes.

The car stops maybe three feet from the building, facing away from it. I’m so wired I can’t feel my arms. I turn to Tommy and give him a triumphant grin. He starts screaming what aren’t even words. Well, they might be words, but they aren’t forming meaning for me right now. I speak calmly, but loudly, to try to get through to him.

Tommy, you have to understand what I did was for your own good. I believe fate brought us together on this night. You reached a crisis point and I was guided to you by forces that I, frankly, can’t explain. I was brought into your life the moment you needed me most. What are the chances? What are the odds? I did what I had to do. I had to show you that you didn’t really want to die. If I could, I’d show you how your death would affect the world. Unfortunately, my powers are limited. I hope you understand. You have to keep living, Tommy. There is so much more to do. I hope you wake up tomorrow with a new lease on life and cherish this second chance that you have been given.

He’s already left the car by this point, disappearing into the night, a speck that I can still make out at the edges of my headlights. When I crash later, for real, I don’t know if I’ll remember every detail of this. My only hope is that Tommy knows, deep down, I am his friend and I honestly meant everything I said.

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LOOK WHERE WE’RE GOING by Anna Vangala Jones

Nina had informed him of the unplanned pregnancy that morning, as casually as she was now asking him to admire her appearance. She spun away from enjoying her reflection in the mirror to face him. She spread her arms and twitched her hips. “How do I look?"

Amol observed his light haired, light eyed girlfriend, dressed in an Indian sari and covered in ostentatious gold jewelry, with a mixture of pride and amusement. She looked wonderful and yet wrong at the same time. Like an excited young girl playing dress up. So precious but not real.

"You look amazing." He sat down on the bed they shared most nights in his modestly sized Manhattan apartment. Nina described the color on the walls as a drab and dependable gray, without being asked. The blanket on the bed was black and Nina's sari in front of him was an electric blend of pinks, yellows, and greens.

"Your sister taught me how to drape and pin the sari last week. I did okay?"

He smiled. "Better than some Indian women I know."

"Give me a break." She returned to the mirror, putting the final touches on her appearance and applying a ruby red to her pale lips.

He stood up to find sandals to complement his long beige kurta. They were headed to his cousin's Hindu wedding in Connecticut. Nina tossed her lipstick onto the bed. Irritated, he picked it up and walked over to the vanity to return it to its place.

"We should get on the road now. Don't want to be late."

Amol knew he was kidding himself. With Nina coming along, of course they’d be late. Amol’s mother, with her quiet dignity and grace, believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that loud, cursing, irresponsible Nina was nothing but a fling. Something Amol had to get out of his system.

Amol’s mother knew her meticulous son needed someone who would drop her clothes in the laundry hamper in the evening. Not step out of her pants and skirts, leaving them discarded on the floor like some kind of helpful chalk outline to aid him in tracing her last steps. He needed someone who would understand and respect their Hindu customs and beliefs. Not try them on like a costume when it suited her. Someone he could actually take to temple and family gatherings, with no sense of dread that he was teetering on the edge, about to make one wrong move and plummet. The girl didn’t have to be brown, his mother insisted. She just couldn’t be Nina.

Amol, even as he rebelled for the first time and resisted his mother, wondered if she was right. The baby made it all so much more troubling somehow. What if this unpredictable life of his was simply a precursor to the one yet to happen?

Thanks to Nina, he'd found himself on a flight to Greece in only their third week of dating because she was just really into her new Mediterranean cookbook and wanted to see the birthplace of it all. It was at her insistence that they woke up in the dead of night once to go ride their bikes through a pitch black Central Park in the winter. Amol could still remember how the cold had seized every muscle of his body, until they screamed and ached, and then the exhilarating release when the wind whistling in his ears and the crunch of the white frost beneath his wheels made him laugh. Without Nina, he would have ordered takeout from the little Greek hole in the wall down the street or just exercised on the bike machine at his gym under the warm, comfortable glow of a heater.  

He tried to picture the steady, reliable partner he hadn’t met yet, but she had no face. And yet a part of him still wanted her. Was waiting for her. Assumed they’d find each other someday. Then Nina’s chatter in the car paused.

"You're too quiet. What’s wrong?"

Amol was surprised Nina noticed.

"It’s the baby."

“I knew it.” She was trying to catch his eye, he could tell, but he avoided her penetrating gaze. The road stretching long and unknown in front of him was all he could see.

“I have to look where I’m going.” He felt her pressing up against his arm as he drove on without turning to face her, the gold chain of her elaborate, chunky necklace leaving an uncomfortable indent in his skin through his thin sleeve.

"We can do this,” she said.

"I—I don't want to.”

The next few moments felt gaping and cold. The gray seatbelt cut into his flesh. Darkness had fallen. They were almost at the wedding venue.

"I wasn't expecting this.” He released the steering wheel, hot from his tight grip and cold from his sweat, and reached out to rest his hand on her knee. The fabric of her sari felt scratchy and thick to his touch.

She shifted her knee so that his hand dropped to her seat.

He turned back to the road in time to see the deer, a light brown blur, dart out in front of the car. He jerked the wheel with both hands and his eyes widened as the world spun into a dizzying shock of colors in the heavy darkness.

Once his brain started whirring again and sensation surged through his body, Amol became aware that he was alive. Nina’s hand touched his face.

“We’re alright,” she said. “We’re okay. So is the deer.”

Amol rolled the window down. He felt the pressure in his head and lungs lessen as the cold air rushed in and he laughed. The sound circled him and Nina both, banding them together tighter and tighter, until they could hardly breathe. Her teeth scraped his cheekbone as her kisses attacked him, hungry and wanting. He closed his eyes and listened. All he could hear was the violent beating of their three hearts.

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IDROT by Levi Rumata

[ WALL LIFE  ]

In the new curved shapes to come, how we’d imagined the arrival at a monument – something we’d rehearsed many times in anticipation of a disillusionment we’d known then only as some vague, signless desire – it was not as we could have guessed. There weren’t accompanying gestures or sightings of ectoplasm at the old cement factory. It turns out that, for much of our searching, it had been around. Like a landscape pulling apart stretched seethrough thin, so much so we were passing right with it. Screenprinting. On the house that still had its xmas lites up, we noticed how the bulbs that had for two seasons been flashing closed faulty lengths of its strand into a nitely eyesore was signaling just fine now. You were saying how you’d crashed your dad’s car and how it was no big deal. It’s been years. And so there was plenty of time to get to know the inside of the monument, standing in the same spot. Timeshare. There had been furniture. We’d hauled the furniture out to the curb. We went a while without furniture and then eventually in increments we’d accumulated other furniture. New and different furniture from the furniture we’d hauled to the curb, but not so different that it wasn’t furniture. And all this time we’d covered up our nakedness with cloth.

[  CIRCLE  ]

At the identification olympics our source says he’s pioneered backward modular projection. There have, he says, been offers from sponsors. Patrons they used to be called. Grants as well they say sometimes. Something done presumably to mutual benefit. An agreement to enter into that form of social engineering, the business of presenting new linkages. Strategically. Gracefully imprinting an action with the flourish of signature. One’s mark at once removal and a making real. When you cut out a piece of wall to make a door you’ve created both the passage and the door itself. A hoof is half ground. An idea is born and dies if it can’t get its jigsaw wet enough with what’s at hand. Institutional codes. But at the other end there’s the quota of inner bridges. I live, says our source, above the reptile shop on Division Street, and some mornings I like to wake up early and buy flowers at the little place next door. I take them back upstairs to my apartment and I burn them to keep warm.

[  COMMUNION  ]

Is this where I sign up for enlightenment? asked the false orphan. All around him the other patrons of the tavern glared. They knew who his father was and they liked him. He was nothing like his father. Unlike his father he’d fathered no children. Even in strange places, places he’d never been, like this one, the townsfolk seemed to know. Word travelled as fast, at least, as he did. Finally he’d arrived at the exact place, now, that he wasn’t, and as such felt should be able to sleep the sleep of a destroyed god. He makes his way over to an open table in the middle of the room amid the rising murmurs. He takes from his rucksack the sack of dead batteries he uses as a pillow. In his condition, there’s the cheapest thing on the menu and then there’s how much he’ll pay for it.

[  LOCUS  ]

A basement or a garage is no place for modesty. The best decisions are left out in the street the way you might remove your shoes in a home with nice rugs. Even the consciousness of choice as such, the casual wielding of one’s sword to separate according to taste or inclination one thing from another. Even that demands forgetting. It hardly matters whether the space in question is under the house or adjacent to it. Fundamentally, it’s both, the prefixes of designation loosening their hold, slipping. Stripped to the root of being thrown, the arc describes our narrowing orbit. The resulting convergence sans intention is what gives birth to the room. It’s base age, and also it’s garment.

[ EXHIBITION ]

Our sciences were on display. Laid out across the gymnasium in a great tangle, its hallways and staircases indifferent to where they deadended. We give the order to seal up the cul-de-sacs, domed underwater cities, a lock-in at the skating rink. On this particular screen you can observe live in real time the activities of those most distant from you. You provide commentary. In order to succeed, it needs to breed more of the same. And perhaps one day it will, all dressed up in ribbons and recited. For now we stack the chairs. We fold the tables. We polish up our silence and the lock on its box. We take off our clothes at the block party and meditate in the center of the parking lot. We stack the parking lots. We feed mistakes into the apparatus, prep the disquisition. The vivisected image nostalgic for the defiance of form.

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NOW HE SEES SHADOWS by Gregg Williard

“Painting has been real eye opening for me. I mean, now I see shadows.”

-George W. Bush

I wanted to serve as an advisor to President Bush and his cabinet. I was 60 and had no qualifications. It would have taken years to move through academia and politics before I had even a remote chance of gaining access, so I decided to go the military route. I’d become a soldier. A soldier of art. When I reached the president and the cabinet all I wanted was to show them a bunch of my favorite books, movies, music and art and hang out with all of them, watch and read stuff and talk, because I believe in the transformative power of art. If Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, Cheney and Powell could learn to appreciate painting and fiction and films, especially low budget 1950’s and ‘60’s horror and science fiction and metaphysical noir thrillers (things like Figures in a Landscape or Vanishing Point or even Who’ll Stop the Rain or El Topo or Kiss Me Deadly or Not of This Earth) it would be impossible for them to carry out misguided or malevolent policies and pointless wars.

I was the manager of a movie rental store and too old to enlist.  My previous employment was in Mental Health (Art Therapy) and teaching (English as a Second Language). I was and am reasonably fit from walking and climbing, but hate competitive athletics and sports/military culture. I was a Conscientious Objector during Viet Nam and oppose our foreign policy in the Middle East.  I read constantly but I am not an academic. I have poor study skills and barely earned a B.A. I’m obsessed with art: painting, books, movies and music. Some of my favorite writers are Fernando Pessoa, Jorge Luis Borges and Raymond Roussel, Flannery O’Conner, Robert Stone, Elizabeth Hardwick, Ben Lerner, Leslie Scalapino;  Some of the musicians are Robert Johnson, Tom Waits, Bernard Herrmann, Brian Eno and Arcade Fire; or painters like H.C. Westerman, Pieter Brueghel, Henry Darger, Philip Guston, Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman, Charles Birchfield, Ed Valentine and Fred Valentine, Manuel Ocampo, Shusaku Arakawa; or filmmakers : David Lynch, Guy Madden, Maya Duran, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Steve DeJarnett (Miracle Mile), and Fred Wilcox (Forbidden Planet). Besides watching movies or reading or seeing and talking about art and drawing and writing my idea of fun is being left alone with a sketchbook, a notebook, some papermate black medium point pens and a thermos of dark coffee.     

But I wanted to be a soldier.  It had a lot to do with reading Robert Heinlein as a kid. I grew up devouring his stories of skinny, unpromising kids who find they have a special talent for combat, boxing, martial arts, flying planes, leadership, tolerance for pain or grace under fire. I believed I was meant to be one of these boys or men, and decided it must be true because this belief persisted in the complete absence of any supporting facts or experiences.  For example, I discovered on the playground that I was not a natural leader, and never would be. I was not tough. I did not win the respect of my teammates and teachers through sheer spunk, grit and will. I was not the favorite of toughened war vet teachers or stern martial arts instructors because of my great determination and spirit. I was never in a fist fight, or later, a fire fight. I did not have a natural talent for shooting guns, or breaking them down and reassembling them in the dark. In the rain. I joined the Boy Scouts, but never advanced beyond Tenderfoot and quit after 4 months. (I never learned the correct way to tie my scout kerchief). I took up Karate, Judo, Tai Chi, Tai Kwon Do and Aikido but quickly dropped them because of my lack of coordination, panicked resistance to building physical memory and jumpy aversion to discomfort, let alone pain.    

So I worked out really hard (High Intensity Interval Turbulence Training), dyed my white hair brown, and paid the kid across the street to make me a fake ID. I managed to squeeze into the National Guard, and then the Regulars. (The recruiting offices had quotas to fill so they were far less discriminating than usual). A female soldier I was close to that likes guns and fighting practiced with me, which helped a little. Real Basic Training was very difficult, not only because of my age but also my lack of coordination, panicked resistance to building physical memory and jumpy aversion to discomfort, let alone pain. Even harder was the lack of privacy. The only time I was left alone for three or four hours with a notebook, sketchbook, black papermate medium point pens and a canteen of coffee was after lights out, and by then I was too tired to draw or write anything.  And like in Elementary, Jr. High and High School I was not tough, or a natural leader or a favorite of my platoon. They had only disdain for my jumpy aversion to discomfort let alone pain and my lack of coordination. The guy on the bunk above me said his favorite movie was Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven, based on the Heinlein novel. I was immediately relieved, but as we talked, I realized he didn’t think it was an ironic critique of fascist science fiction action films disguised as a fascist science fiction action film at all, but was actually just a science fiction action film, critiquing lazy civilians and intelligent bugs.

“But the officers’ uniforms look just like the Nazis,” I said. His reply: “Have you looked at our helmets lately, dude?”     

Because of my writing and art background my female soldier friend thought I’d be a natural for Officer’s Training, or a Psy Ops specialization that would take me off the field, where I seemed to be mostly useless. From a distance I sort of resembled a soldier. But like the Boy Scouts, I couldn’t wait to go inside and be left alone for three or four hours with a notebook, a sketch book, some black medium point papermate pens and dark coffee.      

The Specialist tests were difficult. My panicked resistance to building physical memory made me slow at the keyboard. My poor study skills had me scoring too low to even join the C.O.’s secretarial pool.     

But the female soldier, now Sgt. Marie Falcone (my girlfriend in art school until she dropped out to join the military) was eager to help. Like I have all my life, I’d rather hang out with girls and women than boys and men. Sex seemed to be the one physical, collaborative activity that I am “good at,” that I can find myself in doing. In basic we did extra field practice off hours with a variety of knives, semi-automatic weapons and grenades.  She was an excellent hand-to hand combat teacher, due to her infinite patience and slow, reassuring hand movements. Even when she was simulating breaking my back or crushing my thorax in slow motion (maybe especially then!) I felt a safety and acceptance that eluded me in the barracks with the guys. And one of her favorite movies was Dark City! She’d read the P.O.W. literature, (especially James Stockdale, Epictetus and the stoics) and had wilderness survival and training in S.E.R.E. (Survival, Evasion Resistance and Escape). She could munch on maggots like they were M&M’s.  What a great girlfriend!     

Later, (and with some doctoring of records by Sgt. Falcone) I managed to pass my exams and combat training requirements.  Because of my background as an Art Therapist I was reclassified with a GS-15 in Psychological Evaluations of returning troops. This involved asking soldiers to draw a house, tree and person. Many of the soldiers were on stop loss before rotation back to active duty, and I was to be alert to trees without leaves, and houses on treads. One of the soldiers I interviewed drew a tree on treads, and a house on fire. He wanted a Hor de Combat (or deKON ba – “out of the fight “) ruling. I told him to take the treads off the tree and the fire off the house. He got the ruling. I realized that in my position I could help other soldiers in the same way, especially older ones who had already done multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Over the next few months I approved psychiatric exemptions for dozens of stop loss candidates. I found paranoid-schizophrenic diagnostic cues in their projective drawings and tests, and in our private sessions we hung out and talked about, read and watched many movies and books.  Another of the soldiers I helped had a father with Washington connections and friends in the Department of Defense. I was offered a posting at the Pentagon as an Intelligence Analyst. I brought along now Captain Falcone as my aide.

Losing my way in the Pentagon came easy because of my panicked resistance to building memory, but Captain Falcone had an excellent sense of direction. We made a good team, and I was recommended for another promotion (with her as my aide). My/Our record reflected a unique melding of combat skills, historical and psychological perspectives and aesthetic sensibility. I was a soldier with fresh ideas. “Not since T.E. Lawrence” sneered a jealous colleague at the Pentagon water cooler as I moved my things out of the small office in the 8th corridor of D Ring to the bigger office in the 7th corridor of C Ring.     

From the bigger office we made appointments and prepared reports. I wrote about what I know, and love best: science fiction surreal thriller visionary movies, books and paintings. “It’s like this,” one report began.  “It is no accident that Paul Verhoeven is the director of Total Recall and Starship Troopers, the former based on a Philip K. Dick story, and the latter on a novel by Robert Heinlein. The continuum from Heinlein to Dick so perfectly realized in these two films by Verhoeven is the quivering tightrope our foreign policy walks every day.”

I wasn’t able to meet with Cheney but managed to secure time with Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and the President.  

Initially they were puzzled by my recommendations: to view a compilation of selected films, read and discuss a stack of paperback books, and listen to music from CDs. They all complained that they were too busy, but I turned to Donald Rumsfeld and said, “Mr. Secretary, when was the last time that you went to a movie, read a book, heard music or saw art that made you say, ‘that is so cool!’” the Def Sec did a squint and scowl into an acrid middle distance that way that he did; the Secretary of State stood at his side but was set aside, that way that he sat; the National Security Advisor (Condoleezza Rice) crossed her arms and glared, that way that she crossed and glared. I got a tart reminder from Dr. Rice that she is a classically trained pianist, and enjoys Dostoyevsky in the original Russian, facts that I knew already and appreciated. She said that Dostoyevsky’s politics were distinctly conservative, and that if he were alive today, he would surely be a supporter of the president. As she spoke her irises hung very high in her eye sockets, exposing the sclera below, possibly displaying the sanpacu condition of acute spiritual distress. Condoleezza probably had a much finer

artistic sensibility than I do, so my single “arty” claim to distinction among the members of the cabinet seemed kind of worthless. She appeared to sense this and interrogated my dyed brown hair with pitiless sanpacu.  I soldiered on.

I struggled to frame the fundamental questions in the right way. The questions that, if at least considered, could promote saner foreign and domestic policies. In so many words: how can you love, really Mozart, and still support this president? Why won’t you all at least try reading Philip K. Dick or Franz Kafka or Bruno Schultz or William Gibson, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Rebecca Solnit, H.P.

Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti?  Mr. Secretary of Defense, for the love of (your) God, sit down with some good buttered popcorn and Diet Rite and watch Eraserhead!  Or here, how about David Cronenberg’s They Came from Within or Scanners or Videodrome or Existenz ? Surely all of you must notice the vast world of living art, film, literature, music, performance all around you! Do you think all of this stuff is just, like, marginal weirdness that doesn’t have anything to do with the “real” world, or what?

The Secretary of Defense watched me. There was a snap to his voice like those little semaphore flags in the wind. In a tight, tart voice he reminded me that throughout history culture has been one thing, and politics another; that the Nazis loved Wagner, that the Greeks butchered the Melians. He sure knew his history. And of course, he was a real soldier and I was a fraud. But the question remained: if they were so smart, what were they doing doing what they were doing?

On a personal level the President seemed like an OK guy. I felt dizzy with the disconnect.  Clearly his niceguyness did not translate into nice, even sane, leadership. I discussed with him as best I could the worlds of culture that surrounded the White House like a great strange sea. “It’s a science fiction/thriller/surreal world, Mr. President,” I said. I talked for a long time about how it feels to really love certain books, poems, paintings. He listened politely and then he said preferred TV, and his favorite book was the Bible. “I appreciate your point of view,” he told me. “But many Americans do not enjoy  modern art or space stories. That’s what makes our democracy great.  And why the enemies of freedom hate us.”

He didn’t understand, and I don’t understand. Sure, there are creepy people who love Forbidden Planet and Jim Thompson, Ed Wood and William Burroughs, Luis Bunuel and John Ashbery, Edgar Allen Poe and George Pal, Emily Dickinson and Roger Corman, Battlestar Galactica and Things to Come, Denys Wortman, The Day the Earth Stood Still and the music of Harry Partch and Arvo Pärt, and The Clash. But they don’t become the “evil doers,” the right-wing zealots, do they?

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WHO LET THE DOGS OUT? by Josh Olsen

Instead of buying a new costume for Kelso, our 7-year-old Aussie/Collie mix, we repurposed an easy one from years before, and strapped a small rubber jockey to his harness. All of the puppy parents at the doggy daycare costume party kept referring to Kelso as a jockey, although technically he was the horse in the horse and jockey relationship, but still I failed to correct them, not wanting to be the asshole who insists the green guy with the bolts in his neck is actually “Frankenstein’s Monster,” not Frankenstein. There were no fewer than three dogs dressed like Wonder Woman, and one as Robin (Batman’s young ward). Diego the Chihuahua was a piñata, Nigel the Corgi was a sushi roll, and Gladys the Leonberger, who was only 8 months old and already nearing 100 pounds, required no costume. The party was professionally catered. We ate sliders, potato salad, hand cut potato chips, and Chicago style hot dogs, and I discreetly shared my scraps with Kelso. There was not one but two live DJs, both of them dressed in flashy evening clubwear - one with a silver fedora - and they switched tracks as each dog was called to the stage. For Manny the Miniature Poodle, who was dressed like Beetlejuice and accompanied by his mother, who was either dressed like Winona Ryder’s character or just an aging goth, the DJ played “Jump in the Line” by Harry Belafonte. For Goose the Australian Shepherd, who was dressed like a werewolf, they played “Werewolves of London.” And when the DJ couldn’t find a suitable track to match the dog/costume combination, they played “Who Let the Dogs Out,” the innocuous Baja Men hit. The costume contest was judged by three local “celebrities,” one of which was the owner of a bakery (for humans), who wore a full Scooby-Doo costume. Most of the contest entrants won a prize, and even those who didn’t, such as Kelso, received a complimentary bag of treats. From start to finish, the entire event was little more than two hours long, and being the grand soiree that it was, almost no one shat on the floor.

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ELSA LANCHESTER’S ABORTION by J. Edward Kruft

Her own parents never married – an intentional thumbing of the nose to Victorian-era London – and she wondered, as she watched her husband padding off toward the pool, leaving his statuette on the piano, if she hadn’t best done the same. She loved Charles, and she was relatively certain he loved her – at the very least he adored her – but after four years as Mrs. Charles Laughton, Elsa was well aware of her husband’s preferences and proclivities and while on the surface it didn’t bother her to the degree a wife should be bothered, things changed that morning.

Kate approached, clutching her own golden statue (clutching it, thought Elsa, as though it were made of solid gold as opposed to merely plated). She was not overly fond of Kate, but she tried to smile as though she were.

“Elsa, why the long face?” asked Kate. “I should think you’d be very pleased on Charles’ behalf. It’s a marvelous little trophy, don’t you think?” Elsa lifted her husband’s statuette from the piano. It was only then that she noticed it was not yet engraved, and something about that felt empty, and that triggered a sudden and dizzying fear of what the rest of her life might very well be like.

She excused herself without comment (causing Kate’s face to draw) and walked in the direction she’d seen her husband make his exit. He was there, by the pool, smoking with Walter and George (whose gorgeous house this was, high above Sunset Strip). Elsa walked to the edge of the blue lawn to where three evenly spaced palms swayed in the cool mid-March breeze. And as she went to adjust her stole to cover her bare shoulders, a sudden and violent wave of nausea swept from her toes to her throat and nearly without warning, she vomited into the ivy that covered the raised beds, and in doing so, she unwittingly encouraged a rat to come out of hiding. Elsa screamed. And just like in the movies, the low hum of party conversation came to a screeching halt. Looking up, she saw Charles charging toward her, calling: “Elsa. Are you all right? Are you all right, my darling?” In that moment, despite it all, she was certain they would be together for many years to come (it would be, in fact, until his death, almost thirty years hence). At her side now, Charles lifted her stole to cover her shoulders and then took both of her hands in his. “Elsa?” he asked.

“I’m fine, Charles. Just tired.”

“But my dear, you screamed.”

“Oh yes,” she said, having already forgotten. “There was a rat.”

“How hideous,” he said, moving her away from the ivy.

“I hate to ruin your night, Charles,” began Elsa.

“Don’t be silly, my dear,” said Charles. “I shall take you home at once. I’ve tired of the crowds at any rate. It will be nice to be just the two of us again.”

“Yes,” agreed Elsa. “Just the two of us.”

She had made up her mind.

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TROUT by Kaye Gilhooley

I took up fishing late in life. My husband says I fish too much. The smooth length of the rod in my hand is powerful. Did you know my Daiwa carbon 9ft rod is rated to 15 kg? 15kg! That’s the weight of a small child.

I fish in the fast stream that borders the south of our farm. It’s the closest boundary to the house. It flows under the bridge and soon feeds into the river, wide and deep.

I took up fishing when my daughter went missing. Trout. My brother called her that because when she was a baby ready for feeding her little mouth opened and closed like a fish searching for flies.

And she loved the water. That hot summer I took her down to the stream every afternoon and dangled her feet in the cool rushing water. She giggled so much. “Again! Again!”

Never again.

Sometimes I stay all day, pacing up and down the solid bank, dragging the heavy line through the rippling water, the hook set low near the sinker to trace the bed. I’ve seen the odd strong fish in here.

We searched for her all around the farm, split up.

“Over here!” shouted one of the village boys.

Tiny silver shoes, scuffed on the toes, and Cat-in-the-Hat socks.

Abandoned on the bank.

They all came. Police in waders. Divers. The new Filipino priest.

I drag the hook along the stream bed. There are no rocks down there. No bumps or hollows. A smooth surface they said. Nothing to snag on.

I haven’t got time for fly-fishing. All that wasted back and forward motion. I need weight in my hand. Power. To get to the bottom.

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JUDGMENTAL CAT ON A WINDOWSILL by C. M. Lindley

1.

On their second date, he will wear a shirt half tucked in, un-ironed, rolled up to the elbows. She’ll see the various tattoos on his arms but the one of a peony will be the one that confirms where she goes that night. “I went home w/ W,” she will text a friend, but the message will not go through, and so the next morning, she will imagine she might have imagined the whole thing. He will take them back to his house on J Street. He will still smell of saffron and garlic. Her family will still not want her around. There will be a judgmental cat on the windowsill, staring through her like it knows her biggest baddest secret, and she will say, trying to hide fear, Is that thing yours? I’m allergic. He will reply, No, dear, it’s the neighbors, and he will give her a look like she’s the only item in the pantry, the human equivalent of a half-eaten saltine sleeve, and she will squint her eyes at him and think, oh no, and become embarrassed for the both of them. She will have already been there too long, shown too much, promised the incorrect amount. But she will have been taught no way out other than through. So when Will unbuttons the top of his shirt she will scoot closer, keep an iron hand on her trembling thighs to quell them, lick her lips in that way she learned, reach for his belt, take a deep breath and—wait. Never mind. He will only want to watch a movie.

2.

A city nestled against the water’s edge, the American River, God’s River, some call it. Not her, though. She hates the river because it connects her new neighborhood to her old. In her new neighborhood, there’s a pool. For weeks she has spent every day at the pool, her body a sponge of chlorine, other people’s urine, small black hairs, water to drown tiny ears. Three boys are at the opposite end of the pool. One of the boys, turned up-nose, patchy neck, lies all the way down on the ground, while the others count how long his stomach can make contact with the hot pavement before he pussies out. The word pussy echoes, sits behinds her on the plastic chase lounge—

—bending in the middle.

Hey, aren’t you that one girl? She turns around to see a fourth boy, Scout Nelson, son of Jerry, known for being the youngest person in her previous town to stay the night at a mental institution because he refused to stop wearing a racist Halloween costume to school. It was only a matter of time before someone recognized her. The past is the present is the past just pretending to be something it’s not. Pussy pussy pussy.

3.

She lost her mind when, at age seven, she ran over her cat’s tail in a radio flyer wagon three times. First as an accident, second on purpose, and third as an accident no one believed was an accident. She was not much of a people person or an animal person or a defendable person and she had within her, a delicate flower wilting at an alarming rate and a penchant for laughing at violent images on television. When the cat was hit its third and final time, she placed it’s then severed tail in an egg-yolk yellow pillowcase and ran out to the river in a panic. She jumped in feet first, even though she had sensitive feet and was not a good swimmer. As she struggled, the current began to ruin her brand new shoes and her nicely plaited hair. Paradoxically, the deeper she went into the river, the shallower she got. She could not go back, tried to not go back, but three policemen found her while fishing off duty, and returned her home, safely. Weeks later, the pillowcase bubbled to the surface of the river like a young coconut and a man, Benjamin Weaver, father of Samuel, was getting in his daily dip when he came across a strange object in the middle of the water. When he opened the pillowcase he found nothing in it, and so, somewhere in the American river, there remains a floating tail. And elsewhere, an imbalanced cat on someone else’s windowsill, cocking its head, forever waiting, just waiting for you.

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PEOPLE I WISH I WAS by Socrates Adams

ONE

He writes a song a day. He keeps a diary next to his bed and every night, without fail, using his guitar, he transcribes thoughts into the book. The tunes are repetitive folk melodies. They are circular, looping reminders of the pattern of his days, weeks, months.

He works as an actor. He attends read-throughs of scripts he likes. The projects he really loves rarely get off the ground. He is a dreamer and dreams of affecting the lives of other people.

He lives alone. He’s tried relationships but they don’t fit with the rest of his life. He hates compromise. Things are good with new lovers and he’s always excited and optimistic. But he knows from experience that he just can’t sync the rhythm of his life with anyone else’s. The beats are always imperfectly syncopated, the footsteps of two novice dancers, struggling to keep time.

He lives in a top floor flat in a trendy suburb of Manchester. From his window, he can see other houses, a corner shop, trees. Children walk up and down the road in the morning and the afternoon, dressed in dark grey suits, with bright green ties.

He plays guitar, he sings. He meets musician friends. They drink together, they talk. He has four good friends. They tease him about being too nice. He isn’t so quick when it comes to making sly comments about his friends. He always laughs when they make sly comments about him.

He wishes he had a dog. He’s almost bought one a few times, but never goes through with it. I’d kill it, he thinks. I wouldn’t exercise it enough. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are naturally timid. They tremble at the sight of other dogs. Some are so timid that they fear the sight of their own shadow.

His shadow sits behind him, watching him write, listening to him sing. His shadow scares him and keeps him safe. When he sleeps, his shadow is there, under his body, feeling him breathe, not letting him inhale too deep, keeping him strange and thin.

TWO

She goes for long walks. She enjoys her own thoughts. She doesn’t listen to music, podcasts, YouTube videos, the radio. She loves the nourishment that silence gives.

She lives somewhere in New York. I don’t know the city, so her life is less certain. She doesn’t earn much, so her flat can’t be that nice. Maybe it’s in the Bronx. That seems like a bad neighbourhood. The city is her canvas and she paints herself onto it daily.

She is an artist and a writer. Her work is confessional. People have made denigrating comments about her art in reviews. It’s self-indulgent, they say. She just takes selfies, they say. She’s tried other media, but always returns to photomontage coupled with surreal short fiction.

She drinks and when she does she becomes a liquid creature, oozing between places and moods. She is good-natured until she passes out. She still smokes, despite everything, and asks women for a light outside the bars she likes to visit. The bars are a smear of neon across her young life.

Things seem to happen to her. Muggings, small lottery wins, exciting commissions, falling into water, rows with friends, sex with friends, emails from mysterious people, chance meetings with other artists at the central library, rescuing kittens from cars, swirling love affairs, autumn.

She’s always ready with her phone and she catalogues it all, and then it’s permanent. People will look back on her life and say she truly lived. They will be jealous and I will be one of them.

THREE

What a family man, people say about him. He has two children and they are his angels. He makes them sandwiches and sets them up for each day. There is nothing sad about his life. It is an unbroken chain of happy links.

At night, while his children sleep, he watches pornography. His wife is dead. He imagines her watching with him, giving him her blessing. He confesses all his bad thoughts to her. She knows everything he does. She is inhumanly understanding, like a layer of thick, rich honey.

Sometimes I want to die, he thinks. I understand, his wife says to him, across the veil. I would never actually do it, he thinks, fingering the pack of pills. Of course not, my darling, she says.

He still has hobbies although his time is severely limited. He loves woodwork. Before she died, he’d spend hours in the shed, whittling. He made wooden figurines of literary characters for the children and she painted them.  They were a good team. Now though, because he’s alone, there is a certainty and purity to his actions that is tremendously liberating.

He is not a man, he is just a father. He knows how to do it because his dad did it to him. He phones his own dad sometimes, tells him only the good parts of his life. You’re coping well, says the older man. I am OK, says the younger man.

His favourite bird is the seagull. He loves their ugly cries, he feels comforted by their greed, and how reliably they argue with each other. All it takes is one dropped chip to see the birds fight to the death, blood and feathers flung across the pavement.

FOUR

Being twelve is easy, even if it’s painful, and I long to be almost any twelve-year-old child. Boy or girl, rich or poor, bright or not, in any school, with any teacher. I’d be happy with any parents, within reason.

The child goes to school because it has to. In the evening, it has dinner and does homework. Every night the same: some meat, vegetables, usually canned sweetcorn, a potato.

It collects football cards. It collects Pogs. It has friends it talks to. There’s a tree stump in the middle of the playground the kid sits on every break time. When the stump is wet, the child lays it waterproof coat down on the wood, keeping its bum dry.

The twelve-year-old child thinks big and the weekends are time it has the biggest thoughts. The stars, it thinks, my dad, it thinks, my mum, it thinks, the things I’ve done, it thinks, I wish I was younger, it thinks. The child is sentimental and looks through photographs of its parents’ wedding. I was there, in my mum’s tummy already, the child thinks. It knows this because its mum told it.

The child won’t grow up.

FIVE

He’s a house DJ in Birmingham. He sleeps with anyone who’ll have him. People come up to him while he’s playing songs and flirt. He flirts back and they talk about the music over the sound of the music.

I love music, he says.

He is a great lover. He spends a lot of time at the gym and while he’s there he thinks constantly about his sexual technique. He reads articles about sex in magazines and considers himself a great expert on sensuality.

He lives with his mother. He has a film projector. He watches action movies from the eighties on the uneven white wall of the living room. His mother never bothers him.

He works out, he trims his nails every other day, he drinks protein milk from an opaque plastic bottle. The plastic tube of the bottle is chunky. He chews the tube sometimes when he’s listening to music for the first time.

At night, he dreams of other people’s lives. Deserts, wide stretches of calm water, toothless grandparents.

SIX

She has an active social life. She is elderly, but in good health. She lives in one of the country’s premier retirement homes. There is a choice of three cooked meals for dinner every day. She has a string of romances with men and women at the home.

She has almost no memory. She experiences each moment with a sense of tireless wonder. She dances well, although she doesn’t remember how or when she learnt to.

She moves her weight from one foot to another, beckoning dashing men and charming ladies to spend time with her. Fat diamonds hang under her ears.

Sometimes, when she relaxes in a large, comfortable chair, her body sinks so deep into the cushions that she disappears. Her breath stops, her heart slows, her skin melts into the fibre and she extends her mind to the edges of the world.

SEVEN

He’s the most famous, successful person in the history of time. He is a singer, actor, writer, dancer, father, son, best friend, doctor, human rights lawyer, astronaut, president, prime minister, director, musician, mathematician, celebrity chef, rancher, champion pumpkin carver, example to everyone.

People ring him and ask for advice. He has twenty close friends with whom he maintains healthy, appropriate relationships. He is happily married. Everyone respects him.

The entire world is obsessed with him. People write glowing reviews of everything he does; bowel movements, sneezes, his great works, the way he turns on light switches.

His most treasured possession is a wooden Don Quixote figurine his first-born son bought for him on a school trip to Spain. He shows it to friends. He cries often, happily.

Dust and snow fall on him as he ages, refusing to give up his magnificence. He just won’t die. People form a prayer circle around him and together, in a deep, restful meditation powered by human thought, the secrets of matter, consciousness, and mortality are revealed in all their heart-breaking beauty.

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ROBOT MOTHER by Brittany Weeks

How is Raptor.  Who is Raptor. I forgot your boyfriend’s name. Raptor sent me an article about the water temple in Ocarina of Time. The article is from 2007. 

Everly’s warmth is calculated. In her eyes I might be God too. Everly is asking for help strategically, she is earning love. My throat is tight and small and my arms weigh into the ground, Everly is amused by my amusement. When her voice becomes sticky sweet and high and she innocently dances on doe legs that look shaky but move quickly around Raptor, her eyes light up as he struts directly into her trap, Everly’s eyes meet mine, I taste metallic and then I taste sweet, I have bit my own tongue.

Raptor needs: small frequent rewards; task completion; he needs challenges that are flattering but not impossible. Everly knows how to monitor his brain chemistry. She keeps his serotonin fluctuation at the perfect rate to induce addiction. Everly is not a psychologist.

After pressing SPF 50 into my skin Everly balances club masters over my face and I swat her away when she attempts to fix the brim of my hat. Everly told me once that she dove head first into icy water and that immersion in cold shocked and stopped her from having her period forever. I heard Raptor once on the phone telling someone about an article he read about techno-fundamentalism. He said Everly has a metal screw in her left knee from an accident when she was a child and I am certain that is not true and I can’t shake the image of Everly with mechanical valves in her heart medical metal arteries and veins and I imagine that Everly watches me from the ceiling while I sleep and reads my mind and somehow instead of making me feel guilty this fantasy makes me feel safe and warm and calm like being wrapped in an electric blanket. I point to the oranges packed in the Tupperware that Everly and I had prepared earlier that day when Raptor was doing work in the yard and she removes the peel and passes over an innocuous slice. As my hands shake and messages are fired from my brain and lost in a fog that grows suspended between my mind and my body she watches without judgment, and when I look at her forehead and look out to other parts of the beach she reaches over and takes the orange slice and effortlessly feeds it to me, relieving my hands, who still make the motion as though the orange slice is still there, as though they might still accomplish the job. I taste metallic and then sweet, Everly wets a paper towel and dabs my mouth, her lips have pruned and a faint line appears between her brows, she is concerned, I have bit my own tongue.  

Raptor watches her every move and moves a beach bag so that she can have a seat and he stands to go and grill a vegan patty on top of a blood-stained meat rack, gently browning each side, her faithful servant. He tells the audience about an article he read about transhumanism and gauges her reaction expertly. Raptor, a meteorologist. He adjusts his take on the article carefully, micro correcting his course according to the reading of her brow. It was an interesting article, and as a slight ruffle appears it was a far reaching article, and as the ruffle melts into amusement it was well written and insightful, Raptor reaches blindly in every direction to explore this new assertion and we watch him generate a beautiful bespoke narrative custom tailored on the spot with slight frayed edges but seams tight and the functionality that is still sound, still there, it is a dependable textile and he surveys it with pride and slight bewilderment at his own skill or luck, he holds it up like a trophy, there is a drop of sweat on his lip, it is sunny, Raptor is athletic and sharp and he is tan and he looks like a God he is naive and boyish and powerful.

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TOPPLED by Julie Zuckerman

The crowds coursing the streets below Marjorie’s apartment cheer and chant, and she hurries downstairs. Withered wives and working girls, wheelchair-bound and beach-bronzed beauties, one of the most spectacular sights she’s seen in her 68 years. They beckon to Marjorie, but she hesitates, grounded in place. Her uneasiness hovers around her like a swarm of midges. The most beaten down have ascended on the capital, together with bejeweled matrons of Madison Avenue, minivan-driving moms, and those in thread-bare, torn coats. With each stride, they discard the delicate attributes absorbed since birth, casting aside mantles of caregiver, nurturer, defender, peacemaker, forgiver, family gluer.

The words Wait! I’m coming stick in her throat. She forces one giant gulp of air into her lungs and steps forward into the surge. With each stride, she is fortified, the cloud of midges thinning. Her guilt and worry float skyward, popping like bubbles.  

Like Miriam the prophetess with timbrels in hand, the women flock towards freedom. Their songs scuff away eternities of subjugation and restraint. It’s a spontaneous outpouring of sisterhood that transcends politics and unites them on a chromosomal level; no planning or secret social networks were necessary.

The men, smug in their constructs of superiority, do not see them coming.

This is not the Women’s March of 2017, which was cathartic, yes. But barely a blip in the battle.

A reverberation ripples through the crowd, a breathless, hushed moment, followed by an eruption of thunderous, whooping cheers. Marjorie stands on her tiptoes to see the DC skyline forever changed: the ultimate phallus, the iconic Washington Monument, topples. The mechanics of how this is happening, the intricacies of the organization, or whether a vote was taken are questions she can ask later. It’s a prodigious moment; every neuron in Marjorie is wide awake, electric, prickly with possibilities she’d never imagined.

They swarm the Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Smithsonians. Once, she revered these institutions, the massive memorials and erections of glory, the cherry blossoms, the reflecting pools. The first text she receives is from her sister: the same thing is happening simultaneously in every state capital and major city around the world. From her daughter, in every place of business and in the armed forces. And from her daughters-in-law, in every home.

Near the war memorials – Vietnam, Korea, and the vainglorious World War II construction – Marjorie experiences a bodily sensation of being rent in two, the Red Sea splitting inside her, painful and cleansing at once.

In the shadow of Lincoln, she weeps with a fierceness that hasn’t flared since her mother’s funeral three decades ago. Today’s torrent is different, a mixture of euphoria and awe, a twinge of exhilarating terror, amazement that life can still surprise in a good way. Someone offers her a tissue, a hug, and takes her by the hand to keep walking.

She is one of the lucky ones – never raped or molested, or subject to overt brutality or degradation due to gender, race or sexual preference. But a lifetime of slights, catcalls, indignation, covert biases, crude jokes, and commands meant to chip away at self-worth and keep men in positions of power are enough to fuel her rage into a colossal conflagration.

Only males under the age of 5 will be spared. Marjorie’s mind flits to her ex – she’s long past hating him, but: hah! – and then to her two grown sons, which is more complicated. With each passing year, she’s understood her sons are average, more takers than givers, molded in their father’s image. Her eldest hounds her to get more exercise. He chucks her zero-fat yogurts, determined to be the arbiter of her health. His younger brother cares more for his cars and gadgets than his children. On occasion, they are kind, but their attempts bring her little comfort. She feels more kinship with her daughters-in-law. With every woman walking beside her. She doesn’t blame her boys for any real evil in the world, but she will not miss them too much.

Once a year, Marjorie will spill out drops of wine with her pinky to remind herself that oppressors and their bystanders also deserve compassion. But now, she closes her eyes and gives thanks she will never be controlled again. The freedom to be fully herself is exquisite; she’d not known the extent of her hunger until today. She tilts her head to the sky and spreads her arms like an eagle, ready to soar.

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