We were wild girls. Raised with dirty feet, tangled hair. Our dogs followed us down the roads we walked, but our mommas rarely did. We played hard, fought hard, loved hard. Fate cheated us from being sisters, so we bound ourselves together with blood ritual. We couldn’t go downstairs to the kitchen to get a knife, afraid of waking momma. Instead, we broke a jar in the upstairs bathroom and sliced our thumbs open; our skin peeled back, vessels bursting and spilling over. We pressed our cuts together and imagined our blood forever combined. “Soul sisters,” we said, sucking the ruby blossoms clean.


Our world was complicated. Drunk, aggressive father figures. Stressed, underappreciated mothers. Unchecked tempers, overactive imaginations. Our world was filled to the brim, but it was never full without each other. 

Our favorite spot was the pasture. We hung out by the ditch which split the open field from where the silos were. We were terrified of those silos. “People die in them,” our big sisters told us. On the opposite end of the field, a wooded area backed up to Gigi’s house. We rarely went there either. “When trees are that close together, something’s hiding in them,” our sisters said.

We named the cows we recognized: Dippin’ Dot the spotted, Esmeralda the jeweled, and Hercules, the Brahma bull. We made up stories about them. Hercules was the dad or the husband, depending on the day. “Hercules! Buy Esmeralda new jewelry. Her nose ring is gettin’ crusty.”

“Stand on top of the hay bale and wait till they get close, then we’ll jump on their backs.” 

But the animals were usually impartial to us. Except the day they charged us.

The cows and bull were up by the ditch, and we were walking across, closer to the wooded area. The next minute blurs. Hercules charged, and the cows followed. We ran for our lives hoping to reach the fence in time. Our bare feral feet crushed the leaves beneath us and tore on the fence as we clamored over it, chased by a stampede. 


We were so much alike. We looked alike, laughed alike. Our wavy brown hair and round blue eyes fooled strangers into believing we were sisters. We had rotten tempers and little impulse control.

Our savagery at home never matched how we were told to behave in school. We went to equally strict Catholic schools for elementary and middle. We neither liked nor understood their many rules. We may have been somewhat neglected at home, but in that, we found a freedom that set us apart.

We went to the same high school in ninth grade, the Durham School: an expensive, non-denominational religious school, a disaster, for both of us. We didn’t have a prayer of fitting in with our divorced mothers and our middle-class-income households. We lacked the social manners those kids had. While those kids knew how to behave, we were still in the pasture.

We befriended Katy, who lived in the Country Club of Louisiana and was a Durham kid through and through. “Y’all don’t have promise rings?” she asked before long. “We all have them.”

“What’s a promise ring?”

“Your father gives it to you for protection. It’s a promise between you and God. You know, not to do stuff with boys.”

We didn’t trust promises. Not all fathers were protectors. 

Her mother disliked us almost instantly. Our families were not like hers. They respected my attorney dad, but their noses wrinkled at my two-time divorcee mom with her four children and beat up Suburban, which she proudly called “The Beast.” Did it matter that she was a lawyer, too? Your dad played and coached rugby, laughed at blood pooling in grown men’s mouths. Katy’s father cleaned our cuts and complained when we came home dirty and bleeding from a neighborhood romp.

You were jealous of each other. Who was the best friend? I’m sorry I chose Katy’s side. She was new, and maybe we were sick of each other? Of liking the same boys? You must have been sick of reassuring me I was beautiful too, that they wanted me, too. I was jealous of both of you, but the green monster on my back shrank around Katy, lighter sans the years that fed, piled on flesh, around you.

We defaced each other’s lockers with hurtful words and gave our best withering glares. Our cold war heated up at lunch one day. We met by chance, outside between the lockers and the cafeteria. You turned to me, asked, “Why did you write “slut” on my locker?”

“Because it's true.” I’m still sorry for that.

The next thing I knew, I was catching your fist from hitting my face. Frustrated, you turned and punched Katy instead. Hysteria broke loose after a girl in our grade yelled into the cafeteria, “Fight! There’s a fight outside!”

Katy cried and cried and cried in the principal's office; I could hear her pleas from the next room. I shut down, turned vacant as the disciplinarian ranted, already desensitized to angry men and too young to untangle fault and blame. I pictured my mother’s weary face. My father having to pick up the phone once again. Another call from an authority, another possible expulsion. I don’t know what you did in there, but you were quiet. I imagine, maybe romantically so, you behaved similarly to me.

Katy’s mom smoothed things over with the principal. She was the victim, and we were the perpetrators. No matter that most of the writing on your locker was in Katy’s handwriting, no matter that Katy and I had done most of the instigating. She wasn’t punished, but we ended up with in-school suspensions, and by that time, we were sneaking out of our respective cells to chat and joke with each other. All was well again, almost like our fights when we were kids.

Our parents referred to us going to the same school as what it was: a failed experiment. I made terrible grades and was often in detention; you struggled with the commute from your house. You transferred to another private school in your neighborhood, and I ended up at a public school close to mine. We made new friends and lived in different worlds. After our freshman year, we slowly went separate ways through the rest of high school. We’d talk here and there but never like we used to. There was no defining moment or dramatic exit, our friendship just faded.


By our first semester of college, we hadn’t spoken in well over a year. That first day, I walked into a spacious auditorium with hundreds of seats and hundreds of people for Art History 101. Feeling overwhelmed, I picked a random row in the middle of the room. At the center, your fishbowl eyes and long, curly brown hair looked up at me. You made that face you always have, where your eyes bulge and your mouth opens, where excitement and energy surge across those high cheekbones. “No way,” you said.

We hugged each other tight. It would not have been strange to see each other on campus, as we would many times throughout the coming years, but we had chosen the same class section, the same row, and ultimately, the same seats. We took this as a sign and skipped our classes to hang out. We never were productive together. Our relationship existed only in a state of play. We had no idea how to be serious, to work, or to function in the outside world around each other. “We should do this more often,” we said, back at your friend’s apartment, high, and laughing together again, as if years had not passed between us. But after that day, beyond stunted waves on campus, we didn’t see each other for a long time. 

Did something pass between us that afternoon? Some subconscious thing that knew our lives were changing? The older I got, the more I resented memories of our childhood, of the extent of my stepfather’s violence. Happy memories of choosing to play in the pasture with you transformed into desperate longings to get out of the house. To separate myself from my mother sobbing over dirty dishes, from my baby brother’s broken foot, smashed between the folds of a kicked recliner. Did he ever hurt you, too, Mack?

From what mom says, we were still alike in our early twenties—we were unmoored. Is that true? Did you do too many drugs? Did you surround yourself with men who only loved parts of you? I only saw you once during those years when you happened to be dating my friend’s cousin. Did you worry about me, then? Maybe I should have worried more about you. Did he ever hurt you?


Years have passed since we have seen each other face to face. Your dad died this summer. Before him, your maw maw and your stepbrother, too. But more recently, your father, Mason. You found him on the floor in his apartment. Sounds of ten-year-old you, crying for him that night at the beach—when you got so homesick, he drove to Alabama to pick you up three days early—echoed in my ears, as if I’d strapped two conch shells to the hollows of my head, desperate to hear the sea. 

But he didn’t always come get you, did he? Doesn’t matter now. Your memories of him will tinge with sadness and pride. His anger: righteous indignation. His inconsistency: genius. You’ll measure time by his passing, the prized befores, the distorted durings, the long afters. There will be so many afters.

Let’s transform these truths into one of the scary stories we used to tell each other at night in our tent at the beach. None of this was real. Your dad was alive behind that apartment door you knocked on before breaking in. He is alive, headphones on, music blaring, smoking a joint. Oblivious to the world around him and blissful.

Maybe this kind of thing should or could bring us together, but I appreciate and fear the gulf between us. The thought of you is too heavy. Discomfort comes with an oldest friend. You know all the smells of our childhood—grass, blood, whiskey.


I accepted your friend request on Facebook last month and combed through careful, new photographs of a luminous you, showing all your teeth in Cheshire grins mixed with equally careful pictures of your family, the living and the dead, mingling still in your photo albums. I heard your elastic voice in messages you sent me filled with smiley faces and exclamation points. I know I said I’d call, but I won’t. Guilt is only enough to spur my hand, to write, to reminisce. My world is too full, and I fear your added weight would send its contents spilling over the edges like blood rushing out of old wounds.



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TENDERNESS by Anthony Sabourin

The Doomsayer is at work. 

He takes a sip of black coffee from a styrofoam cup. He mumbles to himself and barks like a dog and screams into his elbow as one would muffle a cough. He takes another sip of coffee, gargling it and spitting it into the street; wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. Across the street the train is stopping, and soon the morning rush will be streaming by on the stretch of street before him, walking in their harried steps, a tension in the inconvenience of being a person around other people, already impatient to hasten the day’s end before it’s begun. The Doomsayer adjusts his pants and trench coat, picks up his cardboard sign, and steps upon his milk crate. He shouts the words on his sign. 

“The end is nigh!”  

Faces look up to see.

“The world is almost over!” 


The Doomsayer worked early and all day, taking lunch at 10 am and as many bathroom breaks as he could finagle out of the decrepit Subway across the street, where he was engaged in a bitter feud with the manager, a weaselly man named Laramie. He would be home in time for dinner with his wife, a sturdy and freckled woman who stunk from her work at the smelting plant, whom he loved completely. 

It was a good life, and the Doomsayer found joy in his work. He was passionate about the end of the world, and while he was aware that his message was difficult to accept, for a long time he lived for even the most tacit acknowledgement of the words that he raggedly shouted to the idiot faces of the people who worked in glass and steel buildings. Even the most furtive of glances would satisfy him for weeks. 

He remembered with great fondness one particular day when a car broke down in front of his preaching stoop. —his cracked yelps painting a picture of the end, of how the resolute corporate leaders of the past were long dead, and how their doughy and cow-eyed offspring could only lead us more swiftly to our certain doom; that unchecked plague had emaciated the horses and left the goats vomiting in the city’s neighboring fields, and how more and more these days the rain was actually just acid that left the asphalt smoking after a storm. He supplemented his arguments with credible first-hand analysis of various religious texts. And with the tow truck loaded and ready to leave, as the Doomsayer asked out of professional courtesy if this mother and her child would at least acknowledge if they, on the basis of the case the Doomsayer had presented to them, thought that the world would end, was it not true that their heads, as the truck jerked and pulled away, bobbed in a manner that was markedly similar to a nod? For so long this had been the highlight of the Doomsayer’s career, so much so that yearly his wife made him a rum cake to mark the anniversary of the occasion. 

—after the black clouds of the chemical factory had intermingled with and covered the skyscrapers with soot, and all was darkness except for the fires from neighboring cities—that crowds began to form. Only now—as the syphilitic ramblings of the city’s mayor failed to placate them—that the crowds gathered to listen to the Doomsayer.

“Have we passed the point of no return?” he asked the crowd. 

“Yes!” the crowd shouted back at him. 

“Do the penguins now slide into the muddy ocean from the floes of our own garbage?” 

“Surely!” they cried. 

“What happened to all of the good animals? The noble giraffe? The whimsical flying squirrel?” 

“All of the good animals are extinct!” the crowd said. 

“And what of the new animals humankind discovers? Those weird fangy monstrosities they fish out of the bottom of the ocean? With their glowing eyes and spiked, skeletal bodies - what do we make of mother nature’s nightmares?”

“Only abominations remain!” the crowd cheered.

“No!” the crowd chanted in ecstasy. 

“And what of our neighbors? Can we depend on the slack-jawed inbreds to the east and west of us for salvation in our hour of need?”

“Our neighbors can only be depended on for war and death!” the voices boomed. 

“What have we done to our planet?” he would shout at their faces. 

“We’ve wasted it!” the crowd would wail.

It was a true golden age.

Yet, after years of plying his trade in obscurity, the Doomsayer felt a sense of emptiness in his newfound success. The work came to him easily now, and he longed for the days when convincing people that the world was ending was a challenge. He had taken to rolling in the garbage in the alley by the Subway, thinking the rank juices dripping from his trench coat would make his message less sensible, but still, the crowds grew.

Only a seasoned observer would have been able to tell that his rheumy eyes were sad and not sick, his voice still full of fury but devoid of passion, his malaise not directed at the end of all things, but at himself and his lack of joy in this—his moment of triumph. The closest thing the Doomsayer had to such an observer was the dreaded Laramie, who mistook these changes as sure signs of the imminent death of his rival. Over a sandwich made for the Doomsayer with open contempt, they conversed:

“Is your death near?” the scoundrel Laramie asked him. 

“Is yours?” he spat at his enemy. 

“I am a picture of health,” Laramie said, and the Doomsayer did acknowledge to himself that Laramie’s long neck, bulbous head, and tiny limbs still wriggled about the vandalized sandwich counter with the ease of a younger man. 

“But you—” Laramie continued. “Your new friends out there may not notice the change, but I have seen how your voice falters, how your eyes have turned splotchy, and your gestures uncertain. I have seen your skin grow pale and your body rebel with stink as it rots from the inside. I want you to know that I relish it!” 

“If I appear ill,” the Doomsayer said, “it is no doubt from the stagnant meatballs and moldy cheese I ingest from this, the foulest of the Subways.” He took a bite of the sandwich and chewed it slowly.  “But I want you to know, Laramie, that this food is the small dose of poison that grants me the immunity I need to endure your presence, and upon your demise I will lead your family to this failed enterprise to celebrate my ultimate victory.”

It would take another half hour of negotiations before the Doomsayer could use the bathroom. 

After facing an afternoon of the cheering crowds, there was little relief for the Doomsayer among his own kind, for even at the Lazy Susan—where the drink special of a free rotisserie chicken with the purchase of a pilsner openly courted the castoffs of society—the company of his fellow harbingers, soapbox criers, suspected deities, and lesser prophets greeted him as a celebrity. 

He drifted about in the whorl of voices with his pilsner and a drumstick—

Majestic tirade out there—buy you a drink you’ve earned it—the voice it’s his voice how he uses it he can—goes to show that hard work pays off in the—did you see the garbage he rolls in a stroke of genius—Kevin, I’m—it adds so much resonance you know he’s the garbage we’re the garbage we’ve wasted it—used to be humble too good to drink with the Kevins now—I think it’s his sign you need the right message—location is the key—no, I’m not Kevin I’m Carl you know, the conspiracy of dust that’s mine—all hard work that’s the key—The end!—It will never end it can’t—so proud of him I taught him the ropes and he—buy you a beer whatever you want —is nigh!—such persistence, it couldn’t have happened to a better guy he’s—

—running his fingers along the arches spine of Susan IV, the tavern cat about on her rounds—

It’s really him he comes here—yeah of course the end of the world—eat the rich that’s my thing I pass out pamphlets—where did you get that cloak it’s really thick—when he bellows it shakes the earth—they eat out the palm of his hand how articulate—the geese there are too many of them that’s my thing—K-E-V-I-N, I’m the second coming get you the right cloak—the end is nigh!—I found out they all huddle together close to the lake and I try to convince them to drown but the geese don’t ever—the end is nigh!—No I’m Carl the dust it—listen—you’re a Kevin I’m a Kevin—THE END IS NIGH!—oh every night this chant—THE END IS NIGH!—they never listen—THE END IS NIGH!—the rich you gotta eat them I hand out recipes—THE END!—dust building never stopping—IS!—the voice it’s—NIGH!—can’t hear you these chants—THE END IS NIGH!—the dust builds and it can’t - no listen –THE END IS NIGH!—it builds—THE END IS NIGH!—THE END IS NIGH!—THE END IS !

—looking out at still more expectant faces, the bedraggled and cloaked and rag-covered fellow cranks, he never knew what to tell them. He had nothing to say. He lifted up his beer to his fellow colleagues in a gesture of goodwill, chugged it down, and left to more cheering. 

Outside he was accosted by one of the newer criers, a weathered boy who carried pamphlets of recipes for how to eat the rich, which he distributed to the university students downtown. 

“Wait!” he said, grabbing the Doomsayer’s arm. 

“Eat the rich! How is that going?” 

“The University guards and their truncheons do not support cannibalism but I can still outrun them,” the boy said. 

“Ah that’s good. You may want to use your pamphlets as padding, if they ever do catch you.”

"I appreciate the wisdom, sir. And, I apologize for grabbing you just now but please, do you have a moment to discuss the end? I feel like there must be something more to it. I have to know what is next.”


“Don’t pretend. These people, they look to you now because you knew, and because you knew, surely you must know what happens next. There must be something. Please, I beg of you— help me out here, I mean I’m just starting and even with just a nugget of your foresight I could build a whole new-”

“There is no next.”


“The end is it. One day it will all be over with and done and that’s it. That’s the end of it all.”

The boy fell silent and his shoulders dropped into a slump. “Oh,” he said. The Doomsayer left him by the neon lights of the Lazy Susan, and walked home to his wife. 

Home and seated for dinner, the Doomsayer realized it was the day of the cake. The Doomsayer had forgotten, but now here it was, his wife bringing it into the dining room and setting it out on the table. The rum cake is a glistening oversized donut shape from the bundt pan, with two candles representing the woman and her teenage child from that halcyon day years past. 

He tried to make a happy face. 

“What’s that, all of those things your face is doing?” his wife asked. 

“I am just so moved by this gesture. The rum cake, I appreciate it so much I just.” The Doomsayer blew out the candles to keep from crying. He cut two pieces of rum cake and set them onto plates as listless smoke filled the room. 

“Oh, so we will eat the cake in this very sad manner,” his wife said. 

“No, I am happy, I love this delicious cake,” the Doomsayer said with a full mouth, chewing as his eyes began to water.

The Doomsayer’s eyes said that nothing was wrong, only this was unconvincing, because they were spilling tears, and suddenly he was breathing heavily and having a panic attack while still trying to eat the cake. His wife went into the kitchen to pour him a glass of water, and throughout the Doomsayer was trying to comport himself as though he were not having a panic attack, his body shaking as he swallowed cake between gasps of air, all of it becoming increasingly ridiculous.  With his full mouth he sobbed “I no longer love what I do.”

His wife laid the water on the table and held him. She cooed into his ear: “Ah so what you love has turned into work, eh? Woe unto the prophet now that his obscure and cool new future is the common present. Shush, my idiot baby. You think I do not see this at the smelting plant? Some people stare at the glowing ore until it takes their minds away. You just need to take a vacation.”

“A vacation,” the Doomsayer said with wonder. The very concept seemed alien to the Doomsayer, but immediately his panic faced relaxed and his eyes brightened, and he again seemed at peace. They went back to eating their cake, which was very strong, and it led naturally to their lovemaking, their cries frightening the squirrels who had overtaken and were developing complex structures with the garbage they were collecting in the field beyond the Doomsayer’s home.

In the morning he purchased a plane ticket and packed his bag, soon finding himself on a propeller plane rocketing in its arc towards the Republic of Vronsk, a coastal city known for its decommissioned oil rigs, incomplete skyscrapers, and beautiful beaches, with sand as white as the Doomsayer’s knuckles as he experienced a screeching stop on the ramshackle landing strip of the Vronsk airport. 

Vronsk was beautiful. The Doomsayer wandered around the city in a Hawaiian shirt and dollar store sandals, marveling at a sky that wasn’t grey-black. He fed beef jerky to the mongrel dogs, who began to follow him around. 

He gazed up at an unfinished condo, whose main level was ransacked, and whose upper levels gave way from glass and concrete to upright metal beams that stabbed at nothing, razed manmade exclamation marks surprised that this was their end. As he walked up another block to see another interrupted building, he heard the familiar sound of a voice yelling in the street. Feeling the pangs of homesickness, he walked to the source of the shouting.

“It’s over!” the voice cried out. It was a Vronskian woman with a shaved head, wearing a metallic bouffant dress. She was gesturing to the great and unfinished skyscraper above her, which the Doomsayer had to admit was a nice touch. A crowd was forming.

“The sun shines weaker every day and the ocean rises ever more swiftly to swallow up Vronsk!” she shouted. “Our street dogs outnumber our children! And in their canniness they slip into our houses and lie in their beds!” 

Voices murmured in agreement. 

"Our leaders have been rendered fetus-like from inbreeding! Drought has crippled our farms and clouds of locusts rattle against our windows in the night! The word is ending!” she shouted. The Doomsayer found the material to be very strong, and he enjoyed being present in the throng of people who shouted in recognition. 

“The world is ending!” he heard the woman say. All around the Doomsayer was a sense of good cheer. The woman basked in the jubilation for a moment, but she cut the crowd short. “It is ending! But is this enough?” she asked the crowd. 

“No!” They shouted back. 

“No!” the woman said. “For the end is not coming soon enough. We must act!” she preached. Members of the crowd raised their fists in the air.

“We must destroy!” she shouted. “We must waste! More garbage! More fires! The end is in our hands and we must never waver!” she screamed. “We must be resolute! The end is now!” The crowd was rapturous. The glass in the skyscraper was mirrored like the back of a bar, and reflected in that mirror the Doomsayer saw an old man in a Hawaiian shirt. He felt as though he were in a foreign church. The dogs followed him as he left the crowd.

The Doomsayer meandered beachward, stopping to buy postcards at a souvenir shop. On the back of a postcard featuring art depicting a more optimistic Vronsk, with the sun setting and playing off of completed skyscrapers, he wrote a series of threats addressed to Laramie. Then, on a postcard depicting a series of minerals native to Vronsk he addressed to his wife a poem of longing. He continued on, mailing the postcards and, at a corner store, buying a jug of brackish wine which was described to him as a local delicacy.

From the beach looking towards the ocean, the decommissioned oil rigs lounged in the distance like ugly mechanical swans. The Doomsayer laid on a towel in the sand with his dogs and an open package of beef jerky. He was sharing the jug of wine with a couple who had seated themselves next to him. They were honeymooning in Vronsk, which was very affordable, and they overlapped against each other like sunning seals, languid curves supine and happy. They reminded the Doomsayer of earlier days with his wife, and he radiated happiness and goodwill towards the loving couple, and refrained from mentioning the imminent end of all things. 

They watched people in swimsuits splash in the waves; the new wife and husband periodically wading into the water, and as the jug emptied the afternoon passed in the lazy and relaxed way that beach days pass when the sun is out. Bony birds circled overhead, and shade from the palm trees retreated to the street.

A commotion arose in the water. From people-watching and the overheard snatches of conversation, it became clear that a woman playing in the waves had lost her wedding ring. She lay sobbing hunched over herself in the sand, and an improvised search party was formed, with bodies launching themselves headfirst into the surf, legs akimbo, looking in the sand underneath the waves for the lost ring. The newlywed couple next to the Doomsayer were recruited into the search, and the Doomsayer offered to stay behind to watch over their things. He threw beef jerky to the dogs and watched the futile pattern of the people in the waves, as over and over legs would appear out of the water, and would wriggle about in the air until submerging, and after a beat, like a magic trick, an apologetic face would emerge. 

Suddenly a siren wailed from the beach, and a fissure of water erupted from one of the oil rigs in the distance. The Doomsayer watched as the rig furthest to the left began its collapse, metal sweeping into the water, the rig’s mast dipping at a dangerous angle and toppling into the adjacent rig. The shriek of metal-on-metal reverberated with the siren in the air. Waves grew larger and crashed to the shore and people retreated to the sand. The search was over. 

Eventually the newlywed couple returned to the Doomsayer, where they admitted that the ring was likely lost for good. The Doomsayer stayed on the beach though, watching as the rigs toppled like slow motion dominoes into the greedy sea. The sound they made was mournful. The sun dipped below the horizon, disappearing into a blood-red wink. 

Alone with the mongrel dogs on the beach, the Doomsayer turned around to face the street, and he noticed how the people were moving in the moonlight like pallbearers in search of a body. Everywhere there was garbage. He returned to the view of the lapping waves, and he found himself wading into the water, and his head disappeared into the sea. 

The dogs watched the waves. 

A pair of pale legs popped upright into the air, calm and balanced despite the waves. 

The conspiracy of dust carried on unabated.  


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ANTS by Mary Mattingly

There’s an ant infestation in my bathroom.

They are relentless. Everyday, more squirming black dots swarm the sink, the countertops. Me, I’m fearless. I launch attacks on them with a safe-for-pets Ant and Roach Killer spray, twisting the green cap counterclockwise to cock it, holding it close to the sink to use the pesticide since at some point, the useless aluminum bottle broke and it no longer sprays confidently, just reluctantly pisses spray out. Still, it’s satisfying to watch the ants slow as the chemicals hit them. They drown in poisonous pools. I work methodically, chasing them to their home behind the counter, from which they’re inevitably swarming.

But no matter how many I kill, they keep coming back.


The first time I fell into obsessive depression, I was 16. I met him at a party on New Year’s Eve. I was immediately taken with his thick swoopy blonde hair and mismatched eyes, his full lips soft, softer than I ever thought a boy’s lips could be. We spent two weeks making out on and off in each other’s basements until finally he texted me during choir class, told me he wasn’t over his ex-girlfriend, a pretty and popular girl in my biology class. I told him it was fine but continued for months to spend every hour wondering what went wrong, replaying our various rendezvous in my mind and wondering why not me, what was wrong with me. It was remarkable the first day I woke up to realize he hadn’t been my first thought. It had been almost a year at that point. But, I was only seventeen. It’s normal for girls to be dramatic at that age. I wasn’t aware yet that I shouldn’t want to possess a person this way. To chase things denied to me simply because they are denied to me. 

He and I went on like that for a while.


I suspect the ants have a queen and she’s fat behind the sink counter. She controls all their collective motions, sends them out scouting for food to bring back to the nest. And they obey, bowing to that thick, segmented mass. All she needs to do is say the word and they go out in the world in patterns that serve her needs.

I will kill her once I find her. 


The first time I took a razor blade to the inner punchy flesh of my left arm, I was wrapped up in another obsession, over another boy. A musician (of course) with ropy tattooed arms and zero interest in being my boyfriend. I sat on my couch several vodka waters deep and used the blade I stole from his apartment. Instead of gliding through the tape that seals packages shut, I traced straight lines, which first appeared white, then thready with blood. I felt nothing thanks to the heavy cloak of alcohol I lay underneath. I realize all this information makes me sound hysterical, a scorned woman from a book with a heaving bosom on the cover. I cried as I did this, wishing that instead I was laying next to him in his purple-sheeted bed, knowing full well he wouldn’t wrap me up in his arms or rest his inked fingers on my hip. I knew then I was afflicted with something, but the only cure I could think of was at the tail end of a clear bottle.


My poor roommate doesn’t know what to do with the ants in our kitchen. It falls to me, then, to come up with some kind of plan. He complains, infrequently, wondering why the ants have migrated from the kitchen to the bathroom sink. It’s not like there’s anything in there for them to eat, he says. What is it they’re looking for? 


I don’t like my mind. It shouts unfair things at me, heightens my awareness of my place in the world and how minuscule it is, my past failures, points out all the things people likely don’t like about me. My crooked nose and my not-flat stomach and that time I said the wrong thing at the wrong time. I don’t know how else to get it to shut up. So I drink.


To my roommate’s point, I’m not sure what it is the ants eat in the bathroom or how they stay alive. I wonder what I look like to them gazing up from their tiny bodies. Some easily ignorable entity, some blurry giant. They see me and they don’t scatter. I scare me more than I scare them.


The first time alcohol becomes the opposite of a friend is when it starts keeping me company when I’m bored. Sobriety scares me. Since I was eighteen, I’ve stayed high on something - weed from the college dealers on my undergraduate’s campus, hydrocodone stolen from my parents’ medicine cabinet, booze, psychedelics, molly, nicotine. But it’s not like I’m doing heroin. Or meth. Only then would I really have a problem. Only then will I have lost control.


The first time my impulse decisions start to pull me down, I’m living in South Florida, one hundred dollars away from penniless and my father is telling me over the phone I need to come home. I make decisions recklessly and they’ve come at a cost. Yes, I have a problem with spending. But, deep down, I know purchasing this or that one thing is going to turn it all around for me. 

That’s how I ended up with a cat. 

I’m in South Florida because I quit my job to pursue an MFA in fiction writing, left stability behind to move across the country, convinced I have a special something unlike anything my new professors have ever seen. Surely, I’d graduate with some kind of prestige, a book deal at least. My undergraduate music degree had been a farce, see, no, writing, like Anaïs Nin or Jeffrey Eugenides, writing, that’s where my artistry really shines. 

Instead, I spend so much time at the local bar they learn my drink order and at first, I have fun. I meet new people, other writers, from all over the country and we get into spirited debates about teaching, about politics, tell stories. I talk too much and too fast, but I am devastatingly happy. I’m the fearless one, following an unconventional life path to the land of sunshine and overabundance. While my friends back home are forming dull meaningful relationships with partners and settling into gray careers and 401Ks, I’m following my dreams. 

It doesn’t matter that, well, I’m not really writing, and it doesn’t matter that I’m spending every dollar I have on a vacation to the Keys, clear drinks, my old vices. In my mind, I’m a star. And celebrities don’t pay bills. After one semester, four months, I’ve used up all my savings, owe the federal government thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes and fines, and have to cash bonds my grandparents bought once-promising, infantile me to pay my rent. 



Some days, I consider not killing the ants. Maybe they’ve already won.


I’m sitting in a psychiatrist’s office in Boca Raton. I’ve told her I’ve come in for an assessment. I had previously gone to another psychiatrist's office on the hunt for the cure of being me, but all I know was that place scared me, with its mildewy smell of aging concrete walls and unwashed humans, wandering, doped-up bodies propped up by endless amounts of chemicals, both natural and prescribed. 

This psych’s office is much nicer. It plays irritating, soothing music in the waiting room, where I jiggle on a white cushioned chair and wait to be called in. I have started taking Lexapro for depression, hurriedly prescribed during my ten-minute meeting with the previous psych and thus far the daily five milligrams has done nothing for me. I still obsess over people, wake up at odd hours and can’t find the motivation to finish my schoolwork. 

But I’m not always like that.

I tell the psych, a kind woman with concerned brown eyes, that I don’t get good days, I get good weeks, where energy and excitement thrum through me. It’s like being high. I yearn for those months. I can control a room, make people laugh, make them feel good about themselves. I start writing short stories, books, bang out half-conceived songs on my teetering Yamaha keyboard, attempt comedic screenplays. Nothing gets done. Then comes the inevitable, drinking too much, blowing through every dollar on random, much-needed fixations like ounces of CBD or two hundred dollar speakers, sleeping with strangers I otherwise wouldn’t. Snapping at my roommate over a coffee mug left in the sink. Crying. Pouring myself another glass of vodka. 

“Do you have any family members who are bipolar?” she asks.

I blink. It’s not something I’ve ever considered.

“I don’t know,” I reply. 

I just know I’m tired of scaring my parents, myself. I’m tired of my temper tantrums, the times I get so frustrated over being unable to accomplish everyday tasks, it escalates to me screaming at myself, pacing through my house and shouting about how stupid I am. 

I’m just tired. 


Can ants think? Or do they just react in patterns? Do they have plans to take over my entire house? Will they chew through the foundation, termite-like, until it snaps? Will I lay back and let them?


It seems like everyone is bipolar these days. I see Tweets on social media, people noting with a nodding wink that they’re having a depressive episode or posting blurred memes representative of being manic. I do it myself. Proudly announce my diagnosis. Mood disorder. Such a catchy hashtag. I read articles detailing why the millennial generation struggles with mental health. It seems like everyone wants a clinical reason for why they feel the way they feel. 

We all want to be special. Rather than be a little sad, we’re depressed. Rather than being nervous, we’re having a mixed episode. I familiarize myself with new terms: “hypomania,” “psych ward,” “anti-psychotic.” I see the rise in the discourse over mental health and I start to doubt myself. Am I really sick or am I playing into the allure of mental illness Instagram? I wonder how much of my problems are manufactured. Is taking medication a conspiracy by Big Pharma, convincing us that normal human emotions are unnatural, that there’s a pill to treat this and that? My friend has been on medication as long as I have and he says he doesn’t feel any different. I think I do. I think? I don’t know myself well enough to tell. 


I will have control. I finally go to the store and buy traps for the ants. It’s a big step, one I’ve been putting off, but one that needs to be done. Plus, I’m almost out of spray. 


These days, my brain and I continue to fight. But it’s easier now not to let it do me in. “You really have to take all those medications everyday?” My mother asks, reminding me that they’ll make me gain weight. And I don’t have an answer. Now I embrace society instead of rejecting it.  At least for now. It scares me though, what the almighty brain can say. Veer into traffic. Swan dive off the top of the fifth floor of your friend’s apartment building. Stock up on your anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication and take them all at once. Just to see what happens. 

My thoughts, they fritter around my head like swarms of ants. Everyday, they surface from behind the sink, make a beeline for me on the orders of their queen. And everyday, I take small pills, white circles, green and white ovals, to beat them back, a spray, a little trap of poison. I am doing better. My obsessions are still there, my circular thoughts still trap me sometimes. Some days, my brain might not want me here. But I want to be here. 

That counts for something. 

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ADULT-ORIENTED by Kala Frances Wahl

I was seventeen with braces, bright pink rubber bands looped around the brackets in my mouth, when God appeared to me in a dream. He told me it was my destiny to be a porn star. I was peroxide blonde, big-breasted and flexible. I readily accepted God’s proposal. Once without direction, my life now had purpose, meaning, something tangible that I could grip onto and ride like a mechanical bull. The horns felt good in my hands.

I attended Catholic school, but I didn’t believe in God. I wasn’t sure what I believed in. I wanted to believe I was edgy or rebellious, a flamingo in a flock of pigeons, or a loud tornado gliding over a quiet Midwestern town. I wandered the hallways aimlessly with no shorts beneath my plaid kilt and a fresh tongue piercing; I spoke with a lisp for a month as my swollen tongue healed. My history teacher caught on that I wasn’t speaking correctly. He promised not to give me a detention for my new body modification, even though school policy insisted he should, but he did warn me about potential gum decay from having a metal ball in my mouth. I appreciated his concern; that teacher always rooted for me. I think he was the only one.

Teetering on a jagged line between searching for meaning in life and being too cool to search for meaning in life, I sat on the floor of my bedroom and waited for someone to tell me what to do. I was open to suggestions from anyone. God just happened to be the first one to tell me exactly what it was I needed to do.

When I told my mother about my vocational calling, we were in the car on the way home from school, a black Ford Escape that glistened in the sunlight like a damp forehead. My mother was also blonde, platinum. She always wore capris and oversized t-shirts with various logos on them. Some were for local fundraisers she never participated in and others were for tractor supply companies or breweries. Those shirts were amassed in her closet from various thrift stores and flea markets. Comfort was her thing, not fashion. I admired that about her. My mother gripped the steering wheel and called my dream ridiculous. I reminded her that God only appeared to important people, like prophets and virgins. She ignored me and asked if I’d taken out the trash in my room. Apparently it stunk in there; I hadn’t noticed.

We went to a tattoo parlor on a Saturday morning, a nice one with a fake chandelier and large fish tank in the lobby. The fish swam back and forth like they were running from something, but I couldn’t tell what. I identified with that. I told my mom we were there because I wanted to reinvent myself. She nodded and said to consider it an early birthday gift. I lay on my back while a man, who looked to be in his late 30s with a tattoo of a sphinx on his upper left arm, pushed a needle through the top of my belly button. I winced and wondered if he’d ever been to Egypt, or if he’d like to take me. The belly button gem was light blue and sparkling. It made me look edible, like candy. I looked at my piercer and smiled.

At home, in the mirror of my vanity, I pursed my glossy lips into an O and moaned. Taped along the golden frame were pictures of my dog, friends and makeup tips cut out from the pages of Cosmopolitan. They surrounded my face and torso like an attentive audience waiting for the next song, and I was going to give it to them. I was going to give it to everyone one day. I slid my tongue over my braces, feeling the rough grooves of metal before grabbing my bare breasts and squeezing. I moaned again. I practiced, and then I practiced some more. I slipped my fingers in between my lips and sucked. It wasn’t enough, though. Nothing was ever enough, and I threw a fit. I needed actual practice; I needed a boy.

So I found one and agreed to meet at a campsite twenty minutes from my house where he would take my virginity. Inside a tent, the classmate from third period Current Events flipped me onto my back on top of a sleeping bag. His penis was inside of me as he knelt over my naked body. We were two wrestlers tangled up in one another, oiled with each other’s sweat and grunting with every slight movement. My pussy bled from the pressure, the blood smeared along my inner thighs and coating his dick, but I told him to keep going. It was all so dirty and rough, and I liked it. He slammed his eyes shut and whimpered, and I told him I felt like I was in a porno or something. He didn’t say anything but instead panted like he was going to cum. 

I looked up at him and said, “Did you know that I want to be in pornos?”


I began to spray-tan. I used those cans from the drugstore. I’d baptize myself with the orange spray as I leaned my naked body against the walls of my shower. My mother complained it stained the white porcelain; I complained she spent too much time drinking on cruise ships with male suitor number five, or six or seven. I lost count.

My naturally curly hair became fried beneath the tongs of my flatiron as I straightened it stiff, and I wore heavy eyeliner, thick and black like the ink of a King-Size Sharpie. 

“If I wouldn’t pose for Playboy in it, I don’t leave the house,” I told my friends on the school track as we stretched our legs before practice. 

I then lifted my arms upwards over my head, reaching and reaching until my shirt rode up enough for my belly button piercing to show. The girls stared and asked me about it. 

Coach yelled at us, “Stop talking and run!”

And I did run—away from home in the black Ford Escape. I drove on the highway barefoot, my dirty sneakers tossed into the backseat along with a duffle bag. All it held were four half-empty bottles of nail polish and a few pairs of dirty underwear I found beneath my bed, because I hadn’t done my laundry in a while. I drove fast, but I shouldn’t have. I didn’t actually know where I was going; the whole thing sounded better in my head. With each slam of the brake, my toes pressing down hard on the pedal and the tires screeching, I yelled expletives out of the half-open window. My mom asked via text where I took the car, and I responded, my fingers thumping angrily against the keyboard, “Fuck you.” She could use her company car. I drove for thirty minutes before getting off on Exit 31. I went to my friend’s house and ended up staying with her for a week. When she asked why I left home, I told her it was my mom or something like that: “She’s fucking wack, dude.” 

During my stay, my friend and I went to different malls and shoplifted. We drove to our local mall, then to the mall in the next town, and then to one in the town over. I would drop frilly G-strings from display counters at Victoria’s Secret into my purse. I ducked behind scantily clad mannequins in bridal lingerie and threw more panties into my bag. I accidentally swiped a pair that said, “I Do,” on the butt in shiny rhinestones. But the muffled sounds of the mall cops’ walkie-talkies in the distance scared me, so I tugged at my friend’s sleeve and we left.

We made our way to the riverside. A flickering light bulb surrounded by giant moths guided us to an adult-oriented store called Southern Secrets. We got in without being carded, which I took as a compliment. I must have looked mature for my age, or fuckable, so I covered my braces with my lips. Reaching my sticky palms out towards the shelves of erotic merchandise, nipple clamps and cock rings manifested in the bottom of my bag like a spreading wildfire. I’d been bad. I needed to be spanked, and I wanted the guy from the piercing shop to do it—the one with the sphinx on his arm. I’d ask him to call me a slut. The thought excited me, but no one was calling me a slut. My mom just called me “crazy” over a three-minute voicemail. She wanted me back at the house. I didn’t want to go, so I didn’t. 

My phone, however, buzzed all night in the back pocket of my denim shorts. It was my mom again, “You need to come home. And bring the car with you, obviously.” I ignored her.

I ignored her until I stumbled back into the house on a school night. I wasn’t drunk or anything; I stumbled because I was careless, misbalanced and unaware of how to put one foot in front of the other anymore. My friend said she needed space or whatever, so there I was. I slammed the front door behind me and watched as the ceramic candleholders on the end tables shook. I liked the rattling noise they made as they shivered against one another. 

“Talk to me,” my mom said as she emerged from the dimly lit kitchen. Duffle bag dangling from my shoulder and resting against my hip, I held the car keys. I held them firmly in case I decided to recoil back to the Escape and drive to Kentucky or maybe Canada.

“Talk to you about what?”

“About what’s going on,” she said.

“I was with a friend.”

“I knew where you were.”

Rolling my eyes far back enough to where I could see all of the pink, squishy stuff inside my head, I tossed the car keys onto the table and headed towards my bedroom. My mom stayed in the kitchen, which disappointed me. I wanted to be followed. I wanted to be chased and grabbed and tackled to the ground, because any kind of attention was good attention, at least that’s what I thought; I thought it consciously. But instead of running after me, my mom called in a relaxed tone, her voice cool and collected as always, “I knew where you were, but I didn’t know where you were going, or what you were doing, or why you were even doing the things you were doing. I was scared.”

“Me too,” I said to the door of my bedroom. I ran my fingers over the brass knob before entering, “Me too.” I lay in bed that night and thought about my destiny. 

I was seventeen with scrapes and bruises on my knees from falling so much on the ground beneath me. I was good at that—falling. I would even do it on purpose and like it. The wounds were self-inflicted, and each time I found myself lying on the ground, fewer people were around to offer me kisses or gauze. But some still tried. I’d sit across from my therapist in tight mini-dresses or graphic t-shirts that’d say things like, “I’m Not Listening,” or “Buy Me Things and I’ll Be Nicer,” and she’d ask me to elaborate on my dream. She wanted to know more about what God was like, what he was wearing, if he said anything else or why I even listened to him if I wasn’t a believer. Her questions annoyed me. Batting my black-shadowed lids and crusty, coated eyelashes, long and thin like a bug’s legs, I shrugged and said, “I think you’re just jealous God didn’t appear to you.”

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IRENE by Sarah MW

“Fancy a bite of my banana, Miss?”

Teenage faces have a soft bluntness to them, a button-like quality as they wait to be chiseled out to their full adult contour. Joe’s face was the same, though unlike the others it sported a uniquely impressive beard, far from usual in a fifteen-year-old. He was grisly and monstrous; I heard he’d fucked his way through most of the pretty girls in year ten and eleven. Simpering, gum-chewing girls with clotted mascara and deep-set insecurities. He swung back, all too pleased with himself in his plastic chair, forcibly recumbent, legs wide like a broken easel. 

I was a newly anointed high school teacher, fast baptized into the daily ritual of having my boundaries teased, stretched, and overstepped. I thought my greatest power might have been the ability to put on a show of indifference. 

“No thanks, Joe.” 

The indifference thing didn’t really work. They simply became more inventive in their provocations. An orange once, for instance, just missing the back of my head, hitting the whiteboard with a satisfying smack. Whittled down, waiting each day for the evening bus, I was a totally flimsy and broken thing. Better to wait for the very last one, or else be targeted again, naked by the shelterless stop, cat-called down from the top deck of the school bus.

Each day, disembarking the bus, entering that village, it seemed time at some point had been discontinued. Before starting there, I’d envisaged a forgivably backwards, warm, and well-meaning community: soft, thatched buildings, the post office, a local shop, and sheep. What I met with was the darker heart of a pretty English county, its deprived and neglected inner core. Filthy vehicles lined the pavements, lucky if they were still running. Right-wing vitriol was rampant as union jack flags hung defiantly in front room windows. Then there was the school: a five-story, brutalist nightmare, old-style attitudes cast in concrete. 

Time stood uncannily statuary in those breeze-blocked, ascetic walls. I felt it, having turned to senior teachers about the hounding and harassment. My concerns were greeted with laughter from older women in shapeless cardigans who told me they’d be thrilled with such attention. The male counterpart of the staff body offered even less hope; in their mid-fifties, on average, with blackened teeth and overhanging bellies, and a scoring system among them for all new female staff. I’d been forewarned of this by my new manager, as she reassured me between giggles that it was "just a bit of fun."

I first spotted Irene whizzing by down the stone staircase, a ladder of gaping slats through which, four stories up, I’d look down and eye the building’s ever-threatening concrete base. She had no specific classroom of her own, and so stomped by purposefully in her studded heeled boots, up and down, every day. Her smile exposed black holes and golden glints in its crooks that I found simultaneously threatening and charming.

“Lovely day,” she beamed, approaching me during one break time in her extravagant sun hat, weather-beaten face upturned towards the sun's glare. Her bright fuchsia lipstick screamed youthfulness and vitality, and was jarring set against her long, ashtray grey hair. Irene told me she was the union representative for the school—was I a member? A woman’s place is in her union, she laughed. I noticed she had a habit of licking her two front teeth and pouting in the interim of her speaking. She oozed gratitude and ease and really didn’t seem like a teacher at all. More like a carefree member of the public who just happened to pass by. Her gaze probed deep as I asked her what it was that she taught.

“Life,” she announced, smiling, a statement that seemed to me underpinned with limitless profundity. What she meant was Citizenship and Religious Studies, though she had gifted it with a totally endearing rebrand. There was a knowing in her eyes, and I longed to swim in it.

One uncharacteristically shady summer’s night, as I stood wilting as ever by the bus-stop, it seemed like a beautiful, cosmic twist of fate when an aging camper van pulled over. Irene slid the door open from the backseat to let me in. 

“I would have offered you a lift before, but Angus can be so unreliable." To this, Angus emitted an incoherent groan of disapproval and went back to wildly eyeballing the road ahead. If I was to deduce correctly—from that all too familiar cat piss stench—I’d passed on the hum-drum reliability of the public bus that evening to be driven home down dark country side-roads by a speed-induced stranger.

Angus was ten years Irene’s senior and bore all the signs of having lived life at full throttle: bald with blotched tattoos, skin like worn-out elastic, the vocal timbre of an old dog choking on its leash.

“Here you are.” 

Irene passed me the lidless whisky bottle while she sparked up a spliff. The anesthetic burn of the whisky, coupled with our lively conversation, proved the ultimate salve to whatever had gone on before. His gaze fixed on the road, Angus stretched his arm backwards, signaling for me to pass the bottle to him.

School night after school night, we drove home in Irene’s van. Every night I was excited by the endless countryside hills that made my belly flop, by the dubious mechanics of the van, the questionable noises it made, its axles like bones threatening to snap at any moment. With every speed-bump, we’d come to a gasping halt, the van’s metalwork would shudder, and the window panes would violently smack at their frames. I loved how the unpredictability of the country roads would have us arc and sway in the backseat, taking care to balance the booze between us: sometimes whisky, sometimes wine in any old dirty glass. As we took yet another winding bend, my body lifted and careered into the window, while her sparrow-like legs would momentarily crush mine.

“International Women’s Day!” Angus yelled once jubilantly, as we bundled in, procuring three bottles of cheap white wine from between his legs. We stopped halfway at an off-license for tobacco, where there was a beautiful Bullmastiff on a walk on the road opposite. Majestic as anything, flexing its thick, taut sinew with each stride. Irene turned to me.

“He looks just like my Rocco. My Rocco, I lost him."

That night I visited Irene’s house for the first time. They lived a few villages west of the school; village, again, a term strikingly incongruous with the thing it designated. All around were characterless squares of ill-furnished prefabs and happy reprobates pulling wheelies at oncoming traffic. A cavernous hole had been left at the core of the place after the coal mines were shut down in the nineties.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Irene pointed out as we hopped out the van, “but this place is beautiful. I love our village. Look at this ancient woodland all around. This is the one place in a hundred miles’ radius you’ll hear a skylark’s call.”

Irene told me there was an open door policy all around the village. On entering her home I registered a cluster of growling gents in anoraks, proliferating all about the dining table and kitchen benches like a kind of algae. The whole place itself gave off airs of an unattended to spare room and seemed crooked at every angle. Angus thrust a warm can of Scrumpy Jack into my hand and invited me to roll myself a spliff from his Tupperware supply. From this point on, the night twirled all around me in a heady carousel of space cakes, roll-ups, more Scrumpy’s, more spliffs. The door remained open, and a little girl named Star came in and fussed about me, braiding my hair, dancing as if around a maypole.

At some point, Irene stole me away to the quiet of the garden. Angus and his clan—those hungry jackals—continued to congregate excitedly about the platter of intoxicants on offer in the dining room table. With all I’d ingested, I had to focus hard on tuning out the relentless physiological interference as Irene spoke to me in grave and weighty tones. I learned she just turned sixteen when they were married. On their wedding night, he’d chased her round the house with an axe, having regretted it all. The following decades brought four kids who took turns hanging off the pram as she marched to the community library day after day, pursuing three different masters degrees. "Shakespeare, the working class hero" was the thesis of which she’d been most proud. 

The picture she painted of Angus’s own very separate history saw him elevated to the level of folkloric legend.

“He’s a man unto himself. All the women in this village have either wanted to have him or have had him. His cock, I am telling you, is like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

I wondered if it was as wiry and strangled looking as his wrinkled old neck. She told me he let her have her fun too. On her fortieth birthday, he passed her a condom and gave his permission to fuck whomsoever she wanted. Irene had reached that point of inebriety where the urge to share was all-consuming. Next she told me she was a lesbian, could only ever come when thinking about women. The receptors in my brain were straining to compute the flurry of information, to disentangle the scrambled signal, the fuzz that infiltrated my mind.

“I want to tell you something I’ve never told anyone.”

It made sense that she would have been assured by then of my sheer unshockability.

“You know my Rocco I told you about? Well my Rocco and I, we were in a relationship,” she said and paused. “But I promise you it was totally consensual. He would always be the one to initiate."

I nodded, not sure what else to do. All the while I imagined it: Angus fucking his way around the village with his monster cock, whilst Irene sought comfort with her Bullmastiff Rocco. I pictured the power of his strong hind legs, the curvature of his rippling muscle in all its urgent sexuality, her dainty frame curled neatly beneath.

Slipping back into the house, I took to mounting the steep staircase to the bathroom, using my arms to straddle the wall and banister. On my way, I caught an old picture of Irene. I was stunned by the blackness of her hair, as well as her overall startling beauty; here was the original image of which I’d only ever encountered the negative. Was she Rocco’s girl back then? After, as I was pissing, I noted the absence of any type of hygiene product about—no soap, no shampoo, nothing. I remembered how Irene told me she takes a bath every morning, that she never showered, and so must have spent each morning stewing in the brine of yesterday’s filth. 

I tried to get back downstairs, and that’s when I fucked up. I tumbled from the very first step.


I woke up to the gentle thrum of Radio 4 and the cold wind that set the window off rattling on the hinge holding it ajar. I was laid, fully-clothed, in their sheetless marital bed, nestled between the pair of them like a fledgling bird. My cracked ribs made it impossible to move, so I lay there immovable for some time after.


Irene and I shared goodbyes that were drawn out and insubstantial. I moved schools soon after, and we texted a couple of times. The last I heard from her was a phone call to tell me she’d had a stroke and that she wasn’t teaching Life anymore.

Rocco <3

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THE BIRD by Mary Widdicks

There’s mud between my toes. Slimy, sticky, and covering the chipped pink polish that now decorates only the tips of my big toenails. It’ll be gone the next time Mom cuts them. The ground is hot even though the sun is starting to duck behind the trees, and I can’t stand still for very long or it burns the bottoms of my feet. I hop from grass patch to molehill along the side of the road, avoiding gravel and broken glass like a game of hopscotch, and trying desperately not to spill the water from the bucket dangling from my right hand.




The air still smells like clamshells on the creekbank even though I can see my house waiting on the other side of the street. It has a covered porch on the second floor, which people say is fancy, though I’ve never been out there. Mom says it’s not safe, and the window has been locked for as long as I can remember. There’s a long stretch of sunbaked asphalt to tiptoe across to get home. Pinched in my other hand are my favorite boots, hot and damp and dripping silt. The boots are green rubber and look like frogs with two big yellow eyes that gaze up at me from the toes. They’re two sizes too small and give me blisters now, but I don’t care. 

They’re lucky. 

I set the bucket on the grass beside me. More like a pail. The kind you build sandcastles with at the beach. I peer inside.


Piled in the bottom of the bucket, the little river lobsters squirm on top of each other. A wriggling tower of shells and pinchers tangle up with antennae and spider-legs. The alien creatures roll onto their backs and curl inward, as if they’re afraid to touch the plastic sides. Their whole lives have been spent hiding beneath rocks and traversing the gentle rapids of the creek. The water is murky with sand and fear, the metallic tang of desperation rises from the sloshing water. 

I plunge my free hand into the chilly water and pinch one of the wriggling creatures between my thumb and forefinger, careful to keep my flesh clear of the flailing claws. The remaining crawdads clack against the bucket as they test the limitations of their new surroundings. Plucked from the only home they’ve ever known, these creatures waste no time in mourning. The static death of plastic must feel like another world, and the natives are getting restless.  

I lift the hefty crawdad in front of my face. Ruddy brown eyes stare through me as if my nose isn’t poised inches from its sharp snout. The crawdad stretches its legs to the side, reaching and hoping for anything it can use to escape. One antenna tickles the back of my wrist. Goosebumps rise up along my tanned arms and I grip the hard shell harder, just in case. The boots in my other hand dangle heavily against my thigh and I drop them to the ground without breaking the crawdads beady gaze. 

The crawdad in my hand writhes and I flip it onto its back, a little trick I learned from my cousin a few summers ago. In contrast to the dark mahogany shell along its back, the underbelly of the crawdad was pallid and speckled with tiny orange and black orbs. Dozens of them, mashed together and protected by the scooping tail shell that was now resting against my palm. Eggs. This crawdad was about to be a mother. 

I curl my toes into the soft grass and bite my cheek. The sun has dipped behind the trees along the creekbank, and it’s starting to get dark. The light shining through is sherbet orange instead of golden yellow, and the little ginger eggs glow translucent. My stomach rumbles. There isn’t time to take her home. Not today. Cars whiz past on the road ahead and I ease the pregnant crawdad back into the bucket. The others pile on top of her and within seconds it’s impossible to distinguish claw from leg. My toes start to twitch. I tip out my lucky boots and water pours onto the grass beside my feet. Maybe I’ll take my chances on the hot blacktop. I crouch to scoop up the bucket and that’s when I see it. 

A few steps away, half buried in a pothole, a mass of black feathers and dirt is crumpled in a heap on the road. A single feather sticks straight up from the center like someone planted a flag. The crawdads clack against the side of the bucket as I drag it behind me. One step. My wet toes sizzle against the ground. At first the thing looks like a pile of leaves or dirt, but soon my eyes make out the shape of a large, black bird. A sharp rock jabs between my toes and tears cloud my eyes. Is he still moving? 

When I’m close enough I could reach out and touch the broken wing, I stop. I let the bucket fall from my hand. Water splashes onto my feet and seeps into the ground as the pile of crawdads wriggles free. They’ll be fine, I tell myself. Mud drips from my toes, and I fall to my knees on the verge of the street. I’m close enough to touch the crumpled mess. The long flight feathers of one wing are bent toward the sky and twitching with the wind from each passing car. Someone honks as they pass. I examine the bird. A starling. They’re easy to spot from the metallic rainbow of colors shining from their slick black heads, like oil spills leaking across parking lots. 

He’s been hit by a car. The back half of his body spread thin like playdoh, his skinny legs bent until they look almost like the Crawdads. I wonder if he suffered, how long he’s been plastered here. Sadness rises up from my stomach and sticks in my throat like a bubble. Everyone hates starlings, but I always thought they were pretty. Some of his feathers are still whole and unbroken. His black eyes are staring up at the sky. I set my boots down and reach my hand toward one of the long, sleek, tail feathers. 

Then he blinks. 

His head rises from the ground and the twisted wing flaps pointlessly in the air. 

I jump to my feet. His legs and body have glued him to the ground and no matter how hard he struggles, he’ll never leave that place. 

The bubble in my throat bursts and a sob escapes. The sound shocks the bird as much as me. We both freeze. His eye fixes on me. I look around for someone to call, but there’s no one. Who would help him anyway? Birds die every day. It’s nature. 

But not this way. 

Not slow and painful and pointless.

I want to help. 

Beside me the eyes of my frog boots glare up at me. Calling me weak. Stupid. They know what needs to be done. I slip one foot into the wet boot. It’s cold and gritty inside. I step closer to the bird and he flaps again. My face is hot and then cold and it’s not until I reach a hand to my cheek that I realize I’m crying. Someone has to do it. I can’t leave him this way.

I’m standing over him now. His wing pointed at me like a finger. I raise my foot high. Probably too high, because I tip off balance as I bring the heel of my boot down toward his head. The force of the impact vibrates up my leg and into my hip. It hurts. Like a shock from an electric fence. But I missed. The bird’s beak scrapes against the road but he’s still moving. More frantic now. The last of his life energy fighting to stay alive when really he’s already dead. He just doesn’t know it yet. 

My chest burns and my stomach heaves. I want to leave. I want to run home and forget I ever saw him. In that moment I hate him. But I’ve made it worse now. Half snapped, his wing still flails and I know he’s hurting. I sniff hard and snot leaks down my throat. I close my eyes and bring my heel down again. This time I know I’ve done it. There’s a loud popping sound like those little firecrackers you throw at the sidewalk. 

And then nothing. 

I can’t even look. I slip my foot from the boot and leave it where it falls. My knees crunch against gravel as I ease back onto my ankles in the ditch. Hands shaking in my lap I count the cars that pass, so close I can feel the wind dragging me along behind them. One. Two. Three. Beside me a rustling pulls my attention back toward the bird. The crawdads sharp legs scrape the asphalt as they test this new environment. Within moments, they gain confidence. One reaches a claw toward the bird and grips the one protruding feather still pointing toward the dusky sky. 


The feather snaps between the pincers, and I scramble to my feet. Crawdads don’t scavenge dead birds. It isn’t right. My stomach turns and I wish I’d never seen the bird, wish I’d never tipped out the bucket and introduced these creatures to the cruelty of human nature. Another car honks and I  and there’s no time for mourning. I turn my back to the boots and the bird and the bucket and I walk home. The ground cooks my feet, but I don’t care anymore. I’ll never go back. 

No more lucky boots. 

No more hopping. 

No more dancing.

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A CIRCULAR SCAR by Shannon St. Hilaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But what do I do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HAPPINESS by Matthew Licht

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

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

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

No chimp.

Neither of us asked, "Where’s Happy?"

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

Pop never brought home a replacement ape.

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

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

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THE SWADDLE by Janelle Bassett

I am at the sink, rinsing a food processor blade, when I hear the cry of a tiny baby. Carrot bits go down the drain, easy, but the insistent wailing isn’t going anywhere. I assume the sound is some sort of inner-ear repercussion from the electronic-tornado buzzing of the food processor, yet the sound continues even after I open my mouth wide to pop my ears. A baby is definitely crying and it’s an I’ve-been-left-alone-which-I-am-not-built-for cry.

I look up and think back, “Didn’t my babies grow past the baby stage?”

I consult the refrigerator where, sure enough, their recent school pictures confirm that my children are old enough to wear collars, sit upright, have teeth growing from their gums, and act natural when exposed to sudden flashes of unnatural light. 

Have the neighbors left their baby outside? I don’t judge other parents (except constantly, inside my head) but I might have to call someone if the Rheingold’s have forced that baby to do yard work. 

I walk to the other side of the kitchen to get a clear view of their backyard. No baby. Just an upside-down bucket. I don’t think the Rheingolds would leave their baby outside under a bucket—they put an awful lot of effort into their Christmas decorations. 

I swear the crying must be coming from my own yard. It’s that close—I feel a certain duty. I dry my hands and head out the back door.

The baby isn’t even hiding, it’s on top of the picnic table. The baby would make a terrible picnic host— swaddled arms cannot scoop, serve, fetch or pour. All those tears would water down the potato salad. I say “shhh” to my incessant inner chatter and to the swaddled baby crying atop my backyard picnic table. 

I realize the baby is translucent and that this means that I am having some sort of breakdown. An auditory hallucination led me toward a visual hallucination. I don’t like where this is heading. If this baby has a smell I am really in some trouble, mentally. I bend down and sniff. When my face is so-close the crying stops, or the hallucination mutes. The scent: a mix of blood, leather, and that smell the furnace makes the first time it kicks on for the season. 

The baby and I stare at each other. It looks up at me with such love and acceptance that I feel rather guilty for looking back down with eyes that make accusations like, “You are not real. This is not happening. You are alarming evidence of my deteriorating mental health. You look a great deal like my father-in-law.”

The crying resumes. I’ve broken whatever promises I made with the earlier proximity of my face. I pick up the baby because it seems healthy to follow your instincts even as you’re falling apart. As soon as my hands touch the baby its skin and blanket become as solid and opaque as everything else in my backyard. Now the table-baby and the heartleaf brunnera are on an equal footing. 

It stops screaming and I know it is my baby because I hear a voice in my head saying, “I am your baby.”

“You can talk? That doesn’t make any sense!” We both laugh at that, my laugh emitting out into the grass, the baby’s giggling between my ears.

“If we are touching you will know what I’m saying. I am the baby you are too selfish to have.”

I turn the baby over to see if it has a tag or a tether and also to punish it for calling me selfish. 

I use my maternal-wisdom voice to say, “It’s not selfish to know your limits.”

Okay Mommy, I am the baby you are too limited to have.”

My other children are also smart asses. My other children have also had my number from day one. I kiss the baby’s forehead and ask how it ended up on the picnic table even though I’d diligently prevented its existence. 

The short answer is that I wanted you that badly. I wanted you enough to manifest on my own, all while knowing you don’t want me.”

Look baby, this is exactly the kind of hungry need I was avoiding when I decided not to have you.  “Do you have a name?”


“Do you have a gender?”

Why? Would you have me if I came with a certain gender?”


If you want to know my gender you’ll have to birth me and then keep me alive me long enough for me to know myself.”

“That’s a lot to ask.”

“Admit it, you think of me just as much as I think of you.”

I stick my face into Lou’s neck. “Of course I do. I am a walking hormone swamp. But it would be irresponsible to bring you here now. The planet is dying.”

“I’d love to witness a thing like that. What a gift you could give me: consciousness with which to view the great collapse.”

I cup Lou’s cheek. “If I had you, there would be fewer resources for your siblings: parental attention, money, hot water. It wouldn’t be fair to them. They got here first.”

“I’ll have you know they pushed and shoved to get to the front of the line. They maimed and belittled!”

“I’m sorry, Lou. Are you cold? Do you want to go inside?”

“Inside your womb?”

“No, dear. Inside the house.”

Lou cries a bit, setback, and then says, “I will love you completely despite your many faults. I’ll never ask for anything. I’ll wear hand-me-downs and eat table scraps. If you don’t like the name Lou I’d happily be called after one of your great-grandparents or the offspring of a bottom-tier celebrity. You don’t even have to look me in the eye! I just want to hold a bug in my hand and taste vanilla bean.”

“Oh Lou,” I say. “If you promised to never come out—a permanent pregnancy, an ongoing residency—then I’d do it. I think I could carry you as long as you were forced to go where I wanted.”

“Is that your best offer?”

“Yes. I’m not proud of it.”

“That helps.”

Someone nearby starts a lawn mower and I instinctively pull Lou into my breasts.  “How do I put you in there?”

“Wait! Are you sure this is your best offer? I will wear any Halloween costume you choose and let you take as many photos as you’d like. I’ll pose without any regard for my own self respect. I could even carry a small broom and dustpan and sweep up all my own footprints and crumbs. And… I don’t mean to brag, but I will be your favorite. Hands down, your favorite. A joy. A delight. A human stocking stuffer.”

“You sound like the perfect constant presence, Lou—a right-nice inborn companion.” I squeeze so tight and push so hard that if Lou’s body were real it would be in great pain. But instead of being injured, Lou is being absorbed. 

Lou quickly says, “You could be more generous. You could challenge yourself and then grow from it” before being fully smooshed into my body. 

Lou is gone from my arms. I remember the stew I was making before being summoned outside. Lou says, “Can I have stew?” from within and I sigh so heavily I wonder if Lou could’ve been dislodged. 

Before going inside, I place my hand on my belly and we settle our terms. Lou will remain quiet inside me—observing, recording—until we are in bed, alone, the siblings asleep nearby. At that point of the day I’ll be available for questions—we will engage, we will process and if Lou wants to jump and flail I’ll put my hand on the site of that jumping. 

I go in and Lou goes quiet. I finish stew preparations, wipe the counter, and send my closest friend a text that says, “I hope menopause comes for me soon because every month my PMS gets deeper and stranger.”

I walk to the bus stop and retrieve my children. I greet them and in response they hand me their belongings so they can run ahead, unburdened.

I can feel Lou wanting to ask for a backpack. 

At dinner my partner asks, “Since when do you put ketchup on cornbread? Don’t you hate ketchup?” I couldn’t tell him, “Lou wants it. Lou needs it. Lou is ecstatic about experiencing ketchup.”

After reading my children a chapter from a book about a family of bickering yet relatable armadillos I say goodnight, kiss their necks and try not to picture them forcefully kicking, slapping, or shoving Lou away from the front of the line. 

Downstairs, my partner and I read and hold each other’s feet. Then he’s shaking my foot, waking me, telling me to go to bed.

I’ve barely laid down before Lou asks, “What did that tweet mean… about how people who are reluctant to pee in the shower probably have sad inhibited sex?”

“You can see out of my eyes?”

Of course.”

“This is not how a pregnancy works, Lou. You’re supposed to be captivated and fulfilled by the sound of my heartbeat.”

“We both know this is a special pregnancy. Get up. Let’s go outside and lick the grass! I want to taste grass immediately.”

“No, it’s time to go to sleep. These are the rhythms of a day. Let’s talk about the sunset.”

What was that feeling we had when we closed the door to my siblings’ room? I didn’t like it.”

“That was relief and regret and longing and tenderness.”

“What was that sensation whipping us as we rolled in the trash bin?”

“That was wind.”

“Why did you scrape the dinner plates into the trash?”

“That was waste.”

“Can we lick the grass now? I’m awake to it all. I’m not a bit tired.”

“No, Lou. I am going to fall asleep.” I put my hand on my lower abdomen. “I can touch your dance first, if you’d like.”

“The grass the grass the grass.”

“I said no and I meant it.”

Lou adds movement to the chant—pendulum elbows poke and stretch my skin to the beat of “grass grass grass.”

I roll onto my stomach, pressing my weight into the bed, trying to end this day.

“You push me and yet I can… feel myself growing. My intestines just developed a new capacity. My forearm can nearly flex. I think the spurts come when you deny me the experiences I need, Mommy. If you don’t respond to my impulses I’ll become a head to push. Life is insistent, Mommy. I’m a steamroller, Mommy. It’s all chemical, Mommy. My growth is your growth is all toward the end, Mommy. The grass grass grass. My lightening could be your strike, mommy. I could. Let me! Let me. And when I’m all said and done we can call it your decision.”

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It’s getting worse, and Jake finished his beer, and together they listened to the rain on the tin roof of the drive-shed; the receptiveness of its falling; the comfort within its echoing. 

Things are lookin up, said Jake. 

Damn straight, said Jared. 

I mean, now that things are great again, things are lookin up, and Jake stood and walked to the fridge and grabbed two more beers. He passed one to Jared and sat back down on the block of cracked white oak. He took a sip and looked at Jared. I went and saw the doc.


Said I’m shooting blanks.

Shit, Jake, I’m sorry to hear that. Have ya told Sugar?

Last night.

How’d that go?

‘Bout as good as you’d think. Ya know how much she wants kids. Not that I don’t—I mean, you got your two and they’re doin okay, right?


Thing is, I don’t wanna adopt some stranger’s baby and say it’s mine. Sugar don’t neither. We could get her artificially knocked up, but—.


Jake shrugged and took another sip. 

They got DNA.

I know they got DNA, but nothins perfect, and it might work out you’re paying for somethin a little less than what you’d hoped for, ya know what I mean?

I guess.

And then you’re just fucked. 

So, what’ya thinkin?

I want you to do it.

You what?

You heard me.

Are you askin me to fuck Sugar?




Have you lost your goddamn mind?

Jake lifted his John Deere ball cap, scratched the top of his balding head, and said, nope. 

Does Sugar know?

We talked about it.

You talked about it?


And what’ya think, Alice is gonna be okay with me walkin next door and havin a go with Sugar? ‘Cause I got news for ya, she won’t be. 

She don’t gotta know.

What’ya mean she don’t gotta know? How the hell is she not gonna know?

Cause we ain’t gonna tell her, that’s how.

For fuck sake, this is nuts, I can’t fuck Sugar.

What’ya mean you can’t fuck Sugar? She looks good still. Hell, she’s a lot better lookin than that girl you were fuckin back in high school.

She wasn’t that bad.

The hell she wasn’t.

C’mon, Jake, get serious, you don’t mean this shit?

I’m as serious as the day is long, little brother, hell, it won’t take more than a time or two—didn’t ya always tell me all you had to do to knock up Alice was to hang your pants on the bed post? 

I know, but, still—

At least this way the kid’ll be a Burleson. Jake finished his beer and threw the empty at the garbage can. Besides, ya don’t gotta worry bout thing. We’ll just get up a little early, you walk to my place, and I’ll come here. After you’re done, you come back here like nothing ever happened, and I’ll head back to my place. Jake stood. Do me a favor and just think about it. He walked to the door and looked back. Oh, and by the way, Sugar says she’ll be droppin eggs in the next day or two.

She’ll be what? 

That’s what she said.

You talked about it?

Yup, we talked about it. Later.

Yeah, said Jared. Fuck me. 

Jake opened the door and walked to the fridge and grabbed a beer. How’d it go?

Standing at the workbench cleaning an engine part Jared looked back.

Ya got it done, right?

Yeah, I got it done, but I had to turn her around.

What? Why? She looks good still. 

No, I mean, to do it, ya know. 

I guess, and Jake tipped back his beer.

Maybe cause she’s your wife, or somethin like that, what’ya think? 

How long ya been married?

Eleven years.

Do ya love her still?

What? Yeah, I suppose so. How the hell should I know? 

It’s hard to know, ain’t it?

Yeah, it’s not easy.

Ya think she still loves you?

Of course she does. Why wouldn’t she?

 I didn’t say she didn’t. What about Sugar?

What about her?

Think she still loves me?

Hell, I don’t know. Why? 

It’s just something ya wonder about, that’s all. It’s not like it’s not possible. It happens all the time. 

I guess.

Do ya think it matters?



I don’t know—for fuck sake, Jake.

Jake tossed his empty at the garbage can. I think it does. He walked to the door and looked back. We’d best try again tomorrow, well things are still going good that way. 

Yeah, sure.


Yeah, said Jared, later.

Sugar walked out the door, her flip-flops smacking her heels, her white short dress tight all the way down. 

She crossed the adjoining properties and reached the gravel driveway. She looked away, somewhere, and took a drag of her cigarette. She tossed it to the gravel, toed it out, and opened the drive-shed door.

Her eyes adjusting to the dim light she walked to the fridge and grabbed a beer. She looked at the calendar hanging on the wall, some girl with less than little on draped over the hood of a shiny red car. They make good money, ya know. She opened the beer and looked back at the poster. A blonde, like her. It's not just the money, it's the connections. Ya know that, right?

She walked to the workbench and pulled herself onto a high metal stool. She crossed her legs, her one foot bouncing—a nervous energy of how she was hinged, much like this place itself. I suppose ya talked about it?

Not much we did, no.

She took a sip of beer and leaned back, her thin milky-white forearms resting on the workbench, her dress high up on her long legs, and she tilted her head, the thickness of her blonde hair falling to one side and catching the light, just right, and she knew it, and did so without having to. What’d he say? She looked at her chipped red nail polish.

He wanted to know if it went okay.


And what?

What’ya say?

Not much. 

Not much?

No. Can we not talk about this? 

Why don’t ya wanna talk about it? 

What’s the point? 

The point? She uncrossed her legs and re-crossed them the other way, her foot starting to bounce. Why’s it gotta be so hot in here? What’s wrong with that damn fan? She leaned forward. The point is, we need to figure this out, and right this minute we do. 

Jared grabbed a rag and began to wipe his hands. What’s with you? 

Did ya not hear us late night? I’d be surprised if ya didn’t.

A little, I did. What was up? He walked to the fridge and grabbed a beer.

I told him, I ain’t no puppy-mill slut, and I ain’t sleeping with you no more. 

Jarred stopped. You’re what?


They looked at one another.

You ain’t sleeping with me no more?

Of course, I am, I just ain’t doin it for him no more.

That makes no sense.  

Are you dumb? There’s a world of difference between my wanting to sleep with you and him wanting me to. And I can tell you this much, we had better figure this out, and I mean now.  

Jared leaned against the bench and sipped his beer. How long we been together? 

I don’t know, a couple of years, I guess. Why?

In all that time we been doin it, were ya never worried about getting pregnant? Or were ya just hoping ya would and say it was Jake’s?

Ya don’t get it, do you? All this damn talk of babies, I can hardly take it. 

What’ya mean? 

She put her beer down and got and began to pace in her flip-flops. It’s the last thing I’m ever gonna do, do understand that?


This world is a hard world, Jared Burleson, and it gets no easier being woman, that’s for damn sure. She picked up her beer and took a sip. And if you think I’m gonna get dropped down another rung or two by having either yours or your brother’s damn babies, ya gotta another thing comin. Besides, it plays absolute havoc with your body, destroys it completely. She looked at Jared. Is that what you want?

Hold on, are you telling me all this time you’ve been on birth control?

That is correct, smart boy, yes I have.

And all this time Jake thought you were trying to get pregnant?


And then it turns out, he’s sterile? What would ya have done if he hadn’t been?

I don’t know. I’d of figured somethin out.

And now he’s got me doin ya to get ya pregnant even though I already am and you’re on birth control?

She pulled herself back up onto the stool. As it turns out, yes. She took a sip of beer.

Jared pushed off the workbench and stood in front of Sugar, his hands reaching past her to the workbench. You’re something, Sugar. I don’t know what, but you’re definitely somethin. 

The small fan in the window began to rattle and it blew warm sticky air.

Sweat from his forehead dropped to her thigh.

She looked at her leg, at the drop, and she put her finger to it, and it ran like a tear.

She felt the smooth touch of her dress, moving up, and she pushed herself forward on the stool, just a little, just enough, a lazy southern cat stretching its underbelly to the warming sun.


I know, baby, and she put her arms around his neck. She looked out the small window. At the scrubby land. At the coming heat. A small bird came to the window. Maybe a starling? She didn't know. She did once, when she was just a little girl.

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