Punches a hole in the cakey window. The hole is the size of a woman’s head. My mother’s head. Tells the window, good, now you are broken, too. Blames the window for being so gooked up with grime he couldn’t see my mother driving the hell out of our lives. If I’d seen it, Drunkdaddy says, I could have stopped it. He takes off his t-shirt and wraps it around his bloody knuckles. Suck it up, Drunkdaddy tells his nakedchest self. He looks around the living room, stained glass lamp and pom pom pillows. My mother’s piano with the photo gallery on the top. Head shot of her like a movie star. Drunkdaddy picks it right up like he’s gonna break that too, but doesn’t. Blood drop after blood drop falling on the rug. He puts the photo back and walks over to the liquor cabinet. Walks right by me and my sister who have been standing there the whole time, too scared to just walk over and tell Drunkdaddy we want to take him to the hospital. But another drunk is about to come on and so we stand there, like all those other times, fear caking up our hands, our legs, and all we can do is watch Drunkdaddy swig the brandy down his throat, his neck going ropey with veins as he sucks it all down, and him wiping his mouth clean with the back of his good hand, turning and looking at the wall behind us and saying, “You’re next.”
Francine Witte’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Mid-American Review, and Passages North. Her latest books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press,) The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction,) and The Theory of Flesh (Kelsay Books) She is flash fiction editor for Flash Boulevard and The South Florida Poetry Journal. She is an associate poetry editor for Pidgeonholes. Her chapbook, The Cake, The Smoke, The Moon (flash fiction) was published by ELJ Editions in September, 2021. She lives in NYC.
It arrived on a surprise Saturday in the bed of Uncle Tony’s pickup. The wooden playhouse our grandfather built had cedar shakes, a rooster-topped weathervane, and real hinged windows that opened wide like our astonished mouths. Soon enough my sisters and I busied ourselves among the little wooden sink and stove, the little wooden table and chairs, all manufactured in Grandpa’s basement, where mounted tools stood ready to serve and the smell of wood shavings imbued the air. And one day, while we pretended to be grown-ups fixing lunch for invisible children, half a boy’s face appeared through a glass pane, his hair the color of baby chicks, his eyes full of June sky. A boy attached to a name that’s drifted from me, afloat on a raft of lost memories. We unlatched the window to offer cheery greetings. Hello, he whispered in return. Then he ran back to his split-level house, which was just like our house. I could see him through a peephole that someone, maybe me, bore through a playhouse wall. A hole about the size a bullet would make. You could look through that hole and see our apple tree, its green fruit pocked and uneaten, its gray branches worn smooth from climbing. You could see my mother’s garden, lush with vining cucumbers and plumping tomatoes, and the boy’s backyard on the other side of a split-wood fence. Perhaps we’d have made friends with our shy neighbor had his family not left. After they moved away, the music teacher and her husband moved in. Mrs. Brown taught at our school and asked me to perform at an assembly when I was in fifth grade. My fingers raced across the piano faster than the beat of my nervous heart, and who knows if anyone recognized “Claire de Lune” at that speed. Ten years later, while playing Debussy for my mother, I thought of Mrs. Brown. I thought of her house in the neighborhood where we no longer lived and of the little boy who had lived there before her. When I asked my mother whatever happened to that family, she told me they left after the little boy found his father’s gun, pulling the trigger as he played with it. Our almost-friend died the next day. My hands froze on the piano keys and his June sky eyes peered through a real glass window, broken long ago. Then I saw him in the peephole, his back to me, running toward home.
Tess Kelly’s essays have appeared in Dorothy Parker’s Ashes, HerStry, Ruminate, and other publications. She’s the First Prize winner of the 2020 Women’s National Book Association Awards in the flash prose category. She lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.
“If you want to be a horse, be a horse.” Her father said this when he talked about the family infrastructure, how weak it was. When she was little, she wanted to become strong as a horse to make him happy, so she tried to become one, but it never worked.
Later, there was the shock of loving a man with the soul of a tree. She had always wanted to be a bird, at least in her dreams. But when she was with this man, she didn’t want to be anything, she only wanted to fly to him.
The doctor told her that if she wanted to be loved, next time she needed to love. She didn’t understand what he meant, so she stared into his eyes. They looked like the eyes of a sad, old horse. A horse that knew it was going to become glue for some child’s special art project. This was the day she fell in love with her doctor.
“If you want to be a horse, be a horse,” she said to her son when he tried on his Halloween costume and stared in the mirror as if he had failed. “How can I be a horse?” the child said. “Stand there like this,” she said, “as if you are stuck in the middle of a field, but it doesn’t worry you.”
When her father walked into the ocean, her mother started painting birds. It felt like a dream, her mother waving a paint brush at 6:00 a.m. Blackbirds and sparrows all over the kitchen walls and her mother up early enough to catch a worm. She said, “Your father never believed we were strong enough. Can you imagine how much he would have hated these birds?”
When she became an artist like her mother, she gave up the idea of being okay. She stood like a not-stuck horse in her kitchen and remembered her mother surrounded by birds. Her son, who had been a successful horse on Halloween, watched her with love in his unknowable eyes.
Meg Pokrass is the author of nine collections, and her work has appeared in over a thousand literary journals. Her flash fiction, “Back on the Chain Gang,” will appear in The Best Small Fictions 2022. Another flash fiction story, “Pounds Across America,” will appear in a new Norton anthology, Flash Fiction America, edited by James Thomas, Sherrie Flick, and John Dufresne, in 2023. She is the Founding Editor of Best Microfiction.
For Middle Son and Eldest Daughter, see separate price sheets. Limited services available for Eldest Son
Overall Assessment of Youngest Daughter………………………$45
Dr. William will give a quick but thorough visual inspection.
This inspection will include but is not limited to:
Estimate-by-glance of current weight (accurate to within 4.3 grams) and advisement on how to lose a few pounds
Evaluation of current educational achievements and goals with expression of disappointment/resignation that Youngest Daughter seems to be just floating around in life
Feigned interest in work/art/academic activity (as appropriate by current “phase” of Youngest Daughter)
3-point shift in conversation to determine degree of self-absorption
Exhaustive recounting of Dr. William’s own activities/food consumption/health and that of his wife Nancy and of their current dog(s)
An invitation for Youngest Daughter to stay for dinner
Tune-up of Youngest Daughter………………………$65
Customer testimonial: I’ve had the full cut-down service and boy did it do the job! —Middle Son
The following services/adjustments will be performed:
Standard cutting down to size, as needed
Recalibration of confidence levels
Application of withering looks/quelling glances/back-handed compliments
Derisive references to clothing and the observation that the loss of a few pounds would certainly help.
Reminders of embarrassing things Youngest Daughter has done/said which were widely witnessed and which may still be recounted approximately monthly as part of family lore, including but not limited to:
the fact that her spelling as a child was the worst ever known to humankind
that once, when Youngest Daughter was quite young and had sought refuge in the downstairs bathroom because she was very constipated, her mother Nancy repeatedly yelled through the door, “Push! Push!” for the entire household to hear.
Wistful comparisons of her charming outgoing 3-year-old self to her terrified sharp-tongued teenage self
Reignition of adolescent rage
Acute Attitude Adjustment………………………$75.50
Customer testimonial: Got the smile wiped off my face many a time! —Eldest Daughter
Acute Attitude Adjustment includes but is not limited to:
Throwing bodily into chair and breaking chair (Middle Son only)
Terrifying blue-eye bugging
Crashing furiously down hallway naked in the middle of the night, even though Youngest Daughter is not the target of his rage but still she sees his penis swinging as he passes her room making the event an effective deterrent
Menacing throat-clearing aimed at Youngest Daughter with laser-like precision
Humiliation at the dinner table in front of siblings and guests
Specific attitudes/actions to be adjusted include but are not limited to:
Any sign of religious affiliation
Lack of appreciation for music (classical only)
Disrespect (Faintest whiff of)
Disregard of dinnertime (25 seconds or more late)
Disregard for prescribed dishwashing technique resulting in greasy dishes in dish drainer
Disregard of after-hours noise ordinances
Reminders………………………no additional charge
Dr. William offers basic reminders
which include but are not limited to:
Youngest Daughter is ignorant on all subjects, except those that are inconsequential
Youngest Daughter’s spelling is still the worst ever known to humankind
Limited Restoration………………………price on request
Customer testimonial: How can you restore what was never whole in the first place? —Eldest Son
Limited Restoration includes but is not limited to:
A soft place to land when life is unsettled/disappointing/terrifying/shitty
The implied promise that his house is your forever home
Not too many questions asked as food and drink are plied
Small infusions of cash, if needed, sometimes even if not needed
Hugs that are awkward and sometimes oppressive because he is not good at hugging since his own father sure as shit never hugged him
Gently, with forbearance, assuring that you probably don’t have whatever horrible disease you’d heard/read about most recently
Jolly phone calls on Sundays at drink time, that, no matter where you are in the world, make you think of California sunshine and the smell of his garden
Reading aloud from Sherlock Holmes or Dickens
Telling, upon request, favorite stories and jokes, complete with accents
Expression of fatherly affection toward your partner—unless that person wrongs you in which case Dr. William will want to flatten that person
Admission in old age that he knows his sons are better fathers than he ever was
Admission in old age that he could have been more loving to his mother
Admission in old age to Youngest Daughter that she sometimes writes quite well
Additional Restoration services always free of charge:
Never being turned away from the house, even if Dr. William is angry with you
Invitation to stay for dinner, even if it’s just leftovers
A movie and a doggy blanket on an old couch after dinner and dishes are done
The following Restoration Services are no longer available:
Equally functional relationships with all four children
The house as forever home
Any doubt that Dr. William will always be the smartest person in the room even as his body fails him
We are sorry for any inconvenience.
R.C. Barajas was born in Stanford, California. She (eventually) garnered a degree in art. For ten years, she worked as a goldsmith. While living in Colombia in the early ’90s, she began writing nonfiction and short stories. She has published in magazines and newspapers including the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her fiction has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Fatal Flaw, Please See Me, and Defenestration. She also spends more time in the darkroom than is strictly good for her. Her photography has been published and exhibited in the US and Canada, which perhaps gives her an overblown sense of justification. She currently lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband, a son or three, two crazy dogs, and occasionally a cat from Laos.
In the distance, black clouds blanket the sky like cake frosting, and streaks of rain shade the warm air. Strong winds jostle my buddy Jake’s rusted sedan, make minor corrections to our trajectory, whisper to us through cracked windows. We’re quiet. Making a sound might scare away the time we have left. Then lightning licks the ground, and we begin counting. We reach twelve Mississippi before we hear the boom. Three or four miles of sun-filled highway remains in front of us, but we continue toward the storm because it’s the way home, the only place we have left to go.
We departed as underdogs and will return as failures. Fans of walk-off home runs, of late-inning magic, we’d gone to become baseball players. The night before the open tryout, we watched the Red Sox break the Curse of the Bambino, the Cubs the Curse of the Billy Goat on our motel’s television. We love when losers become winners. We’d forgotten, however, to spend the years and years mastering our swings, so baseball stayed a religion to be practiced in our living rooms instead of on the field.
It’s okay. We still have the rest of the drive.
Another bolt like a stripped tree branch touches down. We count again, this time reaching nine Mississippi. The windshield rattles. Jake glances at me, then at the fuel gauge. His eyes dart back and forth like a wild pitch. He taps the brake. He knows we’re getting close. Speed up or slow down, it doesn’t matter. We’ll get to where we’re going.
I slap the dash.
Why do we have to be so gloomy?
Why squander the here and now?
Why not have a little fun?
I insert the mix we burned for the trip and crank the volume. Our theme song blares from the sedan’s speakers, and we sing along like we used to as kids. Let me root, root, root for the home team. If they don’t win, it’s a shame. I roll down my window and stick my head out. The electricity in the air tickles the roof of my mouth as we cruise up a hill, Jake’s head bobbing to: For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game.
At the top of the hill, a man paces next to a broken-down minivan. We pull onto the shoulder, park, and get out. Zap. Lightning strikes the pasture to our right. We make it to six Mississippi. Not much time left.
“What’s the problem?” Jake asks the man.
“I must have run over a nail or something sharp,” the man says, gesturing toward a flat tire.
“Have a spare?”
Jake pats my chest, and I follow him to the sedan’s trunk, where we retrieve a jack and a donut. I position the jack under the minivan’s undercarriage as Jake twists off the flat’s lug nuts. Lightning flashes behind us. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Boom. Once the minivan’s elevated, Jake slides on the donut and tightens. Then I lower the vehicle, a mist wetting my hair.
“I wouldn’t drive too far on that,” I say, kicking the wannabe tire. “Might not be too safe.”
The man thanks us, offers us a few dollars. We decline. Waving, we watch him hop into his minivan and peel away, heading opposite the storm. He vanishes down the hill.
Darkness covers us like a closing door. We rush to the sedan and get inside. The rain starts slow, like a leaky faucet, then ramps up, transforming into thousands of tiny, pummeling fists. We creep onto the highway, but the downpour makes it impossible to see. Jake lies his hand on the console, and I link my chapped fingers into his.
We’re trapped in the storm.
For how long?
I don’t know.
At least we were able to help one person escape.
At least, like our favorite ballplayers, we got to be last-second heroes.
Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in TIMBER, The Lumiere Review, Oyez Review, Tampa Review, Vestal Review, and elsewhere. Connect with him on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.
CONFESSIONS OF A CARELESS CABBAGE PERSON by Jamie Nielsen
“There’s only one kind of trap that works. It’s the five-for-a-dollar, old-fashioned kind with a spring on a piece of wood.”
My sister raises and trains horses in the mountains outside Reno, Nevada. She’s a single mom of three small humans, nine rescue dogs, two rescue cats, and up to thirty-something horses, depending on when you ask her. She traps mice in two barns full of hay and grain, dog chow, and sundry equine medications. Her days begin and end with the hard physical labor of feeding and watering. Doctoring, shoveling, scrubbing, hauling. Foals are born here in the earliest, blackest hours of the new day, slippery, fragile, and steaming in the cold. There is no room for gnawed electrical wires or contaminated feed. No question, given rodent-borne hantavirus and Lyme disease. There is no safe cover for a mouse under the slim profit margins of this life my sister has chosen.
“Use peanut butter and rub it under the curved part of the bait plate. It works every time.” She has an unrelenting sense of humor, but this is no-nonsense advice.
I thank her and tell her I love her. Press “end” and sit a moment longer in my car, parked in the garage that is now the territory of a mouse, utility shelving visible through the driver’s side window, stocked with non-perishables: corn, beans, apricot jam. The labels are shredded, cans and glass jars liberally anointed with sticky urine and tiny black feces like grains of rice.
The mouse didn’t glean any nourishment from the cans, however. It was the cabbage.
This is the part of the story I didn’t tell my sister when I called her: I left a cabbage in the garage overnight, thinking the cold would keep it fresh. It was dense and firm, bright white-green like a model of the moon: crust, mantle, core. The next morning the plastic wrapping was breached and a deep crater carved by tiny teeth. It must have been ecstasy—the pungent crispness, layer upon layer after months of winter scarcity.
My father’s mother’s people farmed the rich Miamian soils of Ohio. My grandmother was one of seven sisters with names like Beulah, Ida, and Elnora; they were Depression-era farm women who quilted and put up preserves. “They’re pests,” she says matter-of-factly, sitting here half-invisible at the kitchen table. She doesn’t look at me directly, but there’s no room for discussion, no space for questions. “There’s nothing else for it.”
So I disinfect cans while my husband baits and sets traps, the five-for-a-dollar, old-fashioned kind, and the next morning we find that one of the traps worked. The peanut butter worked, terribly.
My carelessness taught a small being to love the garage and come back, ending an entire story we only caught a glimpse of in the signs left after a single night of glorious exploration and cabbage feasting.
I’m not getting any work done. I can’t bring myself to go out and throw them into the garbage bin: the thin metal striker bar clutching the soft, white-bellied body, the delicate toes. I close my laptop. I’m considering a live trap if this ever happens again. This will require driving with a mouse and releasing it miles away in some wild place in the national forest. Maybe a grassy meadow with decent cover for a small mammal—a downed tree, a tangle of branches.
I text my sister:
Well the traps were effective but now I feel awful
Can’t blame him for wanting to be in a warm garage chewing on canned goods
And a cabbage
I left a cabbage out there
I’m just a careless cabbage person and that’s what lured him in
CCP – careless cabbage person
I hadn’t intended to confess about the cabbage, but it feels good to put it out there into the SMS ether where my sister will find it. My three-fold penance is already clear in my mind: purchase a live mouse trap from the hardware store, search out any garage entry points and seal them with caulk, and never leave produce out there, ever again. Amen.
She answers my text an hour later, probably taking a short break from chores to step inside and warm her roughened hands on a cup of coffee:
Yeah I’ve always thought of you that way, but I never wanted to say anything
Jamie Nielsen is an ecologist and returned US Peace Corps volunteer. She lives and writes in Flagstaff, Arizona with her husband, two children, and their rescue dog, Rainy. Her essays appear in The Sunlight Press and the Arizona Authors’ Association Arizona Literary Magazine 2021.
LIFE IS TOO SWEET FOR THIS LEVEL OF IDGAF
by Timothy Boudreau
We’re here too short a time to shuffle grumpily to work, we’re missing opportunities. Donny scowls at Mrs. Levinson when she asks him to cash her check in small bills; while I’m grumbling, tearing up the updated rate sheet, Maura aims a kick at an empty box someone left in front of the vault—guys, why are we living this way? Lenny can’t even think about Wealth Management anymore, he’s got tumors squirming inside his organs like maggots through old meat. We don’t deserve to be luckier or live longer, but maybe we are and maybe we’re going to. The wind is low today, the sun is like the kiss itself of heaven so why can’t we feel it.
The saddest thing isn’t that Lenny’s gray face can’t manage a cracked smile, that on his off days his bald head ducks behind the curtain when we wave from his porch. It’s that this pain-wracked mask is his brave face, the very best, which is what Lenny wants to offer, he can give us.
We’re stressed, we’re burnt out, it’s understandable. When Upper Management says, “This is a challenging economic environment, we’re trying to manage expenses,” the expense they’re managing is us. If the numbers bend the wrong way, Donny gets sent home with his three pairs of boots from the breakroom closet, his family pictures in a shoebox; Maura leaves pissed, tears in her eyes, car keys in her fist, with a check for two months’ severance. The Crawford Office employees love each other, we come together when customers are jerks, but Management can split the family whenever they choose.
It’s only Lenny now, but who are we to think we’re exempt? Tomorrow it might be my heart or Donny’s headache thing he’s meaning to check into. Donny’s sweet husband Tanner, who draws him red hearts on everything, might crash off a cliff, his slim hairy limbs scattered and splintered below. Imagine sweet Maura, who keeps everyone laughing, doing her laundry when the furnace blows up, in seconds her body a heap of melting freckled skin and fat.
The slow salt truck that holds us up on the way to the office, splashing puddled water that blackens the snowy yards—we need to forget about it. Take that road we’ve always wondered about, Log Cabin Lane. Pull off anywhere and take a picture, an ice-crusted pine, snow bending the spruce limbs. Post it to our IG, never mind how many Likes it gets, move on with our morning. Let’s already be thinking of the book we tucked in the spare office, our lunch walk, the candy bar we’ll buy for a treat, which photo to take on our way home, maybe the sunset’s final embers over frozen Carroll Pond, because soon enough Time will pull over the covers and all will be darkness.
It doesn’t take much to make a Saturday plan. I’ll cuddle my kittens before I leave; Donny and Tanner, give each other a kiss on your way out the door. Maura, be ready, we’ll pick you up at one. If he’s up for visitors we’ll go to Lenny’s, help his frail body up the hall to the kitchen table where he’s planting bean seeds in tiny pots, help adjust their position beneath the grow lights, afterward tuck Lenny back in bed, tell him happy stories we’ll have to make up as we go along, each healthy one of us taking our turn to warm his icy hands in ours.
Timothy Boudreau’s recent work appears in Reflex Press, Cease, Cows, and MonkeyBicycle, and has been nominated for Best Microfiction and a Pushcart Prize. His collection Saturday Night and other Short Stories is available through Hobblebush Books. Find him on Twitter at @tcboudreau or at timothyboudreau.com
Rounds in quick succession at Café Lafitte in Exile bleed into slave quarters on Iberville. A sofa included in his rent. New Orleans lore. Amyl nitrate. Fan of porn mags spread across the cocktail table, Honcho, Blueboy. We’re talking the same shit over and over. One of us is embarrassed. By the time it’s light, we’re pressed together in the cramped bed. Exposed brick walls. Framed Nagel print. His cock is thick, easy to get off. I’m verging on sober, uninterested. Birds make their noise outside the window. Truck drivers bang barrels onto Royal Street. I close my eyes. The sheets are clean.
Damian Dressick is the author of the novel 40 Patchtown (Bottom Dog Press) and the flash collection Fables of the Deconstruction (CLASH Books). His writing has appeared in more than fifty literary journals and anthologies, including W.W. Norton’s New Micro, Electric Literature, Post Road, New Orleans Review, CutBank, Smokelong Quarterly, and New World Writing. A Blue Mountain Residency Fellow, Dressick is the winner of the Harriette Arnow Award and the Jesse Stuart Prize. He co-hosts WANA: LIVE!, a (largely) virtual reading series that brings some of the best Appalachian writers to the world. Damian also serves as Editor-in-Chief for the journal Appalachian Lit. For more, check out www.damiandressick.com
This is how I heard the story. The this. The that. The this and that.
I was at the hospital with my daughters to visit their grandpa, Geoff, who had fallen playing indoor bowls. One small, ambitious move and he was a hip disaster. Maybe they could operate. Maybe they couldn’t. He had a lung condition. I don’t know the medical details. Just two nights before when we’d had dinner together, he announced that it looked like he’d make it to ninety. Sheepish grin. For the past two, three, no, four generations, the fathers and grandfathers and greats had died aged eighty-nine. At his desk some years before, he’d unfolded a family tree, his gnarly finger confirming the facts of the matter. But he was going to break the record.
From his hospital bed by the window, he stared longingly at his granddaughters as I’d never seen him stare before. Inhaling the sight of their dark, glossy heads of hair into his bad lungs. He never talked about the war except to say he’d had a good one. But while the girls were playing, he started a story. A chink opened. He was in the RAAF, his troop ship leaving from Sydney headed to Newport News. From there he’d make his way by train to Prince Edward Island for further flight training, then to Calgary, where he got his wings.
On the ship, a group of airmen shared a bathroom, the bath already filled with water. An airman from a wealthy suburb of Sydney presumed it was for him. Stepped in, soaped, and soaked himself. What he didn’t know: this was their freshwater ration for washing and shaving, expected to last the three-week journey.
My father-in-law crinkled his eyes and gave a wheezy laugh. “We were furious,” he said. His balding head on white cotton, handsome face cracked and lined, still glancing over, drinking in his granddaughters. What happened next? I had to know. The men made him replace the water. Beg for a bit here, a bit there from other men’s baths. Ladle by ladle, cup by cup. After that, they didn’t have much time for this fellow. Maybe he never properly filled that bath up.
This and then that. Consequences. Filling, not filling.
Unthinking privilege, yes, we can say that. I imagine that young man, erect in his smart new uniform. Short back and sides. How he must have carted that body of wasted water around in his head, sloshing in his dreams, for the rest of his life. Guilt and dread. Did he die thinking of bathwater? Couldn’t someone have forgiven him?
Geoff sucked on a fruit pastille. Smiled. I kissed him on the forehead. And gave him another on behalf of my husband who wasn’t there, in case they didn’t see each other again. That two-day journey across the skies. Well, he did make it, winging in to drink a last whisky with his father, who died—aged eighty-nine.
Yet always that water in the shadows, dark water, ladle by ladle, filling our lungs—how to bring life to land.
Rosemary Jones is an Australian whose nonfiction has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Cimarron Review, and Sweet, and was awarded first prize in Alligator Juniper’s nonfiction competition. Her fiction has appeared in magazines such as Denver Quarterly, Sonora Review, Gargoyle, Corium Magazine, and Brilliant Flash. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut and currently teaches and tutors writing at Yale.
You make sourdough bread because it’s easier to focus on the simplicity of water and flour than on anything else. You marvel at how water and flour blended can start life. You think of science and the way this pairing draws yeast from air. You remember the air in the hospital waiting room, the sour chill, and the way your yeasty thoughts bloomed faster than you could breathe, faster than you could form sentences, so the words came out lonely florets. Please, won’t walk, will walk, maybe, I don’t know.
Now, you speak to flour and water in full sentences. You whisper to yeast the way you might a plant, like you did your child lying in the hospital bed. You cajole it with a gentle voice, urging it to expand and breathe, to grow and move.
Bread sustains us, you say. I will love your crust, you say.
You told her to move, to find her space and take it even before you worried she might never walk again.
Her left toe moved first, after you called her name, after you sang it to her because songs draw life from air, and she knows. You ignored the tubes that snaked from her and the thick paste of uncertainty. You focused on her feet, her beautiful feet, her toes poking out the end of the thin hospital blanket. As slight as the movement was, you wondered if the floor shook.
You pour bubbling yeast into flour, add salt, sugar, oil, and hot water, and you knead. It will take hours for the yeast to expand, for the dough to double in size, but you wait like you waited for her toe to move and then her leg and then her other side. You are good at waiting. You’ve spent hours in waiting rooms. You count the hours and think they could add up to months, if not years.
You wonder if the events of that week doubled in size rather than shrunk like you thought they would. You see yourself as you waited, the way you tucked your legs under you at night, knees and hips aching on the cold hard bench. Nurses appeared and disappeared like shrill ghosts. The clock ticked. Out the window from the eighth floor, you could see the front range spread for miles, even in the dark.
Cristina Trapani-Scott is the author of the poetry chapbook The Persistence of a Bathing Suit. Her work has appeared in Hip Mama Magazine, Paterson Literary Review, and Entropy Magazine, among other publications. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, and she serves on the leadership team for Northern Colorado Writers. She is at work on her first novel, and when she is not writing she likes to paint, bake, and hike mountain trails with her partner and their blind Lab/Chesapeake Bay Retriever. Follow her on Twitter at @CristinaTrapani.
I’m already roller skating when the DJ announces it’s time for a “Couples Skate” and I see the sign light up on the wall next to the clock and the rink lights dim and I feel a whoosh and Sean—the boy who pops wheelies in front of my house every summer morning on his Schwinn while I eat Lucky Charms and watch The Richard Simmons Show, the boy who one day soon will give me an ID bracelet that I will have to return because my mom will say I’m too young and won’t let me keep it, the boy who one day after high school will move to Texas with a red-haired girl who everyone will call a slut and far worse things besides—reaches his hand out to me. He is the best athlete at school, and he has light brown skin and hazel eyes and a ready white smile and a mini-afro and his mom’s white and his dad’s black and I think that’s cool and at his birthday party I won a jigsaw puzzle of the United States of America and in fourth grade he used to take a break from playing kickball to “rescue” me from the top of the jungle gym when I called his name and also in fourth grade he asked me to “go” with him and I asked him, “Where?” I take his hand, and we start to skate side-by-side to Lionel Richie’s hit “Hello” while the strobe lights make rotating geometric patterns on the polished wood-paneled floor, which is soft and sticky and luminous. I don’t look at Sean, not once, just feel the jostling of his sweaty hand in mine, the cool air on my hot red cheeks and neck, the deep dark stirrings of something curling in the pit of my stomach, and I look over at my mom sitting, still in her wool coat, at one of the garish picnic tables by the snack bar; she’s got a Kent cigarette between two fingers, a tattered black purse from Hecht’s Department Store beside her, and before her a Diet Coke in a Styrofoam cup, a yellow legal pad, and a thick stack of white paper, a medical manuscript that she’s copyediting with a red pencil. Sean and I go around and around and around, counter-clockwise, trying not to fall but falling just the same. It’s 1984, and I’m at Skate Haven, but it might as well be called Skate Heaven, because that’s where I am, heaven, or as close to it as I can get at thirteen. As Richie sings his last, we release our sticky fingers without once looking at each other and skate to opposite sides of the rink, where I dodge a creeper who years later will be arrested for pedophilia and I slam my body onto the bench across from my mother, the sweat from the ends of my hair flinging droplets onto my mother’s STETS and itals and pilcrows, her caps and her boldfaces and deleaturs, and there are tendrils of cotton candy floating in the air, sweetening it, I could catch one on my tongue if I wanted to, and I hear the staccato pop pop pop of the popcorn machine, the click of wheels out on the rink, and I wonder where Sean is before I feel the skin on my forearms stick to the Birch beer I spilled on the table earlier, and for a moment, a breathless moment, my heart is a disco ball, a whirling mosaic of mirrors, and inside me, through me, and all around is a kaleidoscope of color and light.
Amy R. Martin is a producer and screenwriter, essayist, and medical and science writer. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Pithead Chapel, and Hungry Ghost Magazine, and is forthcoming from Variant Literature, JMWW, and Atlas + Alice. She is the Stage & Screen Editor and a contributing writer for the Southern Review of Books. She has an MFA in stage- and screenwriting and creative nonfiction from the Queens University of Charlotte. After living for fourteen years as an expatriate in the Netherlands, she now resides in Vienna, Virginia.
WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN WHEN YOU’RE STUCK
by Louella Lester
On the fifth day of the heat wave, even though the asthmatic air conditioner is faltering, Char stops going outside. Not to get fresh air. Or to exercise. Or to soak up the sun’s Vitamin D, of which a lack could cause her to…well, she isn’t sure what it will cause, but people are always talking about it like it matters. She just doesn’t give a shit anymore.
When Seth left, two months before, she lied about her feelings—told friends it was over long ago. “If he didn’t leave, I would have. Don’t worry, I’m enjoying the time alone.” So, the heat is a relief. A real excuse to stay home. A simple explanation. Wearing only panties and a tank top she melts into the chair nearest the aquarium that Seth left behind, getting up only to go to the toilet. Or drag delivery boxes through the door. Or feed the fish, though she doesn’t like fish.
On the twelfth day of heat, Char gives up reading books. Spends her time scrolling the phone, reading nothing longer than a tweet, until the screen is so smudged her finger can no longer glide, just stutters across it. When she finally looks up, the aquarium glass reflects her unblinking eyes and open mouth. In the background, plants wave above pebbles and the school of blue-backed tetras darts between bubbles.
By the seventeenth day, Char finds it difficult to get out of the chair. Arms stuck to her sides, she’s only able to flap her hands and flutter her fingers, her mouth pouting with the strain.
On the nineteenth day, when Char moves she feels a tug and her white fish-belly thighs can’t be pried apart. She rocks until the momentum sets her standing, toes facing out like a fish tail. She hobbles to the aquarium. The tetras stare side-eye as she heaves herself up and lands with a splash.
After the twenty-second day, Char would kick herself if she still had legs because she’d made no plan for food. Through the window she sees lamb’s wool clouds in a baby-blue sky. Pelicans glide on air pockets above the water. Song birds echo and gurgle. She knows it was stupid to jump into the aquarium, no guy is worth it, but now she’s stuck in the damn thing and the scruffy blue-backed tetras aren’t exactly thrilled either. They’re ramping up the side-eye, sticking to their school, and whispering. It reminds Char of her teen years, so she hides in a patch of hornwort and hears only snippets of their conversation, “…food flakes right over there…she doesn’t care…selfish…could all die in here.”
On the twenty-eighth day, when Char can no longer remember if Seth said he’d come back for the aquarium, the door knob rattles, giving her hope. “No one’s seen her since her boyfriend left, and neighbors have been complaining about a smell.” It’s the building manager, followed by two police officers.
One officer ambles off to the bedroom, while the other peers into the tank and sniffs. “This tank is the source of the smell,” he says. The tetras freeze against the glass in a clump of fear. Char, tangled in the hornwort, can’t move either.
The first officer returns from the bedroom. “Nothing else seems amiss. But that tank really is a health hazard.” They offer to help, then heave the fish tank up between them.
“Blub…blub…blub!” say the tetras, as the officers shuffle towards the bathroom.
“Blub…blub…blub!” says Char, as they drain the fish tank into the toilet bowl.
The building manager hears something as one of the officers pushes the toilet handle but tells herself it’s just the flush and swirl.
Louella Lester is a writer and photographer in Winnipeg, Canada. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in MacQueen’s Quinterly, Litro, Five Minutes, The Drabble, SoFloPoJo, Daily Drunk, Dribble Drabble, Grey Sparrow, Six Sentences, New Flash Fiction, Reflex Fiction, and a variety of other journals and anthologies. Her Flash-CNF book, Glass Bricks, is out there (At Bay Press, April 2021).
WHEN YOU’RE THE CONTORTIONIST
by Candace Hartsuyker
It happens like this: your sister is skipping with a jump rope, her feet slap slapping the sidewalk. You go into the house to get a glass of water, and when you come back, your sister, her sneakers that are bright as Wite-Out, and her sparkly pink jump rope are gone.
After her disappearance, your father’s restless hands will hold a length of rope: he’ll tie and untie it, reconstruct the sailor’s knots he learned when he was a boy. The figure eight, the bowline, the clove hitch.
You will deal with your grief by tying yourself into an intricate pattern of knots. You’ll step onto the living room coffee table and slowly go into a backbend. It will remind you of the game of Twister you played at parties, a foot sliding backwards and to the right, a leg crossing under someone else’s arm. Your feet will move toward your hands until you are grasping your ankles. Your head will move back until only your throat is exposed. Then, you’ll stand back up.
Next, you’ll drag your father’s suitcase from out of the hall closet, twist and bend, contort your body into its smallest shape. You’ll move as gracefully as a Slinky that is being cradled from one hand to the other. Once you are safely inside, you’ll close your eyes and pretend the suitcase is partly zipped up, leaving a small pocket of air so you can breathe. You’ll practice twisting your body into smaller and smaller knots until you are a balled-up knot that can’t be untied.
You’ll spend nights imagining your sister being picked up from the patch of sidewalk, then thrown into the trunk of a car. You’ll fold yourself into a myriad of animal shapes: a frog, a swan, a wolf. You’ll imagine what it is like to be kidnapped. On the days you are the saddest, you will tangle your limbs until your body is not flesh but rough and fibrous, a snarl of grief, a human knot. You’ll practice becoming a girl who can squeeze into spaces smaller than a fist.
One day, you’ll arch your arms over your head and turn your body into the shape of a key. You’ll find your sister behind a locked door. She’ll be there, waiting.
Candace Hartsuyker has an MFA in Creative Writing from McNeese State University and reads for PANK. Her work has been published in Fractured Literary, Cheap Pop, Flash Frog, and elsewhere.
In fourth grade, after Ellee and I learned how thin the crust was, how hot the mantle and core were, how fragile Earth in general was, we spoke in cautious whispers. What if? You think? Shh. We spoke of boys the same way. Curiosity mixed with innocence and fear.
At sleepovers, we held tight to the covers of our shared bed and to each other, our dreams fixed and frantic. Where were we safest? In a few years, we would explore the softness of our own bodies, the way it felt to press into another’s. But in fourth grade, shielded by darkness, we simply lied about the boys we had kissed, speaking in wary whispers, our bodies delicately intwined. And when the sun came up, we floated from footstool to coffee table to easy chair, walking on the furniture and tiptoeing lithely if we had to touch the floor. We were determined not to fall through, not to break the earth open. At school when the other kids ran, their footfalls hard and rugged, the earth shook, and Ellee and I would look fearfully at each other. Should we tell them? Shh. No. It’s our secret. But it wasn’t. After all, they’d learned about the Earth—about the crust, mantle, and core—same as us. We just understood it differently.
One Saturday afternoon, we decided to chance it. Just once won’t hurt, would it? What if? Shh, it’s fine. But as we ran for the swing set, our feet broke through the crust, and the mantle swallowed us up like quicksand, our feet melting, our legs turning to rubber and char. We fell deeper and deeper into the abyss of Earth, into the core, a hot rush of gold and darkness and light and silver. This is it, isn’t it? It is, yes. And as we fell, we grabbed hold of each other’s hands and laughed. And for a moment, life was glorious. For a moment, life was true.
Jessica Klimesh is a US-based writer and technical editor whose creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brink, Variety Pack, Ghost Parachute, Bending Genres, FlashFlood Journal, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Cedar Crest College and an MA in English from Bowling Green State University. She is currently working on a novella-in-flash.
There were three marriages and three sets of children, a pair for each union. For some reason, my father could only hold four children at a time. He told me this once, really tried to explain it to me. What I remember most was his sincerity in that moment. He wanted me to know things were different for me.
When my father called, I would listen to him tell me what he wanted me to know about his life and then I would ask about his family. He would tell me what he wanted me to know about them, too. He’d ask about me, politely, and I knew he’d report some of my things to the rest of them, but that wasn’t the same as being part of a family. It wasn’t the same thing at all.
It was a while before we visited the house where he and wife number three lived. My sister and I were invited to dinner one Saturday, and I saw their wedding photo for the first time. I’d imagined the ceremony we weren’t invited to as something plain-clothed, quick. A judge or some official-looking man from Town Hall, but in the framed photo, I saw elegance and planning, the whole lot of them smiling. There was space in the photo, off to one side, and I thought, We could have squeezed in. We were not so big.
Windy Lynn Harris lives in Phoenix, Arizona, surrounded by cacti, lizards, hawks, and sunshine. She has received fellowships from the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony and The Maribar Writer’s Colony, and has been supported in part by professional development grants from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, which receives support from the State of Arizona and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has been featured in The Sunlight Press, JMWW, Brevity, and other places.
“Right there,” I say, pointing to the spider on the wall before leaving the kitchen. I’d rather not kill things, so I make my husband do it.
My only complaint is that he doesn’t kill faster. He has this habit of pausing an inch over the target, then moving in slowly with a gentle scoop and a delicate squeeze. I never understood why he prolongs the trauma. He says I shouldn’t criticize unless I want to do it myself.
But today I leave the room for the moment of death. I sit on the sofa and scroll through my newsfeed while I wait for the deed to be done. It’s been reminding me too much of my own mortality. How easy it is to kill and be killed.
Plus, there’s that mouse still lounging in the attic, nestling undisturbed in the insulation. Jake doesn’t say anything, but I know he’s thinking I’m some sort of hypocrite.
It was almost a week ago that I sent him to the attic with one of those humane box traps with the skylight on top and the chunk of peanut butter inside. In less than a day, I found the mouse-bearing box on the kitchen counter, which really annoyed me because why did he think I wanted to see the damn thing?
I peered through the glass, and the mouse peered back, its dark beady eyes reflecting kitchen light. Its tail was repulsive but its ears were adorable, and that had me feeling a bit disjointed. Yanked in different directions.
To quell the guilt, I fetched a larger box, black Amazon tape still adorning the sides. I filled it with bits of mozzarella cheese, two generously sized lettuce leaves, and a handful of peanuts.
“A mouse hotel,” Jake joked. Why did men never see the gravity of the situation?
I asked him to release the mouse into the bigger box and then drop it off in the park down the street.
“You know he’ll probably get eaten by an owl, right?”
I ignored his comment and grabbed the dishtowel from the kitchen sink. Placed it the box for added warmth.
That night was tough, and tougher still at 11:30 pm. That was the time I was used to hearing it—the faint scratching and rustling in the attic above my bed. The stirring and stretching of my mini Mickey Mouse as he commenced his routine of nocturnal activities. I missed the alignment of our opposite schedules. Against my will, the picture formed in my mind—the little mouse shivering in the November cold, sharp owl eyes tracking from above. I cursed Jake for putting the image in my head.
But the very next night, I heard it again—the same exact rustling in the same exact spot. Fumbling for my phone, I consulted Google and quickly discovered that mice are geniuses. They can find their way back over a mile after being relocated.
I smiled at the ceiling as my husband snored.
Andrea Lynn Koohi is a writer from Canada with recent work appearing or forthcoming in Pithead Chapel, The Maine Review, Ellipsis Zine, Idle Ink, Cabinet of Heed, Lost Balloon, and others.
It was an exceptionally hot Saturday in April when my sister and I zombied our way through the tedious chore of packing Mom’s house. A twisted, cruel part of the grieving process, but we refused to give in. No tears were shed as Wendy carefully bubble-wrapped the brown-stained coffee mugs we gave her as children. And I didn’t break down as I folded and packed her clothes even though her smell was dizzying. Wendy and I hadn’t spoken in hours—each sweating in a separate part of the house to avoid nostalgia and the “remember when’s”—when I heard my name.
“Everything okay?” I was in the middle of tossing out towers of junk mail catalogs.
“Just come here.”
When I arrived in the doorway of the den, Wendy was holding a framed photograph. The one from Yosemite. Dad, Wendy, and I sitting around a campfire holding up bent metal hangers. Dad’s marshmallow a blazing ball of fire. His smile, open-mouthed. Always the clown. But before I could say anything, she turned the frame over and handed it to me. On the back, taped with small squares of masking tape, was another photo. A smaller one. Creased and faded. It was Mom. Mom and a guy. A guy that wasn’t Dad. They looked to be in their early twenties. Both his arms were around her as he held the camera out in front. She, nestled into his chest, beaming.
“OK,” I said. “But this was before us.”
“Not before Dad.” Wendy shook her head with resolve. “And there’s another one.” She pointed to an overturned frame that lay by her feet.
We held eye contact. Wheels turning. Questions rising.
“Do you think…” but I let my eyes finish the sentence as I scanned the room. The walls of the house were suffocated with framed pictures. Our lives, the four of us, documented in frozen five-by-seven moments.
Wendy and I began tearing them down one by one, ripping out nails and screws and chunks of drywall. We couldn’t claw at the walls fast enough, white paint embedding itself deep under our nails.
Each and every frame we pulled off the wall held a photo on the underside. Every one meticulously held with four square pieces of masking tape in each corner. Once we unchoked the walls of the den, we moved to the living room, then the bedrooms, the kitchen, the bathrooms, even the long hallway, especially the long hallway.
Pictures of Mom and this guy at baseball games, restaurants, peeking out from under hotel sheets, sitting on trunks of cars that overlooked a lake or a beach or an IHOP. In some photos they were glowing, youthful. In others they were graying, tight-lipped. In some pictures there was only my mother, smiling in places we had never been. In others, there was only this man, smiling at a woman we no longer knew. His clean-shaven face a stark contrast to Dad’s unruly beard. His blue eyes were kind but didn’t hold the warmth of our father’s brown eyes. Wendy criticized his clothes. I called him short. Reduced to pettiness, but this is all we had.
By the time the sun had set and the sweat on our backs had started to dry, we had all the photographs laid out, lined up, and ordered in our best guess at chronology. The trail of photos started at the front door and wound its way past the armoire where Wendy once chipped her tooth on the corner and down through the living room where we used to eagerly sit cross-legged on the floor on Christmas mornings, and then down the hallway, through the laundry room, and up to the edge of the back screen door, the one Dad would fix every time we burst through it. A trail of photos. Like a long winding vein. Underneath the surface, hidden. Keeping you alive.
Eric Scot Tryon is a writer from San Francisco. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Willow Springs, Pithead Chapel, Los Angeles Review, Fractured Lit, Monkeybicycle, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Longleaf Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and elsewhere. Eric is also the Founding Editor of Flash Frog. Find more information at www.ericscottryon.com or on Twitter @EricScotTryon.
Dustin, whose adolescent spine curved gently to the right. He hardly ever wore his corrective brace to school because it was so obvious under his polo shirt. Whose bedroom equaled comfort, Phoebe Cates on the wall and Steve Perry looking vaguely Asian with his long black rock star hair. He searched for his face in the poster.
Dustin, who rode his bike downtown and asked the barber to curl a wave in his straight Asian hair, because he thought it might make him more like the white kids. Who washed his Levi’s five times on Saturday afternoon so they would fade. Whose father grabbed him by the shoulders and slammed him against the mudroom wall because he was wasting water, and the utility bill was already so goddamn out of control.
Dustin, who liked his mother’s slow-roasted curry, the soft carrots and the fatty clumps inside cubes of short rib that melted in his mouth. Who folded his hands on the dinner table and told his father that no, he completely disagreed, Hispanics and Blacks are not inherently lazier than the Chinese, as his mother spooned more curry into his bowl, and his father raised a fist and told him to shut up because he was just a dumb teenager who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, then screamed Get the fuck out of my house. Who lay in the storage shed, next to the rusty chainsaws, and squinted up at the rafters looking for black widows because he read that black widows live in outdoor shacks.
Whose mother stepped into the shed in her nightgown, blanket in her arms. She slid his shoes off and made a nest in the dirt for the two of them.
“You don’t deserve it, the way he treats you,” she said, holding on to his toes.
Dustin, who chose Cal Poly over UC Berkeley, because Cal Poly was a longer, four-hour drive south along 101 rather than fifteen minutes up 580. “You’re a moron,” his father said. “Would’ve flunked out of Berkeley anyway.”
“I’m not a moron,” he whispered, loading the last suitcase into the car.
Dustin starts a job as an English teacher in Okinawa. He buys posters from Takashimaya, covers the walls of his classroom with Arashi, Morning Musume, and other J-Pop stars with flamboyantly styled hair. The boys in those bands have his face.
The night at the Izakaya hanging out with the other teachers. He towers over them. “Hearty American diet,” they say. “My mother’s curry,” he replies.
Would’ve been even taller if you wore the goddamn back brace.
Yumiko, the math teacher, cinches the cherry blossom tie around her hair and touches his shoulder. They eat taro-flavored soft serve. She giggles and dabs her napkin at the purple spot on the tip of his nose.
Dustin, who holds her on the tatami mat in his apartment. Who marvels at how the spiders in Okinawa are as big as his hand. He’s watching one under the eaves, shiny belly with yellow stripes, vibrating on its web.
Dustin, who writes his mother a letter, wonders if she’s well. Prays that she’s safe. Who’s sorry he can’t come home but knows she understands. Who tells her how he almost cries when he eats the local donburi, so delicately prepared, the way the ikura salmon roe bursts in his mouth, leaving a splash of ocean water on his tongue.
Eliot Li lives in California. His work appears or is forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, The Pinch, Flash Frog, Gordon Square Review, Lunch Ticket, The Margins, and others. He’s on twitter @EliotLi2.
When my infant daughter turns her face from my nipple and stiffens in my arms, I panic, imagining my lungs filling with water. I’m drowning on my living room floor, where I sit topless, still in my pajama bottoms. As the afternoon sunlight slants across the room, I need help, but no one is coming, not yet. It’s too early in the day to expect my husband, who isn’t my husband at all, but a man I barely knew before we made our daughter, made a home; but we’re trying, so I try to nudge my daughter back to my breast, then try a little harder, while she grows stiffer, more resolute, but she has to eat, and I have to feed her, and no one told me how hard this would be, so I pump and pump some more, then feed her with a bottle.
While she naps across my chest, I Google, and when my husband-not-my-husband returns home, I explain the rebirthing process.
After filling the tub with warm water, I’ll get in and lie back. He’ll float the baby on her back beside me while I softly talk to her, gently stroking her at the same time. When she relaxes, calm at last, calm in a way she seldom is at three months, for she is always howling, always hungry, he will move her, now on her belly, to my belly, where she will stay—for as long as it takes—until she begins moving toward my nipple. If the rebirthing works, she will resume breastfeeding.
“It’s worth a try,” he agrees.
Everything we try and fail at is worth a try, so with a heart full of the kind of hope that keeps you believing in something much longer than you should, and with lungs slowly draining, I prepare the bath, strip down, climb in, and call for him.
My baby and I float side by side while he watches, his index finger lightly pressing into her back to help her float, while I whisper, “I love you, sweet girl, only girl, please let me give you what no one gave me.” Let it be enough. Enough to save us both. Save him too. I try not to sound frantic, desperate, not knowing it’s too late, the damage done, and I’ll be pumping for twelve more months.
For a few glorious moments, it is not too late, and when he places our daughter on top of me, she inches her way toward my breast. It takes everything I have not to move, not to shriek, it’s working, it’s working.
When she latches, finally drinking, he whispers, “Stay still, don’t startle her.”
I am the startled one, but somehow I stay still, so still, until she’s had enough, until she lifts her head.
Margaret MacInnis writes and raises her daughter in Iowa City. Her recent work appears in Brevity, Diagram, Fifty-Word Stories, Ghost Parachute, Mutha Magazine, Potato Soup Journal, The Rye Whiskey Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, and Tiny Molecules. Other work appears in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast Review, Mid-American Review, River Teeth, Tampa Review, and elsewhere. Nominated for three Pushcart prizes, she has received notable distinction in Best American Essays and Best American Non-Required Reading. Since 2010, MacInnis has worked as personal assistant to Marilynne Robinson.
Today is my father’s birthday and I am making a chocolate Guinness cake.
I am making this cake by hand because I do not have a stand mixer and do not want to spend two-hundred and seventy-nine dollars on a twenty-pound gadget I will only use once a year.
I am making a cake even though I do not really like cake and do not have a stand mixer because my dad is turning seventy which I know is not so old but feels very old when I watch his hands shake as he pours his beer into a tall glass.
Three years ago on his sixty-seventh birthday when we found out why his hands were shaking I got so drunk off wine and port that I do not remember if there was any cake at all.
I am making a cake but I have gotten distracted by a video of a baby eating vanilla ice cream and now there is flour all over my phone but I do not wipe it off and I wonder when or if I will have babies and when or if my father will get to hold them.
Yesterday he walked into the kitchen and told me that his friend is dying and he usually does not tell me these things for example he never told me that his mom tried to commit suicide when he was nineteen.
Last week my friend got on a plane to visit his mother in Hungary who can no longer swallow and is planning to kill herself and he would like to sit by her side when she does.
Today is the first day of spring and soon my father will dig his shaking hands into the soil and plant lettuce and in the summer we will make salad and if we don’t wash it thoroughly enough we might bite into an insect who had thought they’d found a home.
I am making a cake because my dad is turning seventy and his hands are shaking and his friend is dying and he is planting lettuce and my friend’s mom is killing herself and when I was six years old I slipped out of my dad’s hands in the ocean and I thought I might drown and that my lungs would fill with water and wouldn’t that be a terrible way to die but then he picked me back up and I did not die and now I am making him cake.
Grace Kennedy is a writer, cook, and educator based in Philadelphia. She has previously been published in Bon Appetit, Oh Reader, and more. For pictures of the food she is making and the books she is reading, follow her online @gkennedy18.
Her mother used a foot mask. The package promised that in five days, the skin on her mother’s feet would molt, bubble white, and peel off in shreds, ziiiiiip. The daughter swore her mother’s eventual demise began there. You never knew what was in those foot booties with their stinking chemical aroma and lack of safety information.
“Did you feel something different, Ma?” she asked.
“Tingling,” was all her mother said.
By then her mother’s eyes were wide like moons, pupils dilated. She appeared the opposite of dying, instead very, very awake, but her daughter knew better. The skin all over her mother’s body was shedding, as if those booties had covered her entirely and she was transforming.
The end was near; the daughter called relatives, made preparations for last rites. The priest in black, pearl collar pressing against his Adam’s apple, kissed the purple sash before putting it over his head while her mother gazed heavenward, like a misplaced saint waiting for ecstasy. The priest was young, but his eyes had seen everything. Still, he balked halfway through the “Hail Mary” and dropped her mother’s hand. “She’s like a newborn, so smooth,” he said.
“Yes, that damn foot mask,” her daughter said. Now, all her mother’s skin had peeled off.
Her mother’s sisters arrived. They didn’t cry, they never did, because tears only water feelings and make them grow. By then, her mother had begun to float, suspended in mid-air like a balloon. The aunts tied a string to her mother’s ankle, and, holding the other end, reached their arms upwards to touch her little feet, interlacing their fingers through her toes. “Forgive her this once,” Aunt Petula said. “Let her have her vanity.”
Was that it? the daughter thought. Was she jealous because her mother’s attention was elsewhere? It was true, she realized; her mother’s preoccupation had ceased to be earthly.
The daughter remembered the peachy pink plastic tub where she’d been bathed as an infant, also used for her mother’s pedicure baths. Emory boards and pumice stones and files and bottles of acrid polish. Her mother’s toes in the ocean, red rubies nestled in the sand. Once a crab, nearly translucent, visible only through his movement, side-walked up to her mother’s feet and stayed right there, unmoving, just two beautiful beings in one another’s presence.
The aunts left to make a casserole. The daughter stayed by her mother, holding the string. Her mother was so high her head bumped against the plaster ceiling. She looked down, her palms lifted towards the heavens. “Those beautiful feet,” her mother said, gesturing to the daughter’s bare toes, naked of polish, tanned from the sun. “I made them. I made every part of you.”
Her mother raised her fist and broke through the ceiling. Plaster dust, wood planks, and cloudbursts of insulation rained down. The daughter slipped onto the ground, the bottoms of her feet folded together. She wiggled her toes—her mother’s toes.
Gabriella Souza received the 2021 Carlisle Family Scholarship from the Community Writers and won the 2020 San Miguel Writers’ Conference Writing Contest. She received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, where she was a recipient of an Eloise Klein Healy Scholarship. Her work has appeared in North American Review,The Adroit Journal, New South,Lunch Ticket, and Litro, among others. She is Nonfiction Editor at Little Patuxent Review and at work on a novel.
Alexander calls me to the front of the beginning pas de deux class to demonstrate positions. A tour de promenade: he coaches me to grip his hand and lift my leg in an arabesque, then orbits around me as I turn. His tights ride low on his hips and his palm radiates heat. I feel like I am flying, except for the blister on my big toe. During the break, as I retie my shoes, he leans down, says, Rain, you can be full of light. Be the moon to my sun. I glow. If I could read auras, his would be sticky hot, like summers at the beach, smelling of sweat and coconut lotion, tingling of the terrifying ecstasy of a rogue wave. Instead of taking the bus home from the studio, I slip into his car and we drive hairpin curves up hills to an overlook. The city below shimmers with heat, skyscrapers ablaze. His kisses scorch me. I place my hand on his chest and feel his heart beat. I could easily claw it out. The next day in pas class, he doesn’t smile at me. I grow cold. He holds Jill’s waist as she attempts a pirouette and whispers in her ear. Jill tells me that he promised to be the moon to her sun. She blushes. My friends say it’s impossible to die of a broken heart. Perhaps that’s true, we’re not like Giselle, dead because she loved Albrecht too hard and too deep. Just watch her, still protecting him from the spirits who’d dance him to death. What a wimp. When Jill cries before class, I tell her to fix her mascara. To dance in pointe shoes, the shoes must be broken. We let our skins’ warmth and sweat shape the shoes. We darn the toes so we don’t slip, we slam the shoes in doors, we bend the shank back, we crush the box.
Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Tin House Flash Fridays, The New Orleans Review,Craft, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her stories have been chosen for the Best Small Fictions 2018 and 2019 and Best Microfiction 2021 anthologies. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com.
When I was in eighth grade, I had a terrible eating disorder and was hospitalized for most of it. When that didn’t work, I was admitted to a treatment center in Utah called The Center for Change, three thousand miles from home and everything I’d ever known. Eventually, I got out, but I still looked like a scarecrow with braces. My parents, bless them, decided to give me a fresh start, sent me to a private school, an artsy, alternative one where I could hopefully be myself, whoever that was. Ms. Johnson was my English teacher, and she introduced me to poetry, to form and meter, a structure for my feelings. She encouraged us to keep a journal, a marbled composition notebook—you know the one—and write in it every day. “Fold any page you don’t want me to read,” she said. At first, the book was all folds, an accordion of secrets. I asked for another book. At about the same time, I was gifted a CD of Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair read aloud to the soundtrack from the movie Il Postino, and I think the combination of those two things that year may have saved my life. Let’s be honest, who knows. Recovery took years. But it set something in motion inside my ravenous heart, gave it words to eat. I remember sitting in front of the plastic Sony CD player in my room, door closed, propped up on my hipbones, scrawling in the notebook, “Those first faint lines. Pure nonsense, pure wisdom,” just like Neruda said. It was probably a lot more nonsense than wisdom. In fact, I distinctly remember a poem called “The Sounds of Silence” and thinking I was an absolute genius to have come up with such a phrase. But listen, there was also a poem I wrote about a tulip, a pale pink tulip that wasn’t ready to open, so everyone should just give it some water and sunshine and leave it alone, and that was the first time I felt something break loose inside of me, just as I imagined it had for Neruda and just as Ms. Johnson hoped would happen for us ninth-graders, for us poets in the class, whoever we were, if we just kept writing, kept writing, kept writing.
And writing is what I’m still doing now, these thousand years later, a grown woman with a husband, a house, three children, and five bags of groceries, home now from Trader Joe’s, sitting in the driveway, motor running, listening to a single surviving Neruda/Il Postino read-aloud from a YouTube video that just surfaced, my two-year-old still buckled, wondering what’s going on, and tears are welling up in my eyes, rolling hot down my cheeks. That little girl in her room. The notebook. I want to unfold all the pages.
Cassie Burkhardt lives in Philadelphia with her husband and three small children. She teaches kids yoga in schools and is a long-time student of The Writers Studio, started in New York by Philip Schultz. She writes poems and flash, and she is working on a collection.
SPONTANEOUS BUNGEE JUMP IN SWITZERLAND
by Cassie Burkhardt
Twenty-six years old. Pink cutoffs. Barefoot. Day trip to Lugano with friends when we see a sign with an arrow: James Bond Golden Eye Cliff Jump. No one else wants to do it, but I do, so we hop in the VW Golf, make our way up to the tiptop. My husband can’t even look out the window. Rocks, some jagged, others smooth as elephant backs, peek from glacial water, turquoise but stop-your-heart cold. Twenty minutes later, I’m poised, arms to a T, toes on the very edge, ready to dive headfirst off a pirate’s plank on the lip of a dam so thin it’s like a giant grin in free-floating space above the world and 720 feet of sheer vertical concrete down. Someone counts. One. Two. Three. I let out a primal scream and dive off the face of it. It’s horrible. My heart is in my tonsils. I’m eating wind. Cheeks liquid, I’m dying. Nothing to save me from glacial rock death but a bungee on my ankle, when one millisecond later an incredible lightness rinses over me because I am not dying, I am flying. Slow and fast at the same time. I am a delicate female body, so light, like an earring, a charm dropped into the abyss. A heartbeat, hair, breath, a flash of pink fringe in the sky. I am unburdened and intensely me. Edgeless, boundless, elastic me. The bungee bounces me up and down like a human yo-yo. I twirl up on the rebound, plummet again, knowing now what to expect, relishing it, breathing into it, adding style even. How quickly I can adapt to my new lifestyle as a bird! I point my toes, flex my wrists, eyes wide open, wingspan stretched to its fullest capacity, and I am calm, I am found, I am high on the purest rush amidst rock and river and sky, and so I quickly exhale all the sadness pent up inside me, every drop of it as fast as I can until I am empty, watch it fall like a lint pebble from my shorts into the deep goodbye before they call, OK, it’s over! and reel me up.
Cassie Burkhardt lives in Philadelphia with her husband and three small children. She teaches kids yoga in schools and is a long-time student of The Writers Studio, started in New York by Philip Schultz. She writes poems and flash, and she is working on a collection. This is her first publication.
One day in May you show me a video on your phone. A tsunami hit the Philippines and it’s all over Twitter. On your screen a wall of water plows through a city, lifting sedans like Matchbox cars. I watch things that should be permanent crumple like a child’s diorama.
In June you ask me, again, why I don’t want kids, and I try to remind you of this.
The one with the flood, I say. You shrug.
“I don’t remember that one.”
Late in July, a tropical storm hits. It knocks out our power and so we decide to play Scrabble by candlelight, to huddle together and do our best to ignore the rain that’s rattling the windows. We’ve decided to play themed Scrabble, my favorite of your inventions: we can only play words we’d find on a fancy restaurant menu: filet,reduction, scallop. In between turns, you run down your phone’s battery watching friends’ Instagram stories: people gallivanting across Italy, people singing karaoke in loud bars, people announcing pregnancies with bad body paint and puns. I don’t know why you stay with me when I won’t give you what you (and I) want most. You’re waiting for me to make a move, and I’m staring at a line of vowels that approximates the caterwaul of a cornered animal.
In August, the man on the television with cirrus clouds of grey hair says that countries all over the globe hit record highs for temperature. The map behind him is bright red, like Europe has a bad rash. When you ask me where we should settle down, all I can think of is somewhere that will be habitable in twenty years. In ten. In five.
We stay inside the next weekend because by then the heat has found us. Your phone chirps, warning us it’s dangerous to be out in the sun.
“No big loss,” you shrug. “We didn’t have any plans anyway.”
We settle on marathoning our favorite sci-fi movies with the air conditioning on high. The whole house hums and shudders, straining with the effort of keeping us cool, and I dread the spike in our electric bill. Halfway through Mad Max I turn to you, shivering, and ask, Can you imagine being a kid in a world like this? You nod, never looking away from the TV. I don’t even know if you heard me.
Virginia Eggerton has her MFA in fiction from George Mason University. When she’s not desperately reviving houseplants, she’s writing short fiction, some of which has been published by Wigleaf, The Citron Review, MoonPark Review, and Cease, Cows. You can find her on twitter @eggertonhere.
My sister and I recall that old Stingray
while we sit a vigil in the critical care unit.
She melts into the vinyl cushions
and I lean sideways, balanced like a circus
acrobat one moment before falling.
My bike rolled sweet, balanced
on training wheels I begged my father to remove.
He wouldn’t lift a wrench without my mother’s consent.
Even Steve Reeves could not have popped a wheelie!
Then, one day he disengaged the pair,
and I rode to the park, where on a dare
from Nancy Haver I jackknifed
a set of concrete steps, snapped off my front
tooth and broke my right arm.
My sister dragged me home while I cried
over my broken bike. She laughs at the memory,
which reminds her, she says, of another story.
Just then our mother shakes
the bedside railing, angry at being jailed,
and calls again our father’s name.
“When will he be back?” She cries.
From my side of the bed, I lift her cup
and guide the polka dot straw to her lips
while my sister punches morphine
and holds her other hand to clamp the pain.
Later, she wakes, and once again
bangs the railing, this time
pulling her oxygen line free,
but the nurse arrives and tapes the tubing.
Exhausted, we slump, almost asleep. She turns
on her side, trying to find comfort
and our father, each of us seeking
balance on the body’s thin edge.
John Cullen graduated from SUNY Geneseo and worked in the entertainment business booking rock bands, a clown troupe, and an R-rated magician. Currently he teaches at Ferris State University and has had work published in American Journal of Poetry, The MacGuffin, Harpur Palate, North Dakota Quarterly, and other journals. His chapbook, TOWN CRAZY, is available from Slipstream Press.
Our fathers rise at five and whistle out the door carrying thermoses of black coffee and lunches our mothers have packed for them—bags of corn chips that fat up the blood and sandwiches made of meat and cheese. Our mothers tuck notes into the wrap of waxed paper promising what they’ll do to our fathers later in the dark.
Weekends our fathers box-step us around the living room or somersault us from their shoulders into the deep end of a swimming pool. Sometimes our fathers will lock themselves away and listen to the Tigers on the radio or slide under cars until they’re called to wash up for dinner.
Our fathers are men. What our mothers say when we ask why our fathers never cook or change diapers. Restless men, they say. Later they’ll say it with rolled eyes, but only in the evening after a couple of highballs have unlatched their tongues. Men, they will say. Our only inheritance.
On summer nights our fathers gather with other fathers in back yards to drink and bitch about the asshole foreman, the infernal factory clatter. Enough beer and they brag about the muscle cars they’re building, the flex and thrum of their big engines.
Some of our fathers die drunk in head-ons or face down on the factory floor, their rotted hearts knotted as pine trees. Some of our fathers carry their coffins and try not to cry.
Our fathers circle the padlocked gate of the Ford plant carrying signs they shake at the scabs who have stolen their jobs. Our fathers walk in snow and rain, raise clenched fists at the cars that honk past them. They stay out late drinking beer, roll home long after we’re in bed.
Our fathers are shut down, laid off. They drink beer from cans that they crush in their hands and leave on the coffee table for us to clean up. They watch game shows and talk shows where movie stars share photos of the dogs they buy online and fly first class from Tokyo. Our mothers tiptoe around our fathers, steer clear of their simmer and filth. They whisper over the slosh of the dishwasher about how hard it is for a man not to work.
After the Ford plant closes, our fathers go back to school at night. Shaved raw and choked by neckties, they stare down the glare of computer screens. Other fathers disappear into the dark bars downtown, lit by the flicker of TV screens and the thunder of fights. Sometimes the door will open and burp out the smell of beer and sweat and bullshit.
We grow up, go away, marry men who are not our fathers, men with soft hands and clean fingernails. Men who read stories to their daughters about cloth rabbits and moons and spiders that die alone.
Out fathers get old and then older. Soon enough they’re headlights on a wall, there and gone. Shadows, then ghosts.
Sarah Freligh is the author of four books, including Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis, and We, published by Harbor Editions in early 2021. Recent work has appeared in the Cincinnati Review miCRo series, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Fractured Lit, and in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (Norton 2018) and Best Microfiction (2019-21). Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts.
Today I am eleven years born! We McClelland Family, Pa, Ma, Sis, and me (plus Joseph, our Mormon frontier scout), strike out from Independence, Missouri. The Oregon Trail is bright before us, our ox-pulled Conestoga laden with sundries (except for the calico dress Ma wanted). Ma grumbles that she should have married the Banker from Boston, while Pa pretends not to hear, but it is an otherwise perfect day.
At Fort Laramie, Ma runs off with a cowpoke. Sis, who is laid low beneath a blankie (she caught dysentery from a vegan hot dog in Columbus), says “I think we’ve been here before.” And Joseph, forever gloomy, mumbles, “Wherever you go, there you are.” Ma appears again (with her hair mussed), so Pa stalks off to hunt, and I no longer feel in charge of my life.
Pa, who has something to prove to Ma―she was unimpressed with the 1,663 pounds of buffalo meat he shot back in 1888―chooses to ford Snakehole River against the protestations of Joseph, who says, “Last time we forded Snakehole River, every one of us drowned and we had to start over in Independence, Missouri.” And Ma says, “I’m never going back to that Missouri hellhole.” And Pa says, “Who’s driving this Conestoga? Me, or you assholes?” So we ford the Snakehole River, and every one of us dies.
I have been eleven years old and on this godforsaken trail for twelve goddamn years―it ain’t natural to know the needs of a man in a boy’s body―and the last time we start over, our family scatters six ways to the wind. Here is how we lived and died: Pa drank himself to the grave; Ma married her cowpoke in Laramie; Sis lit out back east to join a vegan commune; Joseph opened a mink farm in Baker City. I am still in Independence, where we began all those years before. I am lonelier than you will ever know.
Mike Itaya lives in southern Alabama, where he works in a library. His work appears or is forthcoming in New Orleans Review, New World Writing, and Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, among others. He studies fiction at Pacific University and is a member of the arts collective, Mobile Canon.
A FEW NECESSARY HOUSEHOLD RULES FOR SYBIL by Gay Degani
Don’t say a word.
Keep your mouth shut.
Unless he talks first.
And if he talks first, listen carefully.
Listen for his tone of voice, look up to see if he is looking down at you.
Don’t smile if he isn’t smiling, and bow your head. Wait to hear what he has to say.
Depending on what he says, adjust your face accordingly before you catch his eye.
When you catch his eye, you have to instantly assess what’s on his mind and respond accordingly.
If you misread this man and answer him with something he doesn’t want to hear, look down immediately and apologize in a gentle tone.
If your softest, sweetest voice doesn’t work, don’t grovel because that’s what he wants to see: you, with that frightened look on your face and the quiver in your voice.
Stay calm and wait and pray the kids are fast asleep and you remembered to shut the curtains and put away the pots and pans, your favorite vase is tucked under the sink, and the heavy metal Pandora station is just loud enough to cover your screams.
Gay Degani has received honors and nominations for her work including Pushcart consideration, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Her flash and short story work has appeared online, in print journals, and anthologies. She has published a collection of eight stories about mothers, Pomegranate, a full-length collection, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She occasionally blogs at Words in Place.
JUMPING OFF THE END OF THE WORLD by Kimm Brockett Stammen
Five years ago my niece and I stood at The End of the World, an infamous diving cliff near Kualanui Point just outside Kona, Hawaii. Far below us the ravenous Pacific roiled and crashed against jutting tumbles of boulder. Charcoal clouds cast shadows over the sky. Salt wind whipped hair in our faces.
“Auntie, I want to jump!” Kaley yelled.
Of course she did.
When she was small, my sister’s youngest girl was the one whose pink tennies inched closest to balcony edges, who leaned farthest over the aardvark enclosure at the zoo, who skipped with the most outrageous obliviousness over the slick stones of a mountain stream. Throughout her childhood she was continually recovering from some accident or another; she could and had gone, without thought or warning, in any direction whatsoever. When our two families went on outings together, even though there were six wiggly kids, including my own, it was always the jacket loop at the back of Kaley’s neck of which I kept hold.
“What do you think?” she said.
She had managed to stay alive until the age of eighteen. To celebrate that, and as a companion for our daughter, who was a year younger, my husband and I had brought her along to The Big Island for a week of vacationing. I looked down at the black waves smashing into wicked white shards. Kaley was now a legal adult; I couldn’t really stop her. What was more to the point, she had undressed as she spoke and was now wearing only a bikini and a towel. There was no jacket loop I could grab.
“I think if I lose you off the end of the world your mom will kill me.”
To get here we’d driven until we were sure we were lost. Wound down a narrow road etched over swaths of hardened lava so lean it looked as if wind had blown itself here and solidified. Screeched to a stop in a puff of gravel parking lot, then climbed over razor-sharp boulders until there were no more to climb. Ahead of us now was absolutely nothing but the sea. I stood, at an end and a beginning, imagining I could see the curve of the earth.
To our right, on a flat rock jutting out over the plunge, a darkly muscled young man prepared to dive. He glanced back towards a group of others who stood shivering, waiting their turn. He gathered himself, focused, he leapt. Arms pointed skyward, then curved in a parabolic arc downwards, and with a silent sluice the ocean swallowed him. Waves crashed against rock, recoiled, and then smashed again into more incoming waves. After an age a dark head popped up. The young man whipped wet hair from his eyes, exultant, and began clambering back up.
“Go ask that guy for pointers,” I said.
The drop at The End of the World is, I learned later, only about 35 feet high, which looked plenty high enough at the time, but the distance is not actually what makes it risky. It is the unpredictable surf, which is often simply too high, and the fact that, after jumping, there is no easy way to climb out of the turbid sea and back up. The spot is unsanctioned and considered dangerous. Several people, mainly tourists, drown or are injured there every year.
I didn’t know any of that then. I knew that my niece had become an expert swimmer and lifeguarded at the city pool every summer. I knew that—unlike when she was small and leaping thoughtlessly onto horses and off moving subway cars—she had asked for, if not my approval, at least my advice. That was new.
“He says it’s a good time,” she said, coming back from consulting the dripping diver and his buddies. “They come here a lot. The waves aren’t too high now. He can dive again and then wait down there for me to go after. He says just jump out as far as I can.”
“Just jump, huh?”
But she wasn’t. She was thinking first. Considering the risks, taking reasonable precautions. And only then propelling herself off the cliff, into adulthood.
I smiled, and she grinned back and tossed me her towel.
Kimm Brockett Stammen’s writings have appeared or are forthcoming in CARVE, The Greensboro Review, Pembroke Magazine, Prime Number, and many others. Her work has been nominated for Pushcart and Best Short Fiction anthologies, and she won second place in Typehouse’s 2019 Fiction Contest. Before earning an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University in 2019, Kimm was a concert saxophonist and spent twenty-five years performing, teaching, and touring across Canada and the US. Visit Kimm’s website here. Author photo by Emma Stammen.
TELL ME HOW TO BUILD AN AUDIENCE WHILE YOU MOVE YOUR ARMS AND LEGS LIKE SERPENTS & SCARVES IN THE DARK OF A CATTLE RANCH
by Kelly Gray
When I was a kid, I wanted to be famous. I don’t know what I thought that meant other than I wanted to be seen, remembered. In thinking of being famous, I would often imagine my tombstone. I could see it with lichen blossoming across the slate. In my child mind this meant I was deserving of afterlife visitation because I had accomplished my way into worthiness and had a name carved in rock. I can be self-conscious if someone forgets my name. I can be self-conscious if someone remembers it, too. I know I am sensitive. I won’t ever be famous. Once, at a party, a girl I went to high school with called me by a name that wasn’t mine. Not a mean name, just not my name. She had a big family and was well liked and she was prettier than I was. I showed up that night looking like I cared too much and right in front of everyone she called me this other name. I realized how inconsequential I was no matter how perfectly I applied my makeup. But when I looked into her eyes, I knew it wasn’t a mistake. For a moment the bonfire light played the same shadow across our faces and I remembered she didn’t get into art school for dance. Despite telling all of us that she would. Despite all the grown-ups telling her that she would. My uncle had offered to film her application video for the program. He had expensive videography equipment that he said was essential. I was sitting in the community center loft looking down at the two of them. She was dancing hard, moving her whole body like she thought she was Isadora Duncan. His face was flushed behind the camera and he kept saying things that made my stomach queasy. I couldn’t use his words to pinpoint why he made me sick all the way down to my ankles crossed, I just knew I wanted to avoid the soft slur he passed off as affection. It felt like a burden the way my friends and I had to dodge his swollen lips when he wanted to kiss us hello and goodbye. She wasn’t my friend but she was dancing harder and harder. She had on a bodysuit and tights and the feet of a dancer, which are basically flexed hammers with calluses. She looked like she could have been carved of wood except that she was moving like water. I guess that’s the tension of dance. Isadora was driving home to get laid when her scarf got stuck in the spokes of the automobile and she was flung to the pavement and that’s how she died. That’s another tension, that split second between propelling forward and stopping so hard time abandons you as your body breaks. You can look at pictures of Isadora and because you know how her story ends, it makes every picture of her ache, especially the ones of her long soft neck. You just think Jesus, Isadora, you really didn’t know what was coming for you. I looked at this girl at this party knowing she never got into art school, even though I did, even though my acceptance letter had embarrassed me because I was embarrassed to write. Scarves around necks. When I told her my correct name, she laughed too big and I heard how fast she gulped in the cold party night air and I thought she would end up dancing for someone that night, just not for everyone. When she danced alone or for a boy, she felt slighted because no one had taught us yet that we were doing it for ourselves. It wasn’t about being seen but being understood and for that we needed swaths of spectators at our feet. Anyone would do as audience as we were just getting started but even then we knew we needed more. Later that night when I was watching her from the space past the bonfire between the barns and the meadow, I could see that she thought about being famous, too. I guess we had that in common, that and that we both knew my lichen-covered name.
Kelly Gray (she/her/hers) is a writer, playwright, and educator residing on occupied Coast Miwok land. Her writing appears in Passages North (forthcoming), Pithead Chapel, Hobart, Inflectionist Review, The Normal School, Barren Magazine, Lunch Ticket, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for Best of the Net and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2020. Her book of poetry, Instructions for an Animal Body (Moon Tide Press, 2021) and her audio micro-chap My Fingers are Whales and other stories of Cetology (Moonchild Press, 2021) are available at writekgray.com.
My shoulder hurt a lot after the second dose and the following morning I found a thorny vine had sprouted from beneath the Band-Aid. It clambered down my upper arm in an emerald coil. I drove back to the CVS in a hurry but the pharmacist insisted that this was less a medical issue and more a botanical one, so I stopped by the flower store across the street. “Water once daily and give it plenty of sun,” I was advised and indeed the vine flourished under this regimen. A few weeks later it blossomed into a hundred tiny flowers, each one a pale and haunted red just like the year had been.
Nikolaj Volgushev’s fiction has appeared in journals such as the Cafe Irreal, Cleaver Magazine, and Cease, Cows. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany where he writes, programs, and does other things along those lines. Before moving to Germany, Nikolaj lived in Denmark, and before that in New England, and before that in Germany. It is unclear where, if at all, Nikolaj lived before that.
Sara nearly dropped the peeling tin box of Grandpa Teddy’s things when she pulled out the yellowed, cracked black and white of Grandma Bea sitting on the wheel hub of their ‘38 Chevy, chubby ankles crossed.
Sara was only sure the picture was her grandmother because of the distinctive contour that had been carved around where her head and upper body should have been. She didn’t remember Bea, who’d died when Sara was barely two years old, so as a girl, whenever she’d visit Teddy, she’d ask to see the heart-shaped picture, the one with Bea wearing a beret over dark, wavy hair. The photograph was tucked into the corner of the mirror of the bureau Teddy shared with Bea for thirty years—the top two drawers hers, the bottom two his. Bea’s smiling face shone out from behind Teddy’s Old Spice aftershave, hair trimmer, and zippered shoe polish kit neatly arranged on the bureau top, a stack of accounting ledgers and a fountain pen off to one side. Bea’s gold locket engraved with the letters “BL” hung from the mirror next to the picture.
“That’s her thousand-watt smile,” Teddy would say, holding the heart in his hands. “When she walked into a room, everyone looked up, men and women. She was a looker, my Bea, and as sweet as can be,” he’d say, chuckling at his own joke.
Sara had been told that her grandmother died of a heart attack, and when she was growing up, Teddy would pat her hand and say, “Take care of that ticker! It’s the only one you got.”
Now that Teddy was gone, Sara was going through his things before the house went on the market. Inside the eave closet that smelled of old wood and mouse droppings, she stared at this lost companion piece, a heart-shaped hole where Bea’s smiling face should have been. A rusty paper clip held the Daily Sun article to the back of the photo. Sara’s eyes were drawn first to the image of a stockier, more serious Bea than the one frozen in her imagination. Then to the headline:
“Local Grandmother Dies in Briarview Asylum Incident”
Sara crumpled onto Teddy’s dusty steamer trunk with its brass latches and leather straps. She’d looked at the tidy, heart-shaped picture dozens of times, but seeing Bea’s disembodied hands and feet against the old car, reading those cryptic words, reality seemed to slip like a wave receding beneath her feet. Bea was institutionalized? What did they do to her? Had Sara’s mother known the truth? Sara tried to imagine the shame and anguish Teddy must have endured for the forty-five years after Bea left him all alone until his own death at just shy of a hundred; what it must have taken for her guileless grandfather to carry that carefully constructed lie all those years and to pass it on to his granddaughter as smoothly as slipping the heart-shaped picture of Bea into her hands.
Kathryn Silver-Hajo writes short fiction, long fiction, and poetry, mostly about life and relationships in the US and Lebanon. She studied in the Creative Writing MFA program at Emerson College, has a degree in Middle Eastern studies, and speaks Arabic fluently. Her stories and poems appear in Unbroken Journal, The Ekphrastic Review,Boston Literary Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, The New Verse News, and Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal. She is currently seeking representation for her novel, Roots of The Banyan Tree. Kathryn’s work may be found at www.kathrynsilverhajo.com.
He drove to his mother’s house the morning of Thanksgiving and announced that he just wanted to catch up on sleep, because he wanted to avoid talking to Mom and really wanted to avoid his brother—who had flown in the night before and was the overachiever and overcomer—and did not care much one way or another about Jay, his stepfather—who was nice enough, if not a little too subservient—and because his mother had warned him that he better not use anything on this day, that if he could not even go this one day—Thanksgiving for God’s sake!—without taking a hit then he should really admit he had a problem and get the help she’s been begging him to get, and by the way, she and Jay had decided that they were not going to open any wines this year and also keep the bar cabinet locked—for his sake, didn’t he understand?—because they loved him and supported him and were going to do whatever it took to help him. Now, back in his old room in the house in which he spent one-half of his childhood, he stretched out under the blanket on the old twin bed with his shoes still on, closed his eyes, and pulled the pillow over his face, and he was back in his other old room in the other house in which he spent the other half of his childhood, his father banging on the door, threatening to kick the shit out of him if he didn’t come out and wash up, now! The banging got louder: last warning, buddy, the bird is getting cold and dry, you come out right now or I’ll break down this goddamn door if I have to but you’re not going to insult me and Leila after this great meal she’s made; then his mind slipped further back, to when he was eight or nine, when Mom dropped him off for practice after school on a Friday and Dad was supposed to pick him up for the weekend, except he was running late because he was still at some happy hour and he had just met this wonderful woman, Leila, he said when he finally arrived an hour after he was supposed to, and he was the only one still at the practice fields, watching the ribbons of birds fluttering in the sky before settling on the electrical wires for the night, families together; then he was five, they had stopped at a farmhouse with a riot of animals and Dad was with a different woman then, this one shortly after Mom put his stuff out on the front yard and got the lock changed, and Dad promised him then that as soon as the divorce was final and he had gotten himself a new place, he could have animals of his own, and he wanted chickens and Dad said, sure, we’ll build our own coop and raise chickens and never have to buy eggs again. Of course, this was just one of many such untruths, and over time he had come to appreciate why some people wear sunglasses at night, he had learned to cope with the clarifications of things by learning how to lose clarity itself from time to time, while at other times meticulously memorizing the ledger of untruths he knew he was going to hurl at his father’s face someday; only the fucker then went off and died, and his own life seemed unfair and unresolved, drolly comedic and cryptically disorienting, like a Todd Haynes movie. Now his mother knocked on the door to tell him the turkey was almost done and they would be sitting down soon, that he should come down and if he did he would feel better, that after dinner they planned to play something, dominoes maybe; but all he wanted to do was sneak into the bathroom and open that bag he was determined not to open, then fly, so he pulled the blanket over his head, covering himself head to toe, even though he was sweating.
Suman Mallick’s debut novel The Black-Marketer’s Daughter was a finalist for the Disquiet Open Borders Book Prize and published in October, 2020. His fiction may be found in The Bombay Review, The Gravity of the Thing, and Propeller Magazine. He is the Assistant Managing Editor of the literary magazine Under the Gum Tree and received his MFA from Portland State University, where he also taught English and Creative Writing. He may be found at sumanmallick.com, or on Instagram or Twitter @smallick71.
I can’t believe you haven’t heard this story. I feel like we tell it all the time! Maybe not in class, no, but grad school isn’t all lectures and bad coffee. We do have fun sometimes. Anyway, Lee and I used to come here all the time in our first year, because on Thursdays they had pierogies for fifty cents apiece and we’d have money left over for nasty beer, except I think this happened on her birthday so maybe it was nasty rum instead. I’m sorry, I don’t know if I should try to tell this story without Lee, I’m not going to remember it right. Well, anyway, we were sitting up at the bar over there having some kind of intense conversation. I think it was when we were planning on co-teaching a class about rape culture—I told you, we know how to have fun. So we were just talking with our heads together when out of nowhere this guy thumps down right next to her and says “Hey, you, have either of you read any Russian literature?” I know! Not even an excuse me! He wasn’t from our program. I remember he had really long hair down to his waist, but otherwise he just looked like a guy. Anyway, yes, of course we’ve read Russian literature—not all of it, obviously—but in any case that’s not his business. So we turn away and try to find the thread of our own conversation, but next thing he started in talking about the Frankfurt School. I truly don’t know. Maybe he’d just read a book about it, or maybe he really loves critical theory and that’s always how he chats up strangers. What was funny, though, is that Lee and I had just turned in our papers for that first-year course on critical theory. We could talk about Althusser all day. Even though he did strangle his wife. Maybe that’s the class we should be co-teaching: all the philosophy guys who killed their wives. So this guy started talking to us about ideology, and I was trying to catch Lee’s eye like, is this okay? Are you okay? I mean we were still getting to know each other then, I didn’t know if she would enjoy the attention, but it was her birthday and she was still talking about interpellation, so I tried to be chill. When you get to critical theory next term, you’ll see how Althusser describes interpellation: if a policeman says “Hey you.” to a person walking down the street, that person—regardless of how they feel about it—is transformed into a subject of the state. Maybe when a guy says “Hey, have you read any Russian literature?” to women at a bar, they are incorporated into his own ideology, like they’re not people in their own right but mirrors reflecting back his own self-image. Or so he thought, but Lee was verbally batting him around like a cat with a mouse and he was getting more and more agitated. So finally the guy asked Lee what she wanted to do, like when she grew up I guess, what she wanted to do for a job. And Lee said she wanted to teach, because that’s the dream, right? That’s what we all come in wanting to do. And the guy, who was pretty worked up by this time, slammed his hand on the bar and roared “That’s bullshit!” And Lee said, “I’m sorry?” Because that’s what women do, isn’t it? A man walks into a bar and says ouch; a woman walks into a bar and says I’m sorry. And I leaned across her and said, “Did you just call my friend’s vocation bullshit?” And he said, “Yes, your job is to tell people what to think, and that is bullshit.” I know! So funny. Like sure, yes, we are tools of capitalist indoctrination, and that’s why we are celebrating Lee’s birthday by pooling our quarters for all the pierogies we can eat! And, okay, Althusser does not believe in the liberating potential of education, but if education is oppression then what do you call bothering women with philosophy at a bar? Not that we are giving much weight to Althusser’s opinion of how to talk to women; I did say he killed his wife. Find me a philosopher who was a good man, though. Like everything else, we take the parts that are useful to us and leave the rest. Anyway, I’m sorry, I’m so bad at telling this story. I don’t remember telling the guy to leave, but Lee says that’s what I did. Like: that’s not what teaching is, and also that’s not what ideology is, goodbye. But the man must have said “That’s bullshit!” a few more times, because for the rest of the year Lee and I would yell “THAT’S BULLSHIT!” and collapse into laughter. But he did leave and the bartender gave us each a plastic token for the entertainment. I still keep it in my wallet. It was supposed to be good for a lifetime discount but the new manager won’t accept it. You missed a chance there to say “That’s bullshit!” But the pierogies are still fifty cents on Thursday, and they come with a whole basket of condiments, so you can really make a meal out of them. You’re welcome. That’s what I’m trying to tell you: in this program, we have to look out for one another.
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 flash in Cleaver Magazine, Toho Journal, and CRAFT literary magazine, and she currently blogs about books and climate anxiety at literarysara.net.
If I had clocked Kenny Vicarini we would have kissed. Not at that point, of course—I would have waited until the swelling went down. In fact, I would have swung for the gut, stole his air so he had to collapse into me.
He was an asshole looking for someone to stand up to him, from a long line of assholes looking for someone to stand up to them. But he was first in my line. His daddy had a boat and land. Kenny had cocaine and cheekbones so sharp you could have done lines off them.
Cooper McKenzie, he said, with the intimacy of any good curse, low enough that the jeering onlookers couldn’t have heard him.
Cooper. The name of an oil scion, perhaps, although the closest my family got to that was mom’s job at the Super America. Cooper—their best effort to give me an opulent future. Here’s a name worthy of a legacy. Go build one.
Maybe I would have swung if I wasn’t the eldest child. Maybe if I wasn’t co-captain of the wrestling team. Maybe if I hadn’t signed that DARE anti-drug pledge, which we all made fun of, but I did sign it with a spastic little signature, and it made me nervous to go against my own name, about the only damn thing I had in the world. My name wasn’t worth anything yet, but it could be.
I tucked my fists in my pockets and walked away. Kenny called out insults to my back because he had to. You can’t let someone walk away for free. The ring of people wanted violence, but you can’t get blood from a stone, and you can’t squeeze guilt out of a boy who has rid himself of want.
No one remembers a stoic demeanor or cool temperament. No one falls in love with even-keeled. No one has sex in the back of a Toyota Corolla Hatchback if their hands are burrowed, their jaw clenched shut, their thoughts adrift as they measure the value of a name.
I put my name on everything now. Endorsements, nameplates, email signatures, condolence cards, business lunch checks, another condolence card, this time for an employee I’ve never heard of, mortgage down payments, dating apps—with a first name and last initial like a partial staking. An object, a tool, more stamp than identity.
I don’t remember what the fight was about. Fundamentally, it was the invitation to fight, whether you accepted or declined, who you trusted to swap skin with. Kenny’s chin was cocked, mine drooping towards my chest. The fight would have been perfunctory.
If I could do it again, I would have clamped his chin between thumb and forefinger, hard enough to stop him from talking. I would have pressed my lips to his and then released before he could enjoy it. I would have given him a reason to remember my name, just as I’ve remembered his.
Alex Juffer is a graduate of the MFA program at Southern Illinois University. Recently, they have worked at Southern New Hampshire University, the Loft Literary Center, and the University of Minnesota, teaching literature, creative writing, and public speaking. Their work has been previously published in Epoch, The Red Line, Maudlin House, and more.
29 REASONS WHY THERE WILL BE NO REPLY
by Chelsey Clammer
You didn’t visit me for fifteen months.
I know, pandemic and whatnot, and we live three states apart, but why isn’t your lover in your “circle”?
When we did finally see each other, it was only because I came to see you, but even then
You didn’t spend the night with me because
You didn’t want to tell your wife I was in town, meaning that
You spent the day fucking me, then lied to her by coming home at night and saying work was fine that day, which also means you, yet again,
Put your wife’s emotional needs (to continue denying the ongoing affair you finally told her about) before not just my relationship needs, but also your own.
Because you are a fucking spineless coward, or it’s possible that
You’re lying to me about wanting to leave your wife to be with me, which isn’t a terribly baseless accusation because
I have witnessed you lying to your wife for over two and a half years, so
How can I trust you?
Because it’s like my mom said: “He’s either a liar or a fool,”
And I don’t know which it is.
But whether liar or fool, you have your self-proclaimed dream girl right here and you won’t jump through some hard, emotional hoops with your wife to be with said dream girl.
After two and a half years of your unfulfilled “I’m leaving my wife” promises, you have finally lost your dream girl.
Because I have lost respect for you.
Also, because you never replied to my last text (re: “I can’t keep holding on to something that’s never going to happen,”) which means I guess we’re no longer together, which also means
You gave up.
And yet, you’re ‘liking’ my Instagram posts a few days of silence later as if, what? We’re friends?
Excellent point my real friend made when I told her that you ‘liked’ my Instagram-posted selfie: “He is a TURD. A floater turd that will not be flushed away.”
The most excellent of all excellent points my real friend made when I told her you ‘un-liked’ my Instagram-posted selfie about an hour after you had ‘liked’ it: “If that’s not a lack of commitment, then IDK what is.”
I deserve to be liked without any hemming and hawing about it.
I also deserve to be treated like I matter.
Re #25: I’m remembering the last time I saw you. In the Aubrey hotel, room 1602, when you arrived the morning I was leaving, and I had been crying the night before, alone, because I had a realization, and when I told you my realization (i.e., “No matter what I need or want or what I do, it doesn’t matter any in this relationship.”), you got real quiet, then finally looked at me and said, “I don’t know how to answer that.”
Because it was the truth—I don’t matter, no, didn’t matter in our affair-ship.
Thus, if you ever do text me back, silence will be my reply.
At least that’s the plan.
Chelsey Clammer is the author of the award-winning essay collection, Circadian (Red Hen Press, 2017), and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications, 2015). Her work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, Hobart, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School, and Black Warrior Review. She teaches online writing classes with WOW! Women On Writing and is a freelance editor.Her next collection of essays, Human Heartbeat Detected, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. www.chelseyclammer.com
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.