THIS IS NOT A STORY by Juliana Roth

This isn’t one of those stories where the twenty-two year old work-study assistant gets kissed on the cheek by the Chair of one of the country’s most prestigious English departments while she’s arranging cookies for the Visiting Writers Reading, writers whose names you’d surely recognize, like the author of the graphic novel about her coming out and the author who writes about horses, and the trim little poet who upstaged her husband last December at a reading for The Environment.

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While my husband frantically searches the house for his misplaced eyeglasses, I watch Marie Kondo fold socks, then stockings, then a sweater into neat little rectangles. They look like origami handbags. In her signature white jacket, the Japanese tidying expert instructs viewers to stroke each garment. She says, “Send the clothing love through your palms.” She runs her hands gently down both the sleeves and the body of a fluffy, white sweater, and my skin tingles.

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PEANUT MAN by Michael Riess      

First inning. The summer had been hot, so goddamn hot, and of course Bill’s air conditioner had kicked out last night, and wouldn’t you know it, his landlord was on vacation, so he had slept—or rolled around, really—in a river of his own sweat. The restless night had cost him sixty-one minutes—a negative seventy-one for the three hours of sleep and a plus ten for the sweaty rolling—but, honestly though, he wouldn’t have minded if the life watch strapped to his wrist on his burnt arm had said something like five minutes because here he was in the stadium, in the sun, with his bald spot sizzling like a fajita, his back on fire from the heavy red bag of peanuts slung across his shoulder, his throat burning from chanting into the humid air, “Get your peanuts, here! Large bag of peanuts!”

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COPENHAGEN CEMETERY by Nikolaj Volgushev

In a neighborhood in the north of Copenhagen, there is this cemetery, though really it’s more of a park.

The locals go on walks there, have picnics, drink in the shade. In the summer, the evenings are cool and infinite here, as though coming from afar, because Denmark is a Northern country. I happened to walk through the cemetery on exactly such a summer evening and so the two have become linked in my mind, the evening and the cemetery, along with a quiet sense of dread which is in essence what I want to tell you about here.

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It was really dark and it scared Billy.  Really very dark.  Yes, really very very—made him think of when he was young and every time he turned off the light to go to sleep started remembering ghost stories.  Every ghost story he’d ever read or heard or, well, just every one and his sock feet would hit the floor and his hand would hit the light switch and they didn’t go away, the remembered stories, but they settled, soft in his mind and it was okay again.

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I’m waiting for you in Paris. Waiting in the Champ de Mars, the park next to the Eiffel Tower. Standing on a patch of grass, wearing a tuxedo, and holding flowers. One among many men who wait, but they’re not like me. They stay for varying amounts of time—some holding signs, some sitting under trees—but eventually they leave. Not me. I’m here for you, Jess, waiting patiently, if not excitedly. And when you get here, we’ll embrace, and we’ll climb up the Eiffel Tower, and we’ll be together again, in love.

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THE FALL ZONE by Laura Moretz

First thing that morning, a woman told Henry his crew must not cut her tree’s branches. She looked as though she wouldn’t survive if he cut the thinnest twig from the huge willow oaks in front of her house. Fully dressed and made up before eight a.m., she clutched the notice that his crew had hung on her door knob a few days before. She argued for the integrity of the tree as though he had suggested cutting the arms off her grandchildren. A branch as large as a trunk had shot over the power lines. He gave her his supervisor’s phone number. Her hands shook as she dialed the number on her flip phone, murmuring, “murder, murder, murder.” They moved their trucks to the next house—on this road, almost all the properties had tree limbs extending over the wires.

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  ­FROM HERE TO THERE by Gloria Yuen Barrier on, the device declares. “When you initiate the force field,” the Head Agent instructs, “you lock yourself in an impenetrable membrane. It will keep danger out. But it will also keep you in.” Barrier off, the device declares. I engage Search: Force field, noun. Popular Articles. The invention of the force field (neochrome). The invention of the force field (electromagnetic). History of force field usage in Post-Contemporary warfare. [New in TECH] ‘Defense Fields’ for Civilian Homes in Final Stages of Development. The Head Agent claps her hands. I exit Search. “Field practice with the neochrome next week. Dismissed.” We salute in unison. “What happens if you walk through a force field?” M-2 asks at my left. I turn to examine him. Raised eyebrows, slightly open mouth. Inquisitive. He is one of the preliminary cadets to join the M garrison and is … chop! chop! read more!

CHESHIRE CAT by Sarah Bradley

The winter when Lucy was nine and her brother Nick was 12, he taught her to play chess. They bent over the crosshatched board on the living room floor in front of the fireplace, blonde heads nearly touching, all through Christmas break and into the new year. Wool socks and hot cocoa and Bing Crosby late into the night, the Douglas fir in the corner shimmering with tinsel.

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THE ZOO by Matt Whelihan

A week after the classes ended, the community service started.

Seven of us stood in a small lot outside of a small zoo. It was the kind of place single dads with child support payments take their kids because it’s close and cheap.

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RETREAT by T.C. Jones

The church retreat is the last bit of bullshit before we get confirmed. We are at a bunch of crappy cabins on the dumpy shores of Lake Erie. They call it a holy camp, gave it a fancy name too: Camp Gold Field. They got the field part right, but I don’t know where they got the gold. Everything here is barren and gray. Last night there was a thunderstorm, but today the sky is defeated and a blanket of grey snow clouds have replaced the horizon. The seasons are theatrical in these parts—especially during April.

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HEAVY LIFTING by Jennifer Turnquist

A guy comes into the drugstore and goes to the snack aisle. Early twenties, longish hair, patchy beard like he never learned to shave properly. He glances at me so I look away quick, busy myself with straightening the packs of Life Savers on the counter. I’m not watching him because he’s attractive or anything. He isn’t. He’s skinny and stoop-shouldered. I’m watching him because of how his eyes dart around and because he keeps fidgeting with a buckle on his canvas backpack.

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THE NURSES by Verónica Jordán-Sardi

They were the only friends I had. All of them had palms that changed colors when they stroked my hair, picked up an iron pot or peeled yucca. I remember one of them with more love than the rest—her palms turned purple when she showed me her lifelines. She was never able to show me her life, though. She would turn her hands up and the bright point of an amethyst’s reflection would lacquer her palms. At one point, I think there were five.

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GUTSHOT by Thomas Barnes

The lucky streak ran out when the air rifle went off. 

I felt the little ragged hole in my shirt. It didn’t feel like anything at all. Too small to be significant. Johnny let the air rifle swing to his side, the ends of his teeth glittering. Kali fell off the stump she was sitting on. They were all waiting for me to do something. I heard blood in my ears. Maybe they’d thought I’d keel over and die, I’m thinking. 

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FRANCES by Maria Brandt

Frances had skipped two periods before she realized what was going on. “I’m lucky,” she bragged to Sarah over milkshakes at the corner store, “I haven’t had my period in eight weeks, no tampons for me, I beat the system.” Sarah’s mouth dropped and that’s when Frances became aware of the extent of her self-deceit. Now, just days later, she sits cross-legged on the floor in Jack’s bedroom shuffling a deck of cards while Jack moves laundry from the washer to the dryer in the basement, his parents in the city at a hospital benefit.  

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SPYING THROUGH THE KEYHOLE: A Novelist Grows Roots in the Glamorous, Twisted World of V. C. Andrews by Emma Sloley

For the uninitiated, if it’s even possible there exist humans unaware of Flowers in the Attic, the series concerns a family called Dollanganger (in hindsight, perhaps a sly play on doppelganger?) who, for reasons I can’t and don’t even care to remember, end up living with the mother’s parents in a big old Gothic mansion in Virginia, where the mother agrees to lock her four children away in an attic for an unspecified stretch of time. (Spoiler alert: it turns out to be years.)

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Moira’s son is snuggling against his grandfather on the couch. That’s all. Just resting on the old man’s shoulder, his forehead against his frayed collar. Michael looks tired, sweaty. There’s color high in his cheeks, as if he’s just come in from play. The sliding glass door is slightly open, and She can hear her father singing to him, something low, soft, painfully familiar. His knee moves up and down in steady cadence with the song. Eyes closed, they seem lost in each other’s comfort. She tries to swallow, but it tastes like acid, so she spits into the grass.

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  I suppose I should tell you that I didn’t buy the apartment. Randi the realtor called (remember her, with the forehead?) and said the owners were still undecided, but I had visited by myself the week before, and it didn’t feel right anymore. I guess it was too big for just me and Pammy. Too many rooms, too many spiderwebby corners. They ended up selling it to that Polish couple, I think. For now, I’m living with my dad, who says

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PEETY (WASHINGTON, DC, 1959) by David Satten-López

It’s moonlit and muggy out as Peety Alfaro walks to work. Under the yellow streetlights, he pauses to wipe the condensation off his glasses. Once done, he affixes his large and thick lenses back onto his face and takes a deep breath. Exhaling, he tugs rapidly at his white tee to cool off. Then he nods hard and continues walking, shoulders back and head up.

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TOWARDS AVALON by Nikoletta Gjoni

Dritan wondered whether he made the right decision in telling them to go ahead, so sure that he would catch up. Had he been sure though? He began to feel the numbness set in his hands, in his wrists, in his shoulders and back, though it wasn’t long before he felt his muscles begin to burn and cramp, giving him no choice but to stop kicking. His ears filled with the sounds of the others splashing onwards, though now the splashing came from all around him as the tides and waves had pulled them all apart.

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THE SONG OF SAINT GEORGE by Kate Spitzmiller

“But Martin was born in Lancashire,” I said to the man seated across from me the afternoon of the arrest.

The man, whose black hair was slicked neatly back, offered me a cigarette.

I declined. “Martin’s not German, much less a German spy.”

The man placed a cigarette between his lips and lit it with the flick of a silver lighter. He inhaled deeply and then exhaled, the smoke blue-grey in the dimly-lit room.

“Mrs. Ridley,” he said. “We have ample evidence of your husband’s activities in support of the Third Reich.”

“That’s ludicrous!”

“Madam, I assure you, everything is in order.”

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We prayed this way until sunset, when finally all of the bodies had been brought up high on the shore. We took the water-seeped wood, as we were used to do, and carried it to Branches’ Farm, where all wet wood went to dry. Then we carried back with them to shore piles and piles of dried wood. This went on right through supper—for no one ever ate until this task was done. There on the sand our men lay the wood from old shipwrecks and piled the bodies to make the pyre. As the flames reached high, our women closed their scarves around their bodies and made their way back to their homes to start the very late supper. Father Joe took this time to look out over us while enjoying his dinner of salt bread and water. We would sometimes look up to see his candle in the window momentarily lighting up his shadowy face and take comfort.

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MISE EN PLACE by Jennifer Fliss

A teaspoon of salt. It is flaky and the flakes overrun the tiny spoon and the recipe calls for kosher but the only thing in my cupboard is the fancy kind from France bought at the organic grocery store. Already I’m doing it wrong.

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LOST by B. A. Varghese

Just let me finish my story. Listen. I was at this party at a house on Vanderveer Street off of Hillside Ave in Queens. I was having a great time with my friends, then near the end of the party, I had to leave because I wanted to help my mom. She had called me, you know, she’s older and needed my help, I don’t know, can’t remember, something about her house, maybe the garbage disposal or something, so anyway, I said I’d be there after the party. Well after a while, I thought I had hung around long enough, mingled enough, so I went to the front of the house to look for my shoes, and I couldn’t find them.

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INHERENT RISK by Danielle Holmes

My mother told me nothing is safe. I’d grown up fenced in playpens, leashed like a dog, harnessed in strollers. I was buckled and belted, handheld and sandwiched, life-vested, sunblocked, helmeted, braced, and warned. My vaccines were up to date. My laces double-knotted. She told me never go out alone, my friends weren’t friends but “buddies.” Each time I built up the courage to timidly test the limits of her invisible fence, things went wrong. I’d think maybe she was right. Or this was a bad idea.

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RETURN TO THE VAMC by Sarah Broderick

What is this fat hen squawking about? Michael tries to open his right eyelid, so he can see the nurse better, but it is sealed shut. His left is barely a slit. Through the haze of milky sleep scumming over his pupil, he makes out a whitish blob topped with frizzy orange lint.

“Fat? You’re already in enough trouble, mister.” This nurse he has never met before heard him. She walks to the wall beside the door. He fights the urge to think in case another insult slips out. What if he has hurt her feelings before having a chance to prove the opposite, and she thinks him an ogre? His head feels like it weighs thirty pounds, fifty, as he rotates it to better set his good eye on her. He senses the unmade hospital bed beside him, the television plopped onto a cart in front, and the wheelchair in which his large body rests. This room, this ward, is unfamiliar, but he tries to stay calm. The nurse rips off a length of brown paper towel from a leaden dispenser triggering an artery centered in his brain to pulsate and deliver short punches to the surface of his face and into the boggy fluid of his stomach. His gut quivers as he tenses the muscles above his left eye to raise his brow and lower his cheek, which is like trying to prop up a fallen roof with a toothpick.

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AN EVENING PRAYER by Austen Farrell

Before Del opened his eyes he knew the kid was gone. That panic feeling. That guilt. That screen door slamming in the wind. It had broken into Del’s dream, and as soon as he realized what it was he gripped the arms of the threadbare recliner and launched himself upward. His feet hit the carpet and he was down the hall with his head spinning and vision blurry. By the light in the house, it was hard to tell whether it was morning or evening.

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THE BIRD by Cary J. Snider

When the boy asked his father where his mother went he said she “had a bird.” He didn’t know what that meant, but maybe it was because she squeaked like one, he thought. Or maybe she used to have one and she lost it. 

         His father paced around the kitchen preparing for dinner. He pulled out the pasta strainer and put it on the counter but there was hardly enough room, only the corner. He peered over at Tommy. He grabbed the plates smeared with dried ketchup, pressed them together, and rolled them into the dishwasher. He glanced again at the boy, who looked like he had a question. In fact, Tommy was trying to reach an itch in the middle of his back and was squinting his face in desperation.

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For eighteen years Eddie’s bullet was like some forgotten organ—the spleen, maybe. His cousin Denny had his spleen removed a few years ago, and the same thing: it was all right until it wasn’t, until one doctor felt a distended lump beneath cool fingers and then a flurry of signatures and warnings about lungs that might or might not collapse. Eddie is thankful that his bullet stayed under the skin, innocuous and clandestine, like a roll of undeveloped film. He never even told his ex-girlfriend; he just said he had a shoulder injury. She was still careful with it, though, as if it were something sacred, and he found himself doing the same. Over the years, the bullet’s importance swelled until it was no longer a foreign object lodged in him, but a tangible memory all its own.

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THE SURFER by Claire Rudy Foster

The last time I saw my ex-wife, we were sitting next to each other on a faded picnic blanket in a field of daisies and late-spring grass so bright that I could feel my corneas crisping. She looked great, as always. She was wearing a pair of black cutoff shorts that she’d made herself, cuffed high enough to show the mermaid tattoo looping down onto her upper thigh. She was hot, the hot mom. A hot mess.

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THE TOWNSPEOPLE by Emily Livingstone

It started gradually. First, little Michael was wrinkling his nose in a way he never had. Then, four-year-old Jessamyn across the street sprouted whiskers from her cheeks that were long, fine, and nearly transparent. Elisa developed a light coating of tiny hairs which were thicker than body hairs ought to be, and which turned gray within a few days. Paul was the first one to grow a tail. His tail was long, pink, and hairless, and at first he delighted in it, and used it to tap other boys on the shoulder when they weren’t looking. Then, he realized it was not coming off, and he wailed in his mother’s arms. His mother, for her part, tried not to cringe as his tail wrapped around her leg.

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IKEA MAN by R.M. Fradkin

It started out as a joke in the warehouse. You could buy and build anything you needed for your home at IKEA, at least that was the corporate strategy behind all the useless knick-knacks that made it hard to pack the boxes. It was only a matter of time before they started doing people, they said. What good was your dream kitchen without a dream family to sit around on the INGOLF chairs you’d built yourself and praise your cooking? Surely IKEA could produce a model that was more durable, less flammable than your ordinary family, less likely to be annoyed when you let the jam spill over the side of the jar and then stuck it back in the fridge so that globs of fruit smeared all over the shelf.

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FOR THE LIFE OF YOU by Brandon Timm

The high-pitched animal cries of your boy come hurtling to you drunk at the breakfast table from the backyard and until you finally hear “Dad! Dad! Dad!” it’s only by that terminal “Dad!” when anything registers—those cries and yelps and weight of the sliding glass door as you wrench it open into the sharp February bluster that spreads against your arms and face, snow falling in the crushed heels of the shoes slid on like slippers before crossing your uneven deck. There he is, your boy, standing on a cheap, green-plastic, piece-of-shit chair holding his puppy’s leash untethered in a red glove.

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Cici squints at Agatha’s toes, bunched together like an Indy 500 pile-up of smashed, shiny speed-racers. “And that’s why you wear socks in bed,” she says, leaning against the short kitchen counter as she points a slice of toast dripping with butter and honey at her wife’s feet. “It’s good you’re getting them looked at.”

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There was something about my smile the other kids didn’t like. Maybe it was the fear in it, the false bravado. Who knows what sets the wolf-pack off?

These days, I sit in my castle without really caring what anyone else thinks. I drink lattes in the morning, expensive scotches late into the evening. Sometimes there’s a needle to thread. I have a family and friends who like to drink with me.

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—Time to step up to the plate, Jimbo.

—What’s for supper?

—You’re on deck, right? We all are. We each have to take our turn at bat.

—Them things carry rabies.

—Take our hacks and swing for the fences. Knock the cover off the ball. Go yard.

—I gotta tell you, Dwight, I ain’t entirely sure I—

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Margo is eight years old and she doesn’t care about the New Mexican heat, or the drought, or that it is dry and her lips are cracked and her skin is slick with sweat. Her hair sticks to her forehead and neck in thick, twine-like clumps. Her father smells like he always does: motor oil and cigarettes.

Her mother brings home a dog when she’s supposed to bring home milk. The black fluffball almost looks like a porcupine; it runs around the living room and chases around shards of gravel her father tosses, the ones gathered from the driveway. He sits on the couch. Margo sits next to him, silently wishing her father lets them keep the dog, certain he was too obstinate to let it be so.

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A DIFFICULT WOMAN by Taylor Kobran

Well it should come as no shock to you, I’m sure, that on more than one occasion, I have been told I am a difficult woman.

If you’d been around longer, you would have found pretty quick that that’d be the truth, honey. You would have been embarrassed of me, like your little brothers, but maybe a little proud too, because us girls have to stick together.

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And then he won and we kept drinking about it, what else to do but keep drinking about it, and no one knew whether to stay or not, it was worse too because the alcohol wasn’t doing anything, and all I wanted was to be with Jean, but she was somewhere else, with someone else, so I had to go home alone, but first I bought groceries at the place that stays open all night, discount tuna salad, spelt bagels, cream cheese, and then walked south, not quite trusting the reality, a nameless void ahead of me, and my apartment was dead, it was dead quiet, and I hadn’t done dishes earlier which is the most depressing thing, and I unpacked my groceries, and put a bagel in the toaster, and then had to clean a knife to smear on the cream cheese

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The taxi had finally arrived. The driver watched Eulália Dias as she descended from her front porch one heavy step at a time. He got out of the cab to open the back door for her, smiled an apology for being late, and asked where she was headed.

“I go to St. Helen’s Church on Dundas, you know where it is? But I need to sit in the front seat because of my legs. Please, you have to hurry. I’m going to be late for my granddaughter’s First Communion.”

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NO REPEAT CUSTOMERS by Josh Wagner Early one Sunday morning Dean and I stumble past the First Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, the only church in town old enough to have God’s own handprint cemented in the walkway. We’ve been up a while, still not quite ready to pass out. It’s the corkscrew tail end of hour six or seven where synchronous waves start desynchronizing. The afterglow before the crash. Our general consensus is what the hell, so we sway on over through the courtyard where crocus buds pepper juniper hedges and murky stained glass islands float on seas of dried blood brick. A sign says welcome. The door creaks as it swings. The last thing I see before going inside, carved into the arch in vaguely medieval script, are these words: A riddle: How are we desperate and empty half of the day, but content and satisfied the other half? … chop! chop! read more!

THE MAESTRO by Amin Matalqa

William, who was a cockroach, had a deep love for the music of Beethoven. Born and raised behind the walls of the Cincinnati Concert Hall, he grew up nurturing a passion for the romantics, much like his forefathers, with an affinity for the operas of Wagner and Puccini. To say that music ran in his blood, while biologically inaccurate, would be an understatement. It traces back to his great grandfather, Wilhelm the first, who was an immigrant from Germany, famous for boasting to the uncultured Cincinnati roaches about life behind the walls of the Berlin Opera House (legend had it that he once sat on Herbert Von Karajan’s shoe while the maestro conducted Brahms’ Requiem); and his grandfather, who was taking a stroll to contemplate the thematic development of his first symphony when he was stepped on by none other than Leonard Bernstein. When he was still alive, William’s father longed for the day the family would return to the motherland and hear the acoustics of the famous venues there, but he died while scouting the route to the airport (he was captured and swallowed by a drunk man over a $20 bet).

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JINJU IN THE DUST by Robert Hinderliter

This morning, out my window, a strange amber film over the sky. The usually crowded streets now mostly empty, only a few people hurrying down the sidewalk, heads bent in medical masks. In the distance, the temple on the hill just a faint shimmer.

Something on the wind.

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We may have found ourselves situated in Phase Three of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain

Trilogy – that kind of progression. From happy ending to two lovers dying for love to one woman dying, coughing up what appears to be blood but is actually a mix of red food coloring, corn syrup and water. It doesn’t make us happy, this.

We wonder how old Luhrmann is, if age is a factor in outlook. How can it not be?

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SCAPEGOATS by April Vázquez

Here’s the way the rain works: it comes down every day for a whole third of the year. June, July, August, September, there isn’t a single day without rain. Sometimes it’s just a loud, violent storm that swoops in, does its bit, and moves on, but as often as not it lingers. Like a cat you’re trying to shoo out the door: it yawns, it scratches, it stretches out its claws, it licks itself. In other words, it takes its time.

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Two miles from the Greyhound station, Burt hiked through the pinewoods to the edge of Lena’s backyard. The trailer windows were dark. Her Chevy wasn’t in the driveway. They hadn’t talked during the last nine months of his stint in Starke, and what-ifs had been fermenting like toilet hooch in Burt’s head. But what he saw now in the morning light—Virginia creeper on the siding, bull briars in the yard—was a way to work toward absolution.

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BEAT BOY by Michael Corrao

I sat on the sidewalk; smoked cigarettes. I never put less than two in my mouth because I figure the time combined is worth more than the time separate. You can’t tax two things like you tax one thing. The sidewalk was black and gray with powder brown cracks. The ground was opening up and I thought it would swallow me up, but I didn’t want the world to think I was scared of it so I just sat still and took drags as they came to me.

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THE OBSERVATIONALIST by Alexander Cendrowski

We are called watchers, though last I heard we were petitioning for a name change. It’s not so much that watcher is an inaccurate title. But it’d be like calling composers listeners or chefs tasters or sculptors touchers—not quite wrong, but certainly a lazy way of going about it.

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In love, we are passengers—his take. We had been talking about how people change us. He is standing by the white boards, and I’m sitting in the chair I always read in before students show up for the last class of the night. Out the window, the sunset makes the sky into a ripe plum, but I do not point it out this time. He has jumped to explaining that our understanding of the physical world is not intuitive. We react to forces that we ourselves imagine. Here is the scenario: I’m on a merry-go-round. The friction draws you in. He draws in red on the white board. Then why do I lean out? I stand and move to his side to face the board. Look, he says. All the new vocabulary I’m learning could be its own prose poem: fictitious force, centrifugal motion, normal force. Whenever he gets to talking like this, I see a country sweeping out before me, and I have never traveled there, but it could very well be a place to make a home. Once, he said that I should have been a scientist. Tonight he says, Everything wants to go straight.

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THE OLD WORLDS by Doug Ramspeck

It began in August. By December it was done. All he remembered, afterwards, was the freckling of light on the living room couch where she drew him down on the few occasions he went to her house. The home was on the outskirts of town, few other houses surrounding it, and she didn’t seem to care where he parked, didn’t care whether he walked in plain sight to the front door, didn’t care that her husband wouldn’t be home from work until after dark. All he remembered, afterwards, was how one afternoon she told him there were ants in her kitchen sink, asked him to spray them with a bug spray, which he did. The next day, then, by coincidence, his wife informed him there were ants in the basement of their own house.

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