Because the spring tide comes in on its own time, because the earth goes on turning and the moon goes on circling around us and the ocean eddies unevenly but inevitably between them, because the seawater rises even in the desert latitudes of the world where scorching winds blow dust in the eyes of sailors, the tide came in on the seventh day after the Ever Given lodged slantwise in the throat of the Red Sea like a crust of dry bread. It was because the seawater welled in the deep trench men cut between continents, because the seawater poured into the furrows men scratched into the muddy banks where her bow sank into the sand, because the seawater flowed under and around her steel hull, that this colossal obstruction, this beached vessel vast enough to be seen from space, this ship of shipments simply buoyed up and floated away, as light as the plastic dross she ferries across the world to waiting hands. And so you too can wait, ever grounded and ever grateful, as long as it takes for the tide to lift you out of the mud and clay when all your clawing at the earth cannot.
Sara Davis (@LiterarySara) is a recovering academic and marketing writer who lives in Philadelphia with two elderly cats. Her PhD in American literature is from Temple University. She has previously published essays on food history and culture, and currently blogs about books and climate anxiety at literarysara.net.
Through the COVID-19 lockdown in spring 2020, people were buying everything in sight. During a visit to my local supermarket, the empty shelves were familiar. In my youth, in communist Czechoslovakia, empty shelves were a norm, not the result of a pandemic.
A memory flooded in. I had to put my hand over my still unmasked mouth to hide the smile as I joined a line of people waiting for a new supply of toilet paper. I came back to the apartment empty-handed and told my husband how we dealt with toilet paper shortages back then.
Under communism, toilet paper was quite often a scarce item. There was never enough of it to store up, so we used newspapers. We children were tasked with tearing the pages of the newspaper into squares, then crushing them in our hands before putting them into a shoebox that was then taken to the WC and placed within easy reach for the would-be occupant of the throne. The idea was to make the paper softer and to get most of the ink on our hands, which we washed much more often than our behinds.
There were certain pieces, with photographs of the government officials and members of the communist party, that my father kept for himself. And the pages with Brezhnev and his Czechoslovak lackeys’ pictures on them he saved for special occasions. My father was lactose intolerant but loved cheese. Every so often he would bow to the demands of his taste buds, with the predictable results. Then it was Brezhnev and his crew’s time.
My American husband was astonished by my story and rejected the idea on the grounds that the newspaper would block the drains, though I have to say he scored points in my book because he did not object to the idea, in principle, of using the newspaper. Perhaps there were particular politicians he had in mind. There was no doubt in my mind who my Brezhnev and his enablers would be. Thanks to the narrow pipes of our civilized nation, however, such justice has remained but a dream.
Anika Pavel was born Jarmila Kocvarova in Czechoslovakia. She became a refugee when the Soviet Union invaded her homeland. She lived in England, Hong Kong, and Monte Carlo before settling in New York City, where she is a writer. She writes in Slovak and in English. Her short stories have been published in BioStories, Potato Soup Journal, Tint Journal, Nixes Mate Review, and Ariel Chart. Her story “Encounter With The Future” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. More at www.anikapavel.com.
They sat the way they wished they could always sit: together, with wine at their fingertips, a cooling breeze in the air, and the fading day’s light sparkling like magic across the terrace’s gold fixtures. Cleopatra told a story.
“He was so funny, you know. Well, of course you know, you knew him. This one time, he told me, he said to me, he said, ‘Hey, Clea: workin’ hard or hardly workin’?’ Oh, so funny. Too funny.”
“That’s—kind of funny, I guess.” Antony took another sip from his cup.
“And so wise. This other time he said to me, ‘Clea, do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ So true, you know? So wise.”
“Oh. Nothing. I didn’t say anything.”
“Are you OK? You seem, I don’t know…bored.”
“I’m not bored. It’s just—”
“I just don’t know what you ever saw in him.”
“What I saw in him?”
Antony was undeterred. “Yeah, I mean—he wasn’t much to look at. Like, literally. Just by proportions. Next to other people he looked like he was drawn to scale. Small guy, is all I’m saying.”
“He was Julius fucking Caesar, Marc. Demolished Gaul? Crossed the Rubicon? Came, saw, conquered? Jesus Christ.”
“Look. If you’re jealous… Jules is dead. He’s gone. You are all I see and all I want. You have nothing to worry about. It’s just you and me against the world. Ride or die. You and me.”
They both smiled then pulled together for a kiss, Cleopatra slowly lifting her chin for a tender, playful peck against Antony’s forehead while he barreled forward, straight for the mouth that was rising half an inch higher than his aim. The unexpected impact with her lower jaw crushed his lips against his teeth.
“Um, OK,” said Cleopatra, slightly sobered. “So, um, what do we know about what they’ll do next?”
“Who, the Romans?”
“No, the Nile United Club Team. I hear their top defender is up for transfer.”
“Yes, the Romans.” Cleopatra paused to stay focused. “What have you heard about their next move? What’s that upstart insecure little bastard Octavian up to?”
“I mean, he’s got a lot of ships. I don’t think he’s messing around.”
“What do you think he wants?”
“You. This. The Mediterranean.”
“Right, but access for trade with Egypt? Or total control? Like, am I a partner who just needs to submit to better terms? Or am I so 46 B.C. and he’s totally over it?”
“I think he’s over it. I think this, you—he wants this done.”
They looked at each other, this time with the same impulses, the same intentions. Anger. Sadness. Resolution.
“Well, I’m not done.”
“I know you’re not. That’s what I love about you. That’s why I’m here for it.”
“And that’s what I love about you.”
“Ride or die?”
“Ride or die.”
On the horizon, a cluster of ships’ masts crowded out the setting sun. In the garden, an asp slipped back into the dusk shadows.
Christine Muller grew up at the South Jersey Shore and currently lives in the Philadelphia suburbs. She earned a BA in History and Psychology and an MA in English at Villanova University, as well as a PhD in American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. In her academic life, she has published cultural analyses of contemporary US film, television, and literature. In her emerging fictional life, she is interested in stories that explore the blurred boundaries between history and hearsay.
The cork shoots out of the bottle, bounces off the wall and loses itself behind the sofa.
Don’t bother, she says.
It’s too late. He’s already clasping the curved arm of the Chesterfield and trying to shift it away from the wall, one grunting millimeter at a time. He’s puffing, face screwed up. He makes the same face when he’s on top of her. She almost laughs but manages to keep her voice steady.
Why are you…?
Corks attract mice, stupid, he says. Your happy little furry family. He points a fat finger, laughs at his joke. His nickname for her is ‘Mouse’. It never used to feel this heavy, Ms. Mouse, he grumbles, wrestling with the sofa.
We haven’t got rodents, she says, staring at her toes. They have no pattering of small feet, of any description.
Leave it to you to wish for an infestation, he says.
Yes, leave it to me.
Anyway, remember I got you the swivel-head Dyson, he wheezes.
She sighs, pretending not to love the thing. What she loves is the way it breathes between her thighs. He goes into a mood because she doesn’t show a sufficient amount of gratitude for his expensive gift. She is grateful, but if she lets him know, he’ll find a way to break it.
Not that you bother using it, Mouse.
I’m hopeless, she says.
His face is puce with the effort of talking and shoving. Her face a locked room.
Think of your heart, she murmurs. The doctor advised…
There’s nothing wrong with me, he gasps, not pausing for breath.
Let me do it, she says. I moved it just this morning after losing an earring. It was rather light. Really, you should take it easy. In your condition.
He growls something she can’t interpret. Goes such a funny color when he’s angry. He grapples the sofa, pulling harder and harder. His face takes on a frozen look. There’s a noise, a pop, like the snapping of a weak branch. Like a woman’s water breaking.
Meg Pokrass is the author of six flash fiction collections, an award-winning collection of prose poetry, two novellas-in-flash, and a new collection of microfiction, Spinning to Mars, recipient of the Blue Light Book Award in 2020. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Washington Square Review, Wigleaf, Waxwing, and McSweeney’s. She is the Series Founder and Co-Editor of Best Microfiction.
Rosie Garland writes long and short fiction, poetry and sings with post-punk band The March Violets. Her work appears in The Guardian, Under the Radar, Spelk,Interpreter’s House,New Flash Fiction Review, The Rialto, Ellipsis, Butcher’s Dog, Mslexia, The North, and elsewhere. New poetry collection What Girls Do In the Dark (Nine Arches Press) is out now. Latest novel The Night Brother was described by The Times as “a delight…with shades of Angela Carter.” In 2019, Val McDermid named her one of the UK’s most compelling LGBT writers.
She is bent over the sink. The ends of her long dark hair dip in and out of the bubbles as she circles the sponge slowly over the already clean pan.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
“Nothing,” she says, watching a single tear drop into the sink and disappear under the soapy water. I’ll have to remember this feeling, she thinks, in case I ever need to play a woman with a broken heart. As an actress, only half of her attention is ever in her actual life. The other half is watching, directing, mining moments to use later in her work.
“I can tell something is wrong, Juliet. Just tell me.” He reaches over her to take a glass from the drainer. She flinches when his chest brushes her back. “Really? I can’t even touch you now?”
“You hurt me.”
“Just now? When my chest touched your back for a split second? Really?”
“No, you hurt my feelings when you said I was stupid.”
“I never said—”
“You did, just a minute ago—”
“I said you were acting stupid.”
“Yes, you said I was stupid.”
He sighs loudly and crosses to the freezer to pour two fingers of vodka. “I can’t have a conversation with you if you’re not going to be precise.”
“Fine,” she says through gritted teeth. “It hurt me when you said I was acting stupid.”
“That’s better,” he says, a smug smile spreading across his handsome face. She feels for the cast iron skillet in the drainer behind her. She could wipe that smile off his face with one swing. No jury of women would convict you, her girlfriends always say. They also offer to bury the body. She is lucky in her choice of friends.
He crosses to the table and sits down. “Now, why don’t you come over here and we can talk like adults.” He pats the chair next to him like he’s calling a dog.
“I don’t want to sit down.”
“Come on, sweetie. Don’t be petulant.”
“I’m not being petulant, and please don’t call me pet names when we’re fighting.”
“Is that what we’re doing here? I thought we were just talking.” With a smile, he adds, “Sweetie.”
Her grip tightens around the handle. “I’m just trying to tell you that you hurt my feelings.”
“No, that’s not what you’re doing, and you know it. You’re blaming me based on incorrect facts. And you know what? That hurts my feelings.”
“I’m just saying—”
“No. Stop it.” He jabs his pointer finger at her then downs the last of his drink in a single gulp. “You do this all the time. You get upset about something I never even said and then expect me to apologize for it. I won’t. I won’t apologize for something I didn’t do.”
She takes several deep, shaky breaths and says, “You called me stupid.” She can hear how small her voice sounds, and she hates herself for it.
He slams his hand down on the table with a loud BANG! Then he is up and moving toward her. In two strides he is inches from her face. “I did NOT call you stupid. I said you were acting stupid. Get. It. Right.”
She feels his breath on her face; the alcohol stings her eyes. She is trapped between his body and the sink. She grips the pan for stability, tries and fails to meet his gaze. I can use this feeling, she thinks. I can remember this moment when I’m playing a woman who is trapped and scared, who has no way out. I can remember the feeling of not being able to breathe, of choking on my own rage.
“Come find me when you’re done with your little tantrum,” he says, spraying spittle on her face. “I’ll be in the living room when you’re ready to grow up and apologize.”
She loathes him. She loathes him with a burning, searing passion. She hates him almost as much as she will hate herself a few moments from now when she goes in to beg his forgiveness in exchange for a few days of peace. She has nowhere else to go, and they both know it.
In the movie, it will be different. In the movie, she will grip the cast iron pan in two hands and swing it in a powerful arc, knocking the smile off his face and his brains across the room. When she—her character—calls her friends, they will come over to help her bury the body. “You had no choice,” they will say. “You did the right thing.” Then they will join hands and dance on his grave. The camera will slowly pan out. She hopes the studio will pay for Girl on Fire for the closing credits.
Courtney Thorne-Smith has spent most of her professional life as an actor who dabbles in writing. She is now in the midst of the radical transformation into a writer who dabbles in acting. To that end, she is currently a full-time online student at the University of Pennsylvania, focusing on Creative Writing. She lives and writes in Los Angeles, California, where she gets her best ideas while walking her dogs.
The no-nonsense, middle-aged Filipino nurse tells me, pushing up her smudged glasses, that I need to clean up a bit down there. She waves her tiny hands dramatically around her own groin area and then shuffles over to me, all action. Am I embarrassed? Maybe. For some reason I feel like I’ve let her down. On day three in the hospital, day three with no breasts, day three of forcing a smile each time a visitor says knock knock out loud like it is funny, I guess it is time to get back to life.
I simultaneously hate her and feel bad for hating her because she is only doing her job. Vera, her name is. I see the pleasant serif font on the RN badge dangling around her neck. As instructed, I stay as still as possible while she hustles. Does she know how hard it is to do anything other than stay as still as possible? I am staring at the cheap tiled ceiling, and she is moving around me, adjusting IV lines hither and yon, preparing for the big adventure of cleaning my crotch. Now she has pulled the remote off of the bed, oh great—and now she has turned off the House Hunters International that I’d been enjoying very much, thank you. I’ll never know whether Ken and Elaine in London will settle with the cozy, updated mews in Kensington or the expansive, sunlit flat in St. John’s Wood. She closes the door. Knock knock, I think to myself. She yanks the privacy curtain closed, and the metal hooks pull along the top with a long, mechanical scratch.
I have to sit up; I have to remove my gown; I have to stretch both shoulders in a way that hurts too much. Are you serious? I want to shout, but Vera is only doing her job. And I’m not a big yeller, especially at strangers. Vera doesn’t uncloak me all at once, which is kind. Right arm first. Then left, the painful one. I stare at the ceiling as the warm soapy water slides all over me and becomes icy in a second flat because it’s June and the air conditioning is cranking. I stare at the ceiling and look at all the holes and remember when all the boys in eighth grade would toss their pencils up there and try to get them to stick and I wonder if anyone has ever done this in here. I stare at the ceiling and try to remember those boys’ names. I’m sure Jamie and Paul and maybe Doug were involved in the tomfoolery, and I wonder if my daughters have yet seen that trick in elementary school. The holes make deep pockmarks in the foamy tiles. I see the shape of my chest, the concave-looking basin that I guess is me now. My bandages are in full view. I see them and have nowhere else to look because Vera turned off House Hunters.
Tracy Rothschild Lynch has written poetry and creative nonfiction for more than twenty years. She holds an MA from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. When not writing or reading, she plays mediocre tennis, watches movies, and divides her time exploring the surrounds of her home in Glen Allen, Virginia and in London, where she currently resides. Tracy recently completed a memoir about her mother’s sudden death as well as a collection of flash essays exploring micro-moments of breast cancer treatment.
Pheasant Falls, end of the line. There is only a diner and smoke shop at either end of a triplet of small houses. On the other side, city-potted geraniums and a path to the waterfalls. An arrow points past the narrow choir of pines to the museum.
You have come together from the city to see the birds and the bears, and the butterfly room. You will see mineral specimens, too, a treasure chest of agate and amethyst, geodes and fossils transporting you back in time and deep into the earth. Sticks and Stones, a little known gem of taxonomy.
You come to a dilapidated house, with antlers and boulders strewn through a scraggly garden. There are no signs to confirm you are at the right place, but a cold-faced ibex glares through the window at your approach.
The proprietor is a sleazy little man who looks like he should have been an American rattlesnake preacher instead. He is small and sinewy, but his face is pitted and his lips are rubbery. He sprays when he talks. He ushers you in with a sweep of both hands. There are over four thousand specimens of butterflies here, he tells you, fanning at the grid walls, floor to ceiling. It’s just a drop in the bucket, he explains. There are more than 180 thousand kinds of lepidoptera. I wanted one of each, he says, but then I started collecting bones, too.
The man is scrubbed to shine, as if his mother still takes fingertips with spittle to his hair, and his halfway undone shirt is pressed and white. All this in contrast to the rooms of reindeer and weasels, undusted for years. Lloyd.
You almost understand his passion, his obsession, for fowl and fauna. Yours is for art history, but it is parallel in a way: galleries of still lifes and evolution in painting could be seen as kinds of taxidermy.
Even so, he makes you both uncomfortable with those claw-like little hands of his waving around and also all over you. He thwacks Mike on the back, pushes you both into the next diorama, where a grimy moose head greets you with an empty stare. A bear’s jaws are propped open in mockery of a threat long ago extinguished.
We don’t kill ‘em, Mike, Lloyd assures your man, who has been taking close-up photos with his phone. We just collect ‘em. He thumps him again. We get a call, you see, one bighorn sheep down, do you want it? And we say yes, we’ll take it. His stubby fingers linger for a moment on your upper arm, steal a squeeze.
You see, the big museums, they want whales, dinosaurs, mummies. Lloyd says he’ll gladly take a cache of broken crystals or a marsupial that needs work to get back into one piece.
Lloyd is a leading expert on cadaver restoration and posthumous surgery. Not so skillful with the living.
To make polite conversation, you say you love rocks, too. You flash your mammoth ring, a chunk of blue and Bedouin pot metal from the Jordanian desert. It might be lapis, or it might be dyed. You know how I tell what kind of rocks? Lloyd asks, taking your hand to better see the specimen you’re wearing. Before you or Mike can react, he raises your hand closer, opens his mouth and rakes his tongue, wet and wide and flat across your ring.
You and Mike both freeze, recoil. Lloyd drones on about how you can identify minerals by taste, then something about fixing the wing of the last known passenger pigeon before extinction. You flee to the ladies’ room, washing your prize ring and your hands for a long time. You think about Lloyd, speculate about him growing up unliked by people, retreating into the kingdom before man. You imagine him with a lamp and a needle, putting a small wing back into place, antennae, sorting slides, licking stones, speaking the language of layers of sediments and dead birds.
Lorette C. Luzajic writes prose poetry and flash fiction that has been widely published, from Unbroken to New Flash Fiction Review. She is the founder and editor of The Ekphrastic Review, a journal devoted to literature inspired by visual art. Lorette is also a mixed media collage artist whose works have found homes in at least 26 countries, from Latvia to Peru.
My little brother held a trout, a rainbow burning bright enough to eclipse reflections. The fish did not reflect, but the stream did, and he took a mighty brown watery rock to spill the brains of the flesh, white and red onto the grey wooden dock, a spilling of color all over the dock, and when I screamed he said, Fish feel no pain.
I told him he could not know fish’s mind, not at ten or twenty or a thousand years could he know the inner worlds of slippery things, but that day I learned eating took no feeling.
He picked up the dead limp thing that once swam bravely, meant to be swallowed by dolphins or sharks, whales singing underwater, pelicans that fly without invention, alligators who were also dinosaurs, flamingos that were too, and asked if I’d like some.
When I screamed, he told me, Pipe down, for what was it but the way of things? Then he killed a mother trout, hooked by her tail and reeled her in backwards. No fisherman could bait her.
She was gutted and her eggs served beside the flesh—red eggs, white flesh.
Michelle Renee Hoppeholds a BA in English from BYU, where she ran a nonprofit for struggling students. She was a NYC Teaching Fellow in special education and a top private educational therapist, working on cases for disabled students. Her work won court cases against the NYCDOE. Her written work can be found in Saw Palm, South 85 Journal, and HoneySuckle Magazine, among others. She is the founder and Creative Director of Capable, a nonprofit dedicated to uplifting and funding the voices of disabled and chronically ill authors and artists. She lectures in Saudi Arabia, where she lives down the street from a Bedouin tribe and a Starbucks. She recently adopted two wild desert kittens.
When you drive from I-78 to your house, what exit do you take?
What little winding road do you always miss right after that?
How old were you before you learned to drive with a stick shift?
This is about your mother, isn’t it?
What do you always quarrel with Janet about?
How many times has she said in the past year that she’ll leave you?
What’s your favorite Netflix show?
What was your favorite show five years ago?
Which show does Janet prefer?
Who’s told you repeatedly, “Will you ever grow up?”
What food do you most dislike?
Why does Janet cook it at least twice a week?
When did you hire a maid?
So what’s her name?
How could you not even know her name?
Oh, so you could do a better cleaning job?
Where do you think Janet is right now?
Who really goes grocery shopping that often?
How often do you feel inadequate?
Why are you blaming that on your father?
When you can’t sleep at night and stare out the window at the neighbor’s lawn, glowing green-black in the moonlight, then reach out for Janet, her limbs at rest, mouth parted in a perfect bow, where do you think you went wrong?
What joke do you tell that’s made you unpopular at the office?
Which delicatessen do you go to for your favorite sandwich?
Who’s still willing to have lunch with you?
What is the point of your existence?
What would/will life be like without Janet?
Is that pathetic or what?
Where is Janet right now?
Is that just what she told you?
Did she accompany it with one of those false smiles?
Do these security questions make you feel insecure?
What do you suppose Janet’s security questions are?
David Galef has published extremely short fiction in the collections Laugh Track and My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize), extremely long fiction in the novels Flesh, Turning Japanese, and How to Cope with Suburban Stress (Kirkus Best Books of 2006), and a lot in between. His latest is Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook from Columbia University Press. Day job: professor of English and creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He is also the new editor-in-chief at Vestal Review. Website www.davidgalef.com. Twitter handle @dgalef.
PANDEMIC MOTHER’S DAY, STOKOE FARMS, UPSTATE NEW YORK
by Anne Panning
Cost of admission: purchase of two dozen apple cider donuts, delivered to cars by a masked grandmother. As part of the donut deal, you earned drive-through privileges to view exotic animals. The albino wallaby scootched behind a rain barrel; two camels, fully reclined, glanced off to the side: a fuck you to photo ops. We were four of us again: our son, Hudson, had been kicked back to us from freshman year at Pitt. He’d roosted with us again, whipped up gooey onion omelets at midnight, jacked the Volvo seat so far back I couldn’t reach the pedals. Our daughter Lily’s high school would slam shut momentarily: you could almost hear the silence of the greatest pause on earth.
We grew hungry. Rain muddied the road. Where was the baby kangaroo they’d promised? Didn’t they know there were limits to our patience? Finally, an old man stepped out of a tiny shed as in a fairy tale: he snuggled the baby kangaroo inside his flannel shirt. “It’s just too cold out here for this little guy.” He told us we could take a photo. I can’t remember why we didn’t.
By then, I had to pee urgently. We drove up a pale, empty hill. There’s a photo of me crouched behind a pile of old tires: waving, peeing. Which still makes us laugh. Sort of.
Anne Panning has published a memoir, Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss. She has also published a novel, Butter, as well as a short story collection, The Price of Eggs, and Super America, which won The Flannery O’Connor Award and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Four of her essays have received notable citations in TheBest American Essays series. She is currently working on a second memoir about her late father, a barber and addict. She teaches creative writing at SUNY-Brockport.
One thing I did when I was twenty was fall in love with a Roman Catholic boy and get all confused. I was a half-Jew-half-gentile quasi-Lutheran atheist, led as in a trance to the burly God of Ceiling Paintings like a little girl in a gossamer nightgown. The boy was a convert himself, and his zeal was real. He tried to baptize me (baptise; he was British) using the water pitcher in his college dorm room. He cited doctrine. I said no; I hadn’t gone completely off the deep end of the holy water pool. But I did cherish plans for baptism, someday, in my already-flayed heart.
Another thing I did when I was twenty was rise early, brush my teeth in the cavernous bathroom of the 1964 Rome-Olympic-village-turned-youth hostel, dress and pack and leave with a hunk of unsalted bread in my hand, and hasten to the Vatican Museums. I shuffled with the crowd through room after room of staggering opulence, all as prelude to the best room of all, the Sistine Chapel.
I knew the Sistine Chapel was a big deal, but when I summoned thoughts about it, all I really pictured was Michelangelo in the act of painting it: wearing some sort of burlap poncho, yelling at his assistants, getting paint in his eyes and a great stiffness in his neck. I didn’t know that the recently restored colors would flow in saffron and cerulean waves; that the portraits of prophets and sybils and the scenes from Genesis would play like the arias and choruses of Handel’s Messiah; that it was so full of living, fighting, striving people, so full of thigh meat and flippy little penises and women with fantastically muscled arms and shoulders. The prophets and sybils wore the faces of a dozen grouchy uncles and disappointed aunts at Thanksgiving or Passover. They made me think for the first time about the terrible loneliness of prophets. My group was ushered in and allowed fifteen minutes of astonished communion. Then we were ushered out.
When I was in my forties, I revisited the Sistine Chapel. It happened during the coronavirus pandemic, during the interval between Christmas and New Year’s. I found myself toiling over a one-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, one of a series of famous paintings. Neighbors had exchanged some puzzles via porch-drop some months before, and I’d ended up with this one. Work took a break, school took a break, and I took a break. I lacked the intellectual energy for a new knitting project or even for watching a new TV series. So I opened the box and began staring at tiny puzzle pieces.
I didn’t know I needed to see my heavy-hearted friends Joel and Zechariah once again, and all the bizarre cruelty of the Old Testament God who created and then punished humankind, and dared Abraham to cut off his son’s head, and sent a fish to swallow Jonah (who faces his fate with bravura foreshortening). All while lads and lasses with finely-turned ankles and tennis-pro hip flexors cling to trompe-l’oeil plaster and gawk and giggle and gasp. It is such a deeply weird work of art. And the weirdness drew me right in. Michelangelo, as usual, shows us worse suffering than our own, deeper despair than our own. Even the rampant nakedness—all those sassy babies and imps and tennis pros—gave me something approaching gratitude for the numbing rotation of hoodies I lived in night and day that winter.
I still check in with the Roman Catholic boy. We’ve video-chatted every few weeks since we’ve been in isolation. He’s still Roman Catholic; I’m once again a half-Jewish half-gentile quasi-Lutheran atheist, after a good run at clinging to the rock face of faith. Maybe it’s a ceiling. Maybe it’s only easy to cling to it when you’re paint on plaster, when you’re sitting on a plinth with a scroll in your lap, and nothing ever happens to you but five hundred years of stunned faces staring up at you. Conservators have always wished those staring faces were wearing masks, because their breath is slowly killing you. But you love them (even their breath) because, somehow, you still love humanity.
Sarah Berger is a writer and classical singer living in Baltimore. Her essays and stories have been published in Prometheus Dreaming, Shards/Glass Mountain, Big Whoopie Deal, Passengers Journal, and The Nasiona. She is writing a novel about a cohort of music students graduating in 1965, and she’s currently in the University of Baltimore’s MFA program in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts. More of Sarah’s writing can be found at www.sarahbergersoprano.com/writing.
The object of the game is to see how long we can hold a lit Cherry Bomb in our hand before tossing it away. Ray-Ray Campbell claims he’s champion of the fucking world. Took the title from his dirtbag dad before a judge sent him up the river on weapons charges. It’s like playing rock, paper, scissors or hot potato, except for the ferocious explosions.
Our moms are at work, so Ray-Ray and I are down at the creek on a hot summer day, raiding crab apple trees and smoking Marlboro Reds bought at the bowling alley from the cigarette vending machine with change swiped from his mom’s purse. Unlike his dad, Ray-Ray was pretty good about sharing things he’d stolen.
We patrol the creek in our bare feet, looking for something to kill, something other than time. It hasn’t rained in days, and the water is still and clear, the minnows and tadpoles skittering away in a frenzy. I’ve stripped down to the camo shorts Mom bought me at the Army surplus store the day before a truck bomb surpluses Dad all over the corrugated steel walls of his barracks in Beirut.
Ray-Ray pulls out a wrinkly, brown paper bag from the back pocket of his cut-off jeans. Hands me a plump red Cherry Bomb with a short green fuse. “Ladies first,” he says.
I take a slow drag off my cigarette, use the tip of it to light the fuse. Sparks fly and at three Mississippi, I flip the explosive into the creek and it blows a bunch of crawdaddies out of the water.
“Not bad for a pussy,” Ray-Ray says.
It’s his turn.
He lights the fuse. Raises his fist in the air triumphantly. Closes his eyes. The cicadas are at full song. In a week they’ll all be dead and gone.
At four Mississippi the Cherry Bomb goes off. Ray-Ray just stands there, stone-faced, swallowing his pain, watching his blown-off thumb sink slowly in the cold, clear water. He holds his hand up to his face and looks at it like he’s not sure if he’s won or lost.
Todd Clay Stuart is an emerging American writer from the Midwest. He studied creative writing at the University of Iowa. His work appears or is forthcoming in Milk Candy Review, New World Writing, Bending Genres, and Emerge Literary Journal. He lives with his wife, daughter, and two loyal but increasingly untrustworthy pets. Find him on Twitter @toddclaystuart and on his website at http://toddclaystuart.com.
It was winter, mid-December, much too cold to leave him there—the lobster, on my porch. I don’t know how he got there, whether he’d walked or hailed a cab. But it was snowing, and he looked so sad, bright red with embarrassment to ask for my help. And so I decided, I would open my door instead of my arms. I’ve heard that lobsters don’t like to be hugged. He scuttled over the threshold, leaving a damp trail in his wake.
For a few moments we sat at the dining table, staring at each other from either end. I offered to cut the rubber bands from his claws, “You’ll be so much more comfortable that way,” I told him as I reached for my kitchen shears. He didn’t answer, but I could’ve sworn he let out a small sigh of relief when the scissors sliced through his elastic cuffs.
“I’d like you to stay here,” I started, “with me.” I waited for his answer, chest full and heavy—a fishbowl hidden inside my rib cage. Silence leaked into the room. We were quiet for a long time, and at one point, I was certain he was unable to speak. “You need to kill me,” he said, “but I might hurt you. You freed my claws.” My chest deflated, confusion and sadness tapped at the glass of the fishbowl. “No. I can’t kill you, why would I do something like that?” He did not answer this time. He just stared at me with sad, glazy lobster eyes.
Lobsters are not good pets. I wasn’t suited to care for him. He wasn’t suited to be cared for. So we sat, in my warm kitchen, discussing the plan for his demise. “I could buy lobster anesthesia, then boil you,” I offered. The lobster winced. “I could take a sharp knife through your underbelly, hack through the softest spots.” Again, he refused. “I don’t want to kill you,” I whispered, placing my palms flat against the wooden table. “You have to. You know you have to,” the lobster said.
We drove to the beach, my car racing against the setting sun. I left the windows down for fresh air. I thought it would make me feel better—lighter, but it didn’t. As we got closer, the smell of the sea got stronger, and it only made me sadder. The lobster sat in my passenger seat, toying with the radio. The sound of static and washed-out voices came and went. I didn’t even mind that he was getting the leather wet. It didn’t bother me that my car would smell like sand for weeks. We drove for what felt like a long time.
“I’m going to miss you,” I smiled sadly, turning off the engine. He wouldn’t look at me. He just kept trying to open the door. “I hope you survive this,” I said, allowing him to crawl out of the car and onto the pavement. “You too,” he called from over his shoulder, heading towards the wetness and salt. Lobsters that have been captured cannot survive in the wild. The ocean will reject them, and they will die.
Sometimes, you will find a lobster on your doorstep. And you’ll want to love him, but won’t know how.
Gabby Capone is a sophomore at New York University. She has a passion for writing, reading, and creating. Gabby is majoring in English Education and hopes to teach creative writing in the future. Poetry and literature exist at the center of her life, alongside her family and her loved ones.
Of when my father had polio, I’ve heard disjointed details but no narrative. Scalding baths, quarantine, how many adults held him down for the spinal tap, the iron lung, paralysis that one day disappeared.
In the world outside, my grandmother lengthened his Hebrew name with Chaim,Life, and my grandfather delivered bread through the night. Under the covers, his sister plucked the braces from her teeth with scissors.
Each time visiting hours ended, my grandparents stood outside the hospital staring up at a window.
Polio came to him in 1954. The vaccine came to him in 1955.
We’ve spoken of 2020 itself as a golem. We’ve started posting pictures of injections or envious responses to others’ pictures of injections.
No social media archive exists indicating whether my grandparents dreamt of a vaccine/knew it was coming/raged it had come belatedly for their kid/had never felt such relief when it came, even when they thought they could feel no more relief than three of them leaving the hospital, six legs walking.
There’s one photograph of the bicycle bought for him after, with pooled money, and in it my father’s blurry with motion.
We’ve let words into our hourly vocabulary: quarantine, distancing, strains, herd, cases. Daily math problems so vast we can’t see each individual number. We’ve said/meant we, but we’ve been mostly wrong.
Both of my parents remember waiting their turn at school for the shot. When I ask them for memories of receiving the vaccine, that’s the only one: standing in line.
My mother tells me I had the Sabin oral vaccine—drops on my tongue—rather than the Salk injection. She tells me to google, just for curiosity’s sake, the sugar cube version. My mind conjures an image of children not chewing or sucking but letting the cube slowly, slowly dissolve. Thinking of it, I can feel it. A year of sheltering has been something like this: mouth, tongue, et cetera, holding still but activating in anticipation of the sweet.
We’ve reached for metaphors.
Salivating sounds bestial, carnal, silly. I mean more like a waiting that demands all focus. I mean more like a wanting that can’t be helped.
Rebecca Entel is the author of the novel Fingerprints of Previous Owners. Her short stories and essays have been published in such journals as Catapult, Guernica, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Joyland Magazine, and Cleaver. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Cornell College, where she teaches U.S. literature, Caribbean literature, creative writing, and the literature of social justice. You can find her at rebeccaentel.com, on Twitter @rebeccaentel, and on Instagram @rebeccaentel.
Kevin rolled his ankle on August 25th and never stopped talking about it. The steep hill, the bearings, the cross street of killer cars, the way he caught air before landing on the compost heap placed-there-by-God so he didn’t snap his spine. He remembered I was the oldest but squinted at everyone else, like peering through an algae-covered aquarium.
It took two Christmases before we could listen without glancing at each other, grateful he didn’t catch the looks between siblings, nephews, nieces, and a brother-in-law who stopped skating. We tried to focus on his eyes, his bushy eyebrows, the scar like a question mark where his hair refused to grow. We embraced his omissions and errors, listening over and over, until the recall was as comforting as a fireside chat and the passing of mashed potatoes, his grip firm on an inverted bowl as he dumped peas into the potatoes. Time dropping through gaps and pauses in his sentences, erasing the bone-shattering way he landed… the tubes in his nose and throat… questions of responsiveness… retention… speech.
His story had a soft landing. No ICU. No parents pacing the lobby or leaving in separate cars. No mention of a third and final divorce. No reference to Mom moving to New England or Dad back in rehab, on a road trip, then another and another, then telling us not to call. No mention of Angie making a spectacle of herself at the hospital, then wiping her face, texting, and digging in her backpack for keys when Kevin didn’t wake up on time. She didn’t say anything before leaving. I guess we do that to people.
Kevin thinks Angie is on vacation with her family. We do not correct him. He’s going to propose when she gets back. He just needs a diamond and some help with his speech. He writes things down, then crumples it up and says he’ll just wing it. We don’t correct him. He is most happy when he talks about her. And the hill. And how he caught air. And how he wishes she had been there to see it.
Darlene Eliot was born in Canada and grew up in Southern California. After working as a social worker, a teacher, and an acquisitions library clerk, she began writing short fiction about life in suburbia. Darlene currently lives in Northern California with someone she adores and loves watching the weather change hourly as she writes her short stories.
Today I stole a violin and sold it for drugs. It belonged to a blond-haired kid no older than fifteen. I took it after he walked out of church and started masturbating to a manga in the woods. Later, as I pushed off in the Value King bathroom down the street, I thanked God for anime tits. When I came down, I wondered why he made me.
This morning my parents kicked me out of the house for the fourth time in a year. They said it was for good this time, but they always say that. When I talked to Father Patrick about it, he changed the subject to rehab and NA. But I still have my dad’s iPad I stole and the shoelaces from his new running shoes, and I can’t let good shit go to waste.
Last night I slept in the grass behind the church rectory. Father Patrick lets me do this sometimes as long as Monsignor Hoffman doesn’t see. Under a glinting powder of summer stars, I fought the sick and cursed and cried. I shat in God’s bushes and pissed on his grass. And yet, in the morning, the gold sun bathed me in warmth and light.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, A-Minor, After the Pause, Barren Magazine, Maudlin House, Pithead Chapel, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. His fiction can be found here.
The police cruiser appeared as the dusty orange of dusk settled. The car’s lights and sirens remained off because it wasn’t an emergency. Rumors swept across the town. Katie had run away. She was abducted. She hurt herself.
Two days passed. No one saw Katie. She vanished over an eight-block area, disappearing between a pharmacy and her front door.
A week passed. Her mother navigated the house alone, abandoned years before by the man who called himself Katie’s father. Her mother taped pictures of Katie on telephone poles, storefront windows, and coffee house billboards. The refrain became familiar: Missing 14-year-old female, 5’2”, 105 pounds, short blonde hair. As if everyone didn’t already know. As if everyone didn’t catch their breath when they glimpsed chin-length blond hair. Katie’s mom wandered the empty town at night, a single beam of light from a slowly dimming flashlight that became a fixture in alleys, backyards, and parking lots. Seeing her searchlight, people called the police to report a burglar. After a few days, no one said anything. Then, nobody even noticed.
Two months passed. Her mother preserved Katie’s room. Katie’s laptop was open and her shoes nestled, laces tied, in pockets that hung on the back of the closet door. The bed was unmade, the sheets holding Katie’s scent. Her mother cleaned the room every day so the time capsule would be unchanged, the passage of time unmarked. People left casseroles and plates of sandwiches covered in Saran Wrap on her doorstep. The food piled up like a memorial coated in shimmering plastic waiting to be removed for the unveiling.
Four months passed. The doorstep was empty. Her mother lined each room and hallway with full-length mirrors. They captured every cob-webbed corner, nook, and cranny. In case Katie was tucked away in a special hiding place, waiting to shout “surprise!” In case they had forgotten to look under a bed or behind a couch or in a closet. She angled the mirrors towards the sky because maybe Katie had learned to climb walls and ceilings, perched there, waiting to be found.
Six months passed. Katie’s mother barricaded herself in the house. She kept the lights off because the darkness made the line between reality and hope a little fainter. She roamed the halls like a night watchman looking for an intruder. She whipped her head around without warning, attempting to catch her unsuspecting daughter’s face checking in on the mortal world from behind the glass. Katie’s mother gazed at herself in the reflective glass, tracing the bones of her face, trying to draw her daughter’s smile, her laugh.
Two years passed. Katie’s mother died on a Tuesday night. The police cruiser parked outside the house at dusk, its lights and sirens off because it wasn’t an emergency, the damage already done. Rumors prattled on loose tongues. She swallowed a handful of pills. She starved herself. She lost the will to live.
Katie’s mother left a handwritten note. She asked to be buried with a mirror peering down at her body so that Katie could see she was at peace.
The officer crumpled the note and tossed it into a trashcan filled with shards of broken glass. As it settled in between pieces of glass, the paper crackled, a faint whisper, a soft exhale.
Neal J. Suit is a recovering lawyer. He has short stories published or forthcoming in Five on the Fifth, Literally Stories, Mystery Weekly, Cleaver, Bandit Fiction, Blue Lake Review, and (mac)ro(mic), among others. He can be reached on Twitter @SuitNeal.
Before I learned that wounded birds are rarely rehabilitated in treehouses, I studied acoustics in a small yellow farmhouse. It started out elementary, like any other subject. A man’s loud voice: this is anger. Mother’s soft voice ducking beneath: this is fear.
With plenty of practice, I advanced quickly. By the second grade, I could distinguish, in a fraction of a second, which thumps and bumps meant bruises, and which were harmless. I learned not just amplitude but pitch and tone. When his voice hit a certain frequency, I knew it was time to hide in my room. From my flimsy shelter I drilled in the dark: the crisp echo of cowboy boots across an empty living room…the scuffle of soles.
After eight years, Mother decided I was ready for advanced acoustics and moved us in with a man who walked on rubber soles and whispered through walls. When test times came, I performed beyond anyone’s expectation. I had a sense of sound like an owl, which, by the way, can hear the heartbeat of a mouse beneath feet of snow.
There was no snow that Christmas morning, but I heard a mother, my mother, being choked behind a bedroom door. From three rooms away I was the only one to hear it through the wrapping paper and video games and attempts at joy. He couldn’t trick me with his carpet-padding and flesh-muffling. His bone-bending. Suffocation. Strangulation. My education had been long and thorough.
One date night, I heard his van pull in the driveway too soon. I listened for the sound of its doors closing but nothing. For too long, nothing. When the engine revved, I knew I would have to save her again. I walked outside and pulled at the passenger door. Mother’s new dress was torn. Shadows formed beneath the skin of her smooth, brown cheeks. He sat on top of her, fist cocked, hair wild.
“Get out of here, you little bitch!” he finally roared.
And I did. I went inside and dialed three numbers on a landline, then listened as hard as I ever had. I heard them coming all the way from the highway.
Not long after that, class ended. But the practicing never did. Sometimes, on our dinner dates, my husband complains that I’m distracted again. And I remind him…about the owls…about the snow.
B. Bilby Garton is a senior in the Creative Writing Program at Central Washington University. She lives in a small farmhouse on a native salmon stream with her husband and a cat named Mouse. She has been published in Brevity and has a piece forthcoming in Bending Genres. Reach her at [email protected].
Truckers’ wives warned me it was a lonely life, unless I was willing to travel with you. When we go truckin’ together in my mind, I see so much life out the truck windows as the towns and cities unfold along the highway. I’m with you as you drive into the night sundown and as you drive into the morning dawn. No atlas could ever tell the way roads are carved into the maps of memory.
When I see your truck rolling out of the driveway, I wonder about the crates in back. How many people will eat from the boxes of cereal you’ve driven from X to Y? How much of your life has been devoted to trucking bread from a factory to a restaurant where teenagers slap together chicken sandwiches before shoving them into paper bags?
When you call me, you say keep on truckin’ babe. Lord I feel alive. I love it that you can feel me here, on this day, at home. And since we’re not truckin’ together, I don’t worry about how it would look to see the two of us truckin’ in the same box, because we’d seem… pitiful, I guess. Needy. Don’t you think?
But okay, and then occasionally I DO imagine us trucking next to each other’s arms, me doing my thing and you doing your thing but next to each other when we do it. Smarty pants kids watching us the way they do, and what all of that would mean, what all of that would say about us. And maybe that’s it, until I met you, I was truckin’ into the grave. It was bad, I tell you, being so still. It was very hard to bear, hard to breathe.
Since I’ve known you, babe, I’ve been trucking with you every night, and when the lights are low, I’m going there with you. We don’t use words, don’t say it in words, can only hear each other with headphones smashing the deafness from our ears.
Baby, keep on keep on!
And the day is old, but the night is young and the food so bland it’s not even bad anymore, because bad is an actual thing. The world is ticking here behind my eardrums, truckin’ me less angry, truckin’ me into your lonely truck. Truckin’ me the way you do and only you can do, with me.
No, I say to stillness, deafness. You can’t stop a feelin’ when it comes. Everything in life is truckin’, unless you’ve given up.
You eat, sleep, and live in a box on wheels. I eat, sleep, and live in a box on land.
Someone has to truck the bread, the sliced pickles, the mayonnaise, the chicken, the napkins, the paper bags, the ketchup packets, and the fries. People don’t like big trucks taking up the highway in caravans, but no one likes to see grocery stores with empty shelves. Nothing happens without you. Without truckin’. Because you need to come home, keep truckin’, babe, I whisper, though my heart is breaking.
Meg Pokrass is the author of seven flash fiction collections. Her work has recently appeared in Electric Literature and Washington Square Review. She is the two-time winner of San Francisco’s Blue Light Book Award, and serves as series co-editor of Best Microfiction.
Aimee Parkison is the author of five books. Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman won FC2’s Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. Parkison is Professor of English at Oklahoma State University and serves on FC2’s Board of Directors. More information about Parkison and her writing can be found at www.aimeeparkison.com
The year the rains never came, the ground dried up and cracked wide open. Dust settled on laundry hung in the yards and you appeared on my porch, hands clasped. In the fields, only the grasses survived, growing tall around our knees. There was a sense that it was all ending, but no one talked about it.
When even the grass started to turn yellow, we knew. You stood there, folding a blade of grass in half and half again, squeezing each crease. From the stoop, we watched garbage drift through the empty streets, waiting for the earth to swallow us up.
The price of boats skyrocketed. We carved one out of a tree trunk, the way the natives used to. Our blisters sang out, but our panic kept us moving. On TV, we watched aerial footage of the waves racing towards land.
When the water came, it was a wall and a bomb and a blanket; it swirled, eddied, slammed, rose up. From our tree-trunk boat, we saw things swimming that stole our breath. The water was brown and filled with bodies and we couldn’t drink it; that was how we actually died, from thirst.
At first, it was what we expected: animal milk soured right out of the teat, low-grade seizures, small figures made of straw left on our beds. But then they closed their fists: they called the bears and the wolves out of the forests; they lashed us with storms that destroyed whole cities and made each night last a year. People began to lose their minds from fear.
Near the end, we watched them congregate in the night sky, hair streaming. The air was thick with hexes that clung to our clothes. In a few days, it would all collapse: cities burned out, pastures fallow, screams on the wind, grass bloodied.
It started as a series of small fires, unrelated, that could not be put out. They ate up the roads and the fields, city blocks, and grew, rolling across nations, consuming. They met eventually in the center of the world, which we never knew beforehand was the center: a village outside Cuzco, too small for a post office.
Before the heat struck us, ash blew in on the wind. It was soft in our hair and with the horizon darkening, it almost felt like just a change of season. But the heat did come: it blackened and shrieked and nothing survived, not even the sky.
Ivy grew up and strangled walls, pulled them down. Crops rotted in their fields. Even the animals gave up and lay down in their meadows and desert holes. They left their nests half-finished and stopped their dances towards each other.
This end was slow and almost easy: a gentle decay, apathy grazing our bones like a virus. Some thought it actually was a virus, but no one had the will to find out. All the microscopes sat in vacant labs. The earth quieted.
Warm under our sheets, we thought, it won’t end like this—someone will do something. You brushed my eyelashes with your fingers and felt the length of my body and then we ran out of food, dust in the cupboards.
K.S. Lokensgard is a writer and lawyer in Washington, D.C.
Nine seconds to warm the applesauce for my mother’s morning medication. To wrestle my fury, replace it with a light-hearted care. Even as a kid I shied away from her clinging hand; now her need for me is bottomless. Nine seconds to watch the red-bellied woodpecker hunch his body around the feeder, the sparrows scattering with bitter complaint. To mentally revise my steps for the most efficient diaper change—wipes here, Desitin there, the wastebasket cradled in the bars of the rolling table just so. Nine seconds to remember a time I had not taken this on. To ignore the man jogging freely past, his face mask dangling below his chin. To see the sunlight flicker as wind bends back the trailing spirea branches, setting tiny white petals adrift like snow. Then the beep of the microwave and on with the day.
Sue Mell is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and was a fellow in the 2020 BookEnds mentorship program. In addition to Cleaver Magazine, her work has appeared in Jellyfish Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Narrative Magazine, and Newtown Literary.
By the time I tell him, it’s old news and too late, but that’s why I waited to tell. I needed to know. He stalks me through the house to ask all about it. Here? he says, and I say, Yes, and wince as his fist punctuates the hallway plaster. The white dust drifts down. It settles.
WHEN I GO
The bus to Port Authority is an ocean liner rocking softly and I am on my way. I am leaving him standing on the pier. I know what I want. His longing, how he rushes after me, headlong into the swelling tide, his stumbling to his knees and sputtering in the spray—I hear his voice distantly, calling, against the splashes of his flailing, and I know I am nowhere near shore.
THEY’D HARDLY FELT IT
It takes him a moment to notice the droplets of blood, a dotted red melody splashed into the porcelain sink. Is it his? He touches his face. He imagines it cracking like pottery, forming a fine network of red. It’s faintly accusing. No. He rinses the sink. He’s shaven carelessly again, distracted. That’s all. In the mirror, he tilts his chin to the light and appraises the cut—this tiny thing, this hardly a scratch. It didn’t hurt. He touches his cheek in the mirror. You didn’t do anything wrong.
Steve Chang is from the San Gabriel Valley, California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Epiphany, Guernica, J Journal, North American Review, The Southampton Review, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. He tweets @steveXisXok.
Maybe behind your house was a rock garden where you ran when your mother shooed you away where you loved the rosebush but hated the thorns and always the bees buzzing a secret you didn’t know but still it made you cry in the cubbyhole under the stairs where you could hear in the kitchen your mother tell her mother she was done having sex she didn’t care if he was her husband and what was he going to do about it anyway and maybe the years go by in single file like the poet says and maybe at night you read her poem over and over in a book of poems the pages edged in gold and hold onto it like the rabbit’s foot you’ve outgrown hidden in a shoebox and every night he’s in your room the sweet smell of tobacco the scrape of bear paws and you wonder does she know and he says love says a secret says don’t tell says there now that wasn’t so bad and maybe when you cry at night the wallpaper blooms red roses and in your head the bees buzzing a secret too big to fit in the cubbyhole because he will find you he always finds you and he gives you books on your birthday which your mother forgets then tells you nothing she buys will fit you’ve grown as big as a house and maybe he gives you a book of best-loved poems bound in red leather you run your fingers down the pages edged in gold and maybe he is the only man who will ever love you and maybe this is what love means and even though at night you look past him find your spot on the wall like your ballet teacher taught you to keep from falling as you twirl spot twirl and maybe you’ll tell someone but you never do and the years go by in single file and when they call you come quick he hasn’t much longer maybe you sit and stare at the telephone on your desk and don’t leave work until your boss says take as much time as you need and maybe he’ll be dead by the time you get there and you stop at Bloomingdales and waste a few hours trying on black clothes until it’s too late to catch a flight and the bees buzzing you can’t sleep and ransack the basement closet find an old black blazer with mothballs in the pocket run your fingers down four buttons on each cuff how he taught you what to look for when you buy a blazer that afternoon in Brooks Brothers and how he always wore the same blue robe when he said goodnight and maybe you miss the smell of his cherry tobacco and wonder if it was you that wanted it all along and none of it was his fault which is what your mother said except when she said it never happened and maybe when you get to the hospital your mother will pick up her handbag and coat and say at last I can get some sleep and push past you and maybe there’s an empty coffee cup on a bed-tray which you carefully examine like it holds the secret meaning of life and after the morphine drip you run out of things to look at it’s the two of you and maybe his big green eyes look like the sea cove where he lifted you on his back when he was a whale and he said hold on hold on and maybe you squeeze his hand and say hold on hold on and together you watch the years go by in single file until maybe just maybe the white wall blooms red roses and bees gather above the body spilling a secret to the living and the dead.
Roberta Beary lives in the west of Ireland where she is the haibun editor for Modern Haiku. Her work has won Best Microfiction, Best Small Fictions, Best Fifty British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) awards, and is featured in New York Times Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less. She recently collaborated on One Breath: Reluctant Engagement Project, which pairs her writing with artwork by families of people with disabilities.
(Some Notes for Our Visitors)
by Susan Frith
1. Greetings. Preachers, poachers, stargazers, we don’t much care who you are. You’re here now, so go on, take a key. See if it fits any of the locks. If so, the place is yours. (We’ll come to terms later.) It might be a three-story house with a turret. It might be the cleaning closet behind this desk. As someone famous once said, every key fits a lock somewhere.
On why half the homes in this town are abandoned: We’re not sure. It was either a radon leak or pirates or something else entirely. How many people live here now is another mystery, because some of them like to hide. If you see anyone peering at you from behind a boxwood or telephone pole, don’t gawk. (Nothing shouts tourist more than gawking.)
2. Our Natural History. This town was built on shale and limestone. Bobcats and giant sloths once roamed the spot where the welcome center stands. The animal specimens on display by the restrooms are mere replicas. (We had to put away the originals because of the schoolchildren pulling out tufts of fur. And because of the maggots.) But the rocks are quite real. You may touch them.
3. Scenery. Half a mile down the road you’ll find our scenic overlook. Twelve people have died there so far this year. Not from the drop. They died of other causes, mainly heart attacks, but we feel compelled to mention this since that’s about 30 percent of our visitors. The odds aren’t good.
4. Dining. We don’t give out restaurant recommendations. There are only three restaurants in town, and if we recommend one, we’d have to recommend them all, which we don’t. (Just know this: Fettuccine with rattlesnake chunks is not as toothsome it sounds.)
5. Architecture. Our courthouse was built in 1839, in the Greek Revival style, but it’s no longer used for trials. Crafters have taken over the space. Under no circumstances should you go there unless you plan to buy something. Do not try to outrun the crafters.
Home & Garden Tours take place daily between nine and two. There is only one house on the tour, and no garden. There is no furniture in the house either, but you can stare through the windows at the family arguing inside. They come out at noon for autographs.
6. For the Children. If your kids like to break things, may we suggest a fun place on Eleventh Street where they can take sledgehammers to old TVs, china sets, and exercise machines? Only one grownup per child is allowed inside. It was two before the incident.
Our local storyteller visits the library Friday mornings at ten. She is 93 and tells the same story over and over about the time her brother pushed her down the well. There’s always a slight variation, which makes it kind of interesting.
For the more active child, our park boasts the world’s 10th Tallest Slide with a Hole in It. We hire people to catch the children, and often they do.
7. Maps and Other Resources. Feel free to take a map. Feel free to toss it out. Everything’s changed since the maps were made, and some find it frustrating to walk to a place that no longer exists. If we made another map it would quickly grow outdated. Main Street is constantly shifting due to the fault that runs beneath it, and our local river floods its banks several times a month, which necessitates moving many things around. They say eventually the entire town will be under water, but we doubt that any of us will be here then.
8. In Closing. You’ve probably left by now. If you haven’t, there’s one more place we’ll tell you about. (We don’t mention this to everyone.)
Go out back, past the toxic herb garden, the giant pyramid of rusty pipes, and the feral-pig yard. Row across the sulfur lake, taking care to avoid the serpents, and you’ll come to a yellow house with the windows open, box-fans on opposite sills. Inside you’ll find a pie cooling on a table. It is amazing. Only take one piece.
Susan Frith lives in Orlando, where she’s finishing up a novel. Her fiction has appeared in Sycamore Review, New Madrid, Zone 3, Moon City Review, Emrys Journal Online, and elsewhere. You can follow her on Instagram at @susanfrithwrites and Twitter at @SusanFrith8.
You scratch because it itches. You’re over the moon with excitement. Good news always drives your histamine reaction and now you’re breaking out in hives. You drink a glass of water. You breathe, slow breaths, in, out, the way the yoga teacher and the meditation guru and the homeopathist and the ENT guy instruct. The itch gets funky, like a dance, up and down your arms, the backs of your thighs, a place between your shoulder blades you can’t reach. You ask Ben to reach for you and he says he won’t because scratching only makes it worse. If you’re going to marry this guy, you want to know. You tell him he has to and when he does, you know you made the right choice.
Susan Tacent’s work has been published in a variety of literary journals including Tin House Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, decomP, Blackbird, Ontario Review, and DIAGRAM. In addition to teaching writing workshops, she facilitates an assisted living book club where the participants’ collective age exceeds 900 years. You can find her online at susantacent.weebly.com.
The truth is, she misses everything from those days, the skirts they wore and the bangs they had, side-swept, always on the verge of disappearing, like youth. Like life. It all slipped away, as her parents had warned her, even the people. Girlfriends you thought you’d have forever, poof, lost to marriage or motherhood or minds suddenly changed. They didn’t want to be girls anymore. They moved to other states. They changed their names and lost themselves.
Disappearance can happen so easily. It was her turn, that one summer, when she was still taking the bus home. She was walking to her apartment across a huge parking lot, nearly deserted in the afternoon heat. Done teaching for the day, in her business attire, carrying a briefcase. Good hair. Makeup starting to melt. As soon as he pulled up alongside her, she knew who he was and what he was doing. How could she miss him? His face was on flyers all over town, guest-starring on the local news. This time he was wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, trying to grow a beard. He had been to her apartment complex before; a woman’s screams sliced into her sleep one humid morning.
Hey, do you want a ride?
A ride? (But my apartment is right over there, she thought but did not say.)
Yeah. It’s hot, so I figured you might want a ride. (Perfect words, faulty tone. The lie crept out.)
This was her cue. She bent at the waist and leaned in to get a better look. The audition ended there, with her bowing before him, briefcase tapping against her knee, all her lines cut. He knew what she was doing, could already hear her calling the police, though she never actually did. He tore off so fast she couldn’t read the license plate.
Sometimes she thinks she should have gotten in the car. If she had sat right down in the mystery, she would have had her answer. The truth can be dangerous but she likes to brush up against it. What if she had chased after the speeding car until the sweat rolled off her? Or she could have ditched her briefcase, jumped on the roof, and held on for the ride of her life, surrendering her hair to the wind. Her favorite scene: throwing her head back and shouting Northwest Stalker!, just to see his face. To show the world she got one thing right.
Jan Stinchcomb is the author of The Kelping (Unnerving), The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). Her stories have recently appeared in Wigleaf, Hobart, and Pithead Chapel. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in The Best Small Fictions2018 and Best Microfiction 2020. She lives in Southern California with her family. Visit her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.
Squinting against whiteness the child left her mother beside the woodpile. With the sudden drop in temperature an icy crust had formed on last night’s new snow. “We’ll find it!” her mother called, watching the child walk on the surface while she stood shin-deep, clutching her stump to her breast. It was tightly wrapped in rags. Bleeding was stanched. The throbbing had slowed, perhaps due to the cold. But she was burning up, dizzy.
For a moment her mind took flight and she observed the two of them from above. Her daughter moved away, shrinking to a dot. “It all looks the same!” the child cried. “I don’t see anything.” . The voice brought her back. “Everything will be all right. We’ll find it. I promise.”
Charles Holdefer is an American writer currently based in Brussels. His work has appeared in the New England Review, North American Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, and in the 2017 Pushcart Prize anthology. His recent books include Magic Even You Can Do (hybrid) and the forthcoming Agitprop for Bedtime (microfiction). Visit Charles at www.charlesholdefer.com.
She says: your mother must want something from you.
My mother can’t walk or talk. Her body is bones wrapped in reams of moth skin. Her brain works in insect twitches.
At the nursing home, there’s an awkward expectation for her to die.
My mother looks at me, wanting something. The dark yokes of her eyes are always the same. I think we’re both confused about beginnings and endings.
I imagine telling the nurse: You’ve got the wrong girl. I never give her what she wants.
I’m a grabber and a snatcher.
I knew it when I plucked the rose from our neighbor’s prized garden. My small fist on the stalk. The snap made me think I’d surprised it, and I was ashamed. My mother, watching from the kitchen window, came outside with her Nikon. The picture’s in a frame on the wall. It is the closest of close-ups. Black and white. Me, in profile, the face slack, the one eye in distress, the flower-head pressed to my lips. I’ve stopped wanting the rose already.
I knew when I found the dead bird with the metal leg band in our backyard. I thought the metal was a precious thing, and I wanted it more than anything. I raced inside for my blunt school scissors. The procedure was premeditated and slow. Long enough for me to be repulsed by my persistence. The leg flopped back and forth as I worked its sinew, working it into a not-a-real-leg. When it was over, I knew I’d mutilated a dead bird and that I’d never forget that about myself. Those digits etched in the flimsy cuff. The stupidity of hope.
Here’s what I need to tell that nurse. My mother started to want when I was one year old, when she took me on a plane overseas to see her dying, estranged mother.
My mother always told the story with gritted teeth. Her mother was gone by the time we landed. I had been an unsleeping terror on an all-night flight.
I imagine that plane’s hydraulic thrum. I hear it in the obscene lift the two attendants use to move her in and out of bed every day.
In the middle school popular clique, it was shoplifting. At the local department store, Liz Miller and I glided up and down the escalators, licking our chops. I plucked at trembling racks of earrings. I got so good I could take one, two, three cardigans on the featured rack. I wanted and wanted, and so it would only stop when I got caught. My mother says: You’ve always been a greedy little girl.
These things that I took and took and snatched and grabbed? The bird band and the rose and the cardigans? Their currency was bogus.
As soon as I get to her floor, I hear my mother loud and clear. She can’t talk, but now she is screaming.
An attendant understands this as: More tea!
I’m the only one who can translate her. She wants her mother and I want my mother. I picture us all as hungry bird mouths. Little openings, skyward, stretched out to an aching point, stretched to infinity.
Give them permission to go. Help them settle the unfinished business. Assure them you will be fine.
I imagine death as no more asks and no more wants. I imagine the coolness that comes over the body, just like the hospice pamphlet described. My mother, myself, at peace, wanting nothing, limbs unencumbered by flesh and blood, unmoved by removal.
Michelle Ephraim is Associate Professor of English at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she teaches courses on literature and creative writing. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Tikkun, Lilith, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Morning News, and other publications. She has been featured on The Moth Radio Hour and is the co-author of Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas (Penguin, 2015).
IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT
by Brenna Womer
While shopping what’s left of the canned goods at the grocery store, an announcement at the top of the hour, robust and autotuned: “All employees must now perform a personal temperature check,” and I, in a pair of disposable vinyl gloves but not a face mask because Dr. Gupta says they’re unnecessary for the still- and now- and currently-healthy, holding the last can of Kroger no-salt garbanzos, recall they’ve always made this announcement, but two weeks ago they were checking the temperature of the meats.
Brenna Womer is a poet, prose writer, professor, and editor. She is the author of honeypot (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019) and Atypical Cells of Undetermined Significance (C&R Press, 2018), and her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Indiana Review, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere.
There are three women installed in the living room when I arrive. Smartly dressed, young moms most likely, with highlighted loosely curled hair, gleaming toenails, and tailored pantsuits. All have open laptops and cell phones—new information and guidelines saturate the air. I arrive with a friend because this is where our weekly writing group meets, at Hope’s house—because she’s wheelchair-bound and can’t easily secure a ride to our usual meeting places. The women are from the hospice—nurse, social worker, and gerontologist. It occurs to me that the more they deal with the dying, the farther away they get from death. They bring a pleasing scent to the room, perfume and doughnuts and pastries, which overpower the disinfectant used to clean up after Hope’s father’s renal stent failed in the middle of the night and urine soaked into the carpet.
We offer to come back at another time, but Hope wants us to stay. She rolls into the adjoining dining room and we follow, spreading out pens and Xeroxed poems and coffee on the table. We’ve done this every week for more than ten years. Today I’ve written a sestina about the character from Verdi’s Rigoletto and related it to the overwhelming feelings of vulnerability a father feels for his kids. Patti’s written about safe places and all the terrible truths a child must be protected from. We come down harshly on her attempt in the final stanza to tie this in with a drowning female Narcissus. Hope’s poem is about the mythological underpinnings of celebrity worship, the Roman Saturnalia, and human sacrifice. By the end of our two-hour session, all three poems are substantially improved. We will place them in folders, stick the folders into desk drawers, and repeat the process next week. I will probably bring another sestina, Patti will bring another poem about wrecked innocence, and Hope will bring one about some other aspect of popular culture. Or one where she flirts with and then castigates the Italian painter, Caravaggio. We hold fast to our comfortable subjects and styles.
We hear the conversation from the adjoining room. I’m sure they can hear bits and pieces of ours. Hope’s dying father is brought in. The nurse asks him about an open sore in his groin and if he still has trouble swallowing his meds. The gerontologist explains what hospice means, using simple and direct language, avoiding the word death. The social worker asks him which facility he’d prefer after reeling off a string of them. How about this one, she says, and I picture her positioning the screen of her laptop so he can see from across the room. Or here, she says. He doesn’t respond, and I’m reminded of my meeting with the activities director of the nursing home where they sent my father to die. He was barely alive and had a feeding tube attached to his stomach. So, what’s your dad’s favorite ice cream, she asked, we pride ourselves on our weekly ice cream socials.
No one uses metaphors, and Hope’s father gives simple yes, no, or I-don’t-know answers. One time the nurse uses the word spot, referring to an open bed at The Arbors. I think of Wordsworth’s phrase, spots of time, when he relates a particularly overwhelming experience from his own childhood where he steals a small boat and rows out to the middle of a lake. He’s surrounded by huge mountains illuminated by the piercing moonlight, and he’s terrified. And yet, he writes, these very spots of time “lift us up when fallen.”
Hope sits with her back to the others. When someone asks her about her father’s sleep schedule, Hope raises her arm, and without swiveling around, waves the question away. Several times we suggest that she join the conversation in the living room, but she insists she’ll find out all she needs to know later. Patti points out that living rooms ceased to be called parlors once funeral homes became known as funeral parlors, living rooms as opposed to dying rooms. I ask if parlor derives from the French verb to speak. If so, I say, then, we should think of our workshop as a beauty parlor.
Leonard Kress has published poetry and fiction in The Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and others. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex and Walk Like Bo Diddley. Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz were both published in 2018. Craniotomy appeared in 2019. He teaches philosophy and religion at Owens College in Ohio. Read more at www.leonardkress.com.
It’s a damp, drizzly November night—Thanksgiving—and I can’t help but think of Melville’s famous orphan, who sets out from this insular city of the Manhattoes, goes to sea with branded Ahab, and eats hardtack with his shipmates aboard the doomed Pequod. ■ Blinky grew up on a cattle ranch in Miami. As a boy, he spent time in foster homes, on the street. He tells me about his father—then asks me to leave him out of it. Saw his mother for the first time when he was 12 or 13, around the time he started smoking crack. Saw her again—and for the last time—a few years later. ■ Blinky met the love of his life in Central Park. He was sitting on a bench, drinking a forty. Dani was sitting nearby. Hey, she called over, can I have a sip off your beer? No, replied Blinky. “She got all huffy and puffy, started talking shit in Spanish to her friend. ‘This cracker, blah blah blah.’” After a minute or two, he said—also in Spanish—Hey, I understood everything you just said about me. Dani blushed, got flustered. “Then I told her she could have the beer.” Soon, they were dating. She’d tell him about things like Pangaea, ask him about the farm animals back home. She spoke Spanish, English, German, Portuguese. ■ Blinky eventually asked Dani to go to Florida. They spent five years there. “We used to dress up as clowns and do street performances.” What kind? “Do jokes, bug around. Shit that clowns do.” By the time Miami police found Dani’s body, she and Blinky had been together ten years. Something about her death didn’t jibe. “The autopsy says one thing, the cops ruled it an overdose.” What’d the autopsy say? “She had lacerations on the back of her head, bruises running up and down the side of her body.” His voice softens. “She was everything. My best friend…” ■ A crisp, smiling couple stops, hands us each a small bag. Inside are soaps, lotions, Oatmeal & Shea Butter body wash, a single tampon. We thank them. They move on. I look over at Blinky. “We’re gonna need bathrooms and vaginas for all this,” I say. Laughing, he pulls out a small box of Ritz crackers. “I don’t have enough teeth to eat hard crackers. Baguettes, maybe. There’s not much to a baguette. I could just eat the inside.” ■
After kicking heroin in 1999, Jamie Alliotts went on to study writing at Columbia, Oxford, Dartmouth, and Iowa. A native of Oradell, New Jersey, he’s won awards and fellowships for his playwriting and essays, which appear or are forthcoming in Star 82 Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Bayou, 40 Towns, and elsewhere. Alliotts is writing a series of stories about the horrors associated with twelve-step recovery, as well as a memoir about his experiences as a heroin addict in the U. S. Navy and on the streets of Manhattan during the 1990s.
After we order the chicken for two, I run a theory by my friend Lois: certain professions are more conducive to being good spouses than others. I’m not referring to practical considerations here, like the wear and tear a surgeon’s hours (both long and unpredictable) will inflict on her marriage. Rather, the same qualities that make people good at certain jobs make them decent spouses. “Architects, for instance,” I say, “like me. We need to be meticulous, we need imagination and long-range vision. Looking at a building pared to drywall and studs, we picture the pristine home it will become. We gravitate to the fixer-upper.”
What I don’t say—but Lois knows what I am thinking, because I intend her to—is that I am married to the converse: someone whose job primes him to be a crappy husband. Curt is a food critic. A good food critic, like my husband, is the ideological opposite to the architect. Instead of seeing things through the rosy glow of potential, Curt sees flaws. He’s like the boy Kay in the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Snow Queen,” who gets a splinter of cursed glass stuck in his eye that makes everything grotesque. When Kay looks at a rose, he sees the slick, black bug crawling on the stem.
Also: a food critic is motivated to discover the next shiny thing. The new restaurant is the one suffused with a honey glow.
I used to imagine myself as Curt’s favorite restaurant, where we still go once a year and always order the same thing, where Lois and I are eating now. More specifically, I would imagine myself as a particular dish at his favorite restaurant: roast chicken, served with bread salad, black currants, and pine nuts. You have to order the chicken as soon as you sit down—there’s a note about this on the menu—because it takes fifty minutes to cook. It roasts at 500 degrees in a cast iron skillet. I know this because I bought their cookbook this summer, so I could make the chicken myself. I burned my hand lifting the skillet from the oven.
But it’s Lois here with me today, not Curt, because Curt is in Bologna. Bologna has the best food in Italy. Married to a food critic, I thought this was a universally known fact, though Lois is clearly surprised to hear it, after she asks, so casually, “Why Bologna?”
This makes me consider which other facts I consider universally known are not, and then which facts other people know that I would be equally surprised to learn. For instance, Lois just told me, assuming this is something that everyone knows, that only 15% of used clothes are donated to the Salvation Army or Goodwill. The rest become landfill. “Didn’t you know?” she says, perfect eyebrows arched. I’m at a loss to explain my horror is not just about the waste. Suddenly the world is full of knowledge that I am not privy to, and learning this knowledge will only make my world darker.
This feeling is so oppressive that I almost lose my appetite for the roast chicken and bread salad that I once believed represented me, the dish my husband would always rank first.
I’ve bullied Lois into ordering the chicken and bread salad, since the restaurant will only serve it to two people or more. Lois mostly avoids meat. I watch her pick at her chicken thigh and feel guilty, despite having every right to manipulate her.
Lois writes grants for nonprofits. She thinks this makes her a good person.
“So, what are you going to do all week while Curt’s in Bologna?” Lois asks.
“Work. See my friends,” I say. “And,” I hesitate, because I didn’t plan to say this next part. I consider reasons to disclose, reasons to withhold. It’s like an imaginary house I am building and dismantling. I hesitate for so long Lois repeats, “And?”
“And, I’m going to get my eggs frozen.” Lois’s eyes are her most beautiful feature, black and moist as olives. They widen. “I thought you didn’t want children?”
I’m almost certain Lois is having an affair with Curt. But I am willing to see Lois with an architect’s eye, and imagine as I look at her, her plum-colored lipstick mostly rubbed off, her lips shiny from the chicken skin that she only reluctantly eats, that Lois is having regrets. She feels guilty for betraying me. She suspects Curt is a pain in the ass, finicky and difficult to satisfy, and she could find a better man who would cause considerably less trouble and stress.
“Curt doesn’t want children,” I say. Lois bites her greasy lip. I watch her set down her fork with its chunk of bread salad, its dainty, impaled currant.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Her story “Surfaces” was selected for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 2019. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. See more at www.kimmagowan.com.
the first step is to love someone who will let you touch their hair. this is very important and cannot be avoided. next, to find them one day in their kitchen, shoulders so tense you think of cliffsides taut with stone—so you take them by the hand, pull them to their living room and sit them on the floor in front of their couch. the couch is soft with love, easy and giving as water. you go to their bathroom and fetch their comb from the coffee mug by the sink. you take a seat. place the comb under your right thigh. then, you tuck their shoulders between your knees, take out hair pins if they’re wearing any, gently tug out rubber bands or hair ties or anything else pulling their hair tight from their skull. don’t start yet with the comb. first you must run your fingers through their hair, careful, so careful not to catch painfully on any snag or tangle. you whisper your fingers through, flicker them softly when you encounter a knot, do your best to pull it apart without yanking at the root. it is not always possible. if you must cause some pain, as sometimes you must, give them warning. a soft, murmured sorry will suffice. consider coconut oil, warmed between your palms, soaked into the roots of their hair like fresh rainfall, pulled lovingly through each strand. when their hair seems softer, their shoulders slacker, the muscles of their neck less prominent and stiff like a royal guard, it is time to take out the comb. here, too, you must be gentle. work slowly, methodically. right to left or left to right. starting always at the root. move slow and sure when there is a tangle, brace the comb against your hand whenever possible so as to spare their scalp. do this for some time. silence is like fresh snow settling on the lonely earth, the shuffle of snowflakes as you work through another snare, the thick, dappled comb glinting with lamplight. even so, they might speak, and you must listen, responding in a low, warm voice whenever appropriate. this is love, you know. this is how you must learn to love. with the patience to sit for however long it takes, the bones in your seat going blunt and numb, your muscles filling with restless thrum. pull the comb through the same section of their hair until it travels smooth and easy and shines with your still effort. you will do this again. you will do this for every section, every strand, you will sit until the work is done. and then, you will press a kiss to the top of their head, you will squeeze their shoulders, and let them walk away.
Uma Dwivedi is a sophomore at Yale University. They’ve been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Black Warrior Review. Their other publications include Picaroon Poetry, Right Hand Pointing, Broad Recognition, and Third Wednesday. They are a prose editor for Persephone’s Daughters and a poetry reader for Winter Tangerine. Previously, they’ve been a finalist in Write Bloody‘s 2017 manuscript competition, an editorial intern with Scribner, and a poetry mentee with The Adroit Journal. Dancing Girl Press released their first chapbook, They Named Her Goddess (we called her girl), in January of 2019. Catch them watching Winnie the Pooh or the Paddington movies.
AT NIGHT THE WOMAN’S DOORBELL RINGS. IN HER DOORWAY, THE MAN HOLDS HIS DOG IN HIS ARMS.
Is that a dead dog, she says, moving so the man can puncture her otherwise quiet house.
In her living room, the man lowers his dog towards her couch cushion.
Squinting at his whimpering dog, he says, Sartre might die.
The man tucks a nylon blanket under Sartre’s chin. Sartre pants. Sartre ate too much chocolate cake, he says, shifting towards the woman, Thank you for being here. She says, I’m glad you came over. Sorry he got poisoned. His steps pace oddly around her living room. Are you alright, she says. Hugging her bathrobe to her waist, she wanders to the window, where her reflection is foliage, gargled vines.
Pacing in her hallway, he says, It makes me fucking sick, how we all eat, eat until we burst, and I can’t do anything to change it…
THE WOMAN AND THE MAN LIE ON THE MAN’S BED, WATCHING TELEVISION, WHEN SUDDENLY THE MAN LEAPS OFF.
As he begins to kneel on the carpet, the woman says, What are you doing.
The man says, kneeling, I have a question to ask you. She stands, and he stays on his knee.
The man says, Will you move with me to High Plains, Nevada.
A hot pause.
The man says, I’vebeen offered a position at the world famous All-Elvis enclave.
The woman says, Elvis.
The man says, It’s been a life dream to mimic the king.I’m moving to High Plains, where my face will be plastered on television sets across the nation. I want you to come with me.
The woman says, Let me google it.
THE NEXT DAY THE WOMAN MEETS HER AUNT IN A COFFEE SHOP WITH OCHRE STAINS ON THE CEILING. MAKING A FACE AS SHE SIPS HER WATERY COFFEE, HER AUNT ASKS:
So you’re dating that guy who writes perverted love songs about birds. The woman says, I guess you could say that. The TV attached to the wall displays an image of a female’s headless body, oiled, positioned on a dinner plate. An advertisement jingle plays. Her aunt says, Don’t you think it’s a little funny you’re dating an activist. The woman says, I guess so.
The waitress approaches them to ask if they would like anything else; her aunt looks at the woman and says no.
I’m sure you know what you’re doing, her aunt continues, By the way, it looks like I’m about to go through another divorce. Do you have any money I could borrow.A man in a suit enters the coffee shop with blood on his shoes, tracking it as he bumbles over to the register. The woman says, I don’t have access to my university stipend anymore. Plus, I’m moving to High Plains.He got a job at one of those Elvis enclaves.
Her aunt’s face goes slack and she hesitates,You should probably follow him there.She sniffs. Well anyways I’ve got to get going. These lawyer checks won’t write themselves, and unlike you I don’t have an Elvis Impersonator for a boyfriend.She tosses a crumpled five-dollar bill on the table, adjusting her faux-fur vest and prancing around the blood tracks in her soiled-cream stilettos.
BEFORE BOARDING THE TRAIN TO HIGH PLAINS, NEVADA, THE WOMAN AND HER PURSE ARE SEARCHED. HANDS GROPE BENEATH HER BREASTS. AN EXTRA SECOND.
She sleeps during the ride and wakes to the slur of wheels slowing.
From the window her eyes stare at High Plains, Nevada. Black tall buildings, a sky tinged with smoke.
At the arrivals platform, the man waits behind a barrier. His shoulders clumped. Moving towards him. A haze of stubble over his forehead, chin. She’s clutching her potted plant from Pinecoast against her hip.
At the edge of the throng, their bodies sizzle. As she collapses into him, she says, Home at last.
Careening through the emptied station, he offers her a white handkerchief. To protect your lips from the ash, he says, forehead glossed with sweat.
Luggage in tow, they sprint towards the yellow cab gunning in the shade. Heat throttles in her lungs.
Yellow cab smashing through strange cool streets. A graffiti-phrase on the side of a concrete building reads, HIGH PLAINS, CITY OF HOMELESS COWS. She says aloud, Homeless cows. Cab driver says, In High Plains, cows run free in the city. There is nowhere for them to graze. All the nearby pastures have caught fire.
He says, Look.
In the street, a herd of cows exposing their slack pink tongues. Ribs poke out from their skin. The woman licks her lips. This is us here, the man says, dispensing a wad of cash into the cab driver’s palm. In front of their new apartment complex, the woman widens her step to evade a cow snacking on the innards of a vulture.
Vanessa Saunders is a writer living in New Orleans, Louisiana. She teaches writing at Loyola University, New Orleans. Her cross-genre manuscript, The Flat Woman, was a finalist for the Seneca Review‘s 2019 Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Contest. That manuscript was also longlisted for the 2018 Tarpaulin Sky Press Book Award. Her poems and cross-genre work have been published in PANK, Entropy, Nat. Brut, Stockholm Literary Review, Poor Claudia, Passages North, Heavy Feather Review, and other journals; her nonfiction has been published in Redivider. She studied at the University of East Anglia and San Francisco State University for her BA in creative writing and received her MFA from LSU. She is presently at work on a novel of eco-fiction.
The first of my brother’s birthdays that he wasn’t there for was three months and two days after he passed. He would have been twenty-two on the 22nd day of June, but he wasn’t. We let twenty-two lanterns go over Shanksville School. We lived a minute from the school. It has this big parking lot, it’s small compared to other schools, but so damn big when no one’s in it. Big enough. All of our immediate family and friends came and parked and stood and let go of the burning pieces of paper that are supposed to work like tiny hot air balloons.
It was windy. We lived on a hill. The school lived on that hill. The burning paper lanterns couldn’t get off the damn hill. Some of them did, about eighteen, made it over the pine trees.
I spent eight hours of that day at work, thinking about how much I wanted to stay there and not go home to spend time with my family in a lot of burning paper.
Three of them wouldn’t take off. One got stuck in a tree. Aunt Betsy, who bought the lanterns for her first nephew, said she’d have to call the fire department. That the little fire would burn the whole tree down, and then the school. I hoped it would. Burn down everything so we could start new, fresh, the soil fertile from flames and mistakes and misjudged wind.
We laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed. My grandfather sat in a lawn chair on the pavement with his oxygen tank and laughed. My uncle kicked the pebbles left behind by winter snowplows and laughed. Betsy picked up smoking again and shook smoke out from the belly. My grandmother talked to my cousins on the other side of the family, told them it’s okay to cry. His best friend showed up late, but that made sense when nothing else did. We laughed when his wouldn’t take off the ground, wanting to stay in his hands. No one cried externally. I think we all cried on the way home. All 98.6 degrees of us helped to burn down the bad of the day, but we had to wake up the next day and do it all over again, without each other.
Matthew Tyler Boyer is a writer from Western Pennsylvania. He is a student in the Creative and Professional Writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. He is the author of the self published book Due to an Underwhelming Sex Education System in America. He is a fan of cats and oversized sweaters.
“This closet can hold many dead bodies. At least fifty.”
That was the first thing I told my roommate when I first met her.
The closets in our bedrooms really are huge. They are wide. They are tall. You could stack corpses up in there like sacks of rice. One on top of the other, rows of stacks. Many tall stacks. Not moving, not breathing.
My roommate uses her closet to line up faux fur coats and scarves. They’re lined up like a small army of foxes. I like to run my fingers on the soft furry surface and pretend that I am raising obediently still pets in her closet space.
But me, I keep mine simple. I walk past all the clothes, mounds of clothes strewn on my bedroom floor like defeated soldiers at the end of a long-fought battle. I slide the heavy wooden door open, get under my warm sheets, slide the door back closed, and lie still, until I fall asleep in the perfect dark.
Neeru Nagarajan is a writer from Chennai, India. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, Hypertext, Kitaab, The Adirondack Review, Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Bowling Green, Ohio, where she is at work on a novel.
The children make a ball the size of a cantaloupe out of looseleaf paper and book tape. They throw it across the classroom, not listening to my adult cries of “Stop it!” All I want is quiet. These children don’t know how to behave. They are boisterous and loud, and I wonder what their parents would do if they were left alone with them for five minutes. I don’t even want to be here with these children. I am substituting, a thing I do when I am only left with ramen and frozen corn in my larder. Substituting is the emergency brake of my life, the ripcord on the parachute. It keeps me from crashing harder, falling farther than I otherwise would.
These children are wild and out of control. They are not doing the work their teacher left for them, but instead some are playing poker in the corner. Others are using the rest of the roll of book tape to encase the left sneaker of the smallest kid in the class. These children toss the ball across the room, the object whizzing toward my head. I lift my hand in the air and grasp it. It was in motion, and now it’s not. The children gasp. I am too old and worn to participate in their homemade games. I am of the adult world, I am the one who is asking them to grow up, to take things seriously, yet they don’t want to. I am falling hard and fast. I might not be the best role model for these children. They look at me and roll their eyes. I roll my eyes back at them. They are not nonplussed. They’ve seen this look in adults before.
But I hold the ball in my hand for a moment. I keep it in the air, holding it before them, a jerry-rigged, disappointing, cobbled-together world in my hand. They expect me to throw it back to them because I am the sub. I have a light bill that was due last week. I am tired of their shenanigans, and other things, as well. I already ate the last bit of pretzel dust in my lunch bag. There are no more snacks at home. They are wearing me down. I have nothing to lose. I hold the ball for a moment too long, and then, with great deliberation, I throw it at the loudest of them all.
Amy Kiger-Williams holds an MFA in Fiction from Rutgers Newark. Her work has appeared in Yale Review Online, X-R-A-Y, Ghost Parachute, and Juked, among others. She is at work on a novel and a short story collection. You can read more of her work at amykigerwilliams.com and follow her on Twitter at @amykw.
I saw it happen before I heard it. My phone dropped from my grip, pulling my earbuds out and to the ground with it. A cellist played in my head. My breath hot, fogging and unfogging my glasses. I licked my chapped lips before doubling over to retch onto my rubber boots.
It had been snowing that morning. What some called awhiteout. Each step to work was a near-silent crunch. Unable to make anything out in front of me, I was one of the only employees going in because of how much had accumulated overnight. I would have been paid if I had stayed home, but I didn’t believe in taking unearned money. Working kept me busy, anyway. Keeping my mind occupied was the only way I could avoid unraveling since the accident.
Two sets of headlights came into view in front of me. A Jeep, at a stop sign, spun out. A snowplow, coming on perpendicular, didn’t slow down. Didn’t know to slow down. The Jeep’s brakes couldn’t hold up on the ice. The plow couldn’t see them coming. It was out of their control and now someone was dead. I had never witnessed a car get crushed into something so small and unrecognizable. There was smoke and a sizzling. The driver of the plow got out and ran, in slow motion, to his vehicle’s victim. He tried prying, what might or might not have been the door, open but there was no point in optimism for the surely distorted body. The man ran toward me. TheChariots of Firetheme song played, which made me chuckle. His murmuring’s volume increased as he grew nearer. I couldn’t hear him over that song, over my heartbeat—my temples pulsing. Vomit lodged in-between my teeth. I spat onto the ground.
“Call 911! Call 911!” He shrieked, too close to my face, before running back.
My eyebrows drew closer. I looked down at my empty hand, then my gaze fell to the ground. It was covered in the snow that kept falling. The snow that didn’t let up, even after it had pocketed a life. I ungloved my right hand, but my screen was too saturated to dial.
My wife, two winters earlier, died in a car accident on a day not unlike this one. As the Jeep morphed into its new, fatal shape, before my eyes, I finally felt released. My grief transformed into a sadness for whoever loved this individual as much as I loved her. I hoped it had been as instantaneous for her as it was for them. I hoped neither felt the pain that losing them unearthed. Approaching ambulance sirens overpowered the man’s sobs. I set my phone back down and tossed my glasses onto the ground, too. Red flashing lights came around the corner. Red flashing lights that I never called. I laid down and let the white everything consume my vision until my eyes couldn’t stand it anymore.
PARCHMENT, ABSORPTION, & SPLINTERED PALMS After Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone” (1888)
Every night I was intermittently woken up by a flashlight peeking into the small window in my door. A confirmation of my staying put. Double checking my pulse without having to hold my wrist. I’d been there for years. Set schedule. Second hand desk that you can’t brush up against without getting splinters. The walls and floor, off white. My bed sheets are pale blue. My smock, pale blue. Most of the time, I wish I could be pale blue, too. My mind winning marathons, winning trauma responses. This is my box of unhealthy coping mechanisms. This is the box where they’ll bury my empty body. Pins in my mouth, in my eyes. Maybe ashes to be spread, spilled, swallowed. I am a pacing nothing. At night, the internal hum dimmed. Everything outside of my body grew quieter at night, too. The river outside continued flowing—still reflecting, still evolving. From my encased window high above humanity, I had an even better view of the moon than the people who sat on park benches, who walked their dogs, who knifed open champagne on their anchored sailboats. I preferred moon slivers to full moons. I liked when the water balanced out and I could see every glowing bit of the above resting on its surface. I’d often stay up all night trying to replicate it on canvas. Trying to capture it in my hand. Trying to tuck it away—to save it for when I couldn’t see out. When the sun rises, I can still feel the constellation aftermath on my skin; yes, I am made of stars. My bones are these window bars. This is my rib cage. I am encased. Some people like to watch the sun rise and set; I prefer the in between. Yes, I am an in between. When your mind doesn’t fit the mold, it is the ever-changing phases of the night sky that show me I’ll be okay. Their flashlights walked me outside. Their fingers on my pulsing wrists. I soak up the night. I put it on paper. I save it for later.
Savannah Slone is a queer writer, editor, and English professor who currently dwells in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Paper Darts, The Indianapolis Review, Glass: A Poetry Journal, Hobart Pulp, and elsewhere. She is the Editor-in Chief of Homology Lit. Savannah is the author of An Exhalation of Dead Things (CLASH Books, 2021), Hearing the Underwater (Finishing Line Press, 2019), and This Body is My Own (Ghost City Press, 2019). She enjoys reading, knitting, hiking, and discussing intersectional feminism. You can read more of her work at www.savannahslonewriter.com.
WELCOME TO MY GALLERY OF GENUINE LOOK-ALIKES
by Anne McGouran
That grating drone is the wind off Nottawasaga Bay whipping along Main Street. The Freshii outlet just duct-taped their front window and HappyHooka Bait & Tackle closed one hour early. As I struggle to stay vertical, a Gandalf lookalike falls into step beside me. We walk abreast for several blocks and I stare at hisperfectly shaped cigarette ash. He turns into the Molly Bloom Pub where he’ll trot out his magic-cigarette-ash bar trick for all theold vets and rooming house drifters.
In the Arboretum, aman whosleeps rough near the meditative labyrinth is examining the Trembling Aspen’s memorial plaque. Arms around itspale white trunk, he’s a dead ringer for the epic-bearded cigarette ash guy. Homeless people make me nervous, sad and guilty but I try to make conversation. “Hey man, did you knowthat the aspen has hands down the most restless foliage of any tree? My tree atlas says its leaves pivot in the slightest breeze. No kidding.”
Easter egg huntson the windy Plains of Abraham, sugar shack excursions for boiled maple sap rolled in fresh snow… I always pictured my mother’s Quebec City childhood as a kind of lost paradise. The year after she died, I retraced my mother’s childhood haunts. Still standing were J. A. MoisanGeneral Store (now an ultra-hip foodie haunt) and Le Capitole recital hall (now a Beaux-Arts theatre with a “Who has not looked for calm in a song?” frieze above the loge seating). I lingered in front of her old house on Saint-Gabriel: a three-story Georgian, the green shutters gone, half-moon fanlight miraculously intact.
Eighty-three-year-old cousin Annette wasmy mother’s last surviving relative. During our brief visit, I was struck by her resemblance to Madame Hermine, the flirtatiouslandlady in Children of Paradise…the same tight curls and chain of office necklace. Annette’sidea of haute cuisine was a 7-Up and a “Super-Club” sandwich at Snack Bar St-Jean. After dinner, sheexecuted a soft-shoe on the rain-slicked cobblestones while warbling“Je cherche un homme bon caractère. S’ilestgalant et beau, envoyez le moi. Expérience, pas nécessaire.”(I’m looking for a man of good character. If he’s gallant and handsome send me to me. No experience necessary.)Annette stopped hiccuping after fennel tea and a shot of Harvey’s Bristol Cream thenstared off into the distance.“After Sunday Mass we’d walk down toBasse-Ville for tartelettes à la crème de citronandboules au rhum.The baker’s twine cut into my fingers when I carried that big cake box up the hill… a white box with blue letters that said ‘PatisserieKerhulu. ’”
Quebec’s Charlevoix region is notorious for its hilly terrain. While we were admiring the north shore’s panoramic views, our Dodge Caravan’s back axle began braking and revving as if possessed. “Cripes!” my husband said. “I know you had your heart set on whale watching but we’d better head back… stick to the concession roads.”
We made a last-ditch stop in the village of Les Éboulementsoverlooking the St Lawrence River. Inside a dovegrey, shotgun-style barn, an elaborate diorama overflowed its papier-mâchébackdrop. Hand-painted terracotta figurines, tiny country chapels and cedar-roofed shacks arranged in tiers. A replica 19th century village of millers, bakers, lamplighters, town criers, knife sharpeners,aioli makers—all daydreaming, pontificating and haggling.
A pale, freckled girl named Adéloniewrapped our purchases in butcher paper and twine and affixed a label: “Les Santons de Charlevoix.” When I asked if the santonniermodeled his figurines after real people she half-shrugged, half-winked. Later that afternoon in Quebec City, a mechanic replaced our car’s universal joint and threw in complimentary maple sugar candies.
Twenty-eight santonspopulate our front room bookcase: abearded peddler with a samples case; a midwife balancing swaddling clothes in an olivewood cradle; avillage fool in a rucked-up nightshirt. The baker woman carrying a pannier full of bread and cakes bears an uncanny resemblance to cousin Annette who died twenty years ago. The same sultry-avariciousvibe.
Anne McGouran’s stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in The Account, CutBank, The Smart Set, Mslexia, Switchgrass Review, Gargoyle, Queen’s Quarterly (cited in Best Canadian Essays 2019). She lives in Collingwood, Ontario where she has developed a fascination with ice huts and orchard ladders.
The fire writhes, manic in a straightjacket. I too feel an appetite for all things.
I managed to open a bottle of beer with two rocks—modern man and the fire in his belly.
The beer rebels and foams, a harmless volcano.
It knows its criminal, this beer.
Night approaches. All the usual: purple, orange, blue. And then everything at once. Big black nothing, Conor Oberst sings.
Started the fire too early. Tent poles, broken but taped. A lopsided pyramid, instead of one forgiving arc. I zip up my sarcophagus.
The embers have a forcefield of heat that outdoes the light. If I wish to write, I will be burned.
I’m not far off the highway. Every truck frightens me.
I knew it would be cold. But knowing something means very little.
The embers in the sky could outlast those of my fire. I might burnwriting this. I’m on the last page. Imagine, all these words burning. The fire would go a little longer. A few minutes. Nothing more. Hours, months of writing, gobbled up by my most faithful reader.
Nothing is buried here. Everything is beaten, skinned, feasted upon. Tread lightly.
The first bone I found was clean of fur and meat. A crow nearby cawed and flew off into the buttermilk sky, wings beating in my ear.
The sun shrugged over the first mountain, and then the next. Turn back.
I gathered wood and came back with bones empty of marrow.
Tufts of animal fur flitted through camp like dandelion wings. What beast?
The sight of trash set me at ease. Mountain Dew bottles, candy wrappers, the many plastics of this world. These were things I knew.
I am a forensic scientist trained by Hollywood horror. Images from that buttered darkness (dull chainsaws, slashed tires, beards dribbled with chewing tobacco) visit me here in this boneyard once known as a picnic site.
Solitude. I wish I didn’t write that word. I have nothing to say about it other than I’ve had a lot of it.
Those with many rings write history. Elms write poetry. Wet wood, the kind that blows smoke, writes headlines.
Best known for tragedies, fire has authored the end of cities. Remember Chicago, the cow, the water tower.
Leave a mark like a fire would. Which is to say, no signature but itself. Recognizable to all, but only legible to the fire department.
The final burn. Let the sleeping pills settle. Throw on a free newspaper from the gas station and watch it bloom into black. Watch fire ants race over its petals and fly into the wordless night.
They say democracy dies in darkness, but lots of things live there too.
If you listen close, the fire says all kinds of things. Sometimes it says Rice Krispies in a bowl of milk. Sometimes car wheels on a gravel road. What would the fire say if I burned my notebook? Would it hiss or sigh or die? Or would it simply burn.
Connor Goodwin is a writer and critic from Lincoln, Nebraska. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, Poets & Writers, Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB, X-R-A-Y, Back Patio Press, and elsewhere. He is working on a novel. Follow @condorgoodwing.
THE GREATEST LANDSCAPE HE HAD EVER SEEN
by César Valdebenito translated by Toshiya Kamei
In the summer midday, he was seated on a blanket in his underwear, with his boots on. His horse was five or six meters away while his gaunt dog Toby was asleep. He had turned on the radio and was listening to the news, but twenty minutes later he got bored. About fifty meters away his flock of sheep wandered. Robust, peaceful, and healthy, they kept grazing. He grabbed his rifle, which he had brought back from Pueblo Seco, Mexico a few years earlier. He had always wanted to try it, but he had never found the time or the opportunity. He was one of the best shooters, if not the best in that mountain range and had always wanted to know how good he was. What had stopped him? He had no answers. So he took aim at the nearest tree. The shot sounded and the leaves shook. The dog woke up and the horse jumped. Then, with great deliberation, he aimed toward his herd. He gunned down a sheep with the first shot. The horse trotted away. With amazingquickness, he aimed at the horse. For a moment he followed it with the crosshairs and, seconds later, knocked it down with another shot. The horse kicked and lay there. He kept aiming at the flock and knocking down sheep. Each time one fell, he lowered his rifle and gazed into the landscape. He felt the warm air as the sun scorched the earth. He felt drops of sweat forming on his forehead. He continued firing for three or four hours. After that, the flock had been halved. The dog watched the sheep raise their heads and then continue to graze. As the dog observed, sometimes they collapsed or disappeared behind the horizon. “See, Toby? I’m very good, aren’t I?” said the young man. Then his cousin arrived on horseback. He came full gallop. He stopped about thirty meters away and shouted at him what the fuck he was doing. “You’re nuts! You’ve gone totally nuts! Bernardo!” shouted the cousin. But the young man aimed at him, fired, and gunned down the horse he was riding. The cousin ran out and got lost in the plain. In the middle of the afternoon, gunshots were heard throughout the region. The young man had already been surrounded by PDI agents andpublic security officers. But still, from time to time, he loaded the rifle and aimed at a sheep. The last image he would ever see was his dog looking at those sheep and the sheep looking at him. In the end he would think this was the greatest landscape he had ever seen in his life.
Born in 1975 in Concepción, Chile, César Valdebenito is a poet, writer, and essayist. His books include the novels La vida nunca se acaba (2017) and Una escena apocalíptica (2016), as well as the short story collections El bindú o la musa de la noche (2017) and Pequeñas historias para mentes neuróticas (2018).
Toshiya Kamei holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His translations have appeared in venues such as Abyss & Apex, Cosmic Roots & Eldritch, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Helios Quarterly Magazine, and Samovar.
I’m a spotter. I’m good at spotting people, what their weaknesses are.
I look for what feels familiar, it’s that simple. It’s that easy.
I see you, gentle men and women. I see you.
You may smile smile smile. Always smile smile smile.
But all the time I’m waiting. Waiting for you to slip.
I’m thinking about power. Always thinking about power.
The First Mark
“Come with us, we’ll show you,” I say to the short man.
“I don’t trust you, I don’t know you,” he says, pulling slightly away from me.“Why should I go with you?”
“Sounds like a Wookie,” I say to Joe.
“Sometimes,” I sayto the short man, going right up to him, “sometimes you just have to get out.”
Victims aren’t always helpless. Does that sound like an oxymoron?
Is it strange, that I’m asking?
The world is made up of those who control and those who are controlled by. That’s just the way it is. No use, as they say, wishing for the moon.
Perhaps you think I sound manipulative? Cold?
All I’m saying is: Don’t get a wife. Don’t, don’t, don’t.
Or you bury yourself. In a tomb bigger than Arundel’s.
The Second Mark
As to how the situation with Molly developed.
She was a toad. She had big, gelatinous eyes. Why was she squatting in my life, what cause did I give her ever? Tears always spilling from her eyes, towards what end?
She called me a brute. Oh la-di-day, oh la-di-day.
“Molly,” I said, “Is there someone you love? More than yourself, I mean? Because six days a week I toil. Driving that cab around.”
“You make me sick, Molly,” I said. “The way you’re always making things all out of proportion. And are you a pauper? Do we live like paupers?”
Molly crying and rubbing her eyes. She going: “Why do Dorothy and the others get to live like queens? Up-lane, in the big houses that always smell sweet, like roses? And we ourselves smell like tinned meat.”
“You seemed to like it once, Molly,” I said. “Ten years ago, you’d no complaints. You seemed to like it, remember? I would tickle your bare feet – Good God! Unspeakable! I must have been mad. And if I were brave enough – Stuff your cooking and your cleaning! And the three wee nippers, good Lord! The way the lot of you eat – ! Has you starved? Has any of you? What dreams I had once, Molly. That’s the stuff.”
You’re a toad, Molly Molly Molly. And again I said Molly Molly Molly. You go hop hop hop, hop hop hop, giving me the stink-eye. Hunkers hard like a cow’s, but no milk in your udders. Lips cold as snow.
Now, only the Lord knows. Only the Lord knows why.
Being a victim is like having a smell. When some people drink a lot, their skin begins to smell like corned beef. It has nothing to do with cleanliness. The smell comes from somewhere deep inside.
And this particular smell, the smell of a victim, is a lure.
But oh that’s all water under the bridge now.
I’m as jointed armour now, true as a knight’s steel.
Bees sting and ducks swim. Sniffing out marks –that’s what I’m good at.
That’s what I do.
Marianne Villanueva was born and raised in the Philippines and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published three collections of short fiction:Ginseng and Other Tales From Manila, Mayor of the Roses, and The Lost Language. Her novella, Jenalyn, was a 2014 finalist for the UK’s Saboteur Award. She has also collaborated on a full-length opera with the New York composer Drew Hemenger. Marife, the opera, received its world premiere in New Hampshire in 2015. She has just completed her first novel.
COAXING LIFE FROM DEAD MAN’S FINGERS
by Keygan Sands
Branching tendrils like spongy green fingers cling to surf-pummeled rock, doing their endless work of collecting sunlight filtered through silvery cloud. The air chokes and refreshes, rot and salt-scent both thick and invigorating. I pluck the seaweed fronds, Codium fragile or “dead man’s fingers,” from their nest amidst skin-slicing barnacles and mussels: they falter to human hands where endless pounding water could not break their holds.
Within the seaweed are tiny beings: pale, semi-translucent, grazing sea slugs. A plume of rubbery filaments—cerata—crest their backs, each one brilliant green with a thick web of dendritic veins. Their bodies taper, are topped with two independent eyestalks—rhinophores—that cast about gracefully and shrink at my touch. They feed upon the skin of the seaweed, ripping into the flesh, sucking from them chloroplasts. They are sacoglossans: sapsuckers.
Much later—I have migrated from rocky shoreline to sterile, clean-lined lab room—I separate the slugs from their food. I hold them with utmost care in a pair of metal forceps: squishy saclike body oozing between cold, hard prongs. The largest of them could stretch out comfortably to full length inside an eighth teaspoon. I place the slug in a glass vial which goes into a plastic box of water; the vial must be in a controlled environment. Tubes snake from the plastic into a steel box the size of a mini-fridge that calculates somewhere in its dark maze of innards how to keep the water bath at a constant temperature of 4℃. Another device connected to a thin probe impaling the vial’s cap measures dissolved air within the slug’s tiny, artificial environment. Just like that, I control a world.
Being an animal, the slug respires. I cover the vialin aluminum foil, blocking all light. Oxygen decreases predictably as the sacoglossan uses up what there is; it’s a neat line being birthed in blue on my computer screen: oxygen concentration as a percent of atmospheric pressure. After the designated period of darkness, precisely timed at half an hour, I proclaimthat there be light, and remove the foil without jostling. The slug clings to the glass, muscular foot flexing to progress its pinprick bulk, film of mucus left in its wake. The light, warm and piercing from a lamp suspended above, casts a halo glow upon the sacoglossan’s semi-clear skin, and green becomes gold. Amazingly, over the next thirty minutes,the little line of oxygen rises on the graph.
Some sacoglossan slugsdon’t kill and digest the chloroplasts from algae they consume. The organelles, fragile sacs of green pigment and photosynthesizing apparatus, make their miraculous way through gastrovascular systems and into the cerata in the slug’s back. There, the chloroplasts continue to coax sugar from light, life from sunshine.
Are the chloroplasts, then, alive? They survive, somehow, the vicious rending of the slug’s toothy, tongue-like radula tearing through algal flesh, the passage through the squirming digestive tract, and entrapment in a foreign body. Some varieties of these fed-upon seaweeds have incantations imbedded in their genetic coding that toughen their chloroplasts and enable them to function independently. Are they merely functioning, or truly living?
A well-known hypothesis: in the long-ago depths of evolutionary time, chloroplasts were once independent organisms—single-celled, photosynthesizing bacteria—that, upon being engulfed by another cell, did not break down, but traded nourishment for protection. They were incorporated into algae and, eventually, plants ever since. It seems to be happening again: perpetual innovation of the animal kingdom. Kleptoplasty: the stealing of plastids.
There is still ambiguity. Do the chloroplasts camouflage the slugs, or feed them? The answer might depend on species. Mine, Placida dendritica, remains a mystery.
I return my specimen to its tank. The seaweedis slowly decaying. A webwork of emerald slime floats like mist—I need to refresh the water—but the slugs, tiny pale specks, feed on. Even as the algae dies, the chloroplasts live. Mortality is a spectrum sometimes.
Keygan Sands is a candidate in the Creative Writing and Environment MFA program at Iowa State University. Her work explores the confluence between science, nonhuman environments, and society. Her writing appears in Cold Mountain Review and the climate fiction anthology Nothing Is As It Was. She presented literary research at the Fantasy and Myth Anthropocene International Conference in Brno, Czech Republic. Her visual art was featured in the “Welcome to Iowa: Letters to Carp and Other Immigrants” exhibit at the Signal Poetry Festival in Ames, Iowa.
Meg’s first husband was a kind man. They’d been good friends before they started dating. On long walks Meg would complain to Louis about her boyfriend of the time. At some point she realized that Louis was in love with her; however, she wasn’t attracted to him. But she liked Louis so much, and she feared that he would find a girlfriend, whereupon his devotion to her would inevitably slip away. So Meg overcame her lack of attraction. She did this partly by imagining Louis as an art object. Things about him that were repellent, like his concave chest or almost hairless legs, became appealing when she imagined him as composed of marble or aluminum.
For several years they were very happy. There was a skylight above their bedroom that opened on a hinge. Sometimes a wild peacock would land on the roof, and they would feed it Crackling Oat Bran through the skylight.
Louis was extremely neat, and did virtually all the cleaning. Before his family members would come to visit, he would scrub, sweep, and mop, and send Meg out to buy fresh flowers. Once Meg’s sister Evelyn, over for dinner, rinsed dishes and stacked them in their dishwasher, and Louis promptly restacked all the dishes. This offended Evelyn (though she was very fond of Louis). She asked Meg if she found her husband overly controlling. Meg shook her head in confusion; she couldn’t understand why anyone would object to having a husband do all the cleaning.
Louis had faults, though it took a long time for Meg to perceive them as such. He drank too much. His kindness trumped honesty. He would lie to people, including Meg, to avoid hurting their feelings. And eventually, though its source was mysterious to them both, he stopped being attracted to Meg. Her attraction to him had been of the talked-into variety, responding to his own rather than independently reaching toward him. So they stopped having sex altogether, and finally split up, though their break-up was painful and protracted, since Louis was such a kind man.
Meg’s second husband, Nicholas, was an honest man, though Meg sometimes felt that he used honesty as a club to bash people. Nicholas was messy, and Meg did nearly all of the housework. Sometimes she would pass a flower stand and think of how Louis would send her away from the house when he was on a cleaning frenzy and have her select fresh flowers.
As she approached middle age Meg thickened—that’s how she saw the twenty-five pounds she’d put on, as a thickening, a wrapping of fleshy layers around her body, like plaster of paris around the chicken-wire webbing of a sculpture. She knew the best way to lose weight was to quit drinking, but this prospect filled Meg with despair.
Occasionally Nicholas would stack the dishwasher, and when he did, Meg would restack it, because he left too much space between the plates. Nonetheless she resented the gender dynamics of doing the lion’s share of the housework. One day she told their daughter, “Vicky, make sure when you get married that you marry a tidy man or woman, because the tidier person in a couple by default does ninety percent of the cleaning.”
Vicky laughed, thinking Meg was kidding—Meg would often make light, snippy complaints about her husband to her children in this semi-abstracted way.
But Meg stopped her dish stacking, horrified.
She realized that she had become, in her second marriage, tidy, passive aggressive, hard-drinking, and duplicitous, that she now prized kindness over honesty. Even though she had deliberately married an honest man, she resented and blamed Nicholas for his candor. Meg had become, in essence, Louis, as if she needed to fill his vacancy with her own self. Thus her second marriageperfectly reproduced her first.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source (2019) was published by 7.13 Books. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Her story “Surfaces” was selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50 2019. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com
I come in the back door from outside, where the cicadas whine as I take out the trash. This is the dirtiest place I’ve ever lived, my first home with my first husband who I am still not convinced will be my last, but some invisible thread binds us. We say this love will last forever.
In the kitchen, there is a dingy curtain covering what is below the sink. A dirt floor I cannot clean unless I dig it up entirely.
This is New Orleans, I’m told. Which is supposed to mean I should expect something less than I’m accustomed to. The Big Easy.
I walk the hallway toward the bedroom, past what we have chosen to call the office. It houses my treadmill, where I spend hours running, the only thing that quells my anxiety.
The bedroom is dark. A cool space. Interior. A mascara smudge stains one of our white pillow shams. The mark is from a day I lay crying. A time when things got to be too much, and I stabbed the truck key into my skull, bleeding a trail home from the church.
There is a mysterious dark matter that collects on the bedspread during the day. We sweep it off with our palms, reading the texture of the bedding with our hands before we climb in, silent. To sleep.
One night we awaken there, clinging to one another, afraid the house will capsize at the sound of thunder rolling in off the Gulf.
I trail my hands along the dusty window frame as I enter the living room. The couch sags under a slipcover concealing where the dog ground her teeth into the cushions, liberating a cloud of filler beneath the loose fabric.
There is a two–inch space between the bottom of the front door and the floor. When I stand outside at dusk, looking in from the street, a pool of lamplight floods through the gap likea warm puddleon the front porch. This is where the bugs get in.
Anna Oberg lives and works in the Colorado Rockies. She is a professional photographer, specializing in terrain and creative headshots. When she’s not hiking around Rocky Mountain National Park with her camera, she writes from home. This is her first publication.
A SATURDAY MORNING EMAIL TO MY FRIEND:
FIRST DAY OF MY VACATION, NOT WITH YOU
by Mary Senter
It’s raining? Just as well Ididn’t godown for the fiesta. I can get crappy weather here. But … I can’t get you. I miss you. I shouldn’t, I know, but I do. I want to see you again. That week I spent with you was among the best weeks of my life. Even though we didn’t do anything super exciting or have any grand adventures, like my typical vacations, I enjoyed just being beside you and holding you in my arms. Even though I cried buckets on my walks—like I did the trip before, when I saw you for the first time in twenty years—I also laughed and smiled and sang. I was happy.
I’ve tried to find a word to describe how I felt, but I don’t think a word exists in the English language that properly conveys the emotion. I’ve tried words like content, safe, comforted, loved, serene, protected, calm, energized, hopeful, joyous, peaceful, blissful, whole, but none of those words alone is quite right. Even together, they don’t portray the particular feeling. I’m not sure I could even describe it. Maybe I don’t need to. Maybe you felt it, too, I don’t know. Odd that being in a person’s company could make me feel such things. I don’t understand it.
I can’t describe with a word how I felt, but I’ll try to describe it this way: It was like … It was like carrying a heavy load for a very long time, alone, over treacherous terrain and often in torturous weather conditions, through tribulations and strife, hunger and pain, fighting thieves and scoundrels along the way, and thinking all the while that you’re doing just fine. But then, you come to a refuge, where someone welcomes you, and knows what you’ve been through without asking. They invite you into a place that is new to you, yet feels very much like home. The person removes your pack, rubs the pain out of your shoulders, runs you a hot bath, and prepares a delicious, nourishing meal, accompanied by a cool, clean glass of water.They sit with you and let you tell them your troubles and joys while you sip wine after dinner. They lead you to a cozy, warm bed, tuck you into the down comforter, stoke the fire, and bar the door against the elements and anything else that could hurt you. As you close your eyes and listen to the crackle of the fire, you let out a deep sigh as you realize how bone-weary you have become, carrying that load on that long journey; and you think, briefly, ofhow much farther you have yet to carry it. But for that evening, it all falls away, and you have not a single worry in the world.
That’s the feeling I had with you.
Mary Senter writes in a cabin in the woods on the shores of Puget Sound. She earned certificates in literary fiction writing from the University of Washington and an M.A. in strategic communication from WSU. Her work can be found in Chaleur, SHARK REEF, Claudius Speaks, Six Hens, FewerThan500, Red Fez, and others. Visit her at www.marysenter.com.
Sometimes when I set up for the afterschool program in the multipurpose room, I see Miles skateboarding down the sidewalk, cutting class. Miles is in my fifth period writing elective but mostly he’s not there. Mostly he’s off somewhere in his red hoodie.
Sometimes I look out the second story window of Mr. Creasman’s room, where I teach my writing class, at L.A.’s looming maw, the chattering raspado carts, the gathering haze. I imagine Miles in his red hoodie, at the LACMA, stealing a Picasso or Cezanne’s Still Life With Cherries, or getting a burger at Tommy’s on Rampart where all menu items come with chili, unless otherwise noted.
I envy Miles’s freedom and yet every day I set out in the late morning toward the great grey chasm beyond Pasadena, sharing the Gold Line with the others not pulling their weight full-time, those who fail to produce. We careen above the Arroyo Seco as the skyline grows bigger in the graph paper of the train windows. When the train breaks down or someone kills themself on the tracks, I cross the city in buses, waiting at street corners in the wake of fumes. Once, at Union Station, I saw a woman on the Red Line platform with her eyeball hanging out by the optic nerve. On sixth street I saw a man steaming along on a skateboard, waving a sword.
Sometimes, setting up the afterschool program in the multipurpose room, I fart and listen for an echo.
When I see Miles skateboarding down the sidewalk, it’s like I have to tell him something urgently, knowing all the while that if I knew what I had to tell him, everything would be different.
One day, cutting class, Miles found a naked man in the alley behind the school and poked him with a stick. Another kid filmed with his iPhone. The man woke up and began muttering things beyond language, low growls, hoots.
After I lock up at night I usually see Miles sitting on the curb by 7-11, sometimes with a girl. Miles is bad at skateboarding. His face is all cut up from falling.
One time I didn’t know what to do so I drove up Mount Wilson. I got up above the smog. I found a trailhead with train tracks from when you could ride all the way to some resort. The tracks led into a tunnel and when I came to the other side I expected a miracle, some gleaming ruin with banquet halls and martini glasses, but it was just more of the same—gravel, train tracks, little wisps of trees and the long way back down.
Matt Greene teaches writing in Appalachia. “Larchmont Charter Middle” is from a linked series of prose pieces, some of which have appeared in or are forthcoming from the Cincinnati Review, Spillway, Split Lip, and Wigleaf. Other recent work has appeared in Moss and Santa Monica Review and is forthcoming from CutBank, Conjunctions Online, and DIAGRAM.
You stand on the balcony of this ancient castle looking down at the American President’s wife, eyes transfixed by the pearls in three rows against her neck like teeth sucked from the ocean. White gloves from fingertip to elbow separate her, mark her celebrity and off-limits. Your status from the arranged marriage affords you this glimpse, but it’s like a bird looking down at a lioness.
Here, in India, the other young women chitter. And why not, you want to ask, but you’ve promised your husband that you won’t make any more scenes. This word he spits just beforesaying good night, his sturdy door locking hollowly behind you. Now, from the walls centuries old but as strong as ever, keeping out the poor and pestilent, you raise your hand, desperate to reach across time and space. Months you awaited her arrival, fantasies of sharing meals, of grasping her skin around her elbows, whispering your condolences about her Earth-returned child, asking her to grant her mercies upon your own swollen stomach. There is no time to think of ways to get closer. No way to land at her feet, so you wave at her back.
When the news of her husband’s assassination makes it to your country, you sit in the closet, legs crossed, and scream. I know, I know. The pink dress, so feminine, its lines so sharp, but soiled with blood and loss. You no longer wish to be her, and yet you continue to ask for pearls, because the desire for elegance never leaves your mind, because all other escapes are forbidden. You think, but do not utter your wish to drape them over your child, a talisman, surely, for though her husband is dead, Mrs. Kennedy lives, broken-mouthed, and rotting with grief.
Your due date comes and you hold the bloodless infant in your arms, dabbing endlessly at the forehead that will never wrinkle at the surprise of your touch. You ask for pearls and you are rebuked with a solemn shake of the head. You demand white gloves and your husband acquiesces under your silent grief. For days he makes promises while you wait for the cloth to arrive, inspecting every thread before sending it off to the tailor. How you hate yourself for not having the skill to sew them yourself.
And still you pray for Mrs. Kennedy, twinning her eternity with that of your child’s as if braiding their hair together. You pray without hope, rote ritual creating a stupor that numbs. You blow softly down the length of your child’s body, guiding her spirit out to the balcony where it might mingle with the wind. Again, you think of those pearls, wondering what it would feel like to run them through your hands. If spirits could nestle into objects, you think this would make a fine palace for your child to spend her eternal days.
Tommy Dean lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of the flash fiction chapbook Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. He is the Flash Fiction Section Editor at Craft Literary. He has been previously published in BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, New World Writing, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash FictionReview. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. It will also be included in Best Small Fiction 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.
I want an easy swing, that parabolic arc over grass, weeds, garter snakes, grubs, snapping turtles, beer cans, rotten logs. My legs out, my head and chest back. My arms taut. My thighs and ass pressed against the ball of rope: extending joy. I want that stomach lurch and gravity unease; blood shivers. I’ll land and wave to the one who pushed me, and I’ll climb back up the hill or out of the water toward that woman I’ve dreamt of so often. My REM time melts into her: strange visions of roads illuminating before us as we ride our bicycles in the dark. Is she dead, too?
We drink cheap wine stolen from Safeway and that woman—she has many names—will scratch her initials on my skin with a rock. Not deep, but enough to see later, before I rub myself to sleep. I’m seventy-nine. Can I admit to that rubbing? Older people who seek pleasure might have their hands tied to the arms of wheelchairs. So they rock back and forth. Maybe they drool. Maybe they moan. We don’t ask why. No one’s told me what’s appropriate now. I’ve been to more funerals than strip joints. I can’t ask my doctor. The only one who’s touched me recently was the nurse, but she stopped those friendly pats once I asked too many times to touch her hair extensions. I try to be friendly and culturally relevant, but I’m off the game. Can’t call anyone a turkey. They wouldn’t know what I meant.
To be a lover of the dead ones.
My last stripper friend died or stopped answering emails. (I should check—we do that now, in our seventies.) I’d wanted to co-write an advice book with her. Her thoughts on “basic dick.” How her vagina is hers. How she walks to demonstrate her dominance. The stripper mystique. No one will rub her velvet dress in a disco without her permission. I let strangers touch me. It’s how I was raised.
That swing: that cleaving from ordinary burdens. I present to clouds, to dirt clods, to the sun that I once believed saw me: spidery veins and rubbered skin. My crooked teeth. My barking laughter. My white roots showing through drugstore black. Something unseemly about the old. The flesh museum.
My age spots. My creaks. My slowness. My brain works like spongy brakes. I need more time for things to make sense, to remember the right word. Climate change is a useful topic with younger people. They want to talk to me, now that Roger’s dead. I took the gazelle rug to Goodwill after one made a fuss in an interview. The ivory-handled cheese knives went, too.
I sit across from Teddy, a man I’ve hired to go through my dead husband’s correspondence. We are in a booth, and the vinyl sticks to the back of my legs. I’m wearing a skirt that’s too short. We got so many clothes in the mail from groupies. I was too cheap to throw them out, but I did donate a lot to Goodwill. It’s embarrassing, what women send. Those stained thongs? The thing about aging: I lost weight. I can fit into the miniskirts, the fringed vests, the rayon jumpers. Most still have a faint scent. Roger always came home with some new odor. The suitcase reeked.
I hired Teddy because he’s handsome, but he’s off. I’m not into perfection. I like off-brand. Always choose the drummer, never the singer. That’s my motto and it’s served me well. Look at me now: I’m financially solvent. Penicillin solved the road romance and tour disease crises, or I insisted that Roger wear condoms. God, who cares now what he did or didn’t do. His ashes are on the bathroom shelf by his dentures.
Teddy, across from me, tells a story while driving French fries through catsup. He offers me a French fry. I shake my head no and sip my herbal tea. It’s about that childhood reckoning. He found maggots in a Hostess Ding Dong at the back of the cabinet, and at first he believed they were Rice Krispies. “I thought,” he says, “the world isn’t what it seems.”
Alex Behr’s writing has appeared in Tin House, The Rumpus, Salon, and elsewhere. Her debut story collection, Planet Grim, was published by 7.13 Books.
/ counting one one thousand two one thousand three one thousand four; / and, then, standing, the woman says: / what’s the line? / and the first time i made love and the first time i made love and the first time i / bus plunges from bridge and eight die / in the paper that day / and one one thousand and two one thousand and three / and, standing, the woman says: / and removing things, fiddling with buttons clanking and the loud roar of zippers / you don’t need all these let’s get more comfortable / and then later telling friends, the first time i made love i / but who knew love could feel so like anger / a guttural punch / on the day of the murder / and, standing, the woman says: / mother and father can’t come home no more but will be home soon no more / one one thousand and two one thousand / and let’s play games and you be the patient / and i, the nurse, / on the day of the murder, fire in his fists / and, standing, the woman says, the first time i made love i made i made made made made no more / stop no more / mother and father can’t come home / and mom are you there mom / mom is not coming home / but mom, well versed in your lies, doesn’t believe your stories / bus plunges into river below / in the paper that day / the day of the murder / no one / no more / bus plunges into river below and eight die / six one thousand seven one thousand eight / made you bleed / ripped you in two / buckling under his weight / no more no more / count one one thousand two one thousand three / until he lets you breathe / and lungs fill with breath / and then out again / the day of the murder / when she had it coming / and, standing, the girl says: the first time i / quit telling lies! / mom wants you to quit telling lies / and i and i and i / no more no more no more / and crawled out like eggs split cleanly open / and bus plunges into river below and eight die
Jude Vivien Dexter (they/them) is a poet living in Charleston, SC. They like to write poems about things, in that order.