Past

  • The Reluctant Riverboat Passengers, The Serialized Attacks of The Swamp Gin Monster, and The Saw That Stayed by Exodus Oktavia Brownlow

    We were all drifting off into a drugged-out sleep, more quicksand slumber because that’s the way gin drags you down under, when I realized that you loved her. 

    We were reluctant riverboat passengers, the soft chugga-chugga-chugga chants of gin-gin for the win as a bon voyage. That reluctant, a running water’s mirage against our intuition, and the last of the body’s way to vest our lives since gin is the sneakiest monster of them all. It’s made to seem sweet, sophisticated from its perfume bottle swallows but serves a sour inside that settles only for the moment, waiting to surface back up later. 

    It snuck up on all of us. Though, not you, not as much or maybe not at all. Maybe you had not had as much as we did or maybe you were used to it in a way that we weren’t. A surviving scream queen who’d scared it away with a shattering screech. Still, I saw. 

    We’d all been talking—maniacally, slumber party-ishly, hysterically—all about her new guy. 

    What guy?

    You know, the guy-guy! The guy-she-met-at-the-store guy!

    ‘How he was tall enough to wear any heel she wanted. Handsome enough so that the kids would all come out pretty. He was not much of a Rockefeller but who cared when we had all lived in our Mothers’ houses once, who had married men with too much money. Who had somehow loved us all enough to warn against marrying a man with dollar signs on their sights alone. Who’d told us that the more money a man made, the more you would end up being less of his girl and more of his get.

    “Where does he work?” you asked, snatching the cellphone out of her hand mid-scroll. You scoffed. “It’s you’re beautiful. Y-O-U-Apostrophe-R-E. Not your.” All critiques and less encouragement. 

    She hissed, grabbing her phone back, quickly clicking off of the screen. “See, here you go! Always looking to the small stuff! Never to the big stuff! Never to the stuff that really matters!” 

    She went on and on. Talking of what love is about, and what looking for love is about, and what living in that looking for that love is about. Went on until the Swamp Gin Monster grabbed her, swept her against the Chanel-tweed couch. Her feet surfaced about. Her head drowned down below, beneath a pillow. 

    Before I sunk, my internal screams stifled by the swiftness of the Swamp Gin Monster’s getting—No, No! Don’t! Go away! Leave me alone! —I saw.

    You had not been able to fully save her, only her feet to rest in your lap. Your thumbs at the insoles. Soft presses. Gentle squeezes. Watching over her, only over her, while she rested. 

    My saw stayed. 

    ‘Stayed through my quicksand slumber. Through the sudden jolt of the sleep paralysis breaking, the sour ready and bubbling. Spewing remnants. Splashing the inside of the porcelain toilet bowl a lagoon-blue blue. I said nothing in the morning-after rescue.

    The muck of the evening before became cleared out by a cool breeze, and bottles of chilled 1907 Artesian some riverboat worker stored away beforehand. You, behaving as a victim in the ways that we were by asking— 

    ‘Some Breakfast? Tylenol? Electrolytes? 

    Our phone batteries low. Missed calls from no one and missed texts from lots of someones. 

    The Swamp Gin Monster lingering around, warning us—one, two, three days after—to stay far, far, far away from these here parts.

    _____

    Exodus Oktavia Brownlow is a writer, budding beekeeper, and a rising seamstress currently residing in the enchanting pine tree forest of Blackhawk, Ms. You can find her at exodusoktaviabrownlow.com.

  • Two Joy Odes by william erickson

    Joy Ode

    From the center of a small town a well sings of all the children that have fallen in. It is a sad song—there are many children—but a beautiful song, and in the constant din of stars it sounds like love would sound if love could be an echo. But love is not an echo. Love is a staircase in a meadow whose shadow tells the time. If you listen to its song the well will beg you not come and as you come the song grows low and soft and secret. We do not know what things are real. In winter we cut down the trees because they look too much like us.

    Joy Ode

    Every day my joy puts on the tomato costume. Every day I stroll through the garden, wink at the bees, the stone steps bedding the river of my body. Once, I sewed magnolia leaves into a cape. All of us pretend to be ourselves and in pretending never notice that a self is just a seed inside a burlap sack. I slice my joy into uneven halves, and when I rinse the knife I wound the water.

    _____

    william erickson is a living poet. His work appears in Sixth Finch, Heavy Feather, West Branch, and other pubs. william is a 2023 Best New Poet nominee, and his debut collection is forthcoming with April Gloaming in 2024. He lives in Washington with his partner and their two pups in an old house across the street from a large tree.

  • Prickings by R.L. Summerling

    Tiny faces. Shy smiles on tiny faces. Sharp claws protrude from tiny hands on bodies that emerge at twilight. 

    You’ll know it’s time when the letter arrives. Look out for a messenger who travels across the half-lit valley. You’ll be living in a farmhouse, stone divided into quarters by broken windows. That’s where tiny faces, fogging glass, will watch you from the gloaming. How they’ll smile so shyly when they see you burn the letter. In a cursive hand it will say that someone knows what you did to Susan. Sharp knife on tiny throat. Mouth twisted into grinning rigor mortis. Don’t ask me what will happen to Susan. I won’t be there. I do not smile shyly in the dying light of day.

    Slippery dreams that smell of sweat and whiskey and fog on the hills.

    You’re going to ask me what comes next. I’ll tell you, but I’m not sure you want to know. They’ll scratch on the window with those sharp claws. Then, one by one, they’ll slither through the broken pane. A viscous trail over half-drunk bottles. You won’t stop them, you’ll think; how shy, how tiny, until they get closer and you see it. There’s going to be a sour feeling rising from the depths of your gut. On their skulls they’ll wear wigs made from Susan’s pale hair, matted with her blood. They’ll speak in her voice, divided into many. Please stop hurting me.

    Wriggling, squelching, clawing forward. 

    Oh, that’s when you’ll know the prickings are about to begin.

    _____

    R.L. Summerling is a writer from South East London. In her free time she enjoys befriending crows in Nunhead Cemetery. She has stories in Seize The Press, Interzone, Northern Gravy and more. You can find her at rlsummerling.com and on Twitter @RLSummerling

  • I Figured Out Walking Through Walls by Addison Zeller

    As in walking down them. 

    As in they open into corridors and aren’t tight at all. 

    You can’t stick a bed in them, but a couch? Definitely. 

    There’s one at the rec center. 

    I was walking through a wall, looking out the peepholes while folks exercised and hydrated, and right by the pool was a couch probably a few decades old, a little ragged, with chip particles in the cushions. 

    Now, I think it’s bad that people are doing this, and that I’m doing this, but I am doing this, and I will. 

    I like it, it’s collegial. 

    But without the work of hanging out. 

    It takes concentration to wiggle in, but the rest’s super easy. 

    I could bring a camp chair and sit for hours. 

    Better than watching a log burn on Netflix. 

    Better than texting friends who just blab about themselves. 

    They say so much shit that isn’t true, and I know because I sit in their walls. 

    And I know some of them do it too. 

    I was stepping into my bathroom wall once when I heard someone get up and run out. 

    An iPhone was still gleaming when I picked it up. 

    I can’t decode the lock but I recognize the cat on the background for sure. 

    How many people do it? 

    All I can say is behind the veggie aisle at Kroger there’s a lamp, a trashcan, and a vending machine. 

    If they installed a vending machine, it’s bound to be a pretty solid number of folks. 

    The couch in that wall is super comfortable. Leather. Clean. 

    There’s a fucking ashtray. 

    It’s like heaven sitting there, watching mist hiss over the lettuce. 

    _____

    Addison Zeller’s fiction appears in 3:AM, Epiphany, Ligeia, minor literature[s}, ergot., trampset, and elsewhere. He lives in Wooster, Ohio. 

  • Two by Alejandra Cabezas

    The Cult of Kukulkan 

    Last night I lowered myself into a well. I spent the night in a serpent’s mouth, speaking to a god. Come sunrise, I forgot to ask for his name. I resisted the raindrops in between his teeth. Despite my thirst, I’m wary of drinking from the crevices of men. He was a feathered one, I think. Would’ve expected a pyramid or a son from me. I’d much rather have my gods help me sweep the earth. But no, they hide their demons in the dusty corners of my home. Pull at my skirts and invite me into the underworld, they do. Quake after quake after quake I still dream of Tulum blue. We’re in a generation-long drought, can’t you see? All the fertile women are gone. Died in a battle, they did. Left us the monkey children and took the last of the maize.

    Now give me a god who will tend to my harvest. Give me a god who will patch the tears in my sheets. Give me any god who will not ask me to dance at his behest. 

    Maybe then, this god will be worth remembering.

    Tomb Deposit 

    Nothing feels as empty as the trails of the earth. Where once, me and you, now runs a serpent. Bodied thing I am jealous of. With no arms to reach for you. No legs to keep me put. You see, I love standing on puddles during storms. Then comes the sun and I find myself in a hole. Never had to carve myself out of the present. I stay, always. One day I’ll drown myself. I’ve heard all about this soil and its precariousness. No doubt the terracotta will outlive me. I am porous. Meant for permeability. My output is my weakness. Everything inside me is shriveled up. Old things. Uncared for. Left behind in floods. Found drying in the sand. Nothing has ever restored its composition. Chemistry, I know. Nothing ever dies. But the sun and the salt will eat away at me. You have to believe me. I am withered. Meant to serve in the afterlife. 

    But let me tell you a secret:

    I’ve been to the bowels of the earth,

    and there is none. 

    _____

    Alejandra Cabezas is a poet and storyteller from Antiguo Cuscatlan, El Salvador. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, CURA, 128 Lit, The Beaver Magazine print anthology, Moida Magazine, The Literary Bohemian, and elsewhere. She was named Poet of the Month by YES Poetry and represented Mount Holyoke at the 2021 Glascock Poetry Contest. She currently resides in Amsterdam, where she works on an MA in Museums and Heritage.

  • Spin Cycle by Judith Ohikuare

    —Like the laundry: I really couldn’t get a grip on that last load. I had decided to dump everything in all at once (there was so much and I had so little time), so in went EJ’s basketball uniforms and my de-elasticized bras and Dana’s period panties and Elijah’s boxer briefs. The washer cycled while I checked things off my to-do list for an hour (emails, bills, defrosting meat), but when I returned to take everything out, I found myself pulling and pulling—I mean seriously going at it with the machine—for ages. I was nearly diving in at one point. 

    The clothes hadn’t fully spun dry, so I was soaked and cold, but I stood there, yanking, and finding more than I’d actually put in. Things I thought I’d lost forever, like my favorite socks to wear to bed and a thong bodysuit I hated that pinched the rind of skin between my ass cheeks. I found a shirt my dad used to wear while working on his car and a funeral shroud the color of sandalwood that was rough and sopping. I had no idea whose it was and didn’t want to know yet. 

    After two more hours of this, the very last items I tugged free were the clothes I had been wearing at the start. I looked down at myself, shivering, to realize I had nothing on but my house shoes and a satin bonnet. The dryer was running and I could hear the garbage men pulling away from the curb. The reek of spoiled castoffs filtered in through the vent. 

    Upstairs, the kids argued over who would toast their Pop-Tarts first, until I remembered that I had no house and no kids and no husband—only a two-year lease that was set to expire on my birthday and an upcoming date with Elijah I’d been ambivalent about for weeks. He wanted to surprise me, but I don’t like not knowing what to wear.

    ________

    Judith Osilé Ohikuare (she/her) is a poet, fiction writer, and former journalist from Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net 2023, published in CHEAP POP, HAD, and Variant Literature, and anthologized in Best Microfiction 2023. Judith is a 2023 Fellow at In Surreal Life and the Director of Special Programming & Communications at NY Writers Coalition.

  • When We Became Trees By Danai Christopoulou

    They’d told us it would be peaceful; natural. 

    Well, natural for us—peaceful for them. Peaceful to sit in the shadow of our green growth, lost in their memories of who we used to be. Feeling vindicated in the choice they carried out for us. “The burial pods are biodegradable,” they said. “Good for the environment.” Then they sat and waited, as we were lowered to the ground in an egg-shaped capsule, a sapling sprouting from where our belly buttons used to be. 

    It’s not their fault. They’re not evolved like us; they haven’t learned to listen. 

    So they went about their lives, watering us when they remembered to, while our entrails hardened into root systems and our eyes melted to accommodate new shoot-ups from our skulls. 

    They didn’t know there was something in those pods that woke us up. 

    They didn’t know we were writhing and rising and stretching and screaming and becoming, every decaying day, more and more alive. 

    Perhaps if they knew, they’d have dug us up. Burned us while there was still time. 

    But they did nothing—and after a while, our screams turned into songs as we finally understood. We had to give up our previous shell to flourish in our new one. 

    As will you. Quit fretting.

    ***

    The earth gave way first. 

    The trees that weren’t made of us were easy to persuade, enticed by our nutrients. Once our roots found theirs, the branching out of belonging commenced, until they fully joined us. 

    The air was harder, but we found ways to conquer that too, once we learned to work together. Our foliage found one another flying in the wind, leaves like drones making contact with each other, communicating our positions before falling to the forest floor. From there on, it was just a game of growing, and stretching, and suggesting to birds the ripeness of our fruit. It didn’t matter that our hearts bled with every beak’s bite. The birds became our pollinators, dropping our seeds on the ground, making more of us with every coming season. 

    Still, that wasn’t enough. 

    You must understand, we are very bored.

    Tree-time passes slowly, too slowly for us. Our trunks still remember how it feels to walk, to run, to move. Our boughs still yearn to touch, to explore. 

    So we sent our roots further still, binding us all together, ensuring knowledge is disseminated within the whole hive. What one of us knows, we all know. 

    And even that is not enough.

    We’re making progress, creating new clusters, roots rising from the ground, trunks splitting in twos and threes, crowns like fractals fastening our hold of the sky. But we need more.

    New voices, to join our song. Fresh nutrients to sustain us. 

    Please stop fighting; it will be over in a moment. 

    At least it will feel like a moment once you’re fully one of us. 

    ***

    Your skin is looking more and more ripe now. 

    Green. Gelatinous. Giving way to the gleaming bones beneath.

    See, it’s better this way. We’ve long figured out we don’t need the pods to raise our numbers. We don’t need to wait for them to die first, for us to live. We can take them while they’re still standing, while their song is still just theirs. All it takes is a root out of place and the snap of a neck against our hard bark.

    Some of them accept their fate right away. Others, like you, keep fighting. 

    You’re not the first to think of cutting off a broken limb or two to get away. We admire your courage, misguided as it may be. Why try so hard to become less of yourself when you can be so much more? When you can join our roots and crown song, and feast on earth and air, as we slowly make our way to conquer the water? We’re so close! 

    We’re so close to taking it all from them. To becoming all there is, all there will be.

    Please stop trying to run. We won’t hurt you so much if you stay still.

    We just want to talk.

    We just want to sing together.

    ________

    Danai Christopoulou (she/they) is a Greek speculative author drawing inspiration from the myths she grew up with. Danai’s nonfiction has appeared in magazines like Glamour and Marie Claire since 2004. They are a submissions editor for Uncanny Magazine, a proofreader for khōréō, an assistant editor at HavenSpec and an intern at Tobias Literary Agency. Their short fiction is published or forthcoming in Haven Spec, khōréō, FusionFragment and others, while their novels are represented by Lauren Bieker of FinePrint Literary. Find Danai on social media as @danaiwrites.

  • A Shine of the Tin by Shome Dasgupta

    The local hawk froze in midair to make sense of such a sound—the sound of Canoe realizing the patter of rain against tin. Tin and tin and tap and tin—in its peculiar music, Canoe angled his neck to closer observe this phenomenon. Alone and drenched, he knocked on the shed for any kind of reaction, but it remained still as if it was supposed to remain as such—Canoe had never been in the rain before. He didn’t notice the frozen hawk in the gray sky looking down at him with still wings. There was a sun, too—beyond the statue—in a distant way, unnoticed.

    His palms were open—facing the sky, the drops breathed a new life on his skin. 

    “What is this?”

    Tongue out—soft bits of tickle.

    He knocked on the metal again.

    A door opened. A figure appeared.

    “Who am I,” Canoe said.

    “Make me,” a figure said.

    Canoe lifted his hands to the sky—the local hawk, its beak shone amid the rain, the gray of the air formed around its shape. Feathers pressed and neat and wet, the eyes of a curious gaze set on Canoe and a figure.

    “This is rain,” a figure said.

    “Why?”

    “For you.”

    “For me. Who am I?”

    “Tone and texture,” a figure said. “Give me.”

    Canoe moved his head around—the statue, still cemented above. A wing and a wing, stretched as far as the horizon. Pitter and patter below. The tin and the rain, songs never heard before. All Canoe knew was silence.

    “Can I speak,” Canoe said.

    “I am no stranger,” a figure said. “Here.”

    A cold shade in his hand, Canoe wrapped his fingers around it. The local hawk, curling its talons.

    “I don’t want to look up,” Canoe said.

    “Look up.”

    “What is this?”

    Beyond a figure—past the rattling tin shack, no vision appeared. Walls and walls rain. Canoe felt blind, a sensation accustomed, but a figure persisted.

    “Put your hand inside of me. I need it. Give me light.”

    “Light. I am not here, am I?”

    Compelled. Canoe lifted his chin, the rain, in small drops, peppered his face—a stinging. He forced his eyes open, an adjustment—a flinch. The local hawk cracked its wings from its own petrification. 

    “What is this sound?”

    “It’s the sound of a song.”

    The rain bounced against the tin, a music which made Canoe want to move. There was movement, and a figure twisted and turned.

    “Put your hand inside—cover me.”

    “Am I confused?”

    “Put me together.”

    “This is not me,” Canoe said.

    “Listen.”

    “A rain.”

    Canoe noticed a speck in the sky, delineated from the rest of the air—a presence felt. The tin and the tin, metallic echoes pelting through his pores, he felt a gravitation. A pull, which inched closer to a figure. Gray against black against nothing, Canoe opened his mouth to shout—mute.

    There was no time in its being, the local hawk breaking its mold, shifting its head. Melting wings.

    “I want to go back,” Canoe said. 

    Once spoken, Canoe put a hand inside a figure, a shrilling light tore through—booming squawks, and there was a silence. A figure taking shape—colors splashed, a rain no longer. The tin shack stood staunched, reborn, and Canoe disappeared—a figure with life. Away, skies approached with anticipation, and as Canoe entered, one last vision. The local hawk, in all its glimmer, flew and changed the air—a light and a sketch and a shine of the tin.

    ________

    Shome Dasgupta is the author of The Seagull And The Urn (HarperCollins India), and most recently, the novels Cirrus Stratus (Spuyten Duyvil) and Tentacles Numbing (Thirty West), and a poetry collection, Iron Oxide (Assure Press). His writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, New Orleans Review, Arkansas Review, Magma Poetry, and elsewhere. He is the series editor of the Wigleaf Top 50. He lives in Lafayette, LA and can be found at @laughingyeti.

  • I Once Was a Blanket by Parth Shah

    When the rakshasa moved into the bungalow, he decided this would be his peacock room. He filled the space with emerald and sapphire. Feather bouquets in obsidian urns by the glass doors.

    The rakshasa was a vegetarian so no taxidermied kin. Instead, images of us on all the walls. Opposite me a painting – peacocks flexing by a courtyard fountain.

    My neck is in perpetual strain, staring at the frame, yearning. I live on a crease.

    My tapestry is a sandalwood color, embroidered with marigolds and me, the peahen. The sole peahen. In the summer, when the window is open, the pins will fall and my tapestry will fly, crossing into the courtyard painting, landing on the cold marble tile by the fountain.

    Eeyow eeyoi – the other birds flee. The gardener will take the tapestry. She will bite into a fig and I will catch the stray nectar in my fabric mouth. Our old name will never be heard again. The gardener will not call us by a name but will take us to bed with her lover and introduce us to the company of quilts and cats. The midwife will wrap the newborn in our cloth and I will drink the placental blood and fuse with this family. When my plumage pales and the baby begins boyhood, the rakshasa will arrive uninvited and curse the child with a dance. The boy’s skin will molt – under the cover of his cries, the rakshasa will steal us away, back to the bungalow.

    Beyond the peacock room.

    Into the kitchen drawer devoted to dishrags.

    ________

    Parth Shah lives in North Carolina, his home state, a place he never planned on returning to. His fiction previously published in hex appears in the Best Microfiction 2023 anthology.

  • Colors by José Felipe Ozuna

    The Color Naming Committee was in session. Things were going well. They had decided on the big ones. Purple was the sound of a train leaving. Green was the wind you felt at the base of your neck. Orange was the feeling of a warm shower during a snowstorm. Specifically, the fog that gathered in the mirror. Yellow was rain, of course. And its drips from the gutters. Black was a leaf folding into itself. White was also the wind you felt at the base of your neck.

    What about that, someone asked, pointing a finger above them. Birds dotted the high plains which to them, until that point, had just looked like the ocean about to fall. They pondered for hours. Until someone spoke up and said I’m not sure. But what will we do, now that we noticed it’s there?

    ________

    José Felipe Ozuna was born in Guerrero, Mexico and currently lives in Minneapolis, MN. He graduated with a BS in sociology from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He is a 2022 Undocupoets Fellow. His poems are published/forthcoming in Poetry Online, HAD, River Mouth Review and elsewhere. You can keep up with his writing here: linktr.ee/josewrites

  • Love & War by Cas Stone

    In school, they teach about the Orgy of Actium, where Mark Antony made Octavian his power bottom, while Cleopatra, for posterity’s sake, hieroglyphed the whole thing. They show us baroque oil paintings of galleys eeeerr-ing and say, note the sit-bone-like shape of the ballistae, the detail in each legionary’s ecstasy. The next year, Octavian came again to Egypt, bearing biblically shameful kinks. His fetish proved fatal. A few students moan. The pale one won’t stop staring. I know his name but we don’t speak. His eyes storm, beryl.

    Next period is biology. We talk DNA. Our closest animal ancestors, genetically, are great apes of the genus Pan, consisting of only two species, says a stout, bald, bespectacled man. The first is the common chimpanzee, a violent, hierarchical, faithless thing. Imagine if we’d evolved from those brutes. Came down to a percentage point. Dodged a genetic train wreck didn’t we? The other is the gracile chimpanzee––the bonobo. The teacher is interrupted by our broad-chested principal. There’s communal Chipotle in the atrium. In their excitement, the two kiss with quite a lot of tongue. The girl in the back wearing leather over her polo grabs a fistful of pony tails one seat over and joins in. The rest of the class finds a neighbor or two. Monkey see, monkey do. I pack my book bag and leave the room. 

    By my locker, the pale one hangs with Brock. I look twice. Usually they spend their skipped classes outside. There are two trees sprouting out of bounds by the lacrosse field and the cool kids will dangle from them while bumping their khakis’ stiff crotches until one of them drops. It’s not meant to hurt I don’t think. They laugh the whole time. It seems all in good fun. Apparently at parties they do it with their pants off. Brock is so well-equipped he once wrapped around his opponent like a snake on a herald’s wand, then pulled him off his perch with a sharp contraction of his buttocks. Or so the story goes. I’m not invited. I don’t know.

    Bet her clit’s not even big enough for tribbing, Brock is saying. Am I right my guy? He slams a single eyelid shut in my direction. My guy knows what I’m talking about.

    He’s being facetious. I don’t know and I’m not his guy. Everyone knows I’m weird about sex. They probably believe I’ve never seen a clitoris. If they do they’re correct. It’s unusual. Most kids my age are lucky if they’ve yet to sire a child. 

    What do I know? I say anyway, just to say something.

    Oh! Look who’s got a big cock! Brock laughs, happy with a reaction. Talk of clits piqued your interest my guy?

    Lay off him, the pale one says.

    I turn away, my thank you drowned out by my breath. I try to stuff my bag in. It does not fit.

    Maybe I should lay on him if he’d be so interested.

    Brock leans in next to me with a bang. It wouldn’t be unusual. Most disagreements with him, I’m told, end sweatily, amicably in the janitor’s closet, another mess for the custodian. 

    I lean into the bag and get it in, then pull out my athletic clothes.

    Thanks, I say. No. I walk a few feet before I feel the hand. I turn. It’s not Brock. It’s the pale one.

    Don’t listen to Brock, he says. He’s just an itchy finger fucker. You cool?

    He turns and points his ass at me, spine slightly crooked. I’m surprised, put off, almost. But who am I to snap an olive branch? I sigh, assuming the same position. We rub backsides. The act brings me no more pleasure than a rhythmic conversation coming to a natural close. When the pale one turns I expect to see him grinning, flaunting his raging boner. But his crease, like mine, is flat, his eyes, eyes, like a hurricane’s, empty, glowing.

    P.E. is held in a wide, deep room where sneaker squeaks echo and students grunt and sweat, handling balls and poles. Everything we need to learn to live long, healthy lives. Today, self defense. We pair up and practice different positions used to diffuse conflict and awkward situations. For me, it doesn’t work. My palms and soles lay flat on the floor, hips and belly skyward, trembling, while the girl I’m partnered with tries to make herself light on my groin. I keep shaking and saying sorry. She keeps asking if I’m okay. Maybe because my bridge is architecturally unsound. Maybe because she feels nothing through my gym shorts. Across the room, students thrust and gyrate, normal behavior. Imagine one day you get in an argument with a superior, have geopolitical differences with a radical actor on an international scale, short the pizza boy a tip. How else would you resolve it? I don’t know––just that I’m out of luck. The shapes in the room look wrong. I focus on the space between them until the bell rings.

    Outside, I wait for my bus. The pale one comes up.

    So. You’re not into all this fucking––

    He trails off. 

    I suspect he’s looking for a word. 

    He says––huh? 

    I realize that’s all.

    In the silence, my heart beats, like a war drum keeping an orgy’s rhythm. I have no words to fill it. I shake my head just enough for him to see.

    Yeah. Thought so. Me neither really.

    Those words dislodge the dam in my airway and I can breathe again. I look into his turbulent eyes, feeling, thinking nothing. 

    I thought it was just me.

    Often do, he says. Never is.

    The bus comes. 

    Sit with me?

    I’m not going home.

    From a red car across the street, Brock honks.

    No, I say. Duh.

    I get on the bus. No one sits with me. The driver sexes his phone. I rest my head against the empty space and feel very full.

    ________

    Cas Stone has no concrete sense of self outside of work in M/UHADhex, and other cobwebbed corners of the earth and internet.

  • This is What I Know of You by Erica Frederick

    Three fists are stacked, hand over hand, on a pole in this train in The City. 

    I.

    Simone never says much. She lives days without speech. Record: six weeks in the summertime, until a girl met her—a girl who could say things. Say silence meant Simone was simply a philosopher. Say it killed her for them to go a day without speaking. And her girl wasn’t scared to say the places where she wanted touch to thrill her and how soft she needed fingers to graze. But Simone spent so long never saying anything, she didn’t know how. She wanted to tell her girl something big, but she never felt anything big. She thought she should say to her girl at least this, but her insides flushed red when she tried, so she didn’t, and knew she could never be so brave. The girl said Simone wasn’t loving her where she needed, and, without ever saying so, stopped needing her. So, Simone moved to The City, where, if she doesn’t have anything to say, she doesn’t have to say anything.

    II.

    Eliel has fins. He lived in No Name Key when No Name Key was still No Name Key and everyone knew how to drive, but he never could pass the test. On his fifth try, he veered onto the freeway, the exam administrator screeched for him to take the exit, and Eliel screeched too but didn’t know how to stop driving. When the bridge went up to let a yacht through, the administrator got her tentacles on the wheel but Eliel floored the gas, so the two got air, then plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. Underwater, the administrator compressed her body through the crack in the car window and pulled Eliel through the door before the driver’s side could flood. As helicopters airlifted them, the two swinging, covered in foil, Eliel tried to wake up from life. Back at the DMV, a jellyfish behind a glass divider cut his learner’s permit in half. She swallowed it whole and Eliel could see his address right through her. After, he was stuck riding passenger in friends’ and friends-of-friends’ cars until he became a passenger in his own life. Picked up parts of their personalities, so, soon, he was made up of mostly everyone else, the same way, from torso to toe, he’s mostly made up of fish when he thought he ought to be all human. So, Eliel moved to The City, where he is himself, and like everyone else, is only passenger to this train.

    III.

    Grey is the demon grandchild of a Sea Angel who passed voodoo, juju, mumbo jumbo down the line and afflicted Grey with gifts. One: Grey doesn’t worry if others can see him as a person because he isn’t one. Two: Grey lives to connect different people’s parts like an old telephone operator and three: Grey can know all of anybody on sight. 

    On the train, Grey sees Eliel, sees Simone. Knows they came to The City so they could fake like they weren’t stranded. Knows the two know each other, from such a long time ago that Eliel feels desperate to have remembered her and Simone is seething at how foolish it is to be looking into someone’s face while he can pretend he never knew her. But don’t they know? If they stay so scared of each other, they’ll stay stranded? 

    So, Grey pokes through Simone’s forehead and pulls out a neuron, long and blue and weedy. Grey pushes it into Eliel’s head. He reels out a piece of Eliel to press into Simone.

    Something sings: this is what I know of you

    Eliel can see Simone on the bike behind him, at the top of what they think is the steepest hill in No Name Key. Passersby giggle at the sight of half a fish on a bicycle, but the two pick up their feet and let their bike wheels go flying. They’re so fast it’s scary, but Eliel puts his fins up all the same. He feels what they felt then, that they were pilots, that their own bodies could take them anywhere in this world.

    Simone remembers the cold under the shadow of the playground slide. All elementary hands digging through sand and limestone to the Florida Aquifer. They dove into underwater hand-clap games—universal to every kid ever and none of them knew to question it. Looking for more reasons to touch, they played the game of blowing bubbles into backs of necks and squeezing each other’s sides. The only thing keeping their hearts, on the cusp, from exploding was the water pressure against their chests. When the recess whistle blew, they swam up. They buried, but knew: tomorrow. Simone feels what they felt then. So silent, they were connected, and electric, and big. 

    Eliel hands Simone his hand and they stand, knowing all the ways there are to be together: so scary, so willing, so safe, so sorry.

    ________

    Erica Frederick is a queer, Haitian American writer who received her MFA in fiction from Syracuse University.. Her work has appeared in Split Lip MagazineStorm Cellar, and Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction. She has received fellowships from VIDA, Lambda Literary, and the Hurston/Wright Foundation. You can find her tweeting into the void @ericafrederick.

  • Reasons for a Disappearance by Isabel Cañas

    A sun rises out of my grandfather’s garden, in between the tomato plants. He shouldn’t have risen, not at this hour. Gray, humid skies hang low overhead, heavy as the afternoon. Mom will be home from work soon. The sun god sways, golden as maíz, his gleaming brow slick with sweat. He’s going to faint, Alejandra says. So we take him into the shade of the patio and debate what to do with him. We’re only second graders, after all. Grandpa is watching football in the back room and won’t have seen us pull the god from the tomato patch. He’ll be mad when he sees how the fat July fruits have been scorched by the god’s skin. So we decide we won’t tell him. Instead, we frog march the god to the creek between Grandpa’s yard and Alejandra’s, our sandals crunching over sharp, dried oak leaves, each of us clenching our jaws as we hold the god’s burning forearms. If we cool him down in the creek, he’ll be able to speak. He’s taller than us, as tall as a grown-up; his hair is blacker than ours, and cut severely, and his nose is pierced by a shining gold ring. Fire ants part before him, arcing over cracked mud like the spread of wings. Creek water hisses when it touches his golden shins. He grimaces, then shudders, then pitches forward. A toppling tree. Weight yanks my arms from their sockets; I release. Alejandra doesn’t. Her eyes are locked on the god’s gleaming face, her hands tight around his arm, as he drags them down into the water. The creek is low in the summer, sticky with tadpoles and drought, but they fall, and fall, and fall. My throat is raw from screaming Alejandra’s name when Grandpa limps down the path of scorched grass to the creek. When he gets to my side, panting, sweat pooling in thick drops in front of his ears and staining the front of his red shirt, the only thing that’s left in the creek is the god’s golden ring.

    ________

    Isabel Cañas is a Mexican American speculative fiction writer and author of The Hacienda and Vampires of El Norte. She holds a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and writes fiction inspired by her research and her heritage. To find out more, visit www.isabelcanas.com.  

  • My Dog is a Cat by Xavier Garcia

    My dog is a cat.

    I can’t explain it further than this. I can’t make this make any more sense. When I look at my dog – who should be a miniature pinscher named Tails – I do not see a dog. I do not see a miniature pinscher named Tails. I see a cat. I don’t know its breed. I don’t know cat breeds. And I don’t know its name. Maybe its name is Tails.

    Out of a growing sense of nervousness, I go to take a drag of my cigarette and a sip from my glass of whiskey at the same time like I’m Kramer from Seinfeld. But I’m not Kramer from Seinfeld. I am me. There’s at least that. I am not Kramer from Seinfeld, I am me. But that is not my dog. That thing looking up at me is not a miniature pinscher named Tails. It is a cat.

    The nicotine and the whiskey help calm my nerves, but it doesn’t help me make sense of this. That thing is still looking up at me with its classic cat eyes: iris slits down the middle. I look back at it. At its classic cat paws, its classic cat ears, its classic cat tail and classic cat body. This is a classic cat. But where is Tails? 

    Its eyes follow me as I walk to the little bar I have in my kitchen. I wish it wouldn’t. I wish it would stop pretending to be a miniature pinscher named Tails and just leave. I refill my glass and only when I sip from it does something strike me as odd. The bottle of whiskey from which I refilled my glass, it is not my bottle of whiskey.

    I take another sip from it, but the whiskey within the glass is not my whiskey. It came from a bottle that is not my bottle. The whiskey is delicious. It really fucking is. But this does not make sense. I hate this brand. I do not buy this brand. I do not drink this fucking brand. I throw the glass against the wall in anger, glass and whiskey spilling on the floor; whiskey that is not my whiskey.

    “Meow,” barks the cat. 

    A bark that should be the bark of Tails that I know so well, but it is not Tails’s bark. It is not a bark at all. It is a meow. That thing is a not a dog. It is a cat. And it is not barking at me, it is meowing. I turn to it and stare into its classic cat eyes. It does not move. But I can see its catness rippling underneath the dog flesh, under dogness. It does not fool me. It stares back into my eyes, daring me to take another step, cat drool dribbling from out its mouth. It wants to scare me. It wants me to know it means me harm. 

    I cannot take it any longer. I’m going to bed. Maybe I got too drunk. Maybe I’m having a kind of episode. Maybe I just need to sleep and then when I wake up tomorrow the cat will be gone and I’ll be in my own apartment again with my bottle of whiskey and my miniature pinscher named Tails. 

    And then, before I enter my bedroom, I see it; my reflection in the mirror. The face looking back at me is not my face. Those eyes are not my eyes, that nose is not my nose, and that mouth is not my mouth. The face looking back at me is not my face.

    “Meow,” barks the cat.

    I turn around.

    “Fuck you!” I yell at it.

    “Meow,” barks the cat.

    “Fuck you!” I yell again. 

    And then I hear giggling coming from my bedroom and I freeze.

    “Stop yelling at the dog and come to bed, babe.”

    I feel nauseous again. The voice is sweet and playful. It sounds like it should be the voice of my girlfriend. But it is not. My girlfriend is visiting her parents in Montreal. She won’t be back for another week. And that voice, that voice that should be hers, is not a voice at all – it is a meow. 

    I gag.

    The hallway reeks of cat.

    “Meow,” barks the cat behind me.

    “Babe, come to bed!” croons the cat inside my bedroom. 

    I open the door, slowly, furtively, and I realize my hand is shaking uncontrollably. I am choking on fear and when I see what’s sprawled nude on top my bed, I nearly throw up then and there because the nude thing on my bed is not my girlfriend at all. It is a massive cat inside of Amy’s flesh; it is wearing Amy’s skin tight around itself. But I can see the catness writhing beneath Amy’s body, beneath the Amyness. I can see the Amy skin rippling like worms in meat. And I know what’s below the Amy skin. It cannot hide the catness beneath the Amyness.

    “Who are you?” I ask.

    “Amy,” giggles the cat in front of me.

    “Meow,” barks the cat behind me.

    It tries to look seductive for me. Laying in my bed, fully nude, like its posing for a painting. But I can see the catness roiling beneath her breasts, beneath her tummy. I can see the catness in her eyes. They stare into my own, daring me to contradict her on her Amyness, cat drool dribbling from out her mouth. It wants to scare me. It wants me to know it means me harm. I fucking hate it. I hate the both of them. The cat behind me and the cat on top my bed.

    “Meow,” I say.

    “You’re silly,” she smiles.

    And I crawl into bed. 

    This is how I’ll play it until I figure this thing out. For now, I will not be me. For now, I will be a cat. 

    ________

    Xavier Garcia is a writer/editor from Toronto, Canada. His short fiction work has appeared in magazines and anthologies published by Fugitives & FuturistsCold SignalPlanet BizarroBlack Hare Press, Apocalypse Confidential, and Filthy Loot. You can find him walking the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, or at twitter.com/xavier_agarcia.

  • when the world ends i’m in space by Lemmy Ya’akova

    So I stood looking over the damage. I was late. You were early. — Station 11 

    when the world ends i’m in space 
    & i listen to the remaining people 
    on earth radio that they still
    live hoping to be heard, saved

    & i listen to the remaining people
    in my memory who took my hand,
    who now walk me toward a future
    where they do not need me. strangers

    on earth radio that they need
    a savior but only find themselves.
    does every living thing try to kill
    itself? they remember before

    & there is no before. 

    we lived hoping to be heard, saved
    by something other, too plum
    tired to speak to our ancestors 
    warning us of our fate. 

    when the world ends i’m in space
    doomed to blackness, its star
    siblings & i watch the eternal moon
    pull waves of blood over what’s left.

    ________

    Lemmy Ya’akova is an advocate for y2k low culture, a film photographer, a popcorn enthusiast and a cat parent to their overgrown son, Moose. Their work can be found in SAND Journal, HAD (Hobart After Dark), Anti-Heroin Chic Magazine, Hooligan Magazine and more. You can keep up with their social medias and read their work here: https://linktr.ee/lem_jamin.

  • The leaves are busier than my mother on a Sunday morning by Niesha Okere

    And they don’t work. But sometimes the leaves follow Daddy from his car to our front door. They form a ladder to gather around the keyhole. That’s why we never know the hour he returns. As a reward, Daddy lets a few leaves inside. They face plant into a small golden bowl that’s filled with house keys to snuff out the clinks of the early morning. I look outside my bedroom window. I see leaves dancing in our empty driveway. When they get into fights I pretend not to hear. It’s none of my business. Sometimes the sound of my stomach breaks up the party. Before I can say sorry, the leaves make their way to my window. Stupid me opens the window. The leaves climb inside my mouth. My hunger absent. I go downstairs. There are leaves on the kitchen table bumping their stems with Mama’s Blue Magic and curling iron. Mama pulls into the driveway with a car full of groceries. She flicks a cigarette out her car window. It lands on a couple of leaves chatting close by. One of the leaves takes a puff and then walks it back to her.

    ________

    Niesha Okere is a writer from Philadelphia. She studied journalism at Temple University, and her writing is published/forthcoming in Variant Literature, Allium and elsewhere. Her poetry chapbook Blue Girls is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

  • Animals by Pat Jameson

    The kids want to be snakes, slithering snakes, so they get the idea to cut off all their limbs. It’s imaginative, I think, but a little extreme. 

    What about we put them inside our shirts, I say, slipping my arms through my sleeves. Like so. 

    Poor verisimilitude, the kids sniff. How about you surgically attach an elephant trunk to your face and go brawwwwwwwww!

    Well, that seems expensive. Not to mention impractical. But we could make floppy ears out of paper mache? Hmmm?

    You should see their faces. It’s like I’ve suggested we shotgun the goddamn elephants and harvest their tusks ourselves. I don’t know what I expected. These kids. They’ve been to the regular zoo. The nicer zoo. The safari park. Even one of those crazy roadside attractions where the tigers lift their tails and douse the crowd with anal spray. What I mean is, these kids have seen things… real things… and my affectations aren’t enough. At least not since their mom took off with Chester, the Lasik salesman.

    Hello, they say, earth to dad?

    Yes, I’m still here. 

    You’re burning the burgers, they say, and it’s true, I am, because we’re grilling outside in the perfect July dusk.

    Is there anything you can do right? the kids ask. Jesus. 

    Listen–I do a lot of things around here. Things that might go under noticed. Like putting food on the table. Or selling blood and sperm to finance music lessons. I protect you too. From life. From the world. 

    You couldn’t protect us from a fly, the kids say.

    Pshhh. I’d wipe the floor with a fly.   

    Gun to your head– Would you rather fight one fly the size of a human? Or 100 humans the size of a fly?

    Easy. The human-sized fly. It would be over quicker.

    But it would be tougher, don’t you think? 

    It wouldn’t matter. For you guys, I’d fight anybody in this entire goddamn town. Even neighbor Cagel, who won the state hammer toss and went to Russia to train with the Eastern Bloc. I’d wipe the floor with that muscly sonofabitch.  

    We find that doubtful, the kids say. Unbelievable. 

    I’m your daddy. It’s my job to make you believe. Even if I have to kick Cagel’s ass.

    What’s that? Cagel says, poking his head over the fence.

    Daddy said he’d kick your ass! 

    Oh… okay…

    Cagel’s not a bad neighbor. Tidy and polite. Always recycles. But no hesitation, he comes over and kicks the fuck out of me. 

    When he’s finished, Cagel wipes his bloody hands on my shirt. Stop by later, he says. Get some squashes. I’ll give the kids a talk on germination.

    Yeah, because on top of being a hammer toss champion and kick-the-fuck-outta-me-type-guy, Cagel is also a homegrown farmer. Gets his seeds from a down-low source at the co-op. Very hush hush.

    Near blind with pain and embarrassment, I writhe around on the grass, shaking my hips and making little hissing noises.

    Wow, the kids say. Pretty good snake impression, dad! 

    The kids must mean it because they get down on their bellies next to me. Together, we pretend to be snakes, slithering snakes, slipping our tongues in and out and feeling the world with our faces. We do this for about five or ten minutes and when we’re finished, we eat the overdone burgers in the dark, chewing softly and watching the stars fall out of the sky, admiring the way they zip past everything so quiet and perfect it’s like there’s nothing there at all.

    ________

    Pat Jameson is a writer based in Roanoke, VA. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, X-R-A-Y, BULL, Maudlin House, and Apocalypse Confidential, among others. His story “Death Drive” was a finalist for the 2022 SmokeLong Quarterly Flash Fiction Award. He is a first reader for Reckon Review. Find him on Twitter @jameson_pat

  • Two by Ruth Joffre

    A Girl in a Box

    How long has she been in there? Even she forgets. One day, it was September 1927—one of those bright fall mornings in Chicago, no longer warm but not quite crisp, a great breath of fog drifting off the lake toward her neighborhood—and the next thing she knew it was autumn, 1954, new buildings on her old block and leaves already falling off the trees, a frisson of static coursing through the air, electric, magnetic, the sharp taste of it mingled with car exhaust and bird shit and the mildewing damp of that box she was trapped in, as if it had been left on a sidewalk overnight, cardboard already puckering where tape had ripped it and dogs peed all over it. She was going to kill that Milo—her brother, that self-important little prick, always going on about how he was the “man of the house” and had to “provide for the family” when all his life he wanted nothing more than to tinker and to experiment, to understand how objects can be made to break apart and come back together again, again and again, like a film strip of a teacup shattering and then kicking into reverse, mending itself before his eyes. He wanted to send images like this into the world, dissect them first into their constituent atoms, and arrange their electrons into a beam he could broadcast anywhere—everywhere—images scattered like bird seed at a pond, and, oh, how the birds would come when they saw a picture of her, the girl with a bob cut, a cloche hat, knee-high socks under patent leather shoes. But: something went wrong—a kink in a wire, an error in his calculations—and she was transported in place of her image, her body broken up into pieces, then reconstituted here. Flesh dimpled. Blood contained. Clothes, it seems, still in place, though scratchier than she remembered and a bit sticky. She was just licking her thumb to rub a dirt blotch when she sensed eyes on her: not just the boy who peered over the crease of the box flap but also his mother in the apartment down the street, their neighbor across the hall, their landlord. All of their eyes fixed on her. This is the part she couldn’t remember before: the wall of eyes, floating, disembodied, in the air around the boy’s head. How each time one blinks a part of her comes unglued—an eyelash, a toenail, that mole in the dip of her lower back (a source of shame, even now, when nothing could be less important). She will forget herself soon. In a moment, she will find herself in 1972, 1999, 2046. Futures her brother never dreamed of. Futures where she will be free.

    A Girl with a Hole in Her Head

    No one else knows it’s there. Not her parents, not the neighbors, not even the mean boy at recess who will seize on any little defect or misstep as a reason to bully you to tears and claim he was just making a joke. Half the time, she expects him to call her target practice and use a rubber band to launch a pencil clean through the hole; but he never looks at her twice. No one does. Part of her thinks people are just being polite—ignoring the black hole in her forehead under the false assumption that it’s a religious mark or a tattoo designed to act like an optical illusion. That can’t possibly be her brain, can it? All exposed like that, so naked someone could stick a finger right in and poke one of the lobes to test if it’s real. She wouldn’t blame them. She’s done the same thing hundreds of times and never once harmed herself. It’s fun, actually. If she presses one spot on the right curve of her brain, her vision explodes into clouds of psychedelic smoke and blue light, like the dying squiggles of fireworks. When she activates another, she tastes orange, then purple, then aquamarine. New words come to her. Heliognosis, prearboreal, topomycology. In the mirror, she sometimes tricks herself into believing she is a tree or a slug. Or an alien who somehow switched places with the human infant her mother carried to term. Where would that girl be now? Way out on the other side of the galaxy, she imagines. Floating through zero-gravity caves. Splashing in a pollen puddle. If only she could dip a hand into the heart of a star and pour the molten core into a locket. If only her parents would look at her—really look for once—and see how much she needs them.

    ________

    Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has been shortlisted for the Creative Capital Awards and been supported by residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Lighthouse Works, The Arctic Circle, and the Whiteley Center. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in LightspeedPleiadesFantasy, khōréō,The Florida Review OnlineKenyon ReviewReckoningWigleaf, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021 & 2022. A graduate of Cornell University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Ruth served as the 2020-2022 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House and as a Visiting Writer at University of Washington Bothell in 2023.

  • Swamp Thing Sits on the Bank Examining His Life Through the Lens of Bernoulli’s Principle by Jack Bedell

    Let’s just say the Book was correct, and it all started with a single breath. Inspiration—>Expiration. All the seconds in between these two. A breath into the void. A breath before saying “I love you.” A single breath to inflate the giant balloon of my ambition. The force of those breaths pulling so much else, so many people, with them into whatever gape I chose to fill. How many others’ breaths pulled in tow? How many sucked into my own trajectory? Seeing it all this way, I can’t help but think of Linda standing patiently, proudly next to me, totally balanced on her own two feet until that moment when I opened my mouth to set all of this into motion. And frozen in that one memory is the inevitable flow of air into space, the carnage I’ve lived since.

    ________

    Jack B. Bedell is Professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University where he also edits Louisiana Literature and directs the Louisiana Literature Press. Jack’s work has appeared in HAD, Heavy Feather, Pidgeonholes, The Shore, Moist, Okay Donkey, EcoTheo, The Hopper, Terrain, and other journals. His latest collection is Against the Woods’ Dark Trunks (Mercer University Press, 2022). He served as Louisiana Poet Laureate 2017-2019.

  • Interview with K.C. Mead-Brewer by Adeline Wong and Tara Bromfield

    The way “Candlelight” plays with and subverts the tragic lovers story made it such an enjoyable read for me. Is there a version of that story (or maybe another inversion!) that you especially enjoy or that’s always stuck with you? 

    Oh man, I’m such a sucker for love stories, tragic and otherwise. One tragic lovers story that sticks with me is Aimee Bender’s “The Devourings” from her collection The Color Master. It’s about an ogre’s human wife and what happens to their marriage after a tragic mistake results in their children’s deaths. I’ve always loved how Bender uses classic fairytale elements—which usually also means fun horror and romance elements as well—to offer a deeper look at not only how love can feed us, but how it can eat away at us, too.

    You’ve written a lot in the realm of ghost stories and fairy tales, “Candlelight” having some elements of both. Is there something in particular that draws you to those types of stories?

    I grew up as a PK, a preacher’s kid, and so I took in a lot of stories at a very young age about miracles, ghosts, Hell, transformation, grueling journeys, great love, and great violence. I think in large part because of this early start with religion, I’ve always felt a deep connection to stories that operate by similar rules and types of logic, such as fairytales and ghost stories. 

    If you could go back and physically rewrite a famous work of literature, which one would you pick and why? 

    Oooh like who would I go back in time to push down the stairs so I could claim their masterpiece for my own with all my own tweaks and changes? My first thought is probably Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, but I’m cracking up even as I say that, because I know I feel that way thanks to Kate Bush’s song “Wuthering Heights,” which I heard before I read the book. I’m just wild for her retelling of that story. 

    Lastly, what are you working on right now? Or alternatively, do you have a favorite piece you’ve published elsewhere that we can link to?

    I’m very excited (and superstitious) about a dark fairytale novel I have in the works right now. It’s in the flavor and feeling of some of my more romantic, less “real” world stories; stories like “Breathing Room” (Uncharted), “When the Horse Came to the Open House” (Zooscape), and “The Feast” (Carve and PodCastle). I’ve always loved how the genres of horror and romance are forever caught within a haunting near-kiss of each other, and I’ve strived to capture some of that sensation in my novel. For more updates regarding my work and story recs in general, you might check out my weekly horror newsletter.

    ________

    K.C. Mead-Brewer’s stories, “Candlelight,” and “The Strangler’s Hotel,” appeared in hex on April 19, 2022 and February 14, 2023.

  • Show for Myself by Claire Hopple

    The first time he poisoned me was at a kitchen table just like yours. I tried not to disappoint him with my reaction. I waited several seconds before requesting a suitable amount of ipecac. He nodded at first, but edged the bottle out of reach. 

    In the remaining seconds, I imagined a neighbor knocking on the door, then an EMT, then a team of EMTs pumping my stomach and handing me a lollipop when they were through, nudging me on the shoulder like attaboy.

    All in all it was painless. Minor discomfort at worst. 

    You must be thinking: Poison! In the twenty-first century? But we weren’t just gamboling about. We were on a schedule. Every precaution was taken. Nobody was culpable. 

    Sam once appeared on a game show and had cleaned up, enough to quit his job and concoct new ways of controlling his environment. This was his selected method.

    Most friends never show up these days. But Sam and I were entangled. 

    Plus I was straining to believe in my own presence. Even the portrait framed in the hallway casts a dubious stare at my existence. I wasn’t sure if I was making a dent in the world or if my time was receding in value.

    After several months of customarily presenting myself before the poison cup, he texts me a questionable message: Everyone I’ve seen today contains the same number of appendages.

    That’s all I will ever hear from him.

    Legend has it Sam passed. Or faked his own death for financial purposes. Either way, the news dismantles me. It tampers with me more than any substance labeled with a Mr. Yuk sticker ever could. Needless to say, I do not manage to tame the urge of routine.

    I text Sam’s number just to see what’ll happen. I start with: Hello there.

    This is it. Here we are.

    Who is this?

    I collect myself. Any composure I can muster vanishes before I make the next move.

    But then another message appears. 

    Is this the window washer guy?

    I do not have any formal training in window washing, but this only seems like a challenge.

    Yes.

    I’ve always been lucky when it comes to strangers. 

    We arrange a time. I learn this person’s whereabouts. 

    I don’t stop there. Our subject today will be washing technique. Then the proper tools. I gather some microfiber cloths and a squeegee.

    Her house is at the end of a suburb, right where it meets cow pasture. I drive by a few times and stake out the premises before our appointment. I watch cows cluster near a fence. Each hoof reverberates through my consciousness as it lands on solid ground.

    When the day arrives, I’m eager to see what I have to show for myself. Maybe we’ll trade secret gestures or maybe I’ll never see her again.

    Miranda and I walk around the exterior.

    “What did I tell you?” I point at a distant window. “A protuberance like that needs vigorous scrubbing.” 

    I tap the vinyl siding to prove it.

    For no particular reason, she leads me inside and shows me a heart-shaped box. 

    “This is where I keep my candies. I leave them out for friends…and for Dorothy.” 

    She doesn’t explain who Dorothy is. We move on.

    “Yup, this project will take several days,” I say out of nowhere, “there’s no question about that.”

    There is, in fact, a question about that.

    She pulls a check out of her blouse.

    “That should cover it.”

    I fold the check into my pocket and loop my thumbs around my belt.

    If this arrangement doesn’t work out, I can always join the cows beside her property. I can live a new kind of life, one that doesn’t involve time. I will low at minivans and scooters as they pass by. The cows will take a turn at flaying me, pulverizing my meat, and shaping me into little round patties. 

    ________

    Claire Hopple is the author of five books. Her fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Peach Mag, Forever Mag, and others. She grew up in the woods of Western PA and currently lives in Asheville, NC.  More at clairehopple.com.

  • Interview with Jose Hernandez Diaz by Morgan Whitney and Tara Bromfield

    Did you have a favorite tall/fairy tale growing up?

    I don’t think I had a favorite fairy tale growing up. I liked the three little pigs story. The Billy Goats Gruff. The Jack and the Beanstalk tale. I was into Bible stories a lot, too, as a child growing up in a fairly religious, traditional Mexican American household. 

    I also remember really loving the imagination and spontaneity of “Where the Sidewalk Ends” by Shel Silverstein in elementary school. I remember checking that book out quite often. I remember running to its spot in the library and that relieved feeling when I realized it was still available.

    Do you have any favorite poets or authors whose works you read often?

    Some of my favorite poets/authors are: James Tate, Octavio Paz, Marosa di Giorgio, Heather Christle, Ray Gonzalez, Claudia Rankine, Ada Limón, Russell Edson, Alberto Ríos, Eduardo C. Corral, Rosario Castellanos, Charles Simic, to name a few. I wouldn’t say I read them often right now as much of my current reading centers on work-related material, but they played a key role in my formative years as a young writer, figuring out my tastes, styles, and just general admiration.

    Your three pieces deal in varying degrees of flight and movement. Is this common thread intentional, or something that came about individually in these specific pieces? 

    I guess you could say flight is a common theme in my work. I’m interested in flight, escape, space, ether, the unknown, Mars, the stars, the sun, the moon, all of it.

    What are you working on right now?

    Right now I am deciding the cover for my forthcoming collection, Bad Mexican, Bad American with Acre Books, 2024. The pre-order link should be ready by October, and the book will be published around February 2024 in time for AWP 2024. Besides that, I have another collection, The Parachutist, which I have already picked the cover image for and which will be published at AWP 2025. I have two additional full manuscripts after that.

    Other than that, I have been teaching online creative writing workshops with writing orgs like The Writer’s Center, Hugo House, Lighthouse Writers Workshops, and other places. I have been teaching workshops on surrealism, prose poetry, submissions, revision, Latinx poetry, and other topics. 

    ________

    Jose Hernandez Diaz’s poems, “The Moon, 2050,” “Meeting James Tate in Heaven,” and “The Man and the Dragon” appeared in hex on March 7, 2022.

  • Body in a Barrel by Lindsey Baker Bower

    When they found that body in a barrel at the bottom of Lake Mead I bet you were just as surprised as I was that it wasn’t a woman. They can go on and on as much as they’d like about mob murders—mob murders, mob murders, mob murders. That’s probably what this is. 

    Remember swimming in the July lake when the water was like soup that sat out for a while? We would imagine there were dead women under us. We’d jump at any little thing that rolled over our toes under the water. 

    I saw the story this morning after a late shift at the bar. “Late shift”—they’re all late shifts. I was alone in my little kitchen (Toby, who you so lovingly called Bug-Eyed Toby, is long gone—that’s another story), eating oatmeal, and the news was on my little TV. The water level is at a historic low, the ground all laid bare. 

    Did you see the footage? The barrel was oxidized, dyed white by the minerals in the water. The people who found it could see the man’s belt. I don’t know why that detail sticks to me, that this man had been dead for decades, his belt cinched tight around his rotting middle. It got me thinking about what survives the water and what doesn’t. 

    I went to lunch after with a woman I met through mutuals named Nora. I like her a lot (not as much as you—don’t worry). We drank margaritas and ate BLTs on rye and smoked and smoked, and she shook her head when I told her what the news said. 

    “Just awful,” she said. And then I realized how it’s kind of fucked up that I didn’t even consider the fact of the life lost in that barrel. They found it, it wasn’t a woman’s body. I didn’t blink otherwise. 

    Nora works at a strip club as a bartender. She went on to tell me a story about one of the girls who went home with a customer. Sounds sketchy, but he was a regular, and he’d come in wearing nice clothes (a belt?) and showing pictures of his kids, and everyone got real comfortable with him. They knew his name, even, but Nora wouldn’t tell me. She treats confidentiality more serious than a shrink, which is partly why I like her so much. 

    Anyway, the girl went home with Regular Guy, and he drugged her and beat her. That’s the story. I waited for Nora to give me more—where is the girl now? Where is Regular Guy? He doesn’t still come in, does he?—but she twisted her forefinger and thumb in front of her lips, locking them up, keeping me out. 

    Now why did she tell me a story like that? At first I thought it was because I clearly thirst for stories like that—grisly, quick stories that confirm my fears and make me happy to lock myself up alone at night. But then I realized it’s Vegas, and it was a story about a woman and a man she didn’t know very well. Sound familiar? I attract echoes. 

    Nora started crying when I told her about you, and apologizing for telling that story, and I may have cried too. It’s hard to tell what’s crying and what’s the heat, or what’s the margarita. It’s hard to tell what moisture matters anymore.

    I still drive by your house to see the flash of your blue rocks in the front yard, nestled in with all that tan. Tan, tan, tan. The new renters haven’t moved the rocks yet. Maybe they sense that if they did, I’d come in and rip them open with my hands just for something to do. Maybe they sense that this is only temporary—that one day, you’ll come back for all of us, and you’ll bring the blue rain with you. 

    ________

    Lindsey Baker Bower (she/her) lives in Atlanta. Her fiction has appeared in The Forge, SmokeLong Quarterly, Third Point Press, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Georgia State University. 

  • The Devouring by Mugdhaa Ranade

    The noodles went straight for the throats, throttling like a noose. The breads bared razor-sharp teeth and sank them into flesh, drawing blood. The meats, missing parts of their bodies, claimed them from the humans: arms, legs, heads. The fruits and vegetables started peeling, slicing, dicing, chopping and crushing, grating and grinding, mincing and julienning. Then the soups and curries rose like The Great Wave off Kanagawa, and sizzled through skin and bone, leaving nothing behind.

    A lone sunflower erupted through the soil, tearing the skies apart; it opened its maw wide and swallowed the Sun, smiling, shining like gold.

    ________

    Mugdhaa Ranade wakes up every day hoping to find dry leaves to crunch underfoot, and stray cats to pet. She can be found in person in Mumbai, India, and online on Twitter @swxchhxnd.

  • Ass-Building Material by Lauren Kardos

    Online Application, Essay 1: Recipe Central brings the joy of cooking to your table™. How would you embody our motto as the next host of Family Cookin’? In a few paragraphs, tell us a story about your recipe inspiration.

    ***

    Applicant Response: When the weather chills and the leaves crisp, I whip up one of my grandmother’s recipes. My favorites used to be, in her words, ass-building material. Fresh loaves of sourdough bread with home-churned honey butter. Crisco-heavy pie crusts. Melt-in-your-mouth roasts I’ve perfected via InstantPot® because who can attach themselves to the oven for hours anymore? I don’t know if her carb-heavy specialties produce a bigger caboose. That’s not the point. Ass-building material dissolves the work emails and delayed commutes. It transports me back: once I was a girl learning to cook, shoulder-to-shoulder with the matriarch who cherished me.  

    When she passed, my grandmother left me not just her house, but also a bite-sized cookbook I’d never seen. Brain-Growing Material her loopy script labels the cover, though these aren’t recipes in the traditional sense. No teaspoon of that or half cup of this. Instead, the pages burst with riddles, each clue more baffling than the last. Some seem simple on their face, like her method for canning peaches, and others are complete gibberish. Where is the head and tail, but no body? Or this gem: First and second sets are free, more sets can be had on a collecting spree.

    She didn’t make an answer key, though days when missing her feels like a steam burn to the heart, I flip open the booklet and trace her handwriting with my index finger. Last month, this vignette again snagged my eyes:

    I keep food safe and secure, cold all year. 
    Heinz hides the best part, dear, the ear
    .

    Her refrigerator I ruled out after the funeral, crusty condiment bottles I trashed when I moved in, though now the answer came as if my grandmother whispered, croaking her Marlboro breath, into my own ear. Basement pantry. I dashed downstairs and through the pantry’s winding halls, brisk enough to induce gooseflesh on the sweatiest summer days. Heinz Baked Beans tins towered against one corridor’s wall, their peeling blue labels betraying decades of rust. Several oozed a congealed slime. 

    My failure to solve her mysteries until then had blistered, but in that drafty passage, my grandmother’s presence buzzed, nudged me onward. Can after can I yanked down, flung aside. A center can stuck, levered downward, and around a Murphy door swiveled. It was a bookcase! Stacked floor to ceiling with Mason jars! I mistook the contents of the first jar I grabbed, labeled Pastor Frank, for pickled cauliflower and, oily, it slipped from my grip, releasing waves of astringent juice and glass shards that ruined my trainers. A waxen ear and mushy gray matter I salvaged, tested in the air fryer with some margarine and garlic salt. In another — Cousin Victoria — floated deboned fingers, delicately stuffed with rice and spices. More savory than dolmades at the Greek Food Festival downtown.   

    Tonight, after clicking Submit, I’ll deal a round of Solitaire on the kitchen table, boiling away the dinner timer as my grandmother would. She always called me smart, said I was destined for greatness. Now my mind tingles, stimulated by a diet nurturing nostalgia and acuity, soothed in places ass-building material could never reach. And, dear search committee, it’s a diet the Recipe Central™ audience deserves. 

    As host of Family Cookin’, I’ll feature recipes from her secret-leaden walls and her comfort food classics, demystifying what most mistake as “cannibalism.” And, of course, I’ll feature the InstantPot® methods I’ve perfected. Viewers will wow dinner guests, tenderizing the toughest hearts and jellifying useless-seeming offal. The gifted tome will garnish my show’s set, and, bite-by-bite, we can solve the rest of grandmother’s riddles together. 

    ________

    Lauren Kardos (she/her) writes from Washington, DC, but she’s still breaking up with her hometown in Western Pennsylvania. The Molotov CocktailRejection Letters, Bending Genres, Fatal Flaw, Best Microfiction 2022, and The Lumiere Review are just a few of the fine publications that feature her work. You can find her on Twitter @lkardos.

  • Summertime Sadness
    Art by Daniel Miller

    😭 In Country by Daniel David Froid 😭

    😭 We (after Marguerite Duras) by Audrey Coble 😭

    😭 A Year in Fog by Nick Francis Potter 😭

    😭 Hibiscus Depths by Alleliah Nuguid 😭

    😭 Two Final Girl Micros by Meghan Phillips 😭

    😭 The Loneliest Whale in the World by Matthew Mastricova 😭

  • In Country by Daniel David Froid

    Once we’re in country, Peter said, I’ll be fine. Then I can sleep. But I need to knock myself out on the plane. He had today visited the doctor and acquired a packet of Ambien. Fred frowned. I didn’t know that about you, Fred said. What, Peter said. The Ambien thing. I always do this, Peter said. I thought you loved to fly, Fred said. You used to go on solo trips all the time. No, Peter said, I didn’t. Are you sure, Fred asked.

    The men lay in bed, the dim light of lamps cast an intimate glow, and Peter shook his head. Fred’s thumb, stuck in a book, retreated, as his other hand deftly slipped a bookmark within the paper crevice.

    Fred had to own up to his faulty memory. He said, It’s kind of like how I thought Mavis Beacon was real. Peter had never heard of this person. The typing teacher, said Fred. Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Peter explained that he’d taught himself to type. Fred shook his head and laughed. He said, I had Mavis Beacon. It was a typing program with this character who guided you through the lessons. She wasn’t real, but lots of people thought she was. Fred said, I swear I saw her on Oprah once. But she never existed, Peter said. That’s right, Fred said. I’m not sure this is like that at all, Peter said. Fred shrugged and switched off the light.

    Later, Fred woke up and lay in the dark, thinking about the mysteries of consciousness and about his erroneous memory of a typing guru, who only ever existed as a photo on a cardboard box and a crudely rendered simulacrum in pixels. The room was cold. Fred felt for some reason vulnerable. He felt tempted to pull himself closer to Peter, who would likely not have woken and, if he had, would have been annoyed. Eventually, Fred slept once more.

    Driving to the airport, Peter expressed anxiety about the imminent flight. He said, I like to be in control. It feels like I can avoid disaster if I can stay in control. How did I not know all this about you, Fred said. I don’t know, Peter said. A machine so big, suspended in the sky; it seems impossible. Fred said, I’m sorry. Peter sighed. Once we’re in country we’ll—I’ll—be fine.

    The airplane howled. Through the overhead PA, the captain offered muffled words that might have encouraged or soothed someone, but Peter had already downed an Ambien and plugged earbuds into his ears. Fred took out a book and began to read. 

    When they landed in the country, Peter was still asleep. Fred jostled him awake and said, We’re here; we’ve landed. Peter said: Where? The country. Peter said: Which one? Fred looked out the window, as though looking for a clue in the foreign tarmac. He felt unsure.

    The men left the plane, luggage in hand, and soon exited the airport. The sky seemed unusually bright, though perhaps it simply marked a sharp contrast from the dim airport cabin that, for eight long hours, had held them. They moved as though automated toward a cab that neither man remembered having ordered. The cab inched through slithering asphalt byways toward a hotel, a small building that cowered at the feet of immense towers of glass. Against the unreal sky, the buildings’ glassy prisms seemed to create a kind of feedback loop of color. Fred felt mad and dazzled.

    The hotel concierge found no record of a reservation in Fred’s or Peter’s name, but he offered them an available room. The room was cramped, like a large walk-in closet, with a bed that seemed comparatively outsized. They deposited their things and looked at each other. I need to sleep, said Peter, still woozy from the Ambien. Fred spent the afternoon pacing back and forth in the room. Once, he left the hotel and felt threatened by the immensity of the shining glass buildings, the sky that seemed likely to engulf them. He scurried back inside and lay next to Peter, to whom neither his departure nor his arrival registered whatsoever.

    Peter woke up in the mid-afternoon. It would have been morning at home. Fred confessed immediately that he did not know where they were, though upon reflection he thought his confession could have waited. Peter, still groggy, looked even more bewildered than Fred. What do you mean, he said. What do the tickets say? I can’t find them, said Fred. What does your phone say? Look at a map, Peter said. Fred pulled up the appropriate app and saw nothing; the map would not load. Let me try, Peter said. He did the same thing and stared at a small blue dot in a blank and endless offwhite grid. Where are we, Peter asked, already believing that the question was futile. Fred stared at him. They remained inside until evening, and then they walked outside to get their bearings, possibly a meal. They debated asking questions of others—the hotel concierge, passersby on the street. Fred thought they should and Peter the opposite. How else can we learn where we are, Fred said.

    Through narrow streets between the tall glass buildings they walked, rarely seeing anyone else and never working up the courage to ask them where on earth they had landed. They agreed they were frightened; they wished to go home. When night fell in the lonely city and the men felt they had tired themselves out completely, they traipsed toward the hotel but failed to find it. It was here, said Fred, on a random street corner. I know it was. They stood beneath an indigo sky in which no moon shone. They could not rely on each other. They felt something precious had gone away forever. Their eyes met. In the distance, a bell rang an uncertain hour.

    ________

    Daniel David Froid is a writer who lives in Arizona and has published fiction in LightspeedWeird Horror, Black Warrior ReviewPost Road, and elsewhere.

  • We (after Marguerite Duras) by Audrey Coble

    You will not look straight in the mirror, except when you are told to do so. 

    You will forget. 

    You will forget. 

    You will forget that this is you. 

    I believe that we might meet.  

    You will also forget the mirror. But above all, you will forget that this is you. You. Yes, I believe that we might meet. From my perspective, among others, the ones I reach out to and call out to and send electric impulses out to like mushrooms, rhizomed, corded, met at the node. From my perspective among others you are lost, or I am lost, or both of us are lost on the far end of some secret network. 

    You will ask me: look at what? 

    And I will say, look in the mirror, look at you, look at me. In the mirror you will see one eye and then the other, and then our nose and then our mouth. You will raise a hand and dutifully I will raise my hand, too, the wrong one, the same one. To match you. Our irises are striated in just the same way. Our irises flex in the same way to open up the black pits of our pupils and this yawn looks like a strain, looks like it would hurt. It does not hurt. Our eyes are glossy and wet.

    You will look at me first one eye and then the other in the mirror and remember to me in a soft voice almost singsong the fox on the side of the highway last night, large with a huge tail and eyes glinting in your headlights. How it looked right at you, all eyes. Eyes glinting.

    I will look at you first in one eye and then the other and remember to you the magpie that sits in the same spot every day on the drive to the ocean, watching, as if it has been waiting for me. I will pass and it will cock its head in that twitchy way that birds do, and it will shuffle away. It has been waiting for me, it has remembered me. Glassy black eyes. And so I think that this might be you, or me, or another one of us. 

    I believe that we might meet. 

    In another life, in another world, I am a different person with different thoughts and a different life. I grieve the loss. 

    No. 

    I grieve the distance. And in the space between us in the electric impulse that moves through the air I am sure of it, the other ones of me and you they grieve us just the same. 

    You will forget that this is you. 

    You will believe that I chose you. I. You. I will remember you to you and beg you to forget more. We will slog through the event horizon, the now infinite between the not-now and the not-now again. We are being pulled towards some black pit pupil that we cannot comprehend. We cannot know because we cannot reach it. Your biggest fear is now, mine is the not-now. Together in between us there is a mirror and through that an electric impulse, a patch of striated muscle that makes you sick to look at.

    Don’t be afraid. I remember you to you, and you don’t recognize you anymore. I am the rememberer. That was not-now, this is now. Our fear. I write for the both of us.

    Somewhere else everything flows from one of us and we grieve the distance. So many of us live and die. I am learning to love you. And to love you, and to love you, and to love you, and to love you. I am drawing closer. 

    You are looking straight into the mirror. 

    I am learning to write. I am learning to remember. 

    You do not know this. 

    You will.

    ________

    Audrey Coble is a third-year MFA student focused in nonfiction at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They currently work, write, and live in Anchorage, Alaska.

  • A Year in Fog by Nick Francis Potter

    After dinner, I’m cleaning dishes. There’s a witch in the backyard burying something in the garden—probably someone’s heart—when my children start screaming and biting each other in the basement. It’s not long before they’re in the kitchen, my children, with red semicircles up and down their arms, arguing and soliciting punishments for each other, which I‘m wont to officiate. The next morning, or maybe it’s early afternoon, I take notice of the birds on the shed—crows and vultures—as my dog runs, spinning circles and barking in the yard. It’s clear from her legs, muddy up to her chest, the dog’s been digging in the garden, and she’s unearthed something, a large bag of some kind. Upon closer inspection, it’s probably a human torso, free of everything but an arm. The dog’s excited by my attention and grabs the arm at the wrist, dragging at the body—she wants to play—but it’s too large. It’s a small hassle shooing the dog away from the body, but once she’s free of it, I rise to see the charcoal witch standing at the fence of a neighbor’s yard, three houses down, watching me. I wave and abruptly return inside with the dog, dragging her by the collar.

    A week later I’m at the Target looking for mouthguards for my children when I see her again, or I think it’s her, crouched down and sorting through some small animal traps and rat poison. She’s wearing a red-colored shirt and khakis, her grey-black hair tucked awkwardly into the neck of her shirt, and she smells like ash. She catches my eye briefly and begins following me around the store as if I’ve stolen something and I leave without the mouthguards or the prescription I was supposed to pick up for my wife.

    The next morning, as I’m shuffling to get the children into the car for school, I spot an owl carcass on the roof of our home. My children don’t notice it, and I don’t say anything, but as I’m backing the van out of the driveway, I look at the bird, bigger than I’d have guessed, crumpled among common debris from the overhanging trees. I catch myself talking under my breath and refocus on driving, it’s nothing, and we continue up the street, back on task, but turning the corner we approach and pass a dark-haired woman walking in front of us on the sidewalk—the witch—and I look steadily ahead to avoid the chance of eye contact. The drive progresses poorly, for me, unable to shake another appearance of the witch, while the children struggle and gnaw at their seatbelts. Preoccupied, as I’m dropping off the second child, Goodbye, I love you, the witch enters the backseat of the car from the opposite side. She sits silently behind me and I hesitate before I begin driving again, but I begin driving again, because there are parents dropping off children behind me and I need to keep the line of cars moving.

    I don’t say anything and the witch doesn’t say anything. The car is thick with the smell of mud and burning. It’s a few minutes before I pull into a gas station and abandon the car with the witch inside. It’s cold and I haven’t dressed for the weather, but I trek back, past a shopping district and through our neighborhood, my knuckles red as I finally arrive at our home. The owl remains taunt me from the rooftop. I find my wife, she’s just had a bath, and I tell her that I’m being stalked by a witch. She tells me to get over myself, leave the witch alone, everyone’s seeing witches these days, and they’re probably not even witches. I consider this possibility for a moment and feel a little guilty for calling the charcoal woman a witch.

    Did you see the torso in the backyard? I counter.

    No, she says, is it still out there?

    I don’t think so, I concede.

    Eventually, later that afternoon, I bundle up and walk back to the gas station, where I find my car. The woman, possibly a witch, is no longer in the back seat. I fill up the car with gas and pickup my children from their respective schools.

    Weeks pass.

    A month.

    The children bite each other and the furniture in the house less frequently. I encounter various dead animals in the yard, but not enough to cause alarm. The dog is muddy, but manageably so. I go to the Target to pick up cheap fruit, prescriptions, and various plastic items. There’s a wooded area near the Target, just beyond the parking lot, and as I’m returning to my car I think I’ve seen something moving in the woods. I enter my car and slowly drive the perimeter of the lot, before exiting, and glimpse again, I think, a woman dragging something heavy through the trees. She leans, shuffling backwards as she pulls. Could it be the witch? Is it a body she’s dragging?

    I’m idling in the car at the edge of the parking lot, well after she’s out of view, I’m not sure why, until I make a decision that I can’t explain: Slowly I roll up over the curb and into the forested area in my car. I proceed gingerly atop the soft earth and yellowed grass, navigating between the trees, sideways across a small hill, and then slowly down into a gulley. The heater’s running and I can hear the grass fold under the car. It’s cloudy grey outside, that off-dark period just before nightfall, and I find myself unable to proceed through the trees any further. It doesn’t matter. There’s no one out here. It’s been a hard year, I think to myself, what does it matter? I really am tired and I don’t care anymore, how did I ever care this much in the first place? I lean my face against the window and wish for sleep.

    ________

    Nick Francis Potter is the author of New Animals (Subito Press) and Big Gorgeous Jazz Machine (Driftwood Press). He teaches writing, comics, and video games courses at The University of Missouri.

  • Hibiscus Depths by Alleliah Nuguid

    My grandmother’s dress washes up on the shore. Which shore? Not sure. I never saw her near water while she and I were at the same time alive. Yet coast wanes cleanly into sea, and gulls barrel through clouds, bellowing from the gutters of their throats. And there, the floral garment sashays in on a wave. Water stains the flowers darker: hibiscuses on fuchsia deepen from white to grey. The dress docks on the shoreline, vessel holding only itself.

    These footprints in the sand—are they mine? I forgot where I’m going, forgot where I’ve been. I always suspected I was born with the wrong feet. That or the right feet screwed into the wrong ankles, their gaits bearing them perennially apart.

    I call you mother in my mother’s mother tongue. I call you into me and you come in archipelago echo.

    I wear your dress. Hibiscus seeps in and patterns my skin with petals. The petals fall off. Wind’s hands ferry them away, leaving me a shiver of stigma and stamen. I wear your dress. It dangles off your shoulder blades. Your ankles, your angles. I wear your dress. I put on your wrists and they soundlessly twist. I wear your dress. I wear your fists.

    ________

    Alleliah Nuguid holds degrees in creative writing from Northwestern University, Boston University, and the University of Utah. A native Californian, she now lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her debut poetry collection, A Human Moon, won the 2022 Dynamo Verlag Book Prize and will be published in fall 2023.

  • Two Final Girl Micros by Meghan Phillips

    The Final Girl Looks for a Summer Job

    She scans the classifieds in The Merchandiser, knowing that her options are limited. She can’t be a day camp counselor or a babysitter or a nanny. Kids are too loud, too quick. They’re always getting hurt, getting lost. There would be too much running, too much screaming. Too many bodily fluids.

    She thinks she’d like to do something physical. She wants to be so tired by the end of the day that she has no choice but to fall asleep fast and hard. She wants something that will make her sweaty. Something that will make her strong.

    Maybe scooping ice cream at the shop by the park. She imagines her forearm ropey with muscles. She imagines her cheeks pink from the freezers, hair smelling of fresh sugar cones.

    Maybe a landscaping crew. Maybe mowing lawns. She worries about the whir and buzz of the machines, about what she won’t be able to hear as she pushes her way across the grass.

    The elementary school needs a janitor. She imagines herself in the dim quiet of those linoleum halls. Bleach and wax and Lemon Pledge. Books on tape from the library. Alone in that warren of classrooms.

    Before, she was a lifeguard at the public pool. She loved how the sun beat down on her shoulders, her scalp. Loved her shiny silver whistle and forest green one-piece. She loved the dive from her chair at the end of her shift. The way her body cut the water like a blade. The suspended coolness after hours in the heat.

    Now, no one would trust her to guard a life. Her existence simple proof that although she can survive, she cannot save.

    The Final Girl Rehearses the Part of the Nurse for Her School’s Production of Romeo and Juliet

    The drama teacher would have cast her as Juliet, if not for what happened. She is the strongest actress of the bunch. Understands the rhythm of the language in a way the other kids don’t. Understands that big emotions— love, fear, despair—don’t always look big. 

    He worried, though, what the town would think seeing her play dead like that. So, she would be the Nurse. The caretaker. The nurturer. The only character in whole play who cares about the doomed girl’s happiness. 

    He watches as the girls rehearse again the scene where the Nurse finds Juliet in her chamber, presumes that she is dead. He watches the final girl cradle the other actress’s body. Hears the break in her voice as she laments, “Help, help! My lady’s dead.” 

    He wonders if he has made a mistake.

    ________

    Meghan Phillips wrote the flash fiction chapbook Abstinence Only. She wrote some other things too, which you can find at meghan-phillips.com.

  • The Loneliest Whale in the World by Matthew Mastricova

    I promised the 52-hertz whale that the world was ready for him. We just had to make some changes. I promised him that “the loneliest whale in the world” was only lonely for so long because he had one song and it didn’t even chart on Billboard. We started with the classics: Aretha, Amy, Selena, Whitney, Freddy, Celine, Elton. Karen Carpenter. Frank Sinatra. Not Adele (no offense to Adele). I ping-ponged air between my vocal folds like his so we could sing in harmony but neither of us quite got it. “No worries,” I sang at him. “There are other ways to find love.”

    The loneliest whale in the world was only lonely for so long because he did not have a good agent. I burned all my bridges in the New York scene but found someone’s assistant’s assistant in Ottawa who was willing to take him on as a client. I ferried messages from ocean to shore and even though we booked all the dailies and even Good Morning America, I was getting tired from all the swimming. I told the 52-hertz whale that I believed in him, but sacrifices had to be made. Did he trust me? I burned my home, sold my clothing, and settled into my new home on the underside of the 52-hertz whale. I fielded calls night and day because he had no hands to use a phone, but I was no longer as tired. And he sung me to sleep every night and awake every morning. And I had promised.

    The assistant’s assistant in Ottawa had never booked Good Morning America before. This was his breakout or breakup moment with agenting, and so when the scuba-geared hosts of Good Morning America were diving to the home of the loneliest whale in the world, he could not stop looking at his phone.  He had set his ringtone to the only sound he found worthy of such a moment. A classic. A song his mother had sung to him way back in the days of his mother being alive.  The host asked her question. “What does it feel like to be the loneliest whale in the world?” The assistant’s assistant held his breath. “Well,” the 52-hertz whale sang. “I’ve never been lonely. Not once. I’m not sure why everyone thinks that of me.” Nobody had much to say after that so “the loneliest whale in the world” swam away, and the man in Ottawa kept waiting for a song his phone would never sing.

    ________

    Matthew Mastricova is a teacher and writer in New York. Their work has appeared in Foglifter, Gulf Coast, Passages North, The Offing, and elsewhere.

  • Passport by Ryan Shea

    I’ve become partial, a blip, a dim light that the interaction between my conscious and unconscious convulsions scraped alive under the influence of reality television. Now I’m maintaining a fire in the snow and hunching under a shelter of moss-packed branches. I’m talking to myself, exclusively.

    It started when I lost my driver’s license. I moved from Oregon to Maine. I lost my wallet in the first week, and with the wallet, the Oregon license. I tried to get a Maine license, but the Department of Motor Vehicles needed to photocopy a hard copy of the Oregon license to complete the transfer. I requested a duplicate of the Oregon license, but after eleven attempts and eleven failures, I gave up. The processing fees were immense. I was running out of money. 

    During the same week I gave up on the license, my passport expired. In order to obtain a new passport, I had to mail the expired passport to the Department of State. Plus, another processing fee. Dropping the envelope with the passport into the curbside mailbox, I knew I had crossed a threshold. I saw my full self in my mind’s eye for the last time. I felt myself falling. Vertigo with morning coffee, with afternoon job searching, with evening drinking. Each grew more desperate. 

    The new passport never arrived, of course. October did. I no longer had any form of identification. I had to leave my sublet because the owner’s son was moving home after college. He was becoming a day trader. I couldn’t rent a car. I couldn’t get a lease or a loan or a W2.

    From there the horizon of my experience slipped dramatically. A fog enveloped my movements and choices. I slept in the elementary school playground. I built a fire and then was threatened by a police officer. I hitchhiked away from town so that I could build a fire without attracting police. I asked the driver of the truck that picked me up for matches, and he gave me a whole box of them. Thanks, Tom.

    After a trek into the woods, I stopped at a small clearing. I sat down and dug a hole with a rock and arranged small twigs and dead leaves inside. I had seen the procedure on wilderness survival shows. I had watched enough episodes to understand what might work best in a situation like mine. 

    On that first night, I saw him. He was strange and he was familiar. He hovered over the fire and angled his body toward mine, glowing orange and red. He was a version of myself, which grew out of my wide-ranging criticisms of wilderness survival reality show personalities. For years he had been lodged in the pits of a neural lymph node. Now he was invigorated. He had instincts, such as Build a shelter like Amy’s and Never make traps like Ralph’s. He was content consuming rabbits and squirrels. He would stay sane by singing.

    As the weeks plodded on, I maintained the fire. I built a moss and stick shelter. I ate berries and vomited them up and knocked my palm against my head, thinking He would never have eaten the berries and He would have caught a rabbit by now. So, he took over a little. Using shoelaces and twigs, I created a haphazard snare. I caught rabbits at a rate that felt miraculous. He spread throughout my sense of self. I acted without seeing the world or my body move. Pale white sky. Taste of dirt. I woke to a boiling carcass. I woke to a collection of spears. 

    One morning, I saw a group of hunters. They saw me. They huddled around my clearing and asked how I was doing. Not knowing what to say, I let the crude specter of myself take over. The timbre of my voice communicated a new authority. I showed off my snare, the bones of my rabbits and squirrels, the stones I used for tools. The hunters said they admired my choice to go off the grid. They said they’ve fantasized about subsistence living. They referenced podcast hosts and social media influencers who, as I understood them, obsessed over uncovering a primal self. But they were all marketing. I was the real thing. I was a real thing for the first time in my life. The hunters fist bumped and gave thumbs up and disappeared back into the woods.

    He never let go again. No self-narrative can hold my skin on. I am the way I know north. Because I learned from Gunnar on season three. I am the way I know to find drinking water. The rest of me left. I flickered by the fire and radiated into the night. I evaporated and reconstituted as a small percentage of my previous matter. I am tall, light, and I ride the air. I expand my shoulders into wings and tuck them back. I hear the wilderness reality show personalities cheering me on constantly. I am their conglomerated attitudes and affects. Their catchphrases are my mantras. I pick the right mushrooms, store rabbits for winter, chase deer, break down my camp and move deeper into the woods. I feel nothing. I know no time. I perform simple tasks that consume the entire day and night. I have no questions in my heart. I cannot surface in my mind the photograph of myself that appeared on my license or passport. No sense of an eye color, an expression. I cannot recall a single address where I lived. I live alone between mounds of earth. I tear patches of beard from my face and scream names I may have had into the night. 

    ________

    Ryan Shea’s writing has appeared in Rejection LettersJuked, and other journals. He lives in western Massachusetts.

  • Memento Mori by Sophie Panzer

    Your mother is asking for your things back, my love. Your cashmere sweaters, your crockpot, your gold ring that once belonged to your father. As if she is the only one with a claim to them now that you’re gone. As if I have no right to the objects that retain your scent, your fingerprints, your loose skin cells. You’ve been dead for two weeks but I can still see you around our apartment, staring at me from the kitchen table or the living room sofa. Your mother began calling me a few days after you fell off our roof and broke your neck. We were on shrooms and you thought you could fly. First she was stiff and polite, then aggressive and demanding. I stopped picking up and she left angry voicemails about how I have to let all of you go, how what I’m doing isn’t right. When I hear her voice on the phone I look toward you and I can tell by your expression you are on my side, you do not want her to have these final pieces of you. She blames me for everything: the drugs, the drinking, the move several states away from her. I am not responsible for anything; I simply loved you as you were and did not try to change or stifle you. I lived for you, my love, even when you were angry or delirious or too hungover to move. Maybe if your mother had been kinder I would have thrown her a bone – your wallet or maybe your watch. Now she can cajole and wail and scream all she wants, but everything in this apartment belongs to me. I walk over to where you sit atop the kitchen cabinet, peering at me with eyes still so full of love. Even in the formaldehyde the green of them is luminous, unclouded. I let her have the rest of your body, but the best part I kept for myself, bribing the man at the morgue with sex and an old diamond so I could gently rehome you in a jar like a delicate houseplant. I plant a kiss on the glass that separates your pale lips from mine. The phone rings and the message is something about the police, how the morgue man confessed to everything. I do not answer. I deserve you.

    ________

    Sophie Panzer is the author of the chapbooks Survive July (Red Bird Chapbooks 2019), Mothers of the Apocalypse (Ethel Press 2019), and Bone Church (dancing girl press 2020). Her fiction has appeared in New World Writing, Heavy Feather Review, MAYDAY Magazine, The Lumiere Review, Club Plum Literary Journal, The Hellebore, and others. She lives in Philadelphia.

  • Interview with Nick Story by Adeline Wong and William Pagliarulo

    The structure of “Does the Pig?” is full of rhythm–it’s almost hypnotic, the way we keep going back to the same event and learn something new every time. What was your writing process like as the sentences expanded? How did you go about balancing the old and new information in each iteration?

    I started with the fragment “does the pig?” Then I rewrote it a few times and gave myself the task of adding new information about the pig’s situation with each iteration. A few words, a clause or two. I wanted to see how long I could make the sentence, while still having it make sense as a question. New plotlines and connections surrounding the pig started to emerge (the farmer, the knife’s story, the teenage girls), so I applied the expansionary procedure to those parts of the sentence as well. Soon enough, phrases and clauses were sprouting up all over the place, and I was adding a lot to each iteration. This forced me into a balancing act between, basically, narrative and syntax. In theory, the sentence could have gone on expanding forever, but in practice I knew that at some point I had to get off the bus and answer the question.

    What’s your favorite word that you use in “Does the Pig?”? (Is it the same as your favorite word in general?

    I think it might be “iron.” By itself, “iron” isn’t such a beautiful word maybe, but I like the idea that the iron in the knife wants to abandon its function as a weapon and revert to harmless minerality. In general, I think there’s something poignant about fictional works that lend feelings and thoughts to inanimate objects: singing teapots, intelligent soot particles, toasters of modest stature that display certain cardinal virtues…

    I’m not sure if it’s my favorite, but I’ve always liked the Yiddish word luftmensch, meaning “an impractical contemplative person.” It literally means “air person” and I identify with that description really a good deal more than I’d prefer. Another useful word is “murky.” It’s an honest and helpful word given that life, in my experience, is completely murky.

    Who/what are you reading right now that you really enjoy?

    I just reread Jen Craig’s novel Panthers and the Museum of Fire. The story follows Jen, a frustrated writer and delirious overthinker, as she walks from Glebe to inner Sydney, carrying the manuscript of her recently deceased childhood friend Sarah. But the true setting is Jen’s mind, inside the looping, recursive thoughts delivered in Craig’s hypnotic, memory-hopping sentences. The book is basically Jen’s unfolding reaction to reading the manuscript, which includes a reassessment of her friendship with Sarah, reflections on her anorexia, her brief conversion to Christianity, her years of artistic failure, and her tendency to withdraw into thinking as a dubious refuge from life’s many “interferences.” If this sounds like standard autofictional fare, it isn’t. Craig has a major style, one that contains all the complexity and gathering force of Thomas Bernhard without Bernhard’s loathing and madness; it’s geared more toward self-reflection and self-patterning than the slandering of existence. Craig is one of my favorite living fiction writers and I’m looking forward to her new book Wall. Incidentally, I think some of the best fiction writing in the Anglophone world today is coming out of Australia, e.g., Jen Craig, Jessica Au, Nicholas John Turner, Jack Cox…

    Lastly, what are you working on right now? Or alternatively, do you have a favorite piece you’ve published elsewhere that we can link to?

    I’m working on a novel about a sad park ranger who finds a mysterious egg. The book concerns his relationship with the egg and his half-hearted attempts to save a leatherback nesting beach from residential development. I’m trying to convince myself that it is a Symbolist novel, but it probably isn’t.

    I’m also always trying to put together a short story collection. Here’s a link to a recent story: https://theadroitjournal.org/issue-forty-three/nick-story

    ________

    Nick Story’s story “Does the Pig?” appeared in hex on June 7, 2022, and was selected for Best Small Fictions 2023

  • All Those Moments Will Be Lost in Time by Eliot Li

    I’ve got a Roy Batty doll that I keep next to my bed. He’s got white hair that sticks out at his widow’s peak, deep blue eyes, and a black leather coat with an enormous, upturned collar that flatters his neck.

    When I pull his string, he says I want more life, fucker.

    It never gets old hearing him say this. 

    He came with this tiny plastic dove, and when you fit it into his hand, Roy recites the whole “Tears in Rain” speech. You can still find other Roy dolls on eBay, though most of the secondhand sellers have lost the dove. I bought Roy thirty years ago, when teenage-me watched Blade Runner for the first time. I’ll never lose the dove.

    Sometimes I hug Roy to sleep. I’ll even run my finger up and down his back, and tell him the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and you have burned so very, very brightly. When I snuggle with him, I’m careful not to let him anywhere near my face. He has this proclivity to crush people’s eyeballs in with his thumbs.

    I don’t always stick to the script when I talk with Roy. Sometimes I show him my dismal CT scan reports. He knows how I feel. When he went from one bioengineer to another, looking for someone to extend his fading lifespan, they told him nothing could be done. Unlike Roy, I’ve never wanted to kill my doctors every time they give me bad news, even though I want more life, too.

    I live alone, because it’s easier that way. Knowing no one will mourn you after you die. My mother’s death, though years ago, still haunts me. The frightened way she looked at me from her hospital bed, when the doctors were running around the room, pulling medicines out of the crash cart. I haven’t stopped missing her, every day. Although Roy isn’t capable of saying it, he’s probably thinking it’s time for me to let go of her. I couldn’t do that to someone else, leave them such a heartbroken mess. 

    Mother said I needed to prepare for life after her. She gave me phone numbers of family friends, addresses of pet adoption centers, names of online dating sites. I told Roy how absurd it would be for me to go on a date. To show up at a girl’s apartment, holding a bouquet of flowers, telling her, “You look so pretty in that red dress.”

    ***

    Today, when I got my most recent follow up CT scan, something really strange happened.

    My doctor said my disease had all but completely disappeared. 

    How did this happen? What do I do now? I need to start putting sunscreen on again, and eat less sugar–all the small things normal people do to take care of themselves. 

    I want to know what Roy thinks of all this ridiculousness. But when I pull his string, his voice is garbled, just an unintelligible slow and mournful moan. I pull it again, and he goes completely silent. On the day I learn I could have a normal lifespan, Roy dies!

    At night, I go outside to bury him in the tulip garden behind my apartment. It’s raining, and the water drips down his plastic nose as I carry him to his final place of rest. One More Kiss, Dear, I sing in a whisper.

    It had been raining the weekend when Mother died. At the funeral, her friends cried all through my eulogy. But I didn’t cry, even when the mortician closed the casket and tightened the bolts. Even when they lowered her casket into the ground, slowly unspooling those black straps underneath. 

    I dig my fingers into the wet earth, and place Roy into the hole I’ve excavated. Roy holds his dove, while I cover him with mud. After he’s completely submerged, I look up at the dark night sky, tears and rain swallowing my face. 

    ***

    At the ASPCA, there’s a dog the size of a sewer rat, with matted long brown hair. I take her home. I name her Rachael.

    I shampoo her hair, comb the tangles out, put her locks up in a bun, wrapped with a red bow. I try to imagine she’s a replicant, like Roy or Rachael. But when I quote her lines from Blade Runner, she just sticks her tongue out and breathes heavy. She runs to the front door, her beard quivering, asking me to take her for a walk. So we stroll the neighborhood together, and every person we encounter kneels down and scratches her behind the ears.

    They say Rachael might live a good dozen years or so. I’m planning on being with her for all of them.

    ________

    Eliot Li’s work appears or is forthcoming in Reckon Review, Five South, Variant Lit, MoonPark Review, CRAFT Literary, SmokeLong Quarterly, Passages North, and elsewhere. He has been nominated for Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.

  • Little Dog Song by Robin Bissett

    Kali was one of the dogs I checked in on throughout that summer. Her owner was a short man with a long-distance fiancée and I never learned what he did for work exactly. He lived in the Northside, in a newly constructed apartment complex in The Domain and paid me to come by his place each day during lunch to take Kali out for a walk. His little Kali was a black schnauzer with pretzel-thin legs and a pirate’s underbite. She was angry all the time and constantly lurching to bite me as I let her out of her kennel. “I’m helping you!” I tried to soothe her each time she snapped. “I’m getting you out of here.” She never stopped, but it was hard for me to fault her. My language was too sharp, my motives untranslatable.

    After checking in on Kali, Joe and I usually smoked and cooked. We dropped acid a few times that summer. One afternoon, when we were together, I went outside our apartment. It was across from the cemetery. A storm had come in the night before, bringing with it debris and pieces of others’ lives. A yellow button glowed atop the grass, a conspicuous treasure.

    The ballooned text adorning it read, “Party Animal.”

    “Party Animal,” I smiled to myself. The words were fur in my mouth. I rolled them over my tongue. “Party Animal, Animal Party.” I picked up the button and put it in my pocket, knowing I’d likely forget to take it out later.

    This, I thought, was my little dog summer, my little dog song.

    Back inside, I found Joe, standing before a red bowl of cut, wet peaches. He wanted to bake a pie but wasn’t sure how to begin. “Maybe later, I’ll be able to help you,” I told him. We moved from the kitchen to our bedroom and sat atop the bed, criss cross applesauce, facing each other.

    “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re gonna catch a big one. What a beautiful day, we’re not scared.” He sang to me, tracing the slope of my nose and cupid’s bow with the back of his hand. He was tender as the effects of the drug took over and I shook like an animal.

    “You’re purple,” I said. The sunlight came in through the bedroom window, and the colors moved across his face. “You’re all purple all over.”

    We got under the blankets and waited for it all to happen.

    We asked ourselves questions we didn’t have the answers to.

    “If we lived on a farm, what kind of animals would you want to have?” he asked. He rested his head atop his hands, a little boy cherub with the body of a man. “I have always wanted to own a horse.”

    “No,” I shook my head. “Too fragile. If they fall and break their leg, they’re fucked.”

    “How about pigs?” he asked. “We could get pigs.”

    I thought first of Wilbur, then of the feverish two million feral hogs that rampaged Texas’ wildlife, that were legal to hunt year-round, of all the destruction they caused.

    “Yes, a pig’ll get by,” I said. “A pig’ll make do.”

    “You’re not wrong,” he looked at me.

    When we decided to head outside, the concrete street beneath us turned into ice cream, and we slid up and down the road leading to St. Mary’s Strip. We ran into a former classmate of mine, dressed in a suit. It was too hot for summer, but this guy had a good job, coding for a health insurance company.

    “Hey,” I said. “This is my boyfriend, Joe.”

    A scowl peeled across Joe’s face. He loathed meeting my contemporaries, reminders of another life I could be part of, one in which he didn’t belong. I tried to take Joe’s hand, but he pulled away from me and plodded off, stopping only to light a cigarette.

    We walked and thought to ourselves silently and sweated. We ate Raspas and corn in a cup at the yellow taco truck parked outside of Hardbodies, the strip club. There was a gray cat who lived there with no name. We just called it the Taco Truck Cat.

    We sat down on the curb, clutching our food, and the cat snuggled up to us, winding his way like infinity around our calves. The cat yawned, and a beam of light caught on his front fang and I thought of God, and how if there was one, this was it. This was it.

    Everything that summer was so fallible, our collaboration never guaranteed to last. My neurotransmitters were delicate, frayed, mixing up past and future messages. I told Joe I needed a break.

    I was out running one night when I caught a slug on my foot. As I stopped and bent over to peel it off, my phone fell out of my pocket, and I saw six missed calls from Joe. I called him back.

    “Why’d you call so many times?”

    “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t have anything to say,” he exhaled. “I guess, I just wanted to behold you.”

    I was silent for some time, the sound of the cicadas speaking for me, before I said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I can do this.” I blocked his number not long after that.

    We do not talk now. I do not know where he is or if he exists at all. But sometimes to remember him, I will head down to the cemetery outside our old apartment complex and imagine having loved him enough to miss him. My hip bones poking into the dirt, I will sit atop an unmarked grave and wait.

    ________

    Robin Bissett is a writer, editor, and teaching artist from West Texas. She is an alumna of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program Summer Institute and a first-year fiction MFA candidate at the University of Montana, where she serves as the Online Managing Editor of CutBank.

  • Table Full of Kidneys by Z.H. Gill

    HANS

    I was born under a porch. A boy took me home. I kept clean enough. I had no words for this life until the night I met an angel. With wings, I mean. Outside, in the back. No stars that night; if there were, he’d harnessed them to his own ends, so he could shine like them. His name was Raguel—is Raguel, he lives separately in time and space from us. He wore immaculate leather sandals and frayed, filthy white clothing as he floated above. That night he decided to boost my IQ to the level of the average human genius with the soft snap of his tiny fingers. This is something he did sometimes, for fun. To humans and other mammals. Once to a fish. After a day the fish drowned itself in reverse, surfacing, he told me with rue. In our first meeting, Raguel taught me to read. We weren’t together long, perhaps ten minutes, but it was outside the space-time continuum and so I gained the knowledge a skilled American pupil might receive at a well-appointed public school. The boy Zeke who took me home kept many books, hundreds. They lined the walls of his bedroom, two more in the kitchen. I read whatever he left out whenever he went out. I didn’t want him catching on, not yet. He called me Hans and had been calling me Hans, I realized. So that was my name. Mostly I read novels—Life: a User’s Manual; The Blue Flowers by Raymond Queneau; by Doris Lessing, Memoirs of a Survivor and Shikasta; and books of stories by Mary Gaitskill, too, whose work I most admired. I learned to turn pages with my tail, not leaving a single hint behind that I did. A woman called Katrina moved in. I liked her because she paid me less mind. (Funny how that works!) Once, she looked at me and said, He looks like a little cow. She said this because dairy cattle have black spots blotched over white hair like I do. She had less interest in novels and left around for me some Elias Canetti books and The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton, which in particular led to my shredding up of many rolls of paper towel. One night Raguel returned to me. In my thoughts I asked him for the gift of speech, as he could read thoughts. He declined. “The world needs less voices, not more,” he said in his soothing tone with little conviction. He scratched my behind-the-ears for hours (in actuality: minutes) before he left, to make it up to me. 

    RAGUEL

    Angeli tecum ingrediantur, pendejo.

    ZEKE

    Hans is the best little baby on Earth (my baby), but one day he will die, as all cats and babies do: I can’t be having that. He is not all cats! Sometimes he tries to eat my phone, he must enjoy the mouthfeel of its liquid silicone case.

    I wake up one morning and decide he will not die, an act of resistance, not of denial. I’d do anything for Little Hans, up to and including embarking upon a Grail Quest for him. 

    I decide to embark upon a Grail Quest for Little Hans. Or the next best thing. 

    Katrina leaves me—we were kidding ourselves. She moves out, takes my copy of Pnin.

    Soon she calls me from her dad’s houseboat, the River Rhonda, named for his departed wife, Katrina’s mother. Katrina tells me she’s seen Hans reading my books, if I can hear her correctly. 

    I don’t think that’s what he’s doing, I say. I think he’s just looking, smelling.

    No, she says, he turns the pages. I see him following along. I saw him turn the pages with his tail, like an octopus might.

    Dude, what are you saying? 

    I thought I was losing it, so I waited on telling you. It wasn’t a good time, anyway. But that’s what I saw. I don’t think he likes me very much. 

    Hans?

    Yeah. 

    He’s a cat, I think he just wants more cuddle-time. You know? 

    Don’t believe me? 

    I tell her I’d call her back, that I had a flight to catch. 

    I land in Jacksonville. I know the airport, my mother was born here. I rent a Camry. I barrel down I-95 straight to St. Augustine. Haven’t been here for years. Last time I ate at a gaudy Cuban emporium, the sort of place with many different rooms in which to eat, accompanying my mother and her healer. 

    Free parking at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park—least they could do. 

    KATRINA

    In my dream, Hans—Zeke’s little cat—and I go on a double date to Musso’s with Paul and Linda McCartney. Over a table full of the kidneys—the menu says they were Chaplin’s favorite dish, so Paul and Linda decide they’ll make an exception to their vegetarianism—Hans reads aloud from his manuscript, and we listen, enraptured. I cannot recall any of it, for the life of me, only the full, solemn voice the cat read to us in. 

    HANS

    A woman with Zeke’s long nose came to watch me, his mother, I realized. She paid me little mind—don’t think she was too used to being around cats. She didn’t seem allergic when she’d approach me and squeeze me, when she remembered to (I didn’t despise it). But mostly she let me be, which I didn’t mind, either. One day—counting days was new to me, I was just getting into the habit—I let my guard down; she could see me reading, blatantly, from The Golden Notebook, for minutes maybe. The woman trembled, dropped to her knees, began to weep. She spoke rapidly under her breath. She was praying, I think—Raguel introduced me to the custom, he had little regard for it. I jumped off the table and rubbed against her leg, as if to say: Nothing to see here!

    ________

    Z.H. Gill lives with his cat and his roommate’s dog.

  • Glass Piano by Ivy Grimes

    I used to think I was the only one who had swallowed a glass piano. That was why I had to keep my secret, why I had to be so careful. I avoided the rough games that the other kids played when no one was looking.

    The Glass Piano says: I found you, and you found me. I give you my music, and you give me movement. I can go anywhere you go as long as you and I don’t shatter. 

    I blamed myself for so many years, until I told the family doctors. The terror of telling on myself kept me dyspeptic in my early years, baffling the experts. They tried different diets (all soft, a blessing), and they prescribed rest, and they gave me prayers.  

    By the time I told the doctors about the glass piano, I could have been a mother if I hadn’t been so sick. A blessing. I could have been forced to do all sorts of things.

    The doctors laughed when I said “As a child, I swallowed a glass piano.”

    I could feel the music building inside me, and I opened my mouth so they could hear. It was like I’d asked them to listen to the heartbeat of my doll. They put their ears near my mouth and murmured with such exaggerated frenzy, and they drowned out the little song. It’s only the smallest tinkling song, and it’s muffled by all my tissues. 

    When I sleep, the music fills my liver and kidneys and my rippling digestive trail. I thought I would die young.

    The Glass Piano says: I am so small, everyone swallows me.

    I remember the glass piano the way some recall their first love. The size of a coin, standing on delicate legs. I had everything then. I could have swallowed thousands of coins. I did. 

    Thank God I swallowed the piano and remembered it. Otherwise, I would have married a prince. They would have had me bear more princes. The piano would have shattered, and I would have died in my finery.

    The Glass Piano says: You are dying.

    I know I am.

    The Glass Piano says: I will find you in the afterlife. Listen for my song, the small sound muffled by the tissues of heaven. 

    I left the palace and learned. I devoted my life to orphans. All because of the glass piano. In my religious life, the first orphan I met said she had a song stuck in her stomach, and opened her mouth, and I heard the brilliant tinkling. I laughed, delighted, and I told her about the glass piano. How wide her eyes were. How wonderful to pass on the fruits of your pain. From then on, she respected the glass piano inside her, though she couldn’t remember swallowing it. 

    The Glass Piano says: You had so many things, yet you only remember me. 

    I’ve heard the music from so many mouths that now I know glass pianos are everywhere. I thought my fine life was my doom, that the others were happy because they’d never seen a glass piano shining like an eye in the candlelight. Who could resist such a thing? I had been playing rough games that morning before I swallowed the glass piano. I had eaten aged cheeses and nuts, foods that never passed my lips again for the rest of my life. 

     It was no different than swallowing a little lump of snow. A frozen soul. Later, I learned about cameras. Maybe that’s what it was, a device to show God my insides. 

    The Glass Piano says: My music was your resting place.

    Thank God I never had a normal life. I left the palace. I lived among the orphans. I am an orphan. I have lived. 

    (for Princess Alexandra of Bavaria)

    ________

    Ivy Grimes is from Alabama but currently lives in Virginia. Her stories have appeared in The Baffler, ergot., Seize the Press, Tales From Between, Interzone, Vastarien, and elsewhere. To read more, feel free to visit www.ivyivyivyivy.com or read her (sigh) substack at https://ivygrimes.substack.com!

  • Interview with Flower Conroy by Morgan Whitney and William Pagliarulo

    Your pieces are incredibly abstract, are there specific meanings that you derive from them or hoped your audience would derive from them?

    I absolutely love this question because (believe it or not!) I hadn’t thought of these poems as being abstract. In fact, when I read the first question I second guessed myself and thought “oh god what poems did I send them?!” Which in hindsight is silly because I relish in the abstract. Perhaps it was a forest through the trees response—I know I’m juggling many extraneous moving pieces within these poems and sometimes the connective tissue is stretched membrane thin but as their creator I have an intimacy with them that isn’t privy to a reader—so your question prompted me to comb more thoroughly through the poems to see what it was I was doing on paper intuitively and through revision and how these poems exist looking from the outside in (which meant I had to look inside out). So please indulge me as I think through this vortex hour of process.

    “Axolotl” and “Mushroom” are from a bestiary I’m working on; all the “subjects” I address represent creatures, objects and/or ideas that personally fascinate me. But curiosity wasn’t/isn’t enough motive to explore these subjects—I wanted them to resonate in a larger sphere so I needed to mine them for external connections—a make-the-private-universal approach. How humans interact with the natural world—and worlds we’ve made “natural” (highways aren’t natural but we have made them so, for example)—intrigues and worries me. Climate change, extinction, compassion (or the lack there of) for fellow human beings are at the nucleus of this project—but saying the obvious “environmental destruction is bad, extinction is bad, hurting others is bad” isn’t necessarily poetry. My task then became how to elevate these concerns through an “isolated” lens in order to shed new light on the subjects I’ve chosen. The poems tend to be highly associative; they depend on juxtaposition to create tension and subtexture; they—to borrow Brenda Hillman’s phrase—“follow [my] weird.” And my ear. I often think of ED’s head coming off notion of what poetry should do to the reader and I verily want the reader to come away from my poems haunted by a “what just happened (to me)?” feeling. That can’t happen unless it happens to me first. I crave transformation, mind and bodily altering experiences; I want my poems to be part aphrodisiac, part poison, part enlightenment, part heartbreak. Some humor in the horror. A thinking through the feeling and a feeling through the thinking. So I guess that does make them incredibly abstract lol. And like the best abstract art I want them to mean something without meaning something—or without meaning something overtly tangible and definable. 

    Tom Sleigh once told a story in which his friend was given the advice “you don’t have to change your life you have to change your line length.” These poems adhere to physical constraints; they are cast in prose poem form but can only occupy as much space as a 5.83” x 8.27” page will allow [in effect giving the poems a false sense of containment and fixedness, and creating tension between form (prose lineation) and content (lyrical mediations)].  The epigraphs are meant to meant to refute, confute, complicate, confuse and/or illuminate the subject matter. This highly orchestrated structuring freed me to be more tangential in the poem itself. I am trying to cram a ton of information into a small space—that isn’t possible without making greater leaps between thoughts. In “Axolotl” for example, I begin with an allusion (via a wrong etymology) to where the word axolotl derives from. Researching the salamander I was reminded how they can regenerate; Scott Sayare asks in his article for aeon, “Might salamanders be the great hope of regenerative medicine?” This whispered ideas of medicine (albeit through another convoluted etymology) which circled back to “mouth.” I went down the rabbit hole (or salamander hole in this case) of how language morphs and changes and can be distorted (the Victorian slang, the anagrams), and braided that with ideas of healing and evolution (how humans seem a cross—or recipe—between—as I once heard it described—ape and angel, or here, ape and alien. The introduction of an “alien” speaks back to the “Jupiter” earlier in the poem…). “To’ve syntax & imagery work in equal measures” alludes to the larger interconnectedness we might not always be able to communicate clearly but can feel. The shift to the spirit on the staircase—that “moment when we think of the perfect response to a comment earlier” is another harkening back to missed opportunity (as extinction is a missed opportunity to change the course of history). The chilled is a pun on cold shoulder—the poem has taken a more menacing turn (whose seed was subtly suggested in the lake that no longer exists and other language—apex predator/ vortex)—which is echoed in the devil’s flower mantis but then is softened by undercutting threat with display. I would have to admit this is the most abstract moment in the poem—as we begin with the (aquatic) salamander but end with an image of a terrestrial insect—but syntactically these last two lines are elaborations of the relationship between language and image. See it all makes perfect sense lol! Of course most of this didn’t occur to me in the crafting of the poem. That’s where revision comes in—organizing the information in a random-yet-inevitable Plink-o way, following sound and modulating rhythm, cranking and lessening tension, juxtaposing tones…

    What specific meaning do I derive from this poem? I think it is less meaning that I chase and more of a means of pleasure—of playing with language and ideas and how images can convey emotional subtext—a way of meaning and suspending time and then reentering the world with a different (and perhaps more riddled) sense of it—an embodiment of the “there is a universe and it is behind this universe” idea.  

    Looking back at “Mushroom” I completely understand how these poems could be received as abstract—this poem indulges if not thrives in the incredibly abstract! I just didn’t think of it quite like that—I was thinking how to articulate the unknown and how to reinvent the known. It’s no small accident this poem straddles the psychedelic, melding the earthly with the otherworldly, pitting beauty and danger. Perhaps this poem’s greatest preoccupation is the uncanny valley between our perceptions of reality and the true nature of reality whatever that may be—there’s a vast gap between the threshold of our senses and the ultraforces governing this universe. (If you’ve not seen Fantastic Fungi I highly recommend it. There’s definitely some of my take-away from that movie residual below the surface in this poem—and probably also the movies Arrival and My Octopus Teacher lurking here as well—there being a parallel between mycelium and tentacles in my mind, an “as above so below” going on, but also the implication of reaching.) 

    I have to push myself into strange terrains, to root through language and create an experience.  Emily had her head popping off, I have my heady trapdoors I slip through. I am more likely to agree than to disagree that every poem is an ars poetica; it is a making of itself. And as such makes in another. Now I would have to say I’m being incredibly—though not intentionally—abstract! I want my audience to be transported emotionally, intellectually and/or viscerally, to be stimulated and unnerved, entertained and maybe even disturbed. My 90-year-old mother-in-law (whom I adored and whom recently passed) never ate a strawberry in her life; for better or for worse, I want my poems to be her eating a strawberry for the first time—that sensation inside the reader. 

    Are there any stories from your early life that root themselves in your work today?

    My early life is integral to my poems. Shortly after his 45 birthday, my father’s heart stopped. Longer story abridged, he was comatose for over a year before we disconnected his feeding tube. Twenty plus years later and this incident still haunts my work. As a child my house burned within (not down—it was a concrete block structure so the house fire was akin to a kiln)—this ghosts my poems. That my father was a hunter and mispronounced certain words. That my mother’s mother passed when I was a baby. That she was an avid reader of romance novels. That I am an only child and I was loved. And sheltered (no pun intended). All this comes into play in my work in some residual way. 

    What was the process of getting these pieces to a place that you liked?

    I do enjoy talking shop—as if you hadn’t gathered! Just as I’m inclined to believe poems are innately ars poeticas more so than not, I’d also readily agree I’m hardly satisfied with where my poems arrive; that is, I am nettled by the idea that there is always an ultimate ulterior place they could go—a being-nearly-satisfied-by-being-unsatisfied dichotomy; again, this idea of reaching. So the process of getting them to a place that I like is really the process of exhausting what the poem can be. And what it will not tolerate. Sometimes that means returning to the earlier drafts—as with “Mushroom.” Before its acceptance into hex, I was in the murk of overhauling the poem. I’d printed the bestiary manuscript out and was hand revising; when I reread “Mushroom,” I had a “wtf is this?” reaction; I was afraid it was too disjointed, too—yes—abstract, that it veered too far away from semblance.  But semblance to what? I marked certain lines with “?—,” I crossed out others, in the marginalia I scribbled: “I named a dog after you—because as a pup she hid under the bed like a toadstool,” “renunciation. forgiveness.,” “stay true to the mushroom.,” “the hotel overdose—,” and “once I tasted the crazy you.” Then I abandoned the revision thinking I’d return to it after I let these reactions settle. I was focusing on an ideal audience (what is that?) and not listening to the poem on its terms. The first line in the poem was answering me: “To detect such designs, however, is not necessarily to understand them.” The poem was giving itself permission to be itself. Why did I feel the need to distill something of healing and psychotropic potential born out of the dank and decaying—out of decomposition—into something neatly composed? Though it isn’t a persona poem told from the mushroom’s point of view, the language began to suggest that the mushroom could be speaking about itself in third person—something that was much more exciting to me than me trying to relate fungi tidbits to the reader. 

    Revisiting an earlier draft of “Axolotl,” the poem ends with the text-chunk “If noon’s the vortex hour… primitive streak business all figured out” and I’m not sure which I prefer now. There’s something—dare I utter it?—satisfying about the axolotl seemingly knowing something we humans cannot know. Just as there’s something intriguing about the final imagery of the devil’s flower mantis in this version, especially following the meta line about syntax and imagery. I suppose the “final” iteration will depend upon the manuscript as a whole; the more I fine-tune the larger body of work the more clearly the poems will reveal themselves—I mean, god I hope. 

    What are you working on right now?

    While the bestiary is my primary pet project (pun intended) and I’m devoting much of my energy into its weavings, as a writer and artist I need to juggle multiple projects so as to avoid burnout. 

    I’ve another manuscript [whose sense of line and punctuation and ambition is markedly different than my other work; it is a much more overtly queer feminist experimentation (for me anyhow)] that began as a chapbook, evolved into a full length and has now re-evolved back into a chapbook. If the bestiary is interested in cataloging a faux encyclopedia of my interests, fetishes, passions, concerns and fears—this manuscript is interested in exploring a glimpse into a life in its particular moments. What’s most interesting for me in this pursuit is the body of work’s disinterest in me as the poet. I feel like these poems are doing what they want and I’ve little say over it. Terrifying, yes, but also a relief. I’m a vessel and little more, a mere medium.

    In another chapbook I am revisiting my father’s coma. Perhaps enough time’s passed that I can write about it from the scar and not the open wound. 

    I’m also collaborating with Donna Spruijt-Metz on what we’ve coined our Exquisite Devils—poems that take Emily Dickinson’s last lines and use them as titles, as jumping off points—because even though ED’s poems end on the page they do not end in air. Donna and I were fortunate enough to go to MacDowell to work on these collaborations in the flesh (until then we were emailing). Being in the same space allowed us to pursue these poems in an entirely different approach.

    ________

    Flower Conroy’s poems “Axolotl” and “Mushroom” appeared in hex on April 26, 2022

  • Pretend Friends by Julián Martinez

    I was a demon, cursing in a high nook of the Cloudbuster. I told the kids, in a raspy voice, that I’d eat their flesh if they didn’t speak the password–any password would do. “Yes.” “No.” “Please.” When kids got freaked, I’d tell them, in my normal voice, that they’d turned me good. When I was tired of it, I stood to stretch but a child I forgot I’d played with told me to get back into my spot, so I frowned and groaned and followed her to that tight squeeze. When I asked for her password, she said all she had for me was meatloaf. No more password, now I would need meatloaf. I told her it was delicious, her handfuls of nothing. She said they were her mother’s and crawled off. Next time she came around, I growled, “Hello, witch.” She said, “Not a witch! Just a kid,” and brought me more meatloaf. She said she had to leave, so she gave me all the meatloaf her mother had made–her favorite meal–and told me I could speak in my normal voice, that I should say, “Thank you, friend.”

    ________

    Julián Martinez (he/him) is the son of Mexican and Cuban immigrants and is from Waukegan, IL. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Peach MagProlitBarrio Panther and elsewhere. His work has received The Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Find him online @martinezfjulian. As a DJ, he goes by the name DJ Guadalupe (aka A Vato with Serato) and can be heard rocking a party near you.

  • Relief Bank by Michael Colbert

    He created the first pearl while wildfires flared across the west. It popped out of him when his Grindr hookup knocked on the door, this small pearl flopping in one sigh out of his belly button. When the bead plunked on the floor, his partner plucked it, examined it, asked to show it to the jeweler, and the jeweler said, “We’ve got a live one, authentic oyster.” He hadn’t been eating oysters, too busy fretting over the tangerine moon that rose every night. So the partner pawned the pearl and came back for another night together–kissing, sucking, then the pearl–this one a marble, perfect to pilfer.

    When the news broke–Aberdeen’s Hidden Gem, Aberdeen’s Pearlescent Lover–the asking price skyrocketed. Everybody wanted one. Supply was precious. When would this stop?        

    More men came, lovers from the grid to kiss, lick, fuck, and then the pearl emerged in a shock of blush, blue, ivory, even rainbow that one time (it sold for a million). He liked to lie in bed after and turn on the news. He’d ask each partner about the fires and get no answer, the men who came too busy polishing the surface of their gemstones. They didn’t hear how fires were displacing whole towns, just left so thrilled by what had come out of his shell.

    Maybe he had been clammed up. Holding out for what he thought he needed, he hadn’t let himself consider what he wanted. He could better himself. He got into aphorisms. Live, laugh, love. Giggle. He stopped taking visitors, started spouting gems alone, focusing on himself. He collected the pearls in a candy dish. He boxed them up, walked past the line of suitors out the door and mailed them to a relief center. In fat Sharpie, he penned in his neatest hand his name, his Aberdeen return address. It wasn’t all that much, really, but what else could someone like him ever do?

    ________

    Michael Colbert is a queer writer based in Maine, where he’s at work on a novel. He holds an MFA from UNC Wilmington, and his writing appears in Esquire, The Florida Review, and The New York Times, among others.

  • Interview with J.D. Hosemann by Morgan Whitney and Maeve Norton

    Where did you find the inspiration to write this piece? Was it a specific event in your life, or were the details in the story a vessel for a deeper meaning?

    I wrote this story in a workshop with Nancy Zafris, who happens to have been one of the smartest and most generous teachers I’ve encountered. For this particular piece, Nancy gave us a sentence to be placed somewhere in the middle of our story. I’m sorry to say I have no idea what my line was. I think it was lost somewhere in the revision process. That’s the beauty of these technical obstacles; they get your wheels turning and then, once a story exists, they fade away and the story becomes what it wants to become.

    Aside from the very technical origins of this story, I guess I was just thinking about the terror of infinite sameness—the idea that the infinite is inherently terrifying even when applied to things that appear charming at any given moment, such as romantic relationships and craft beer breweries. But I’m not sure about all that. I try not to read too much into my own writing. I can say, though, that this story was not based on any real-life experience, although I have been to my fair share of craft beer breweries. Who hasn’t? They’re everywhere. We have several of them here in Mississippi now, which typically indicates the death rattle of such trends.

    What would you say is the difference between a dream and reality?

    I think about dreams a lot, especially when writing. Robert Olen Butler has written about the need to access something at the “white hot center” of consciousness to make artistic discoveries and surprise yourself as an artist. I guess I take all of that quite literally. It’s not that I write about my dreams explicitly. But I do find dreams to be nice paradigms for accessing the subconscious through narrative. I see dreams as ignorant, unlearned little things that assemble themselves by the laws of desire and chaos rather than intelligence and reason. The writing that has most impacted me over the years seems to possess this dream-like quality, not because of magical or fantastical elements, but rather because reason and logic take a back seat to desire and chaos. But it’s not just raw subconscious content—it’s been processed through narrative form, which allows for new associations and connections and meaning.

    I realize I’ve avoided the question. I guess I’m not sure that reality and dreams are oppositional. Maybe dreams are part of our realities, our lived experiences. Maybe the real dichotomy exists between conscious and subconscious experiences of reality. Now I’m thinking about the similarities between memories and dreams, how they’re both forms of narrative creation and neither can lay claim to verisimilitude. Yet we tend to privilege one as closer to “reality” than the other.

    What are you reading right now that you enjoy?

    I recently found a copy of Nightwood by Djuna Barnes on the shelves of a neighborhood coffee shop. I guess I should say the book found me. Always nice when that happens. The prose, obviously, is excellent. A great book for people who love sentences. I cracked up at the somewhat pedantic introduction by T.S. Eliot, accompanied by the sheepish apology he wrote for the second edition. Always fun to see a writer like Eliot feeling cringy about his previous work. I read Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away not long ago. I tend to avoid writers marketed as “southern,” but I recently got over this hang-up and began devouring all of O’Connor’s work. The Violent Bear It Away is a perfect narrative vision and builds into a swirling crescendo by the end. I think it’s more efficient than Wise Blood, though WB is perhaps more ambitious and barely able to contain itself.

    Also on my nightstand: The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila (translated by Mirabai Starr), The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, and Down Below by Leonora Carrington.

    What are you working on right now?

    I’ve been writing this one story for a few months now. Maybe longer? It’s hard to tell at what point an idea starts to grow legs and take its first steps out of the primordial sludge of fragments and sketches and failed attempts. But I’m fairly confident this thing is an actual story now, mostly because it has shape, a contour to follow, and that contour suggests the existence of some sort of beginning and, more importantly, an ending. This particular story is an episodic narrative focused on the daily walks of a rather solitary old man in search of a historical landmark that may or may not have been demolished. Or maybe it never existed. I’ve really enjoyed writing these little episodes because each walk allows the man to make observations of a city long since abandoned by the times. Places really seem like living organisms to me even when they’re decaying. Especially when they’re decaying. I think I’m almost done with the draft, which means I’ll soon pass it along to my friend and fellow writer Jessica Denzer, who recently accused me of withholding all the stories I promise to be writing. She’ll tell me whether it’s any good.

    ________

    J.D. Hosemann‘s story “Tourists” appeared in hex on June 21, 2022

  • A Band, A Maelstrom, A Revolution of Axolotls by Jennifer Lai and Nathan Xie

    Axolotls like us find vegetables boring because they don’t move, and maybe because they don’t move, they’re poisonous (to us?). Unfortunately, our company’s cafeteria only serves dill pickles, and we suspect our clam boss deliberately makes us constipated so we don’t visit the loo as much when we line-assemble submarines and fauna traps and electro-acoustic transducers.

    X marks the spot, our boss says, which means get crackin’. So we hoot our boots and hussle our bustles. But we’ve always wondered: X marks what spot? The spot where the unguarded blade catches on our gloves and pulls them away? And that’s exactly what happens. Our itty-bitty fingers are severed off too, along with a letter, so that we’re left as axolots.

    Our boss is an Atlantic jackknife clam. Thus therefore hence, he looks like a dick. And with our lost l, we’re beginning to think he’s not worth even the most itty-bitty of headaches. The dill pickles grumble undigested in our tummies, and when our boss says again, X marks the spot you axolos! He means everything has a point, so we plead in our tiniest voices if we can at least chomp on some better grub.

    Like escargot. Itty-bitty swirly things dipped in parsley butter and salt. The deal he offers is we go from ten-hour shifts to twelve-hour ones. Whatever. Yum yum. Nom nom. We love escargot. It’s the only thing we love. We twirl our itty-bitty forks into the snails’ itty-bitty shells, twisting and twisting and twisting to separate the meat until we stab our second o and we eat it by accident.

    Oftentimes, when we work with band saws or circular saws or miter saws late into the night, we lose limbs. No worries though, they’ll regrow. But now and again, there’s a moment of doubt when we scratch a ghost itch where our webbed toes should be and think, Are you actually gonna grow back? Are you? But they always do, they must, and that’s why when we lose our second l, we’re sure being an axo is just a phase.

    The company’s productivity slows. We’re missing limbs, after all. But we’ll bounce back, we tell our boss. We promise. He replaces our escargot anyway with bitter melon and ghost peppers, which makes us gassy. What a dick! Our bellies bloat like pufferfish, and soon out pops another letter and we become Axs. 

    Lose enough letters though, and what even are we? We never stop building submarines and fauna traps and electro-acoustic transducers, and the accumulated loss of so much makes our work feel itty-bitty. In a bad way. We ask our clam boss, Why do you need so much from us to probe deeper into the trenches? He says X marks the spot, which means eat shit, which means he takes another letter away from us, and with everything stripped away, we become primal things that dream and don’t give a damn and finally, we demand we get what we want:

    A

    ________

    Jennifer Lai has recent work in Atlas and Alice, Bureau of Complaint, MoonPark Review, and elsewhere.

    Nathan Xie is a recipient of One Story‘s 2023 Adina Talve-Goodman fellowship and a Periplus Collective fellowship. His writing can be found at nathan-xie.com.

    This is their first collaborative piece.

  • Legs by Valentine Sargent

    We wear short shorts because it’s hot. We get write ups at high school, more Cassie than me. She has a bigger butt, bigger thighs. Along a road outlined with orange trees, we walk home with dress code slips in our back pockets. We’re thankful our parents scoff and throw them away. 

    As we walk, our conversations are interrupted with honks, whistles, men screaming for some “sugar, baby” out their windows. We’ve learned to add them to the background. We tried yelling back, but they move so fast in their noisy cars that they don’t hear us anyway. And it doesn’t stop. The worst is when we see a group of them come our way. That’s when the nasty things they say are closer. Sometimes they don’t say anything but “accidentally” grab a feel. This is what happens when two men saunter toward us. 

    One knocks himself against Cassie and grabs her butt, Oh my bad sweetheart. Smile on his face. Cassie turns bright red. She unhooks her right leg out of its socket and throws the twenty-pound limb at him. Her meaty thigh slaps the back of his head so hard we hear a clap before he drops to the cement. She’s about to remove her left leg and she is so angry I know she doesn’t care that she’ll fall, so before she can, I unhook my left leg and use it like a bat to drive my sneaker into the other guy’s stomach. 

    We hobble and help each other put our legs back in. We pull oranges as we run away, their green stems hitting our knuckles. We break the skin with our fingernails, throwing the peels toward the dirt. We laugh as the sweet juice drips down our chins. 

    ________

    Valentine Sargent is originally from the desert, surrounded by saguaros. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Chatham University. Her work has been published in Porter House Review and Honeyguide Literary Magazine. Valentine loves board games, fruit, and sitting under trees. You can follow her on Twitter @valentinesarg28.

  • Two for Borges by Adrian Dallas Frandle

    La Carta

    I wrote Borges a letter as long as his life. It was really a postcard and only as large as mine. It confined its story to the size of a stamp, so that it could mail itself through time. On the miniature postcard, a lion. On the more miniature stamp, an image of a face (neither his nor mine), as if on a coin. On the other side of the coin, the side we can’t see: The Labyrinth. At the center of The Labyrinth is the Post Office, where everything arrives. The Postmaster is asleep on a heap of yarn. A minotaur knits beneath his pillow, which is a rhombus roughly the size of a postage stamp. If one shines the coin with some spit and squints, the face of the Postmaster appears embroidered on the pillow he sleeps on. It looks like me when I’m older, or like a younger Borges. The lips on the pillow are moving, but there is no sound. The minotaur’s ears are plugged with cotton. Flip the coin and the face has changed. The Postmaster awakens and works only when I sleep. He stamps the letter, then steeps it in tea. After he is done drinking, he nods back off to dream. The face on his pillow grew younger. Borges receives the letter 39 years before he steps into the river.

    As A Young Borges Myself

    I am writing the book of my life that must be longer than my actual life. That is, there ought to be more pages than there are minutes for me on this planet. I persist on trying to get out ahead of myself. As in, the pen is longer than its reach, practically locomotive. Progress as distance is immeasurable — the only yardstick being the arm attached to the hand taking measure. We’ll measure in hands, then. Like horses. Or cubits. It should not matter so long as the units are biological. A hair’s length. Within earshot. By the skin of my teeth. But these are all relative, and there exist no reference points for comparison to the end. I am trying to write so that when I get there it will feel like a rest. The terminus should make the journey feel welcome. The means should embrace the sentence. Its scarf should billow behind it on the platform as the train pulls away from the station. I am kissing the pen.

    ________

    Adrian Dallas Frandle (they/he) is a queer fish who writes poems to and for the world about its future. They are Poetry Acquisitions Editor for Variant Lit Mag/Press & an Associate Poetry Editor for Pidgeonholes. His chapbook “Book of Extraction: Poems with Teeth” is out now with Kith Books. Find their work online at adriandallas.com 

  • we watch a depressing climate change documentary and i begin to dream of tables every time i sleep beside you by Alyson Mosquera Dutemple

    night one

    i am sinking brandy into the chest of father christmas in a mirrored field station searching for truth/ and he is singing fight songs on the coffee table, offering me decanters of frothy lies made from good tasting soap and cinnamon/ he tells me he dreams of being in the rockettes, but he is running late/ then he swallows me into the darkness of his eyetooth cavity/ and i think this means more than just the north pole is dying

    night two

    i am six years old and standing on a pool table while seven radioactive lab assistants poke me in the kneecaps with billiard cues/ after formal introductions, they tell me human flesh is a delicacy in the briar patch/ and i am buttoned into my catholic school uniform with shoelaces that won’t stay tied/ and i think this means you are no longer my emergency contact

    night three

    i am pretending to sleep in a trench coat under the kitchen table in my grandmother’s house/ and you are married so i cannot see your face/ although your breath smells of footprints and there is a camera ticking in your pocket/ and i can see us through the eyes of the wallpaper daisies as the basement waters rise/ and i think this means we are not long for this world

    ________

    Alyson Mosquera Dutemple’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Passages North, DIAGRAM, Lunch Ticket, and Wigleaf, among others, and her short story manuscript was a runner-up for the 2022 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She works as an editorial consultant and creative writing instructor in New Jersey and holds an MFA from The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Find her on Twitter @swellspoken and at www.alysondutemple.com.

  • Two by Nicole Callihan

    The Bird

    Here is a yellow circle with a single black dot in the middle. Here is an orange V which protrudes from the circumference of the circle. These markings are on paper and are meant to indicate the head of a bird. This paper also contains shades of blue (scapulars) and pink (tail feathers). If I wanted to say something terribly intimate, reveal some ancient hurt or desire, reckon with the body’s inflictions or (don’t say it!) the soul’s obtuse convictions, I might do so in the middle of what looks like a paragraph describing an abstract bird, and I might call that paragraph a poem, and I would call that “poem” “The Bird.” Perhaps I would “send” the “poem” out. (As if on a wing! As if in a mailbox!) The editors might immediately decline me. I mean, it—the editors might immediately decline “The Bird” which has at its heart either deep forgiveness or deep refusal to forgive, and in which I have stripped off my clothes and arranged my body just so, in a way that owed to lighting or framing, divulges neither scar nor age. Or perhaps one editor would forward to another, leaving “The Bird” forever In Progress. Allowing too, that the editors may simply leave me Received. Have I been Received? Has “The Bird” been Received? What is it to Receive? And what to Give? How much More of Myself can I Offer? Why is this Room so Cold? Where did Mother Go? What Even is Love? What if Spring Comes and we don’t Recognize it as Such? Notice too, the orange squiggles meant to represent the bird’s legs. And look! Nary a Stem to Light On.

    Art

    Which is better: flesh or stone? A beak or a mask of stars? A jar with its lid screwed tight or the juice of fireflies smeared on the wall? Thirty-five years ago, when my mother married her third husband, she made me wear a terrible red dress. Shoulder pads, a little rope belt. Had I thought to hang myself with it? Just a passing thought. Everything, a passing thought. Then, the reception. A beautiful crystal swan dripping, melting. Me a puddle. My father had dropped me off. Didn’t have the gas money, was at least a thousand miles away. If the museum is closed, you can just walk down to the grave. What is the opposite of art? Google says: openness, sincerity, inability, livelihood, woodenness, holiday, revelry, ham-fistedness, grind, craft, hate, gig, gaiety; says, almost everything is opposite of art. Art as its own antonym. Is this art? I tell R she sounds too pedantic at the end of her poem. Why doesn’t she tell me to fuck off? End with a shard, I say, a milktooth, getting stuck on a tilt-a-whirl, feeding an old woman applesauce from a plastic spoon. If the world was covered in tiger lilies, there’d be no room for my computer.

    ________

    Nicole Callihan’s This Strange Garment will be published by Terrapin Books in 2023. Her other books include SuperLoop and the poetry chapbooks: The Deeply Flawed HumanDowntown, and ELSEWHERE (with Zoë Ryder White), as well as the novella, The Couples. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, Conduit, The American Poetry Review, and as a Poem-a-Day selection from the Academy of American Poets. Find out more at www.nicolecallihan.com.

  • Red Riding Hood in the Court of Law by Avra Margariti

    (Scarecrow jurors made from twigs and grass; homunculi witnesses molded out of forest loam. Red Riding Hood, dwarfed like a shrub among pines, defendant without attorney. Behind the bench, stomach distended, skin rippling, the wolf in a judge’s robes, the judge’s flesh between his teeth.)

    Tell me, Red—

    Didn’t you wear a scarlet cape when you met me—that is to say, the wolf? A beacon amid the dull, dark firs and ferns, the color flashier than a vixen’s foxfire coat?

    Didn’t you Tweet from your main account about the romantic appeal of monsters? A rhetorical question, for haven’t I the printed proof right here?

    Didn’t you post that polarizing 55k fanfiction on your blog about—what was it? Ah—consensual non-consent? Full of oxymorons, aren’t you?

    Didn’t you find a long teratoma patch on your body: hair and teeth emerging like a wolfing, a mutant flower in bloom? Didn’t you try to hide it under turtlenecks and makeup? Dear, have you always been this bad at denial?

    Did I—that is to say, the wolf—find you, stalk you, chase you, or did you call out to him, a matador’s cape enthralling, ensnaring the beast?

    Didn’t you label yourself a lesbian, but lusted after that boy in the werewolf mask last Halloween? You say you wanted to be him? But did you procure any proof of that in my court of law?

    Didn’t you acquire a taste for blood, poking at your sore gums, the growing aches of wisdom teeth? And what about the small bones in your jewelry box? Did you find them buried in the garden, the owl’s pellet, meat-dressed and gathering flies on the side of the road? Or did you pare bones out of bodies yourself?

    (Scarecrow guts flying every which way, homunculi melting under a yellow-eyed glare. Red Riding Hood breathing wildly, claws and teeth bared. And the wolf so very tall still behind his bench, carrying so many meals inside him—grandmothers, hunters, judges—so many tongues with which to lie and deceive.)

    Really, Red—

    are you that different from the wolf—that is to say, from me?

    ________

    Avra Margariti is a queer author and poet from Greece. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Baffling Magazine, Wigleaf, Best Microfiction, and Best Small Fictions. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).

  • All Souls’ Day at St Pat’s by Roberta Beary

    Éamonn waits for me in the last pew. The scent of Marlboros clings to his black leather jacket.

    His green eyes plead a promise he can’t make.

    I’ll go straight to hell if I so much as kiss you, Éamonn. Have you forgotten your seminary vows? 

    Hell’s not so bad, Éamonn says, pulling me into his arms. St. Pat looks down from the altar. His painted face shows no mercy. 

    That night, I wash the blood from my panties in the basement when everyone else is dead to the world.

    ***

    I’m three months gone. We agree to meet at our special place. Éamonn’s jacket is in the last pew. My fingers find the promised pills in the inside pocket. I swallow them whole. Suddenly, there’s a commotion in the choir loft. A swarm of medics races up the stairs. Comes down with a body hidden under a white sheet. A policeman asks if I’m waiting for someone.

    At the morgue I give him one last kiss.

    They say you’re going to hell, Éamonn. A judgment on us both. 

    That nightI wake with blood between my legs. While everyone else is dead to the world, I flush the clotted mess down the basement toilet.

    ***

    Any other sins, the priest asks. I think of how it’s legal now. How old he or she would be. What color eyes. 

    None, Father

    The priest’s gnarled fingers make the sign of the cross.

    I kneel in the pew and recite the penitent’s prayer. Hell’s not so bad, Éamonn says, pulling me into his arms. I rest my head on his shoulder. You’re not real, I whisper. St. Pat looks down from the altar. His painted face shows no mercy. 

    Outside is a mist of light rain. I unlock my VW. A jacket is draped across the empty passenger seat. I press its leather against my face. Search for the Marlboro smell of him. And inhale.

    ________

    Roberta Beary grew up in Queens, New York and identifies as gender-fluid. Honors: 1st Prize (Poetry) 2022 Bridport Prize, Best Microfiction 2019 & 2021, Best Small Fictions 2020 & 2022. Their work is featured in The New York Times, Rattle Magazine, Atticus Review and other publications. A trauma survivor, they divide their time between USA and Ireland.

  • A Word of Advice for Those Entering The Library Profession by Corey Farrenkopf

    You’ll find there is nothing more terrifying than feeling Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown in the bookdrop. The cover’s cutaway allows a tuft of hair to protrude from within. Your fingers will graze the animal hide and your mind will go to what animals could be dead inside the covered box. Mouse? Squirrel? Ermine? River Otter? Beaver? You’ll recoil, stare at your hand as if you’re Lady Macbeth and something has irrevocably stained your palm. Is there a smell? Shouldn’t there be a smell if something’s decaying in the heap of books? You’ll sniff. You’ll be confused. Then you’ll remove the spring-loaded cart, only to realize someone in the design department at Harpers is an asshole who doesn’t consider the aged hearts of librarians. I’ve lost two coworkers to Little Fur Family. Google it. The leading cause of death in our profession is the sudden shock of the soft pelt where no soft pelt should be. Too many obituaries contain the cursed book. Too many lives have been lost in the service of tactile education. When Miss Agatha, your childhood librarian, has her viewing hour at Doan, Beal, and Ames, you’ll know what landed her in that coffin.

    You’re young and have been warned, but someday, you too will be the same age as Miss Agatha and Little Fur Family will still be in print.

    It is a classic.

    It is eternal.

    Little Fur Family comes for us all.

    You are no exception.

    ________

    Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. He is the fiction editor for The Cape Cod Poetry Review. His work has been published in The Southwest Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Uncharted, Wigleaf, The Florida Review, Tiny Nightmares, and elsewhere. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com

  • Embers by Réka Nyitrai

    When Dora is asleep, she sees hummingbirds hovering behind her eyelids. When she awakens, Dora spends her days sitting in an old chair placed in front of the window. She mostly watches the clouds and reads magazines. Sometimes, she tries to imagine how she would look with feathers, a long beak and fast-moving wings. Sometimes, she hums sad, old songs; songs that she learnt from her late grandmother. Sometimes, she thinks about starting a new life, somewhere in a faraway country, where she knows no one. Most often, when she looks into the mirror she sees a tiny bird perched on a bare branch. Even through the glass she can feel the beat of the bird’s heart. Its heartbeat on the tip of her fingertips feels as if she is touching embers.

    ________

    Réka Nyitrai is a spell, a sparrow, a lioness’s tongue — a bird nest in a pool of dusk. She is the recipient of a Touchstone Distinguished Books Award for 2020 for her debut haiku volume “While Dreaming Your Dreams” (Valencia Spain: Mono Ya Mono Books, 2020). Her prose poems have appeared in Otoliths, Unbroken Journal, Pithead Chapel, Heliosparrow Poetry Journal,  NOON: journal of the short poem, Obliterat Journal, and others. 

  • Bruxism by Aileen O’Dowd

    When I wake up, my central incisor is a rhinoceros. My lip gets hooked on its horn. My husband says, what now? My dentist says, rhinoceros? My tooth is a mammal, I say. My fork is redundant. My canine is a canary. It sings, how do you do? A feather tickles my nose and I sneeze. Bless you, my dentist says. Thank you, my molar says—it is now a giraffe. My dentist blows an X-ray up on the screen: This is a tooth menagerie! He laughs. I am trying to contain the canary. No menagerie, I say, without moving my lips. This is a zoo. A camel wiggles its hump. Your teeth, the dentist says, are out of line. He puts on his glasses and points with his flashlight. The rhino runs over my tongue. Bruxism, the dentist says. What-now? my husband says. Do something! I say. I’m sorry, says the dentist. His eyes dart around like mice. You’ve gone too far. You chiseled your teeth into non-teeth. He crumples my blue paper bib. My department, the dentist says, is teeth. He points to the door. A dental hygienist appears. She holds my bill in her mouth. A giant mouth of veneers. Now that is a beautiful smile, says my husband. And it is. Her teeth, so straight and obedient and white. Causing no trouble at all. So shiny and dead.

    ________

    Aileen O’Dowd lives in Toronto. Her writing has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Peach Mag, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere.

  • Unimagined Delicacy by Lyndsie Manusos

    He picks up dirt with one arm. And then another. The suckers on each limb grab at the dirt, and he throws it in waves behind him. There is Miracle Grow in this soil, he sees by the specks of white and the over-earthy scent. It makes his skin itch. His arms are red at the tips, the suckers are swollen. But still, he must dig.

    It is a shallow grave, not quite six feet, as he’d read it should be. He’d never dug a grave before, you see. He was supposed to be somewhere in the Caribbean at this point, stretching his new limbs in clear, warm water. He was supposed to change color depending on his mood, or whether he was in danger. Yes, he might’ve even been some other creature’s meal by now. But still, that was where he preferred to be. Not here, not digging this hole. 

    The body beside him smells. The circular bruises on the corpse are purple, like rings of red wine on a white tablecloth. Or rings of experimental chemicals on a surgical table. The blood on the skin has already turned brown, like the rings of cold coffee on the ad he’d found in the newspaper: Looking for Test Subjects—Become One with Nature! 

    With one arm, he shifts his spectacles on what is left of his nose, clicks the beak of his mouth. It’s too dry here in Tucson; He’ll need to find the nearest ocean. Where was that? Google would know. As he pats the sides of the grave flat, another arm reaches out, taps the password into his smartphone, which lays on the patio table of the fenced-in garden. The doctor sure knew how to cultivate begonias. The red, white, and pink blooms overflow the backyard. 

    He chooses the quickest route, avoiding toll roads. He’ll need a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and a large coat. He hopes the doctor had one in his closet somewhere, for ski trips perhaps. He seemed like the skiing type. Then he winces, thinking of the doctor’s smile.

    *

    “We did it!” Dr. Mitchell said.

    “But thisss isn’t what I want-t-t,” he said. It was hard to talk with the beak. And it only got harder.

    “Close enough, right?” Dr. Mitchell said, shrugging. “With more time, I bet the transformation will speed up.”

    “No, no, no,” he moaned. “This isn’t right at all.” 

    “It’s all right, Jeffrey. Really it is.”

    Had he cried? He had, and the tears stung his tender flesh. His panic seemed to encompass him. Even now, the memory of the disappointment brought tears to his eyes. He was supposed to be in the Caribbean. He was supposed to be crawling away from it all.

    Then Dr. Mitchell hugged him, laughing into his shoulder.

    “See, you can hug better now,” Dr. Mitchell said. “Oh Jeffrey, the world will know our names.”

    So, he hugged him back. He wrapped him in his arms.

    *

    Now, Jeffrey scoops up Dr. Mitchell’s body with an arm. Then another. And another. It’s not so heavy with three. His beak clicks because he had no more lips to whimper. His spectacles slip, and another arm sucks onto one lens to adjust, leaving a ring of mucus in its wake.

    He places the body and fills the hole with soil in a fluid motion, seven arms working in tandem. 

    According to Google, the closest ocean beach is Puerto Peñasco, in the Mexican state of Sonora. A four-hour drive. There, he’d begin his destiny. And perhaps, by then, he would look as he was supposed to. Soft-bodied and beautiful.

    The eighth arm presses Start.

    ________

    Lyndsie Manusos’s work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and other publications. She lives in Indianapolis with her family and writes for Book Riot and Publishers Weekly

  • Haunted Love
    Art by Hannah Sanders

    <3 My Boyfriend by Nancy Huang <3

    <3 The Seeds That They Bury, the Fields That They Reap by Mike McClelland <3

    <3 Carmen and I by Melissa Boberg <3

    <3 The Strangler’s Hotel by KC Mead-Brewer <3

    <3 Pillow Talk by DW McKinney <3

    <3 In the Garden with the God by Adelina Sarkisyan <3

  • My Boyfriend by Nancy Huang

    My boyfriend makes things easy. My boyfriend loves my cat. My boyfriend once chewed through a whole jawbreaker. My boyfriend smells like pine. My boyfriend dyed his hair violet blue. My boyfriend can’t play guitar. Once when he was younger my boyfriend got so angry about something that he cracked his head through a wood table and they sent him away to a specialized practice. My boyfriend likes fucking in cars. My boyfriend drinks strawberry milk. My boyfriend hates pickles. My boyfriend calls me gingersnap. My boyfriend went on a four-hour hike in the mineral-soaked earth and came back hungry so I made him tortellini soup. My boyfriend is an expert at fingering me. My boyfriend calls himself a big silly man. My boyfriend eats tofu. My boyfriend makes grocery lists so I don’t forget what we need. My boyfriend loves lemon poppyseed. My boyfriend is tough, likes to fight. My boyfriend threw a plate at the wall during one of his episodes. My boyfriend takes criticism badly. My boyfriend always forgives me. My boyfriend collects old keys. Sometimes my boyfriend gets sad and calls me. My boyfriend stood on a bridge and called me. My boyfriend is a good climber. My boyfriend climbed to the edge, looked at the clean water below, and said he had to tell me something. My boyfriend wanted to know if pain was slaughtering me every night. My boyfriend asked if it was possible to never feel it again, wouldn’t I do whatever it took? My boyfriend’s funeral was sparse. My boyfriend’s mother was crying. My boyfriend, before he jumped, broke up with me. My boyfriend hung up and didn’t answer his phone. My boyfriend was missing for three days. My boyfriend can’t swim. My boyfriend appeared in the kitchen while I was making hash browns a week later. My boyfriend said he wanted to set me free but hell is boring as fuck so he guesses he’ll just stay with me. My boyfriend watches me eat from the other end of the table. My boyfriend doesn’t say much. My boyfriend always lingers long. My boyfriend makes me shiver. My boyfriend is in every room I am in. My boyfriend puts his head on my lap when I sit on the couch. His skin is cold. He says hello. 

    ________

    Nancy Huang (she/they) grew up in America and China. Her poetry, plays, and prose have been published by The Offingpoets.org, The Margins, and A24. Her debut collection, Favorite Daughter, was published by Write Bloody Publishing (2017). She has an MFA from NYU. She works in a cemetery.

  • The Seeds That We Bury, the Fields That They Reap by Mike McClelland

    “How many bones can you fit into a hole full of oil?” Ben asks.
    “Keep going until see you white,” I tell him.
    Ben’s wheelbarrowing bones into oil pits and I’m seven poles into building a fence.
    They came here–they came back–for meat and blood. And oil. 
    “Oil sends them into a frenzy,” I holler to Ben. “They’ll swallow it all before they know what’s in there.”
    They can’t digest bone. They suck a man down, snake-like, and hork out his skeleton. Too many bones, they choke. 
    So we’re going to choke ‘em up and fence ‘em in.
    “Freddy,” Ben says, and I spin.
    His mouth. On mine. 
    These days, the first one you kiss is usually the last. 
    I’m glad it’s him.

    ________

    Like Sharon Stone and the zipper, Dr. Mike McClelland is originally from Meadville, Pennsylvania. He, also like Sharon Stone and the zipper, is intricately beautiful in close-up and alarmingly symmetrical from a distance. Mike has lived on five different continents but now resides in eastern Illinois with his husband, two sons, and a menagerie of rescue dogs. He teaches creative writing at Eastern Illinois University. Find him online at magicmikewrites.com.

  • Carmen and I by Melissa Boberg

    Carmen and I used to do this thing where we’d wish for body dysmorphia. We thought we looked like monsters. We wished for it all the time. Being alive survived on the same pulse as wishing our eyes were rogue maniacs, shapeshifting our torsos and thighs. That’s how cellular it was. Sometimes I felt like she was my sister. We mapped our family lineage in the DSM-5. Chronic thoughts about one’s own body, especially a hyper-fixated attention to specific areas. It felt nice to be known. We said thank God. Our heads, not waistlines, were the problem. We reveled like cherubs in that peace. I said to her once that she was thin enough. She asked me what the hell did I know? We rolled blunts on the spine of the DSM-5. We peeled off the library sticker. Her bedroom filled with smoke. She went up in a hazy cloud of grays and blues. So I didn’t lose sight of her, I waved my hands through it. We were wistful, cinematic sighs. We were all flesh: perfumey, porous, chafed. We lay against the carpet. I try to picture us in my head like that all the time, but all I can get is the room. It’s hard to imagine two girls without knowing what their stomachs look like.

    We used to drink so much we missed entire days. The radio hosts always pissed us off. We started easy. We paced a few glasses until they were bottles until they were shattered and we were cursing out the hotline callers, bottlenecking with annoyance, finally erupting into directionless arrows of rage like:

    I don’t know how I’ll make rent! I’m glad my middle school principal died!

    How am I still single? I hope all the Rockettes go to hell!

    For years Carmen swore that one night I had yelled: Fuck the 9/11 firefighters! She would be all how could you say that? That was so bad when you said that. I never believed her. I knew I never said that. My theory is that she said it and tried to trick me to save herself. She was always telling me my memory was shot. We agreed we’d find out once and for all after we died, since the culprit would obviously rot in hell.

    Usually we’d talk about God when we were coming to, because while my head was in the toilet I’d simultaneously introduce myself to him and beg for mercy and Carmen would talk about how if she were God, she’d get rid of hangovers, because if God really loved us then what was up with all the punishment? I’d be like, when people say God loves us, I don’t think they’re talking about, like, me and you, but Carmen never bought into all that. Her thing was: any big ‘us’ is just thousands of little ‘us’es. It was relative nonsense to me but what was I going to say? I was a snake around a porcelain bowl. My hair was long and dead-ended and stuck to my lip. From the kitchen, the radio hosts flirted with each other and told their callers that even infidelity could be mended by floral arrangements and Carmen poured microwave-hot milk into mugs.

    Carmen was always talking about ways things would be different if she were God. For one thing, we’d be thinner, and for another, there just wouldn’t be all of these rules. Buildings could just rip themselves from the ground, whenever they felt like it, she’d say. They could always stay planted if they wanted to, but, it wouldn’t have to be all, like, physically impossible for them to move themselves. My stance was that buildings weren’t all that sentimental, but to Carmen that was just another rule to get rid of, and plus everything had feelings.

    You’re going to tell me when you go into the bathroom after Sammy uses it, the toilet isn’t pissed off? she would say. I would laugh. I always laughed and we didn’t even have to be drunk, I swear, I would’ve enjoyed her even if we were sober.

    One by one by everything, pieces of my furniture started disappearing. Carmen had just moved away and I called to accuse her of playing a prank. She picked up to accuse me of being a lost cause. I hung up to accuse God of making mistakes on me.

    Carmen told Sammy everything. Sammy told Carmen it was a good thing she belonged to him. My couch was missing. I thought my brain might leak out from my ears. I still wore lipstick. Carmen still made the trip to see me. She cleaned the bathtub and washed my bedsheets. She made it easy enough to ignore that everything was lost.

    In the empty house, she accused me of living like a ghost. I accused her of every crime I could think of. Betrayal, boy-craziness, kissing up to God, he can see right through that, you know. We called a truce. I tried to show her I was living like a person. All she had to do was come around and I was bulging out of my chest, scraping dust off of my tongue, revived like a La-Z boy recliner auctioned out of a dead man’s storage unit. Ha ha ha yeah whatever my sentience is in all likelihood fake, I’m here so you can sit on me, please.

    It’s hard to blame Carmen: my house sweltered and was devoid of furniture and plus Sammy was in love with her. A woman and a loved woman are like two different species. Loved women always forget what it was like before. She stopped coming around. I forgave her for forgetting. I was forgetting things, too. My vision petered into distant, vaguely colored little triangles. All artifacts splashed out into the abstract. The walls caved like hot clay. I remembered the outline of Carmen’s legs. I sculpted them in the air with my palms. I had no place to go. It’s getting close, I would think. Thank God it’s happening here, I would think. My windows became contortionists. Glass spiraled into puddles. Not over at Carmen’s. I would wonder: Where does she even live?

    I would wonder why God picked me. I would wonder if Carmen had coaxed God against picking her. She was always just so fucking good at talking. I would wonder if she thought Sammy was like her savior. I would wonder what kissing him was like.

    My fingers were my best sense left. They combed the grounds of my stomach: it was round, soft, rippled. I could imagine I was batter. I was dough. So much for intelligent design, I told God. He and I had the fraught kind of relationship where I always hoped he’d prove me wrong. I mean, you at least sort of knew what you were doing, right? Evidently he didn’t think he had anything to prove.

    I actually got Carmen on the phone and I actually thought we were laughing in gradients of greens and oranges, twisting and tangling like strands of DNA. I said Fuck that stupid guy you’re with!

    I may as well have swung a golf club at her teeth. I’m just doing the blame thing, I said, like, the fun thing.

    You always take that game way too far, she told me. I mean, like, Jesus Christ.

    All I did was drink and call. My blood cracked through my skin. She was hardly picking up anymore but she did sometimes and that made it impossible to stop calling, even though she asked me, like, several times, whether or not I was ever going to learn my lesson. I was like I mean, at this point, probably not but by the time I would take a pause and wait for her response I wouldn’t even be at the phone anymore.

    Carmen acts like God: all unresponsive and modest. With everything gone I just wish that God would act like Carmen, too, maybe just relax the rules a bit, maybe just let buildings fly away when they feel like it. Nobody deserves to be stuck inside the faulty architecture somebody else built for them, and here I am, cells gone kamikaze, thumping like a chorus in my stupid empty house.

    When my head is in the toilet I’m like God, if I can’t escape my body, at least just let me keep it. When he doesn’t listen I’m like for real, what is up with all the punishment? When it’s all I can do to lie down and wait for it, I take up a new hobby in screaming at the ceiling. You little….you just wait…one day I’ll get my shaky melted aging sick drunk little hands on you.

    ________

    Melissa Boberg is a writer who recently graduated from Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Her other publications are indexed at www.melissaboberg.com.

  • The Strangler’s Hotel by K.C. Mead-Brewer

    Zoe’s been running this place for years now, and she knows for a fact: there’s nothing sexier than a haunted house. It speaks to your every sense, even your quietest sixth one. She feels the icy little zip of awareness tighten her nipples whenever she steps through the heavy front door. She feels it as she replaces the lightbulbs in the antique sconces bending out of the walls, the old bulbs hot and firm as she takes them in hand. Taper candles stand shamelessly erect all over, fitted smoothly into their brass candelabras, washing the rooms in dreamy glows and plenty of shadows to grope in. Obscenely framed mirrors hang here and there, gossiping at every furtive motion: a woman ducking into a room not her own, a hand tangling into someone else’s hair, wet lips parting for a kiss. The musty rug in the main hall is meant to depict an elaborate menagerie, and maybe that shape there does look a bit like an eagle, but in the wavering shadows the design better resembles a plush tangle of fucking, and—in those rare times when she has the house to herself—it’s one of Zoe’s favorite things to skim her bare feet over its every debauched thread and fiber. The lamps glowing bright, the hushed gasp of a match-strike, the bite of smoke, the candles burning, mirrors licking the walls with their silver patinas, these are the moments when Zoe knows they know: it’s all for them, the house. Every couple who takes a room here, who bites their lips trying to keep quiet (they can’t, the beds groan at even the tiniest movement, Zoe makes sure of it), it’s for the house. This ancient succubus with its grand staircase and rounded entryway, its parquet floors and opaque murderer who’s stalked the lushly wallpapered halls for nigh-on a century now. He’s naught but the shape of a man in a dark window, or out the corner of your eye, yet he sends chills down your back and wets your mouth with the sudden taste of blood, the pressure of his thumbs against your throat (here and gone, here and gone). There’s an elderly couple in the Lily Room tonight, and Zoe knows they’ll be at it like rabbits (the look in the old woman’s eye, the way she licked her paper-thin lips as her boyfriend accepted the heavy metal key). The sex doesn’t have to be good to make the house’s lights flicker, the walls moan, but Zoe lights a special candle (purple and thick) just to be sure. In its flame, she burns a slip of paper (a spell, a secret) and heats a spoonful of something dark and rich as tongue. She swallows it. Oysters; petrichor; salt sea air! She sucks her fingers to make sure the old woman is wet. She strokes the candle to keep her lover hard. She whispers to the strangler’s aching ghost, fuck, have you ever felt so alive?

    ________

    K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Baltimore, MD. Fun fact: her rowhome used to be part of an orphanage in the early 1900s; no child-ghosts have been encountered yet, but one can hope. She is a graduate of Tin House‘s 2018 Winter Workshop for Short Fiction and of the 2018 Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. For more info, visit kcmeadbrewer.com

  • Pillow Talk by DW McKinney

    Delray disembowels the velveteen pillow with sewing shears. Faint screams drift up from the stuffing, rolling like tumbleweeds across the hardwood floor. He dumps the synthetic lumps and shredded fabric into a carryout bag then takes it to Monroe at the A&P. Ancient willows creak their greetings as Delray strides down the dirt-packed road, his eyes hooked into the sun-bleached building ahead. He rubs the back of his fade with a calloused hand when he sees Monroe sitting astride a chair in the shade out front, watching him.

    “I ain’t into this,” Delray says, holding the bag out for the gas station attendant. The wrinkled smiley face printed on the plastic bridges the gap between the two men. Offers a false promise of kindness. Have a nice day! Delray jostles the bag toward Monroe again and a dull shout shakes loose from inside. “Oh god

    The gas station attendant snatches the bag and snorts as he eyeballs its contents. “It’s not what you think,” Monroe says. “I promise it ain’t snuff.” 

    His lips peel back to expose rows of gleaming yellow—an offering of sunny, open-armed benevolence. But Monroe’s downward gaze is the unseen hand clutching a knife. He drops the bag inside the battered cardboard box beside him marked ALTON ROAD PILLOW CLUB. Whimpers and laughter float into the air as Monroe rustles through the box before settling on the proper acquisition. He hands Delray a flattened paisley scatter cushion. 

    “Tear this one up and I’ll have to kick ya ass out the club, ya hear me?” His cracked lips are still peeled back, the knife still poised at its target. Delray nods and turns to go home. He pretends he doesn’t hear Monroe’s last comment striking his back: “When ya bringin’ one of your own to share? It’s time to pay your dues.”

    At home, Delray tosses the paisley cushion on the couch. He wipes the sweat trickling down his forehead and pours a glass of ice water, warily staring at the new pillow while he drinks. Each gulp pushes his resolve deeper into his gut. He never has a choice in the pillows he receives. The Alton Road Pillow Club members are subjected to Monroe’s masochistic whims, silently hoping he accidentally gets it right.

    Delray hadn’t cared for the velveteen pillow that screamed and moaned, but other club members did. Monroe had to pry the pillow out of one member’s hands when, after three weeks, the guy hadn’t returned it to circulation. The first time Delray had placed his head on the velveteen, he’d nearly vomited. He once tried a neckroll, but the incessant chanting—and the greasy tassels—unnerved him. The overstuffed body pillow was filled with a hot rage that surged through its down feathers. So far, Delray’s favorite was the nursing pillow, a blue crescent moon with pastel shapes on its cover. One night, when the moon hung low, Delray had heard a voice singing “Twinkle twinkle little star…. He had curled into a ball and sucked his thumb then.

    When his water glass is empty, Delray finally grabs the paisley pillow. The mix of purples and burnt oranges reminds him of cool autumns tucked in bed. The yellowish browns conjure a bare arm and a swelling stomach he hasn’t touched in some time. He reclines on the couch, tucking the cushion under his head, and waits. A garbage truck doing its rounds roars down the road. When the screeching brakes fade, weeping like a hiccupping ghost takes their place. Then sharp inhales and shuttering breaths gather around Delray’s head. “Why…why…,” a shaking voices asks before fading away.

    Delray rolls to his side and presses his ear deeper into the cushion, letting the whimpers writhe directly into him. His gaze falls across the room and lands on the sliding glass door and his backyard beyond. The grass has grown too high. He should’ve mown it months ago but hasn’t since Melinda died. He nestles into the soft crying and wonders if this was how Melinda felt in the days when she stopped talking and planting gentle kisses on his cheeks. When she laid in the dark for hours, plates of uneaten food scattered around their locked bedroom. When she wouldn’t let Delray in, no matter how long he waited outside the door. When she would finally emerge, thinner and sallow, with a pink crib pillow clutched to her stomach as she shuffled to the backyard. When Delray would tiptoe into the bedroom to change the sweat-damp sheets and—only after the coroner said Melinda had died of broken heart syndrome—he later considered that the sheets had been wet with his wife’s tears.

    Delray leaves the paisley cushion and steps out into the backyard, dim from the setting sun. Gnats flit by as he parts the tall grass. He finds the crib pillow nestled in a dandelion patch. Getting down on all fours, Delray buries his face in the soft fabric. Melinda’s rich lavender scent fills him with pleasure as he rubs his cheek against the pillow. Straining past the chirping crickets and the tired croaks of bullfrogs, beneath the leaves whispering in the trees and the crinkling of grass beneath his body, Delray finally hears the truth. Melinda is never coming back. Neither is their unborn child. It’s just him now. 

    Delray cracks open like a flood spilling from its confines. His tears soak the pillow, down to its fibers, sorrow mingling with the sound of gnats buzzing, of bullfrogs keening, and the wet earth humming with inevitable loss. The pillow will hold it all. And tomorrow, Delray will pick up the crib pillow and share it with the rest of the club. He will pay his dues so that another man will delight in a symphony of grief.

    ________

    DW McKinney is a writer and editor based in Nevada. A 2023 Periplus Fellow, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review of BooksEcotone, The Normal Schoolhex literary, and wigleaf, among others. Her fiction was a finalist in Gigantic Sequins’ 11th Annual Flash Fiction Contest. She is a nonfiction editor for Shenandoah and editor-at-large for Raising Mothers. Say hey at dwmckinney.com.

  • In the Garden with the God by Adelina Sarkisyan

    i. 

    There is no you without me. I’m hiding in the garden but in the middle is his terrifying arm, reaching, and I am deciding where I belong. Finally, I am naked. I remember shame as a gift I was given at birth. Mixed with mother-milk, a strange fruit I peel every day, now, forever. I swallow, say thank you, more. Please. Please? Beneath me, you are building a home. You decide on babies and fields and moons and tasting, a replica of living. I emerge from your grip, slick and imprecise, more animal, more something else. What if I say this is an initiation? In the end I might say I knew it all along.

    ii.

    Where do I enter? Is this where my mouth goes? Such a clumsy way to define desire. Not a girl, but the shape of a girl. The insides taste like jelly. Can I try it again? And again? I am almost real. I almost shiver. What do you imagine when making love? I hear my name echo through him and I can’t sustain the afterlove. I lose some of it. It falls onto the grass, stains the green body red. The animals devour like candy. You look the same as the others. But your insides. Red of devotion. Heart-fruit, spilling over and into and through. Let me in. Open wide. I can fit anywhere now. Oh, I’ve spoiled you. I’ve found you out. Do you hear me, or are you too busy dying?

    iii. 

    The myths warn against looking. How unready I was. Once, I fell in love with a voice, or maybe it was his night moving through my trees. I was initiated by the hand that shone through the opening. Trust grew like black, shiny mold. And the face of love, that terrible god. In every story, I find myself in hell, next to that odd queen. In this version, you still find me and I still die, which means I take your hand. The dream is a contract. Next time, let’s meet in the garden and smell the stars. Next time, I will be allowed to be beautiful. What are you waiting for? Turn around. Open your eyes. Don’t you dare.

    ________

    Adelina Sarkisyan is an Armenian-American writer and editor from Los Angeles. She holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a graduate degree in social work. She was a therapist in a former life. She lives in dreams. Follow her everchanging moods on Twitter @sheisadelina and Instagram @adelinasarkisyan.

  • Two by Evan Nicholls

    THE UNWRITTEN RULE OF THE RED HAT CIVILIZATION

    Yellow clothes.

    LITTLE INFERNO

    Like magic, the magician pulled a fire out of his hat. ‘I’m your little inferno,’ said the brightest thing on earth.

    ________

    Evan Nicholls is a poet and collage artist from Virginia. His chapbook of poems and collages, Holy Smokes, is available from Ghost City Press. Find more of his work at enicholls.com.

  • My Eyeball Says by Remi Recchia

    After Russell Edson

    The ophthalmologist holds my eyeball in his hands, gloved and cradled in
    white latex. My eyeball twitches under the dim lights. It asks politely to be
    rejoined to the rest of my face. The ophthalmologist says, no, I don’t think
    so. You are broken nerve and fried pupil.
    My eyeball says, well, what about your
    Hippocratic Oath?
    The ophthalmologist laughs. He turns to me.

    Some joker, right? He takes my other eyeball, which is silent. He leaves my
    sockets stuffed with cotton.

    ________

    Remi Recchia is a trans poet and essayist from Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a PhD candidate in English-Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. He currently serves as an associate editor for the Cimarron Review and the Reviews Editor for Gasher Journal. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Remi’s work has appeared in World Literature Today, Best New Poets 2021, Columbia Online Journal, Harpur Palate, and Juked, among others. He holds an MFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University. Remi is the author of Quicksand/Stargazing (Cooper Dillon Books, 2021) and Sober (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2022).

  • You Too Can Have a Pass Rate Like Mine by Swati Sudarsan

    Year after year, the kids come to me just as dense as the ones before. They shuffle into their seats, avoiding the desk obscured by a branch that reaches in through the window. I try seating the good kids like a chess board, with the troublemakers squashed in between. When autumn hushes off rain, the kids make puddles of stunts. Ayla only drinks water she collects in cicada shells from the branch. Marvin staples his fingers together. He screams and I tell him, I understand the extremes you’d go to just to feel something. He smiles as he limps to the school nurse, though it’s his finger that’s bleeding. I guess the kids like jokes. I tell them, There once was a student who snorted lines of sour skittle dust and got the whole class hooked. Now she’s an adult with chronic nose bleeds, and when her girlfriend kisses her the blood tastes like sour green apples. The kids laugh so hard they squelch, and for those few minutes they stop giving each other wet willies. 

    Then it’s test week, and the kids are drooling because the class next door has a pizza party. I tell them to be glad they’re not taking their exam in silence. Five years ago, I say, the whole school took tests at the same time and it got so quiet they began to hear their organs gurgling, blood pumping, and the scratch of their thigh skin on their chairs. It was so quiet that when the teacher dropped her pencil, the kids’ eyeballs started vibrating. To this day, they have never stopped hallucinating. The kids gulp in unison, and it sounds like a jawbreaker shattering. For the rest of the year, the kids startle if they can hear themselves breathing. They focus best when the real world keeps churning, and on school-wide test days, we have the custodian play his ukelele while the kids bubble in Scantron sheets. In June, for the first time, no one is held back. Only Marvin has to go to summer school, but that’s because his hand can no longer hold a pencil.

    The next year I get a new set of tottling bodies, just sprouting breasts and acne. The other teachers peek in, only to see kids passing flirty notes and sticking their desks with gum. How embarrassing. Get me mad about something original, I beg them. Whoever does the most creative bad thing will get extra credit and a double lunch pass. Jelica throws a pencil like a spear. Reuben turns his homework into origami. I raise an eyebrow, unprovoked. Matilda locks me out of my classroom. Surat, from another class, is outside and he zip ties me to the door. Love a good conspiracy, I praise. The next day, Sheila crawls into my lap and pees. I almost award her on the spot. At the end of the week, I announce the winner. Nayha, for making me a tomato sandwich that I almost bit into until I realized she had stuffed it with a used pad. Enjoy your two lunches, I tell her. To the rest of the class, I say, Nayha is in charge of punishing anyone who turns in their homework late this year. Week after week, homework comes in on time. At the end of the year, the entire class graduates.

    The next year, another set. The teachers peek in, only to see my kids daydreaming, gazing out the window with droopy eyes. There is some drama when Francine accuses Louise of stealing her candy. I start some of my own. Class, this week we are welcoming a new student, I tell them and point to an empty seat in the front row. Here she is. Charlotte. Stuart raises his hand. Teacher, I don’t see her. I send him to detention, and tell the rest of the class if they have an issue, they can join him. I start the lesson. We are learning about the emotional range of How questions. I ask for an example. The class looks solemnly out the window. What’s that Charlotte? How are you? A fine example. People love to answer it with lies. Who can give me another one? I wait up front, tap my foot. Hesitantly, little Rani raises her hand. How does the ocean say hi? The class turns from the window to Rani. After a pause, Yo-yo answers, It waves. The class laughs. Shy Esmerelda raises her hand. She asks, How does a bee brush its hair? Roberto answers, With a honeycomb. Even bratty Millicent chimes in, How does a cucumber become a pickle? Joia answers, It goes through a jarring experience. I point to Charlotte. What’s that? How do you get through a jarring experience? Bravo Charlotte, for raising the stakes! The entire class looks at me like a headlight, all round, bright eyes. 

    At the end of the year, Principal Higgins pulls me out. My knees feel loose. She says, In five years I have never seen a pass rate like yours. Tell me, Vedha, what did you do? I open my mouth, but it just moves up and down. Which theory is your curriculum? Is it behaviorism? Constructivism? She places words in me. My teeth are dinner plates. Was it something new to the field? Was it Suzuki? Her eyes yellow. You’re winning the teacher of the year award, and we need to know how you did it. Her teeth saw off, and her voice breaks with screeches. I start to pump my legs, first in place, then forwards. A line of saliva drops from her mouth. Come back! I have never seen a pass rate like yours. She sticks her arms out towards me, reaching, reaching. As I run, her nose starts bleeding, and I swear, it smells like sour green apples.

    ________

    Swati Sudarsan was the runner-up of the 2022 So to Speak Contest Issue and is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and she has received support from Tin House, the Kenyon Review, Kweli Journal, and more. Her work can be found in or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Denver Quarterly, Catapult, among others. She lives in Oakland, CA and works as a public health scientist.

  • Yarnidermis by Ruby Rorty

    There is a woman made of yarn and all day she sits and knits. She has already knitted herself and her home and her daughter so now she knits sweaters. It is a good thing the yarn woman runs cold because she is, right now as I write this, wearing ten sweaters and knitting an eleventh. The overall impression is that of a furry, multicolored person with extremely thick skin around their arms and torso: yarnidermis is what I would call it if I were a scientist. 

    The yarn woman is my grandmother but I am not made of yarn. Being made of yarn is a recessive trait. Inside my grandmother, yarn twists in double helices and spools in nuclei. Scientists are always trying to untangle my grandmother. We keep spray bottles in every room to keep them away.

    “Hand me that pair of needles,” says my grandmother. The ones in her hands have charred black smudges from where they’ve sparked because she knits so very fast. I do hand her the needles, but I know what she really meant was “Don’t become a scientist.” I find myself staring guiltily up through the ceiling and to the chemistry set in the corner of my bedroom. 

    I want to say “I would be a nice scientist.” 

    I want to say “I would never unspool you, grandmother made of yarn.” 

    I want to say “Some scientists make things, and never destroy them.” 

    I want to say “I can be a scientist who wears ten sweaters and hands you needles.” 

    But I don’t. Instead, I say, “Would you knit me something? Maybe a purple turtleneck?” and my grandmother smiles a stringy rainbow. She wants me to be yarny like her. Or she feels lonely being the only one. Or she loves knowing that I am warm in a cold world full of scientists. Or possibly she just wants me to have a purple turtleneck.

    The yarn fire crackles. Two needles click faster and faster. Somewhere outside, a yarn hound bays.

    ________

    Ruby Rorty is a writer and researcher in Chicago, IL, where she works as an analyst at the Center for RISC. Her work has appeared in HAD, the Bear Creek Gazette, and Variant Lit, among others, and has been nominated for the Best Microfiction and Best of the Net anthologies, as well as a Pushcart Prize. Ruby tweets @RortyRuby and Instagrams @ruby.rorty.

  • Your Strong, Cold Embrace by D.K. Lawhorn

    People will think this a suicide. I know it for what it really is: an assimilation of the infinite.

    You’re the only reason I signed up to tend that lonely lighthouse on a barren asteroid. I needed to be near you. I hoped proximity would lessen your pull on my soul. But with you so close, I heard your call at all hours, even in my sleep. As if you’d already begun to draw me out toward the core of you. How can anyone be expected to resist the urges you’ve coded into my DNA sequencing?

    It took months for the other two wickies working the rock to get comfortable enough to turn their backs on me. They’re both veterans and have spent more of their lives tending that light than living in the mining stations they were born on. They’ve both seen their fair share of greenhorns lose themselves when faced with you. They once had to put down a newcomer who’d been driven into a murderous rage by your brilliant void. If I ever wanted a chance in joining with you, I had to prove to them that I came here for no other reason than to do the job; that my life’s passion was keeping ships safe on their travels between ports.

    Even once I gained the bare minimum of their trust, I hesitated. It would be a lie for me to say I wasn’t nervous at the thought of answering your summons. Then your loud insistence robbed me of the ability to sleep beyond few minute snatches, and I knew the time had come. If I put you off any longer, my sanity would shatter, just like all the others before me who’d balked at the sight of the finish line. 

    I made my break during after-dinner story time, when we would get piss drunk and weave tales out of whatever incoherent dribble came to our minds. An hour in, I excused myself to the bathroom, and the other wickies gave me a proper ribbing for my weak bladder. The moment I was out of their sight, I ran for the troller we fly out to meet supply carriers because the asteroid’s dock is too small to accommodate real ships. I set a direct course for you and slipped into a voidsuit as the autopilot pushed away from the dock.

    There it is. A wailing emergency signal from the lighthouse fills my helmet. The other wickies finally realized where I’ve gone. But it’s too late for them to do anything except watch. I ejected myself from the troller well past your event horizon. Nothing can keep me from you now. I already feel you stretching my atoms into thin strands. 

    You’re the only eternity I would ever willingly accept. Though I’ll never truly be part of you, I cannot put into words how elated I am to spend the rest of forever enveloped in your strong, cold embrace.

    ________

    D.K. Lawhorn (he/him) has stories that have appeared in Pyre Magazine and Haven Spec, with upcoming pieces in khōréō magazine, ANMLY, and Flame Tree Press’s First Peoples Shared Stories Anthology. He is part of the Tin House Fall Workshop 2022 cohort. A citizen of the Monacan Indian Nation, D.K. lives on his ancestral land in Virginia with his legion of rescue cats. He is studying Native Speculative Literature at Randolph College’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Follow him on Twitter @d_k_lawhorn or visit his website at dklawhorn.com.

  • The Ursulines by Lindsey Pharr

    I walk home alone at night, and I am told that this is a poor decision. I admit that this is true. It is indeed unwise to walk home at night alone at four in the morning in the French Quarter down Chartres Street past the fern-covered wall behind the old Ursuline Convent. 

    But because I walk alone there is no one to ask me why I stop and stare at the old wall, or why I run my hand along its mossy bricks until I reach the locked iron gate that allows the tiniest peek into the convent’s courtyard, and there is no one to say that I am probably tired and maybe a bit tipsy and surely seeing things when a bear shaped shadow appears in one of the convent’s second-story windows. 

    I know that the Ursuline nuns are named for Saint Ursula not because her name means little bear but because she was an eleven-year-old holy virgin martyr who was shot with an arrow or maybe beheaded along with her eleven holy virgin martyr companions and because she is the patron saint of schoolgirls.

    And even if one of the Catholic schoolgirls who once walked the cloistered halls of the Ursuline convent frequently complained that her porridge was too cold or her desk was too tall or that the ruler whacked across her knuckles drew a little too much blood, she still considers herself lucky because sometimes a leather-soft paw would pull her in for a hug when she was good and she would give anything to be hugged like that again and to be called good.  

    The sisterhood encourages diversity. Beneath their identical black robes and leather girdles, beneath their white veiled headdresses, the sisters’ coats range from glossy black to rusty brown to polar white. The sisterhood has modernized and accepts all faiths, but the current Mother Superior, a grizzly in whose powerful jaws only a few teeth remain, whose eyes are slowly turning milky and blue, keeps the oldest faith of all and leads the sisters in chants to the Big Bear in the Sky, to Ursa Major, the Big Dipper. She keeps time on a hand drum with her claws like dull rusty daggers as the bear nuns chant in their deep voices until the stone walls quiver with the bass that rumbles from their furred chests.

    The old Ursuline convent is over three hundred years old. The stone floors have been worn smooth by generations of the shuffling paws of sisters trundling from cave-like dormitories to chapel for their morning prayers. This is the time when they wake from their deep sleep, the bear nuns, and this is why I walk alone at night and stop and wait to see them begin their day as I end mine. The Big Dipper is sinking into the muddy brown river behind me. Any moment now the soles of my feet will feel the nuns’ chant begin. I will wait, just a little while longer, I will wait with my hands wrapped tight around the iron bars of this gate at this time that is neither night nor day in this air that is neither too warm or too cold and I know that everything will be just right.

    ________

    Lindsey Austin Pharr (she/her) lives in a cabin in the woods outside of Asheville, NC. Her work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Bending Genres, Longleaf Review, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @lindsey_a_pharr.

  • Theatricals of Chaos by Olumide Manuel

    In the beginning, God, black and beardless, wrote a poem and titled it I. This is how to know that God loves pronouns, that of all the aevum subjects in the eleven heavens, earths and hells, God takes only the pronouns personal.

    But then a Cyclone raided through the library of God and I, the second poem of God after his own essence, fell. The light cracked, and I became one with jargon and chaos. The background of this (un)becoming played faraway thunderstorms and gentle moist earthquakes spinning along the screams of a pregnant woman. It happened on the seventh day but it is easy to suspect God of an intentional uninvolvedness.

    And here comes the prototype of doomed relationships —on one end stood I, a kingdom of nouns collapsing into itself, and on the other end stood the Cyclone, whose fierce love created the prongs of dilemma, with its mud river of forever promises, and the hard place of an unhealing grief. These two built a town with the debris of themselves, they called it Chaos. When they first copulate, they made the infamous siblings you know as Time.

    Some among you argue that God is the grandchild of time, and not the granddad. This is wrong and not worth debating.

    Soon I left the town of Chaos, hungry for God, searching for God. But God is not a million lightyears away, God is only an hairlength away from the cradle of I’s last daughter, and God’s hand is always in the breastpocket of the second son. I didn’t search well, I would have found God in his backyard.

    In the void that I left in the heart of Cyclone, She became a cruel queen and ruled with a devastating skirt. Her first son, Yesterday, became ruthless and difficult, always with a prank in his backpack. Her second son, Today, lived aimlessly, on pills and liquor, never realizing how princely he looked under the sun of sobriety. Her last daughter, Tomorrow, refused to grow out of the cradle.

    I, on the other end of Chaos, didn’t find God. It was the wild mouth of the galaxy and I had to survive. I traded the last vestige of God’s signature on him to a parliament of owls, and in return I learned the wisdom to sleep under the darkness of graves, nights and teeth, and still witness the next raid of colours and death. At this point, I cried at every hint of sunshine. I felt regrets. I, the villain in every love story, broke the heart of God, then the heart of Cyclone.

    The conflict struck when Yesterday tried to teach Today how to drive a lorry. Today was already drunk, he shouldn’t be behind any wheels, but Yesterday, in his prankster style, insisted they tried it. And soon, Yesterday knocked Tomorrow (she was toddling about) down. They hid her body in a grave, and swear with a bottle of vodka to never tell any being of what happened. But a breeze, maidservant to Cyclone, saw them and she reported to the Queen. She sent for them. They ran away. Tomorrow was their mother’s favorite, and she would kill them. She would avenge her daughter.

    The winds soon caught up with Today, but Yesterday escaped their jets. The trial of Time became a hot topic, that I heard the rumours of the lips of leaves and decided to go and save the second family from the ruins of his absence.

    At the notion of the trial, Cyclone sat in her throne of disturbed waters with a grief so sharp it cut the silence of God in meteors and judgement. Today pleaded not guilty. Today faulted Yesterday. Obviously, the sin of covering murder was heavier than murder, and more terrible now that the body of tomorrow was not found in the grave. Today faulted Yesterday again. It seemed everything wrong with Today had Yesterday’s hand in it.

    But where was the body of Tomorrow? Who could have eaten the god-daughter of the Queen? Tomorrow’s Grave was called into the witness stand, and when it slumbered there. The winds slapped it with a digger and a shovel, it woke up and pleaded not guilty. He had slept, like all graves do, in the mouth of coffin. It was a streak of light penetrating through the backdoor that awoke it. And he found the body gone, and the mouth of the coffin was still locked from the inside. Whoever burgled the grave without shoveling it is more feral than the town of Chaos.

    It was a mystery, but the Queen must pass her judgement, and she will be brutal. And her loneliness and grief will eat her more into a black hole. Every unit of Chaos was scared. Even the distant kingdoms, everyone was afraid of the repercussion. But what saved the world was the entrance of a faint light. He was more of a sigh than a light. He was frail, old as the skeleton of Chaos. He held in his hands a toddler, looking so much like Tomorrow. Except that her eyes are full of happiness and fireflies nested in her wild black hairs. The entrance seized everything, it healed the silence of God back into vapors and mercy.

    It was the Queen who broke the magic. “Who are you?” Her voice, soft, a shadow of her being.

    “It is I,” I said. And everything crumbled into everything. Order greeted Chaos, and the city sank.

    In another dimension, God found a scroll under His cabinet. It was His favorite poem. He read it to himself, dusted it and shelved it back to its place.

    ________

    Olumide Manuel, NGP IX, is a writer, a biology teacher and an environmentalist. He is a nominee of Pushcart Prize, and the winner of Aké Climate Change Poetry Prize 2022. His works have been published on Magma Poetry, Trampset, Uncanny Magazine, Agbowó Magazine, Up The Staircase Quarterly, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere.

  • Impossible Beer by Pedro Ponce

    Jesus arrived. The Lord had come to party. He propped his cross against the coatrack and brushed the snow from his shoulders.

    I was raised to believe, but college had shaken my faith. I reached out to touch his robe. The white was blinding and smelled of cigarette smoke.

    The Lord admonished my impertinence. Hands off the fucking robe, he said. He smiled warmly over the hostility of his words, true to what the Jesuits had taught. He vanished into the keg line, dispensing high fives as he navigated the damp carpet in pristine sandals.

    It was foretold that the party’s first stage would proceed to a second, followed by a third. Already, the nearest revelers formed a wall of smoke and knowing laughter that only the chosen could pierce. I was hopeful that tonight, I would not be condemned to the periphery. After all, I reasoned, Jesus had to return for his cross. But by now, the coats and scarves and fleeces and stocking caps were waist high by where I stood. I prodded the pile with one foot, sifted through the top, felt nothing beneath the musk of shed layers.

    A girl I recognized from Calculus or Art History or Psychology mounted a nearby chair and started dancing to “The Joker.” She moved so gracefully, pivoting coyly in the direction of the party’s center, and I knew that for the rest of my life I would hate the Steve Miller Band. 

     I felt thirsty. In my hand, I found a fresh beer. The pour was perfect, topped by a narrow band of foam. I felt the moist plastic curve against my palm. Someone cleared his throat. Someone else chuckled between coughs.

    My hand was suddenly empty. The room vanished under a dome of beer. At the peak of its trajectory from the ceiling through my hair and sweatshirt to the floor, it paused. I contemplated the party through a translucent bronze canopy. I had been told repeatedly by my professors that the old words no longer meant what I thought they meant, and I would have to find my own.

    So I would call this the Miracle of the Impossible Beer. Beyond the beer was revelation, discernible between the dim silhouettes retreating to the door. My eyes were open. All I needed was to move. 

    ________

    Pedro Ponce is the author of The Devil and the Dairy Princess, winner of the Don Belton Fiction Prize and a finalist for the 2021 Big Other Book Award for Fiction. His short stories and flash fiction have appeared in PloughsharesCopper NickelWitness, and other journals. His work has also been featured in the anthologies New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction and The Best Small Fictions 2019.

  • The Woman We Called Vulture by Jen Julian

    I wish I could tell you, our theory about her is true. She’s still driving around town in that old orange pickup, taking the things that people don’t want. Broken toys, soiled clothes, smashed-up wicker chairs, busted washing machines, stacks and stacks of Reader’s Digest, white with mold. She’ll pick things up from the roadside too, shreds of rubber and abandoned couches and sometimes the rot-baked spines and ribcages of animals, once collectors have already taken the skulls. And she rides with the windows rolled down, singing along to old Cat Stevens tapes—“I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul”—and she’s still so skinny, and her gray hair has gotten so long, down to her butt when it isn’t braided and piled on her head like a beehive. Folks wonder what exactly she does with all that stuff, but you know she lives pretty close to me, right up that hill, and her house is too small to keep much in it, and there’s no shed or barn and nothing in the yard but a bed of sunflowers and some rangy hydrangeas. Some still believe she sells that stuff to thrift stores or scrapyards or recycling centers, and that must be how she makes her living. But no one comes or goes from the house, no one drives that road, just her, and when she rides by, whether coming or going with an empty truck bed or a load of stuff, I always hear her singing with the windows rolled down, even though she isn’t all that loud.

    Last week, on trash day, she saw me hauling your old treadmill to the curb, stopped in the road, asked if I needed help. Together, we loaded the thing onto her truck. I said you weren’t coming back to use it anytime soon, that I hadn’t heard from you in months. I no longer thought that we would stay friends. Vulture looked at me with sleepy eyes, blue-veined lids. “Anything else you want to get rid of?” she asked. “If so, I’ll take it.”

    We spent the afternoon combing the house. I gave her your mugs, your photos, your Jim Croce records, the letters you wrote me while studying in Oaxaca, the coffee table scarred with your cup rings. I gave her your high school yearbooks, your Hollywood shit, those Christmas sweaters you got that light up and play songs, the kappa statuette in the bedroom, whose lucky head you’d worn smooth with your finger. I gave her shirts of mine that you’d stained with wine or nosebleeds or flavored lube, a fork you bent in the garbage disposal, a list you’d once made of children’s names, selecting your favorite for each letter of the alphabet. When we finished, Vulture and I were friends, I think. She told me a story about an old boyfriend who counted every bone he found when he touched her body, and I counted, too, each item we loaded on the pickup. I counted six-hundred and seventy-four. When I rode with her up the hill and helped her unload, I counted six-hundred and seventy-one. I still wonder what I missed.

    In Vulture’s living room—I left everything in her living room—I realized that she did not own a stick of furniture, no art on the walls, no rugs, no houseplants, just a pale space of light fixtures and electrical outlets and doorknobs. “You could stay and watch,” Vulture said, “but only if you want to,” and I decided I didn’t want to. I thought it would be like watching a dog get put down. So, I went out, and I sat on the porch steps and watched the sunflowers trace the end of the day with their faces, the hydrangeas’ heads sinking under their own blue weight. Vulture was doing me a favor, but sometimes really good favors don’t feel as good as they are, and sometimes it’s hard to thank people once they’ve put their finger on your softest parts. But when Vulture reemerged and sighed with satisfaction and stretched her bony arms over her head, the room behind her shone with the lightness of an empty house, and I knew she was telling me we didn’t have to say any more about it.

    ________

    Jen Julian is a Clarion alumna whose recent work has appeared or is upcoming in Third Coast Magazine, Pithead Chapel, wigleaf, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other places. Her debut short story collection, Earthly Delights and Other Apocalypses, came out from Press 53 in 2018. She and her gigantic ginger cat currently live in the remote mountains of North Georgia, where she serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Young Harris College. You can follow her work at jenjulian.com and by way of Twitter @jennicjul.

  • The Messengers by John Chrostek

    The old city district is infested with decommissioned angels. They scutter about on row home walls, a mass of eyes and teeth in search of orderly violence, but there is no longer any voice speaking permission, no grand directive unfurled from on high to justify their urges. As such they are bored and discontent. Some handle this better than the others. The Sword of Spring and Attic Dust work at the community garden. In cultivating the seasonal growth of crops and flowers they find a safe alternative to domination. They are there from dusk till dawn, the sort of people your eyes never meet directly, shuffling about in the periphery. In the agitated ripple of universal law around them the sin of material existence collects like pollen. The Sword of Spring licks it and the soil off their approximated fingers, sating themselves with the hollow, bitter taste, remembering old genocides.

    The Crying One sits on a stone in the park. There is more to cry about than ever but the tears are no longer theirs to release. They paint acrylic landscapes on sheets of cardboard of a great flood cleansing the city and its landmarks. Sometimes they paint tigers. Those are The Crying One’s favorites and they are never for sale.

    Some cannot abide to shuffle through the transient hours imitating humans. They thus become concepts, hints of flickering light or feral, biting laws. They cling to passersby walking against a chill and sudden breeze. A woman might notice fate is suddenly working against her. Her mind lingers on old regrets and actions she cannot make amends for. She does not believe in higher powers, but karma she can sometimes feel with a sensory weight. She is wrong. It is not karma’s pressure on her back but Eye Diver, who craves her penitence and fear. It never learned who must feel the sinking or why. There was no need to explain or improve upon their methods before. It was made for this feeling, is this feeling, and so must do what it does.

    A man is meeting his lover at a new restaurant. They have been dating for weeks, and it is going quite well. He wants to ask his boyfriend to move in with him. He knows that it is sudden, that it might do more harm than good this early in the cycle, but for the first time in years he feels excited for the future. There is something in his partner’s touch, in his casual silhouette moving down the hall towards the bathroom that makes the darkness of night into vibrant color instead of the absence of light. He is willing to court a little danger to be at peace. He is becoming someone different, someone who speaks their needs into the world and has them met, at least in small proportion. His partner sees him across the taqueria as if he were an open fire, transformative and brilliant. The angel Sea of Light, the wind beneath their wings, waits until it hears a tearful ‘yes’ before departing. The lovers sit in the fading afterglow as the quesadillas arrive, each wondering just what they had agreed to.

    Curled up on the uneven bricks of the riverfront, The Slouching Beast craves the taste of sweet momentum. A nearby child plays too close to the guardrails. Like a cat, it cannot abide a thing that teeters too long on the edge without offering a firm and gentle push.

    A human being looks into a mirror. The underlying proportions of their body, the algebra of width and length that governs the relationships of flesh no longer adds up. All at once it has become a foreign thing, a deep hole from which to look up at the world. The Sequence is a kiss on the inside of the mirror glass, it is a hot whisper in the marrow of their bones. It suggests that they restructure, the parts, the body, for the harmony of all, convinced it is itself a complete circle and not a spiral boring deep into the wall.

    Some angels pay rent in the city. One is a garbage man, rising well before dawn to shuffle the refuse of man onto barges and landfill. Several are lawyers. Silver Blessing paints photorealistic murals of children on industrial buildings with teeth too small for their mouths. These murals glow at night, causing frequent motor accidents at a nearby interstate on-ramp, as by design. They have a day job at a clothing boutique. It is adequately priced but has a horrible collection of jeans.

    The angels all believe they remember the voice of their God but none agree on how it sounds. This has given them no reason to doubt. They know what they are. That is their directive, their justification. That is all the meaning that they need.

    ________

    John Chrostek is the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Cold Signal. His work has appeared in XRAY, Coffin Bell, Maudlin House, Scrawl Place and more. He is currently living in Richmond, VA.

  • Two by Brad Liening

    Geese

    Geese invade our homes. They hiss, beat their wings, and shit on everything until we’re driven out into the night. We huddle at the edge of the lake, shivering. The lake is no longer filled with geese; now it is ringed by miserable people. I tell you that love will see us through this consequence of beauty while on the other side of the lake war is declared, or several wars are declared, or this is peace at last. A few bodies bob quietly across the water.

    The International Tchaikovsky Competition

    Sibelius always enters and never wins.

    Hundreds of dogs are tied up outside. They are all waiting patiently for Tchaikovsky.

    Sibelius puts on a Tchaikovsky record and is immediately buried under an avalanche. It was worth it! are his last words. They hover over the white landscape.

    It’s just before dawn. Tchaikovsky’s giant head emerges from the mist over the river.

    Tchaikovsky, seated at his desk, concentrating. He shoos away some airplanes. Sibelius, at the window, envious.

    Because the local hospital is named after Tchaikovsky, all the people who are born there under his name are also born into a vague but heavy burden which they carry, vaguely and heavily, throughout their lives.

    Sibelius dresses in Tchaikovsky’s clothes and lies down in a frozen field. What must it be like to be Tchaikovsky? 

    Tchaikovsky cradles 1000 days in his arms until they turn black. Now they are 1000 nights.

    Sibelius climbs out of a flagon of wine to make room for Tchaikovsky, which is really very nice of him. He didn’t have to do that.

    Tchaikovsky rushes into a burning building. He releases hundreds of household pets, unharmed, before refusing all rewards and rushing into the night.

    On a date, Sibelius spills his beer. Uh oh, he thinks to himself. The dark beer spreads on the white tablecloth until it looks exactly like Tchaikovsky’s face.

    Sibelius sits alone at an all-night diner, sipping coffee and eating fries and thinking of Tchaikovsky. The frozen moon slowly descends until it’s nearly crushing the diner and the few souls inside.

    Tchaikovsky understands the world thinks of him as a great composer but he doesn’t understand why society has to, like, put labels on everyone. Sibelius gets it, though.

    Tchaikovsky smokes a pensive cigarette in an alley and then another. As ever, he remains unaware of the indelible figure he cuts. 

    The evening news has just come on TV. Tchaikovsky waits for local sports. It’s Sibelius, climbing out of a ditch.

    A calm and focused Sibelius twirls a grappling hook, waiting for just the right moment to hurl it over the passing cloud of Tchaikovsky.

    Picking through the rubble of Tchaikovsky, Sibelius reconsiders the infinite and what the world requires of us.

    The competition ends when Sibelius walks onstage and, with a gentle flourish, reveals Tchaikovsky’s brain in a jar.

    ________

    Brad Liening is the author of Deep State Come Shining (Publication Studio Hudson). He lives in Minneapolis and at bradliening.blogspot.com.

  • The Shack by DW McKinney

    The photograph is the last item left in the shack. It hangs from a curved nail in the wall. There were many other nails, but the only evidence of their existence is a series of dark holes patterned along the walls like empty eyes staring, accusing. You ignore their accusations and rip the Polaroid from the wall.

    It crinkles between your calloused fingers. The brittle photograph is a bouquet of stale whispers cracking from your grip. Telling a story that you can never say aloud. The shack, the one you’re standing in now, is the only thing in the photo. Its lopsided shape dominates the foreground. Willow branches edge the shack’s roof. A wreath of hands clawing for attention.

    The photograph bends. Snap. Pop. A whisper gives way. Floating into the air and spilling your secrets for the mockingbirds outside.

    ***

    Granddaddy builds the shack the summer you are two. His hammering in the late afternoons lulls you to sleep. Each smack sweetens your slumber. You don’t know it then, but that sound, the finality of a force hitting home, will be your canary in a cage.

    When he finishes, Granddaddy paints the shack a rose red, top to bottom. Four years later, the rose dies and turns to rust. The color of dried blood. The red splatters on the tin roof and the wooden steps are the scene of a crime.

    There isn’t anything around the shack except a hedge of willow trees and a cotton patch. Lord knows why Granddaddy built the shack among a patch of specters reminding him and everyone else of suffering. The shack is a little crooked. Like a good breeze might knock it over. Maybe a scream. There are no windows. One door. One way in and, maybe, a way out. You aren’t allowed to enter the shack until you are 12. Inside, the walls pierce, puncture, and cut. Nails jut from the walls, holding hacksaws, blades, sickles, and a large pitchfork. Grotesque windchimes hang from the ceiling. All rusted hooks and spikes.

    The first time you enter the shack, it’s so easy to lose yourself staring at the walls that you don’t notice how the shack seems smaller inside than it does out front. Or how your footsteps sound hollow. How it seems like there’s so much more below the floorboards. When Granddaddy moves aside, you see an opening in the floor then stairs descending from it. The stench of sweat and earth, of bodies cramped in a small space, wafts up to you. Then, muffled voices, weary and sluggish and beaten.

    Granddaddy hands you a scythe and says that it’s time to learn how to cut out the worthy and leave the rest to burn. It’s time to learn how to harvest. Righteous judgement lies beneath the floor.

    The curved blade sings the first time you slash it through the air. You spill your own blood the first few times. An accidental tithe. But soon you are steady, a reaper in your own right.

    Granddaddy becomes your eager disciple when you turn 30. He drives more nails in the shack walls. He sharpens your tools. He marvels at how well you pierce, puncture, and cut. How well you break the living in half and separate the dead.

    ***

    That’s not your life anymore.

    The shack will be sold with the rest of the land. The new owner might raze it. They should. They have to. It holds too much history. Too many ghosts.

    You slide the Polaroid into your pocket and leave. The willow trees rustle in the wind overhead, and the mockingbirds call from their branches. Their strange rasps sound like the screams of men.

    ________

    DW McKinney is a writer and editor based in Nevada. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Narratively, Hobart Pulp, Barrelhouse, Mom Egg Review, wigleaf, and Hippocampus Magazine, among others. She is a nonfiction editor for Shenandoah and editor-at-large for Raising Mothers. Say hello at dwmckinney.com or on Twitter @thedwmckinney.

  • Two by Cat Dixon

    When the round-abouts took over 

    Round-abouts reduce collisions and pollution, at least that’s what we were told by the new leaders eager to keep the flow quiet and steady. Palapas are open air, usually round shelters—a tiki hut with a woven palm-tree leaf roof to keep sun rays and bird droppings at bay, but unlike the umbrella, a heavy downpour will get through. I know—how are demonic roundabouts and lazy palapas related? Well, like anything manmade and true, aliens have combined them and created an omniscient cover for every rotunda in town. No sunburns. No more racing through yellow lights. No more excuses. 

    Natalist fairytale 

    Hooray! We survived the shipwreck, the sneaky chloroform attack, ice-skating on the ruptured lake, the point of no return. Is there a trophy to commemorate this? Who knows. The day after the happy ending, we’re still happy. It’s too late to hold the elevator door open, but it’s never too late to reach the heights of human drama. People like to survive, couple up, kiss at sunset, and pump out babies like those babies will never outgrow family time, dinnertime—nine stories of toys plummet to the sea, and all that’s left is bacon, omelets, sandwich shop reward cards, a torn pool table covered in apples, one watermelon, and seedless green grapes. Still recovering from last year’s happy ending, we’re not interested in rebirth—only telling the story we had to tell which has been underrated, undersold, and yet, we continue singing our canticle to the sun, the sea, the unborn. 

    ________

    Cat Dixon (she/her) is the author of Eva and Too Heavy to Carry (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2016, 2014) and the chapbook, Table for Two (Poet’s Haven, 2019). She is a poetry editor at The Good Life Review. Her newest poetry collection What Happens in Nebraska comes out this fall.

  • The Lake of My Youth by Aaron Burch

    When the cloud cover breaks, I am going to jump in the creek. 

    When it stops raining, I’m jumping in.

    I don’t want to already be wet before getting wet, is the thing. 

    Once that cloud cover breaks, as soon as it stops raining and the sun comes out, I’m running straight to that creek, and I’m going to jump in. 

    I’m going to jump in and then when I resurface, I’m going to flail around like I’m swimming. Like I’m celebrating. Like I want everyone to know how much fun I’m having. 

    Everyone will look at me and go, look how much fun he’s having. Look at his exuberance of joy, look at the way he captures such childhood excitement!

    They will remember that excitement of having just learned how to swim, that discovery of how one’s body can move through a previously inaccessible wonder of the world.

    They’ll remember things forgotten. They’ll think thoughts they’ve never thought before. 

    ***

    But the cloud cover never breaks. 

    It never stops raining.

    The sun never comes out. 

    The rain comes down harder. 

    Thunder shakes the ground below. 

    The rain starts coming sideways, starts coming from everywhere all at once, from all angles—falling and shooting and swirling; back up from the ground even, this rain rising upward into the sky, back up toward the clouds, returning to where it came only to reset and do it all over again, which I know is impossible, or knew, before this moment of impossibility.

    ***

    The creek starts flooding. Starts spilling over its banks, little by little and then all at once, water everywhere. The whole grounds, covered with water. 

    The rain keeps coming, harder and harder. The water comes up to our ankles, and then already our calves, our knees. The water level keeps rising but then also it all starts moving—like the ground we’re on is more of an incline than I’d ever realized, or some kind of current or tide or some other unexplained force. The water is at my chest, my neck. I start swimming. 

    ***

    I’ve only just started paddling—giant arcs through the air, one arm and then the other—when I look to my side and see myself on a shore I didn’t know was there, looking up into the sky, looking like a man hoping for the cloud cover to break, for it to stop raining, for the sun to come out so I can go swimming. 

    I take a deep breath and put my head down and swim.

    ***

    When I come up for air again, I see another version of myself standing next to my wife. It looks like we’re in the middle of a fight. We both look familiar, the fight looks familiar. I try to slow down and look closer but it’s already too late. I’m already past it. Past myself. I’m already bearing witness to an even younger looking version of myself yelling at our daughter, already feeling guilty and awful and like a horrible dad and person all over again, just as much so as I remember having felt at the time. 

    I lose track of where I am, forgetting to paddle or kick.

    I take a deep breath but my face is half underwater. I swallow a giant mouthful of water. 

    For a moment, I think I might drown. 

    For another moment, I come to terms with the idea of drowning. I don’t want to die, but if it’s my time, it’s my time. I’m at peace.

    ***

    If your life flashes before your eyes right before you die, what happens if you die while swimming backwards through a time-traveling river of your life?

    ***

    Teaching our daughter how to swim, watching my daughter’s first steps, my daughter’s birth, multiple roadtrips and nights out with my wife before we had our daughter, our wedding, roadtrips with friends before I got married, the first time I got high, my mom’s funeral, my college graduation, college move-in day…

    ***

    What about some random nights of hanging out with buddies? Being a groomsman and partying at one of their weddings? One of those concerts I always talk about as having changed my life? A victorious celebratory sports moment or two? 

    ***

    I’m already all the way back to my childhood.

    Back in the lake where I first learned how to swim. 

    I’m treading water, finally staying still.

    And then, next to me, is the youngest version of myself I remember. Doing the same. Both of us, flailing our arms around in joyous abandon.

    We look at each other and share a look of recognition.

    He splashes me.

    I splash back.

    ________

    Aaron Burch’s first novel, Year of the Buffalo, was just released to huge acclaim and overwhelming praise*. He is the Founding Editor of Hobart (and Co-Founding of its more recent offshoots, HAD and WAS), and recent stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Rejection LettersMenagerie Magazine, Nurture, Complete Sentence, and Schuylkill Valley Journal. (*this bio was written a couple months ago, with acclaim and praise presumed, and with no desire to revisit and correct the record)

  • Susan’s Delivery by Keith Mark Gaboury

    One season after my wife died, Mailwoman Susan delivered a monkey to my home. “Who’s this from, Susan?” “It’s from me. I’m retiring and I want to give you a gift.” “Are you giving everyone you delivered mail to a monkey?” “Only you and my grandfather. He wants to feel like a young spry animal.” “Thank you for the monkey.” “You’re most welcome. What a wonderful day it is.”

    I laughed as Susan trotted away. A December snowstorm howled through our pin-on-a-map town. “I really should have put on a jacket,” I chided to myself. “Or a shirt, pants, and underwear. My feet are quite warm in these wool ski socks.”

    My monkey came in a wood crate. Across the top, the crate declared its timber came from trees felled in the Amazon. I lifted with my knees to carry it under living room glare. Yet when I reached my front steps, I slipped onto an ice sheet like an eucalyptus hacked down in a faraway jungle. As I gaped upon wood shards, a monkey walked like a human in an envelopment of white. I got up and stood naked before this ancestral cousin.

    Wrinkled at my feet, I picked up a note that got tucked inside the crate: “Since your hairy wife died, I became more and more depressed delivering all your sad mail. I’ve trained this monkey to be your new wife.” I collected the timber, tossed it into my fireplace, and sparked a blue-smile fire. The flames French kissed my body as the monkey froze in a storm only getting meaner.

    ________

    Keith Mark Gaboury earned a M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College. His chapbooks were released through Duck Lake Books, The Pedestrian Press, and Finishing Line Press. Keith is also the president of the Berkeley Branch of the California Writers Club. Learn more at keithmgaboury.com.

  • Hex-O-Ween
    Caleb Bethea Cameron Bocanegra Tess Clark Melissa Dittrich Robert Long Foreman Stephanie King J. B. Stone
  • Spider by Robert Long Foreman

    A stranger had made their house a restaurant. We went to eat there.

    I didn’t know the family at my table, but they loved me. I was a mother to the children, wife to a woman.

    We sat at a long table in the living room, wallpaper fraying on the walls. A light fixture hung above our heads.

    The light was dim, the fixture cobwebbed. Hanging in the webs were many corpses of thick-legged spiders.

    One of them moved. All of them moved. What I’d thought were many dead spiders was one the size of a housecat. It was alive. The proprietor of the restaurant house, a strange woman I would never want to see near food, reached up. The spider climbed onto her arm and she carried it to a stairwell I hadn’t seen. The spider leapt off and crawled down.

    I asked the woman where the stairs led. She answered but I couldn’t hear. I tried to ask again, but I was squirming against the sheets, and the tugging of my body pulled me out and away.

    I was sweating through the bed, face streaked with tears.

    I leapt off and tore wet sheets away. No spider there.

    I pictured him climbing down the wall as I sat in my bathtub. I saw myself reaching into the cereal cabinet I can’t look into, as it’s too high up, as he waited in there for my hand to brush against him.

    I turned my apartment upside down. No sign of the spider. No webs, no dead or dying flies.

    I couldn’t stand still. I felt everything on my skin. Crawling. Creeping.

    He was such an awful spider. He was the biggest thing I’d ever seen.

    I went outside. I wore no coat. But no one frowned or shook their head at me, Little Miss Muffet shivering her way somewhere. The sidewalks were empty.

    I went into a diner where I go for breakfast when I’m tired of being alone. I was halfway through a plate of eggs when the spider came through the door.

    He wore a black suit, red shirt, and black fedora. His face was paler than mine and younger, but he moved like he was old. And I wondered if that’s the worst thing about spiders, that they move like they’re so old but none of them are.

    He sat beside me. I knew it was him. He moved the way he’d climbed into the woman’s hand.

    “I looked for you,” I said. “In my apartment.”

    He didn’t answer. He continued facing forward. No one took his order—because of his species, I’m sure. I watched his reflection on the napkin dispenser. His eyes were completely black.

    I said, “I didn’t want to ever see you.”

    I knew he heard me, but he didn’t respond.

    “Why were you at the restaurant? How did you find your way in?”

    He turned on his stool to face me, finally, so slowly, like he almost couldn’t move.

    He pulled a napkin from the dispenser, took a pen from somewhere, and wrote big letters, a pen stroke here, the next there, the meaning of the message accruing across the minutes I watched him work. A patchwork of scratches and dashes arranged with meticulous care appeared on the napkin.

    He leaned back. I read his webbish words.

    I WAS COLD.

    Of course. It had been warm in the light fixture he’d emerged from. The restaurant house was hot as summertime. The fixture must have been the most welcoming thing in the city, to a creature that was drawn to heat.

    When it’s cold out, bugs come in. Snakes and lizards, too.

    I said, “You are so frightening. It’s horrible.”

    He kept watching me.

    I covered my face.

    All I wanted was for someone to come and take the spider away. But no one would ever do that.

    I had to leave and do it slowly. Move like a spider.

    As gradually as I could, I pulled a twenty from my pocket and placed it on the counter.

    It took forever. The spider watched. I couldn’t believe his patience.

    I stood and walked like a glacier to the door.

    When I was outside, I looked back in. I swiveled my head on my neck so slowly, like I was almost not moving at all.

    I saw the spider unfold himself from the stool where he was sitting.

    He started to leave. He went faster than I did. Spiders really move when they want to.

    I took the shortest, most gradual steps, making my way up the street like my joints were rusted. I expected any moment to feel the spider’s legs on my ankle or the back of my neck.

    But I didn’t feel him. All I felt was cold.

    I stopped and turned around at last to see him climbing. With all of his legs he was creeping his way up a wall on his way to a window. It was shut, but he found a crack between bricks and slipped through, legs first, then the rest of him.

    He was looking for warmth again. He would find it in another woman’s bed, in a dream she had that morning of a sweltering attic or an endless pit of fire.

    ________

    Robert Long Foreman’s recent books are WEIRD PIG and I AM HERE TO MAKE FRIENDS. Read more and find out what Rob is really like at robertlongforeman.com.

  • The Ghost Rider’s Horse by J.B. Stone

    The way he rides me like I’m the polar opposite of Pegasus, when he knows we share the same damnation. Our deeds differ. I was sent up here to this land of fire and dark haven because I refused to be rode. Because I refused to be someone else’s vessel. My ghost rider murdered his own brother in cold blood and laughed about it like a joke at a pub somewhere. My wings are made of the same fire he furnaces in his eyes, yet tonight feels different. Tonight, I refuse to stampede through the dusty clouds, decapitating the fresh air, screaming tornadoes into small towns filled with people. Even spirits tire. Even spirits have conscience. My ghost rider wanted this. My ghost rider wanted to do what he does every night: strap the saddle to my skinless back, plant his dark-cloaked ass across the heat-trapping leather, lash his iron whip to my exposed bone, rally his cohorts, yelling like an insurrectionist drunk on the elixir of false patriotism, and war-cry, Tonight, we ride! But I nay, and whinny in a sound loud enough to cast thunder to the nearest forest. I tell him not tonight, and buck his shadowy carcass halfway across the bruised sky, and find a space to call my own. I threw that rider pretty far. By the time he makes his way back, I’ll be long gone: riding my own landscape. Maybe seeing a flower that isn’t slouching. Maybe find a waterfall that is made of actual water and not molten lava. Maybe nuzzle the ghostly rim of where my nose used to be, to an oak tree that knows what loneliness feels like. Or maybe I’ll do what I wish I should have done in the first place: rest. If the universe doesn’t like it, well that just sounds like a personal problem.  

    ________

    J.B. Stone (he/they) is a Neurodivergent/Autistic slam poet, writer, critic. They serve as EIC/Reviews Editor at Variety Pack. He’s the author of three chapbooks, including Fireflies And Hand Grenades (Bottlecap Press 2022). Their work has appeared in Atlas and Alice, Coffin Bell, HAD, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Flashback Fiction, Chicago Review of Books, among other spaces. He tweets @JB_StoneTruth.

  • Butter Dish by Melissa Dittrich

    I knocked over the butter dish while going to spread some on a slice of the bread Mom had just made. I went to grab the broom and sweep up all the broken ceramic and cream, when Tara took the broom handle and a look came over her face that haunted me for a long time.

    I have to go, she said, and opened the door and flew away and that was that. I stood in the doorway with my mouth open like a frog and Mom came in the room and saw the mess.

    She left, I said. Tara flew away. Mom sighed and said, Sometimes that happens. She looked me up and down in my dough-stained apron and T-shirt dress and said, You could do better than Tara. As if that helped. Then she went to the closet and said, Well, she didn’t take our broom did she? When I nodded Mom rolled her eyes, took off her apron and went to the store to buy a new broom. I picked up the pieces of the butter dish with tears streaming down my face and got the kitchen floor all wet.

    That night there was a tap on my window. I opened up the curtain and Tara was there on her broom — well, my broom, but her broom, now.

    Sorry I left so fast, she said. I had to go.

    I shook my head. Why? I asked, knowing she wouldn’t have an answer.

    Maybe sometime you can come with me, she said. Once I get better at riding and everything. Then she went off into the night. I went to bed and cried into my pillow, then woke up wondering if it had all been a dream.

    Mom carried the cat under her arm a lot after that, just in case Tara decided she wanted to come back and take him too. I focused on bread-making because I liked how it kept my hands busy and gave me a product I could eat and feel proud of. We didn’t replace the butter dish; we just kept the butter on a plate even when guests came over. They didn’t mind. Mom’s bread was so delicious it distracted anyone from noticing whether the butter was in a dish or not, and my bread was getting about as good as hers was.

    One night, maybe a year later, Tara came back. I knew it was her by the way she tapped on my window. Our apartment was on the seventh story, so it was either Tara or a very smart bird. This time I knew why she was there, as she’d been a witch for long enough and her flying had probably gotten better and I knew she could take me with her. I grabbed my coat and hopped on, and I was more than a little pleased to see she was still riding our old broom even though the wood handle was scratched up and splintered now. I wrapped my arms around her waist and closed my eyes and breathed her in as we soared over the city.

    Tara took us to the moon. We sat in the shadow of it where the light didn’t reach and looked down at all the people and the houses, who looked like stars to us from way up there. Tara smiled at me and I could see how she’d changed since she left, how her acne scars had cleared and her eyes had gotten a little wiser, a little more tired. I wondered what differences she saw in my face. 

    When she told me she was engaged to be married, I wasn’t surprised, but I was a bit sad.

    It’s not exactly what I want, she said. But it’s not what I don’t want either.

    I understand, I said, because I was happy for Tara, but I was unhappy, also. We kissed then in the shadow of the moon and I wished we could fall in our embrace, and just keep falling and falling and falling and never have to think about what was next.

    Instead we parted, and I touched my lips with my fingers. Then I got on the broom after Tara and we rode back home. The cat was on the windowsill when I climbed through, and I knew then that if Tara wanted him, she would take him. Mom wouldn’t have been able to stop her.

    Time went by and eventually I felt less hurt by the heartbreak and loss of my first love, just as everyone eventually does. But I never forgot her. Mom happily passed the bread-making business on to me and I took it over, dreaming up new flavors and ingredients and styles. I made a loaf one evening that was especially delicious and sweet. The taste of it felt like Tara on my tongue. I left a plate outside my windowsill with a note that said, Hope you’re doing well. Then I went to sleep. When I woke up the plate was empty and cleaned, the note was gone, and a butter dish was on top of the plate. It was a baby yellow one, the color of a warm morning, and a new note was attached that said: Thanks.

    ________

    Melissa Dittrich is a writer and educator from Santa Cruz, CA. Currently she lives in Brooklyn with her partner, David, and their tortoiseshell cat, Xena. Melissa is an MFA in Creative Writing candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and can be found online @melissedittrich. 

  • Mothman Has a Crush by Stephanie King

    I only wanted to be held. To feel the heat of another wrapped up within my wings. To tumble against one another in a crowded backseat as the car rushed thump-bump over the joints in a bridge.

    I peer through windows longing for belonging: watch horny teenagers tussling on couches, “just friends” bumping hands in the popcorn bowl, long-married couples laughing at each other’s corny jokes before leaning into each other. 

    Do you ever think about how cold and alone it is, lurking at the edge of your lawns? Or do you only worry about burning eyes in the night, the beady eyes of animals reflecting your anxiously-flicked-on porch light or… something else? Do you go upstairs, glass of water on your tidy nightstand, and curl alongside the heat of another to protect you against the chill of the world against you?

    After every living room lamp is extinguished, every lover wrapped up in each other, there is nothing left for me except the long night of being misunderstood. Of steeling myself against every flinch or gasp if I am discovered. Every loner holds within them the hope of being known.  

    I want the night to swallow me. I want you to swallow me. I don’t know. The universe could bend against itself until the veil between us is so porous that we cross over, melt into each other as if what I am does not matter. 

    ________

    Stephanie King is a past winner of the Quarterly West Novella Prize and the Lilith Short Fiction Prize, with stories also appearing in CutBank, Anomaly, and Ghost Parachute. She received her MFA from Bennington and serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference. You can find her online at stephanieking.net or Twitter @stephstephking.

  • The End by Cameron Bocanegra

    Through the window, I observe the man from the jackets of my overdue library books. He broods in a cafe booth. A bell jingles as I walk inside. He glances at me idly. I proceed to his corner and shove a firm hand forward. 

    He hesitates, wets his lips with his tongue, and says, “I don’t shake.” 

    “I read your books as a kid,” I smile. He tilts his liver-spotted chin to the right, and the black crevice tucked between deflated cheeks curves into a weak smile. I ask, “Mind if I sit for a moment?” He gestures to the empty seat with cloudy, pickled eyes. “I’m curious about your career,” I explain, taking my seat. 

    “I remember less and less,” he says, wearing the same empty gaze as my grandmother in the nursing home and my twenty-year-old dog with a broken leg, baking beneath the sun. 

    I smile with expired admiration. “This just isn’t how people meet them.”

    He asks, “It’s not how people meet who?”

    “This isn’t how people meet their makers.”

    He studies me and grunts sourly, “What do you want?”

    I could lunge across the table and strangle him or follow him to his car, shove him into the cement, and kiss his dentures with my boot. 

    “I loved to read your stories when I was young,” I say. He nods smugly, swollen cheeks blushing. “I slept and woke up inside nightmares full of your monsters regularly. I dreamt of your villains so often that I saw them in daylight.”

    “I wrote fiction.” He thumps a fist on the plastic table. Damp frayed bandaids loosen around his fingers. His yellow sores peek at me from around the bandages like the eyes of a sick cat. I shut my eyes. I don’t want to see his words anymore. I don’t want to remember anymore.

    When I first read his words, I was a child, swimming before fishing, shooting squirrels, and tucking stolen tobacco into my bottom lip. I was flat-chested and dark-skinned, learning to capture a lake’s acoustics in a toe-curling howl. My innocence died promptly the evening of my first party. I wore my mother’s lipstick. I was a drunk kid, singing along to songs I thought I’d always know. 

    I tell him, “Because of your stories, I believed that one day something would come for me. You planted a specific terror in me.”

    I lost my grip on my beer, and it shattered on the driveway. I was thinking about what I learned in biology class, and that if the party was a cell, the hosts were ribosomes. The drunks were mitochondria. The neighbors outside who were calling the police were viruses. I was cell waste strolling home in wobbly heels I’d never worn before. The eeriness of that witching hour reminded me of his unsettling words that I’d read in the safe brightness of public libraries. 

    I ask, “Why did you want to scare children?”

    I hunched over my knees, vomiting rum and tortilla chips onto the side of the road. I heard a crunch in the dense brush ahead. With a slack jaw, I scanned the woods for my stalker. My vision spun and pulsed. From my purse, I pulled the pocket knife my father gave me and flicked it open. I rose with the bloated tilted slouch of the dead.

    “I believe children must explore their relationship with fear before adulthood,” he says. “This world is too scary to enter blindly.”

    My body ached like a rotting tooth, but I grounded my toes and bent my limbs, prepared to pounce. Someone or something followed a girl in the night. I imagined slurping space aliens with tentacles of teeth and an escaped test subject from a government facility. A zombie lurked. A vampire thirsted. I lunged into the swaddling darkness with a leading blade and unzipped a heaving throat. My skirt caught the first wave of blood and my heels drank the rest before I laid the collapsing body over a large stone. I was no longer a girl. 

    I tell him softly, “There’s no taking back what we did.”

    He assesses the amount of space between us although there is no safe distance. I ram the mouth of the gun into his warm knee beneath the table. His indifferent glare becomes the horror of an armadillo bouncing down the highway. My index finger drifts over the trigger eagerly; I ask, “Have you ever felt near the climax of someone else’s story?”

    ________

    Cameron Bocanegra is a queer Latina Texan who works remotely as a professional writer. She studied English education and journalism at Baylor University and graduated in 2020. You can find her at cambocanegra.com.

  • Partner in the Dark by Tess Clark

    The garage lights come on in two sequences. There’s Dad’s table saw. Bottles of rat poison. Millie’s bike, under a blue tarp.

    There’s something else, too. A crackling. It takes me a second to realize the tarp, the one covering Millie’s bike, is moving.

    Dad asked me to grab his toolkit from behind the red ladder. The red ladder is always here, opened against the attic crawl space. Another hole has appeared, this time in the bathroom wall. Dad says he can fix it. 

    My hands are shaking as I squint at the blue tarp, the way it sags and bends over the shape of Millie’s bike. The bike has been under the tarp for six months. Not because Millie grew out of it, or got sick of the color pink. She’ll never grow out of the bike. She’ll also never ride the bike again.

    The lightbulb, dangling by a red wire from the ceiling, is too dim to shine over the whole garage, and it’s dusk, a week before Halloween. The nuns at St. Agatha’s don’t let us dress up, they say it’s sacrilege, but I still think there’s something magic about a day when people come out to meet the dead.

    The tarp doesn’t budge again, and I think I must have imagined it. Or, rats. Millie and I used to be scared of the rats. They sneak in through the foundation and scratch through the boxes of old clothes, Grandma’s art books. They gnaw at the wires. Sometimes, the lights of our house go out altogether. Rats, Dad always says. Just like the holes that keep appearing all over the house, especially in the walls. He blames the holes on the rats too.

    Dad’s toolkit is leaning against the washing machine, behind the ladder. The bike-shaped tarp is further back, close to the door with the brass knob that no longer opens. Above me is another hole, the one into the attic, square and black and nothing. Some nights I hear Dad up there, in the ceiling. Millie used to crawl into my bed on those nights with her freezing cold feet. We’d both pretend not to hear the scratching.

    But now Dad is in the sitting room. The TV, a football game, echoes down the back hall that connects to the garage. I focus on the sound of the sports announcer, the clatter of Dad’s glass hitting the coffee table as he finishes his bottle of wine. Behind those sounds, there’s another one, one I’m pretending not to notice.

    Scraaaaaaatch.

    I cross under the open attic hole and reach for the toolkit. Grabbing the smooth black handle, it feels too light. Something is missing. The hammer, probably. Or one of the screwdrivers. Splotches of white paint stain the dusty concrete floor. It’s the paint Dad uses to repaint the walls, after he fixes the holes. 

    The holes started appearing six months ago, right before my twelfth birthday. Sister Cassady says holes can’t “simply appear.” Except they do. Things “simply appear” all the time. Things disappear too. Just ask Millie.

    There, sticking out of the bottom of the tarp. The screwdriver.

    I don’t know what a screwdriver would be doing under there. Millie’s bike hasn’t been moved in ages. The tarp is crusty with dust. The screwdriver handle hides under the blue plastic edge. Only the silver, pointy end sticks out of the bottom. It’s the Phillips Head.

    Dad will kill me if I leave a tool behind. He needs his full arsenal, he says. I wish Millie were here. That’s what having a twin is good for, you know? A partner in the dark. I used to believe the nuns when they said Millie was always with me. I used to search for her, when I walked to St. Agatha’s, listen to the birds for signs of Millie’s squeaky laugh, have staring contests with the Maine coon cat on Furlow Street. 

    Go on, Henry, she’d say now. Get the screwdriver. I dare you.

    She was big on dares, and I always obeyed. She was three minutes older, after all.

    Hands pressed to my sides, I inch toward the tarp. 

    Come on, Henry, reach for it, see what’s holding on to the other end—

    All at once, the lights go out.

    Scrambling for the door, I trip over something, a box of Millie’s old clothes maybe, and fall. My tailbone hits the concrete. The pain comes a second later.

    The light flickers back on, and the tarp is closer.

    Almost under the attic hole, now. Halfway across the garage.

    It doesn’t look much like a bike under there, not anymore. The shape has bulged. Dad’s missing screwdriver has poked a hole through the blue plastic. It sticks out like a finger.

    When I try to stand, my legs buckle. The bottom half of my body goes gelatinous. The lightbulb flickers and the tarp slides. Slides across the floor as a terrible mass, in jerky, screeching movements. I’m frozen. The football game is still roaring down the hall. Someone scores. A door closes, the toilet flushes. 

    The tarp slides closer. The blue corner touches the toe of my Adidas sneaker. 

    “Millie?” I say.

    The tarp does not reply. And when the blue plastic slides over me, and I am enveloped in blue darkness, for a second I think I’m under the covers with Millie, listening to the sounds in the ceiling. 

    It’s only a tickle at first.

    And then comes the scratching. 

    ________

    Tess Clark lives in Boulder, CO. She is the social media and design manager at Nocturne Magazine. Find her on Twitter @tesslaceyclark.

  • Dog Cage for a Mouth by Caleb Bethea

    Astrology boys vaping at the moon. A pack of laughing and the speculating of signs, a theory of miracles. Then, their limbs rattling around in my jaws. The sounds of a locked-up puppy, or a whole litter of restless bodies — cheap metal shaking as their owner opens, closes the door.

    ________

    Caleb Bethea is an MFA at UofSC, studying fiction by night. By day, he works as a copywriter. But, the best of his time is spent with his wife and two goblins by the ocean. You can read his work elsewhere in HAD, Maudlin House, Unstamatic, Twin Pies, Bear Creek, and elsewhere. He tweets at @caleb_bethea_

  • La vie eternal by Z.H. Gill

    We called the pellucid tank in which 
    we kept the man o’ war the 
    box o’ war. 

    We called the creeping moss
    growing splendidly 
    along the deck

    (despite there being upon the boards
    no soil from which to grow) 
    the moss of life, we

    called it. The box of life sits 
    in the closet gently sitting |
    in the pitch-dark

    closet. We hung up lights,
    we paid the bills,
    we drove 

    our neighbors into early
    graves. We borrowed
    body-parts and fed

    them to our two boxes | the
    man o’war got first 
    dibs and then

    we satiated the box of life,
    as well.

    ________

    Z.H. Gill works at a vanity label in West Hollywood, CA.

  • Alligator Blanket by Don Television

    It’s often that I hear him that I’m already awake, but just so, teased across the membrane of sleep with a toe or two, with the sheets damp and my head a nub above them, withdrawn, when I hear him. 

    Maybe I smell him first, and that’s what wakes me, the sulfur, the factory run-off he’s slicked up out of, is still dripping with when he’s made it here, creaking across the floorboards, clicking his talons, dragging his tail, closing the distance between us over who knows how many miles, driven up over embankments and through empty intersections by the drone of all-night manufacture, by ceaseless by-production, vibrations felt out in the swamps. 

    He’s disturbed; I can feel it and almost empathize; it’s a long way he’s come to be up on his hindquarters, stabbing for purchase with the probing-end of the cane he’s hobbled himself to carry, to be now doffing his stovepipe hat in appeal. 

    All of this inferred by shadow, let me say, the shape of him as it struggles to stand on the other side of the blanket, the mass of him moving as it does, with an ever-present sway. 

    “Let me in,” he could be saying, “it looks nice in there, and warm. Snug, like the nest of my youth. Shielded from aerial predators by reeds. The blankets seem to me like reeds.”

    But the sound produced is hostile, guttural, in all ways alien, and I am afraid, afraid that even the slightest motion, my breathing beneath the sheet might be interpreted as invitation, as anything at all, when interpretation seems all the alligator is after, intoning as he is through serrated jaws; when giving in to the desires of an alligator, any serrated-jaw-possessor in one’s own bedroom, seems ill-advised, even foolish, connected, as it were, by tearable sinew, to any number of other antecedent needs, wants, namely hunger.

    But he knows that I’m there, has deduced as much from the shape of me as I have him and peers, patiently nictitating.

    I know he’s an alligator, as he knows I’m not-alligator, knows little of from where I’ve risen, knows the factory, the coating stink of it. 

    He knows the narrow network he’s traced to get here, the carved course of his nightly visitation; that much is clear in bent brush and claw-marks in dried mud, in the parted sawgrass and decorative median-strip flower beds between the swamp and this room; unless, and I’d ask him if I could, there’s a scent, some chemical cast-off I’m not consciously producing that he’s able to detect beneath the suffocating miasma of the factory’s smokestacks and must heed, for unknowable alligator reasons, on the most expeditious path available, which is still wending, circuitous, accounting for the fence-cuts and gaps in topiary that make traversal even at all possible, plus the coast’s near-constant wind changes; the scent is wafting after all, subject to redirections, especially along what I know to be a fairly busy shipping corridor.

    There’s a non-discountable possibility it’s a sound he’s hearing, not a scent. 

    I’m known to talk in my sleep and can’t be counted on to comment on content or volume. I could be singing “Come All Ye Alligators,” or screaming, and he’s here to help. 

    All this to say, it’s probably not his fault that he’s here.

    It says more about me than it does about him.

    How I conduct myself in ways both conscious and not.

    Certainly more about that than the Alligator Agenda, than occasionally spotlit slit-eyed searching on the side of the interstate, though who’s to say.

    ________

    Don Television is an American writer. His fiction has been featured in or is forthcoming from Angel Rust, Apocalypse Confidential, and Identity Theory. Reach out: www.donatello.vision

  • Dream Scream by Adelina Sarkisyan

    There, not there, once upon a time, was a wife.

    One morning, the wife woke up and the husband was gone. He had forgotten to tell her he loved her. Had he ever told her? She couldn’t remember. She had forgotten her own name. Was this her bed? Were these her legs? Was this her hair, which had grown, seemingly overnight, a foot longer and bound itself to her? She couldn’t untangle herself. She remembered that that was her husband’s job: to unwrap her in the morning, then cut the hair that had grown overnight.

    Yes, that was it. Every morning the wife woke up and the husband unwrapped her and cut the hair that had grown overnight. The husband would look down at the hair and say, Only four inches this morning, didn’t you sleep well? Then she would look down and he would disappear and she would remember that he had forgotten. The wife didn’t know where the hair would go. She only knew its absence. When the husband kissed the nape of her neck, she imagined her long-lost hair, slowly trailing up her spine, coming back to her, growing teeth.

    The wife and the husband were inseparable except for the fact that the husband didn’t believe in dreams and the wife was always dreaming. But she didn’t call it dreaming, she called it predicting. Ever since she was a little girl, she had dreamed of dreams that came true. The night before she met her husband, she’d had a dream of him. He’d reached down and offered her a glass of cool water. She’d drowned in it. She predicted that was a good sign.

    The wife was desperate in her attempt to make the husband dream, partly because the idea of him never dreaming felt vampiric in nature, perverse, upside-down. How could she sleep next to a man who never dreamed? What was he doing, just lying there all night? Did he wake up, as she slept, and watch her? Did he crawl out the window and erupt into a thousand bats?

    In her research, she found that everyone dreams, even people who claimed they never did. These people, researchers said, just can’t remember. There it was: he didn’t have a dreaming problem; he had a memory problem. She would help him remember.

    I’m going to help you remember, she said one morning as he cut off six inches of her hair.

    I remember everything, he said and disappeared.

    She missed her hair. While the husband was away, she would spend hours in front of the mirror, willing the hair to grow back. Only in the morning, while he was still asleep, would she awaken to find that it had grown, sometimes all the way down to her feet. She found the earlier she slept, the longer it would grow. Soon, she was in bed by 6 o’clock. Sometimes, she would sleep all day and wake up to find herself drowning in hair. The husband never worried. He unwrapped her with his dainty fingers, licking each fingertip along the way.

    One morning, the wife awoke earlier than usual, her heart racing like it was up to something. But what? She remembered it then, quite suddenly—the nightmare. She’d had a nightmare, which was strange because she’d never had nightmares, not once, not even as a child.

    In the nightmare, it’s her wedding day, and her teeth jingle in her mouth like hard candy. I smell dirt, she thinks. I smell children disappearing. In the mirror, she is a white swan. The stain of womanhood wiped clean. Her neck is long and twists round and round like a staircase. Has she always been a swan? She can’t remember. She opens her mouth to scream but her tongue, red and ripe, folds into itself and disappears. Where did it go? she asks. Where did my scream go? The husband enters, holding her scream in his hands. Newly born, it is bald and ugly and perfect. She swallows it whole.

    After remembering the nightmare, the wife remembered something else. Her mother had once told her, nightmares are just dreams, upside down. Was she upside down now? She couldn’t tell. When she looked down, she saw her back, bare and unassuming, lit silver by the moonlight. Where was her hair? What would the husband say? What would he have to untangle now?

    She wrapped her hands around her swan neck, up and up and up, felt the round marble of her skull. She was bald, like the dream scream, bald and ugly and perfect. She held herself in her hands. Oh, she thought, smiling, how strange.

    She turned to watch her husband sleep his vampire sleep. This reunion of husband and wife would only last a moment. She was not a wife anymore; she was not allowed to be beautiful. But the husband wouldn’t remember. In the morning, the wife would wake up and the husband would be gone. He would forget to tell her he loved her. Had he ever told her?

    I’m dreaming, she thought. Which means I’m coming true.

    Her swan neck was facing the wrong way and when she lay back to sleep, she felt her nose against the pillow and drifted into unconsciousness. Goodbye hair, she thought. Goodbye husband. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

    ________

    Adelina Sarkisyan is an Armenian-American writer from Los Angeles. She holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a graduate degree in social work. She was a therapist in a former life. She lives in dreams. Follow her everchanging moods on Twitter @sheisadelina and Instagram @adelinasarkisyan.

  • Papaya Erectus by Shelby Wardlaw

    My real estate agent emits a tropical smell. He stands too close to me in the empty apartment and gestures at the crown moldings by flinging his arms outward, as if he learned human expression from an instruction manual. “Ladies go crazy for these ceilings,” he says, thwapping me on the shoulder. His hand slides down my blouse, leaving dampness in its wake. We proceed to the master bedroom and our footsteps ring out on the wooden floors. At least, my footsteps ring; his make more of a squish. “Now I know this one’s a little out of budget, but you can’t deny that view. Mind if I crank the thermostat?” My agent takes off his jacket, revealing a Hawaiian shirt so bright it sears my eyeballs. “I can’t stand New York this time of year. Come December I miss Florida.” He grins, teeth as white as price stickers. That’s when I start to suspect that my real estate agent might be something less than human.

    My suspicions deepen as the apartment heats up. My real estate agent unpacks a pair of forearms that look ripe and store-bought, the color of Tang. “Had to get a spray tan just to feel more at home,” he laughs. I do not join in his mirth. I suspect his flesh is naturally that shade of orange. 

    On his way to the bedroom my agent misses the half step and trips, grabbing hold of my waist. He apologizes but his wink misfires. The closing lid sticks and his expression warps into a gummy half-blink. I’m not fooled: I know my agent’s pupils are actually seedpods devoid of vision. This isn’t the first time that I’ve encountered a Fruitman. 

    The Fruitmen started appearing several years ago. Scientists hypothesized a natural mutation on the Y chromosome, the activation of a survival mechanism that urged macho sapiens to devolve in times of trouble. Progressive newspapers claimed that Fruitmen were formed through social conditioning. Conspiracy theories detailed how a herd of hybrid creatures had escaped from a top-secret lab in Canada, tasked with reconstructing modern masculinity. But whatever their origin, Fruitmen are decidedly more slippery than their human brethren. It’s difficult to spot one unless you know what to look for. My real estate agent, for example, reeks of Parfum de Papaya, and his gelled hair resembles a severed stem. He sidles past me into the bathroom, grinning.

    “Excuse me,” he says, “Gotta take a leak.” 

    “You mean release the juices?” I ask.

    His humanoid face simulates confusion. “Um. Yeah. Juices.”

    When I moved out of my ex-boyfriend’s apartment, I felt raw – both from the emotional pain and the rabid vaginal yeast infection left behind by his overabundance of the enzyme bromelain. Now here I am, searching for a one-bedroom in the dead of winter, confronted with another of his kind. Except this time, I have a plan.

    When my real estate agent emerges from the bathroom, he places his sweaty palm on my lower back. He steers me towards the front door, his lip peels twisting upward as if on the edge of a glass. “I really enjoyed this week,” he says. “Call me sometime. Maybe we can hang out.” His breath smells like the inside of refrigerator plastic. Yet when my real estate agent moves closer, I root to the spot. I force myself to resist the temptation of simple carbohydrates, the sweetness of shallow love, my despicable propensity to fall for bruised fruit. 

    My real estate agent kisses me. I kiss him back. Our mouths meet softly at first, then harder as our lips chew and suck, wet and pulpy until I finally get a good grip and bite down with all my strength, tearing my face backwards and ripping off a hunk of his flesh. My real estate agent screams. I chew his skin. Masticate and swallow. The sample is juicy but tastes of disappointment – the flavor of being plucked before peak ripeness. My real estate agent runs around in circles, unhinged and rudderless, his eye-pods panic-stricken. A lump of sympathy moves through my gut. I start to see my own devolution in the Fruitman. Maybe I, too, am unable to grow back that which I have lost. 

    I feel sick. I think I might hurl, but it’s my real estate agent who actually bends over and pukes, hands on his knees, lips oozing red juice onto the hardwood floor. In his vulnerable position my real estate agent looks more like a papaya than ever: green shirt, orange skin, chest hair erupting out of the labial folds of his popped collar. It’s tragic really, this little orange man who–when cut open–epitomizes the vaginal shape of our all-too-human desire to crawl back into the womb, to recapture the maternal real estate of the only loving home any of us ever knew, the primal loss of which lends life its relentless, indefinable bitterness.

    ________

    Shelby Wardlaw is a writer, teacher, and translator from Austin, Texas. Her fiction, nonfiction and Russian poetry translations have appeared in Drafthorse, Interim, Northwest Review, Hunger Mountain, iō Literary Journal, Philadelphia Stories and Neon Door Literary Exhibit. In the spring of 2020, she won Honorable Mention in the Pigeon Pages Fiction Contest. She was a Finalist for the 2021 Salamander Fiction Prize and the 2021 McGlinn Prize for Fiction. She was selected as one of the top five finalists in The Writer magazine’s 2020 Fall Short Story Contest, and is currently working on her first novel. You can find out more here: https://www.shelby-wardlaw.com/

  • Flying in Reverse by Cesar Toscano

    When I was young, I learned how to fly. I placed an array of pixels together until they were a 4D 8-bit flying contraption.
    Maybe it worked because my father was part duck and mother was a quarter swan.
    What are your parents?
    Part air animal or part land animal?
    If so, you know and there’s no more reason to ask again.

    In 1910, when I flew for the first time, the sky was pink, laced in strawberry clouds.
    I have never felt so alive, not even when I actually grew a feather or two the next summer.
    Imagination has unlimited possibilities, and many don’t like to agree, and I would like to say they are wrong, absolutely wrong.
    On that day, I flew and flew with only my mind and a jar of sweets. Sugar is important for imagination, makes your brain run a little wild and a lot bit faster.

    My town looked like a miniature city up above, I wanted to collect them and play with them, make my little village of my own.
    You would have wanted to, anyone would have. Little figurines doused in possibilities and dreams of a new world, my own little world.

    It’s now 1942, I wanted to fly again like those birds over the battlefield, free with not worrying about death. I would love to fly again but I am in between two battlefields. They would think of me as a foreign fighter and shoot me down. They possibly would not see me as a duck or even a swan like my father and mother.

    ________

    Cesar Toscano is a Chicago based writer; he is currently a junior majoring in creative writing at Columbia College Chicago where he worked as an assistant poetry editor for Allium magazine. He also runs the new magazine Mystic Owl, which will be released on October 3. His work delves into mental health and identity through a speculative and horror lens. When he is not writing, he enjoys watching movies and playing video games.

  • Fundamentals of Apocalypse Dentistry by Lauren Kardos

    Root (in the) Canal
    Try the old bait and tackle shops first, I tell all my patients and I’m telling you. Find waterproof overalls then muck about the banks, hunting for glimmers of pearl. Alligator fangs make for perfect canines. Beaver teeth for incisors.

    Extraction
    Next batch of canned-peach hooch won’t be ready for a week or more. You sure you want to do this now? Lean back over that boulder. It takes but a moment to sanitize pliers over the cookstove between appointments.

    Orthodontia
    Don’t you wonder how the flash ruined brick, stone, and steel, but copper’s not worse for wear? I’m clean out of pens for your John Hancock, but I require payment in equipment, mainly the wires that’ll hold your Frankenstein yapper in place. Across the river those heaps haven’t been touched yet, I expect. 

    Veneer
    Curl your lips away from the super glue and try to imagine swallowing your tongue. If not, you’ll either sear those tastebuds off or talk forevermore like a horse with peanut butter gums, but super glue is all I’ve got. 

    Whitening
    Lean over a puddle. Grab some charcoal from your preferred former establishment — avoid those Pompeii-prone shapes — and scrub in a circular motion. Rinse with the cleanest liquid you can find. When you squint, a smile will look close enough to the original. Enjoy.

    ________

    Lauren Kardos (she/her) writes from Washington, DC, but she’s still breaking up with her hometown in Western Pennsylvania. You can find her on Twitter @lkardos.

  • Two by Evan Williams

    The Screaming Thing Is Also a Friend if You Try Hard Enough

    The bodybuilder is very small. You could hold him in your hand if you really wanted to, but probably don’t. He’s always screaming, and it’s this really high-pitched, god-awful scream. I made a little set of dumbbells and a barbell for him to hold over his head so the screaming seems more natural. I use his screaming as white noise at night. I count his reps to fall asleep.

    Look! A Pile of Coyotes!

    I haven’t cut my hair for six months. I wear a hat to cover its awkward growth. This is ok in the summertime, but I think a lot about what I’ll do in the wintertime. There are other sorts of hats, but wearing them indoors makes it seem like you can’t settle. Summertime hats indoors are just a little bit rude, but mostly alright. I tie my hair back into the puniest of knots while I drive, or else I turn my hat backwards. This way, I can’t rest my head against the seat. It’s for safety. 

    I sing a song and then another. I wish for there to be a song about the park ranger and his wife who propositioned me for a threesome. A song about how I said Look! A pile of coyotes! and pointed nowhere and left. I’d write the song, but I don’t play any instruments. 

    I’ll grow my hair for another six months. Another six years. Six more after that. I’ll grow my hair out until I look like a pile of coyotes. Then I’ll howl and howl and that will be the song.  

    ________

    Evan Williams is a poet and essayist based in the Midwest writing on masculinity, surrealism, and the anthropocene. His work can be found in DIAGRAM, Pleiades, Joyland, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbook CLAUSTROPHOBIA, SURPRISE! (HAD Chaps, 2022) and helps to run the prose poetry journal Obliterat. He’s on Twitter @evansquilliams.

  • Two by Réka Nyitrai

    The scissors-man

    I would like to ask you to let your hair grow — said my lover. You would look more feminine and this would excite me more. What he does not know is that my grandmother and mother promised me to the scissors-man. The scissors-man owns my hair and I. He dutifully visits me every night and cuts my locks. From my hair and his other slave girl’s honeyed strands his wife knits a special sweat cloth. With it he wipes her face clean. 

    Abstract with breasts and crocodile 

    In order to put a leash on their gaze, whenever she notices them staring at her breasts, Dora exposes the crocodile that nests in the hollow of her cleavage. With their gaze firmly tied they follow her like hypnotized zombies. She keeps them in kennels built on the outskirts of the city. Those who were lucky enough to escape from her spell report that the crocodile and Dora are one and the same person. They say that they saw her carrying baby crocodiles in her mouth.

    ________

    Réka Nyitrai is a spell, a sparrow, a lioness’s tongue — a bird nest in a pool of dusk. She is the recipient of a Touchstone Distinguished Books Award for 2020 for her debut haiku volume “While Dreaming Your Dreams” (Valencia Spain: Mono Ya Mono Books, 2020). Her prose poems have appeared in Otoliths, Unbroken Journal, Pithead Chapel, Heliosparrow Poetry Journal,  NOON: journal of the short poem, Obliterat Journal, and others. 

  • The Return by Roberta Beary

    My bicycle falls against the bay’s stone wall. My son, secure in his tiny seat, points to the careening gulls. Grandma, Grandma, he shouts. How could he know? I never told him my mother’s last words, heard more as threat than comfort. I unbuckle him. Cover my unease by handing him his spade and pail. On the shore he bends to his task, squealing as his treasure trove of clams grows. The gulls circle the air above us, then fly off. Except for one. Stouter than her comrades, she eyes the clams with a greedy gaze. Grandma, my son cries as the plump gull swoops closer. Dropping his pail, he runs towards me. He wears his frightened look. Perhaps he recalls the time I came home to find she had tied him to his highchair while she calmly fed his french fries to a seagull. I had thought him too young to remember. She blamed her cruel act on the doctor. A change in her medication. As my son and I watch the pot-bellied seabird devour clam after clam, more memories return. My mother stealing my dinner off my plate when my father’s back was turned. How she’d force me to clean every pot and pan. My raw hands deep in soapy water, my feet on the step-stool my father carved the night before he disappeared. My son smiles as I comb the sand from his soft curls. He calls, Grandma, stop stealing, as the bird scours the pail for the last of the clams. I approach the seabird, unclasping my lanyard. To be forever free of her is worth the price I paid for its braided leather. I lower the loop without a sound. But with a screech, the creature flies off towards the bicycle, and settles in my son’s tiny seat. She sits there still. 

    ________

    Roberta Beary has words in Best Microfiction 2019/2021, and Best Small Fictions 2020/2022. Recently, Beary collaborated on One Breath: The Reluctant Engagement Project, which pairs their writing with artwork by people with disabilities and their families. Originally from New York, they divide their time between the eastern US and the west of Ireland. They tweet their micros @shortpoemz.

  • Two by Dom Witten

    Acid Pillow Talk

    Deception isn’t the only way to manufacture
    eulogies, mushrooms and oranges. 
    Magnetic fields can procure the same thrill.
    Omission —intentional or otherwise
    neighbors the red handprints
    stroking my hair.

    Eulogies, mushrooms and oranges
    fulfill the prophecy of disappointment.
    Omission —intentional or otherwise 
    isn’t the culprit
    stroking my hair.

    Fulfill the prophecy of disappointment
    or don’t become someone I love.
    Isn’t the culprit
    something else dead?

    Don’t become something I love.
    Soap box a stock photo
    or stain someone else dead.

    Stock photo a soap box
    deception; the only way to neighbor

    manufactured handprints.

    No Vents and The Windows Don’t Open

    Me and Eve in apartment two split
    custody of a purgatory demon.
    Her therapist suggested she name it
    but we agree it’s best not to name that beast
    whose mourning routine consists of filing its nails
    between wood boards and insulation.

    The Wildlife Extinction Man conquered
    most of the colony who used to rustle
    the safety of Hoarders,
    Wannabe Opera Singers and Artists.
    Last January he set traps under the house
    with their favorite irresistibles: pepper jack cheese,
    warm body syndrome, cinderblock apologies.

    There was a younger sibling­—
    we don’t talk about the hot water pipe incident.

    Eve say bang a tv remote
    on something heavy so it don’t feel
    welcome. Consequences need
    grit behind them.

    Ain’t no space in my bedroom for
    more blank histories since
    I started playing patty cake with
    the tiny red fingers reaching
    for one more look.

    ________

    Dom Witten is a Black poet raised on the end of a one-way street in Detroit, MI. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina Greensboro with special attention to process-based learning. She is a co-founder and program director of the Poetics Lab which facilitates inclusive spaces for communities to engage with identity through poetry and performance of the self. Dom’s poems are obsessed with establishing a future with more joy, sass, naps and emotional accuracy. IG: @domthepoet22 & @tPoeticsLab

  • Aketar by David Marino

    “Come to Aketar and be transformed.”         

    That is what the myths say, the line spoken in a dozen languages across the continent. It is in their scriptures, their songs round the cookfires, their tablets in bronze. They all come to seek their promised land.  

    This is where I come in. They call me the Dead Desert, the Barrier to Heaven, the Sands Relentless. I oblige them, decorating myself with their bones.

    Beyond me, they say, Aketar sits. Their voices carry on my winds. “Green fields and endless harvests.” “No, waterfalls that climb upward.” “No, clouds soft as down, firm enough to walk on.” “No, castles in the sky, hung in the air from a roof of stars.”

    They are all incorrect.

    Exhaustion kills most of them. From my borders, one can walk for three days and three nights and see naught but my skin, orange dunes rising and falling.

    Heat stroke does its number, too, sunlight beating down only to give way to frostbite at night, when I turn near blue in the moon’s gloam.

    For three hundred years, this was enough. But no amount of bones strung up on cacti dissuade them from marching into me. Then their adventurers quested with wagon trains pulled by camels and oxen. So I rent my own flesh for sinkholes, gobbling convoys whole. Mirages of palm trees and oases addle the survivors, turning them back the way they came.

    For those smart enough to dowse for water, to find my blood pumping underground, they choke on my subterranean poison.

    For two hundred years, that was enough. Then they came with water on their sand sleds, using my harsh winds against me. Their sailships darted across me, passing right over the bones I had laid out so perfectly.

    This couldn’t be allowed. I erupted my fumaroles, blasts of lava and sulfuric gas flipping their tiny wooden ships, burning bonfires mixing with my green smoke. Fresh testaments to how far my desert goes, how vast I am.

    But they did not take the plumes as failure, but as progress. One hundred years more, and they came with iron bottomed sailers, gasmasks and water filtration to pull moisture from the air. They were so close to my edge, I tore myself asunder, a great tremor, a rip in the earth making an impassable canyon.

    Fifty years, and they come to the canyon’s edge, bringing great beams to construct a bridge, sending surveyors into my depths to create supports. I drop rocks, shift the wind to push them from on high, slake my bloodlust on their rotting bodies at the bottom of my canyon throat. The more I kill, the more come, and come, and build, replacing my skin with theirs, sand giving way to their lead roads.

    Soon they’ll reach my edge and come to the ocean beyond. It is nothing special, not alive like I am. When they do, perhaps I can rest. Perhaps then, they’ll realize my name is Aketar, and I fulfilled their promise.

    Or perhaps they’ll reach the sea and sail onward. Always seeking, always finding.

    ________

    David Marino is a New York City CPA by day and a fantasy novelist by night. He is currently attending Sarah Lawrence’s Creative Writing MFA program.

  • Glass Hours by Carolyn Oliver

    Lose Touch

    If a city’s outskirts are ragged, were they once ruffled or ruched? Three popes ago, my brother and I. Two down, him possible across uncollapsed tree, sand sky. Assignment: Pleat starfish fists and chicken bone fringe until numb. Given: the sky is old, filmy. Given: the tree blooms guns from its sour gums. Given: how danger, close coming, feels like windows. Therefore: Offer one body. Therefore: Pain like glass chrysanthemums.

    Tide Over

    Glass room, doorless, half embedded in a beach. Perpetual sunrise or twilight, and that’s the worst part, not knowing which way time slips. No, the worst part is how the water won’t come into focus, neither wave nor foam, but the tentacle wrapping the join of the glass clearly counts grains of sand. The way in certain eighteenth-century paintings dogs in their specificity are better memorialized than wives. Toward the station, scent of frying octopus. No train.

    Bounce Back

    Night is a counterpublic. Everyone has been freed from the icebergs, except the glass matron gathered over the bed. She knows the pillars in the water make a pillory not a pier. From offshore, mountains are smoke whales, uncut trees velvet barstools. Pray. Not to hear the owl (its passing the barest impression of frayed wire), but the curtailed scream and rubberous echo. The middle ground’s contagious with budget skulls. Each portal siren blue.

    ________

    Carolyn Oliver is the author of Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble (University of Utah Press, 2022), which won the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, and two chapbooks, Mirror Factory and Dearling. She is the editor of The Worcester Review. Website: carolynoliver.net Twitter: @CarolynROliver

  • Night Staff at the Library: a triptych by Benjamin Niespodziany

    [1] Two janitors arrive nightly in matching designs. One is from Warsaw. One claims Durango. They take photos before and after every shift. They hold hands when they can. I think they run a blog. In the mop closet, they offer me cigarettes, the pack scratched Cyrillic. They offer me licorice and spinach. I echo along to their songs, the three of us laughing like disturbed, distracted gods.

    [2] In the mop closet, the janitor from Warsaw is old. Poland, she says. Poland. On her lunch break, she lets me cut her hair. Poland, I say. My family, I say. Poland. I don’t change my shirt. Poland, she says. The lightbulb above us flickers and dies and brightens again. Almost all of her hair is gone. I’ll clean, she says. She laughs. We laugh. The puddle on the floor pours my last name.

    [3] In the mop closet, the janitor from Durango is loud. He has me wrap him in gauze. Gauze he found in the library ceiling tile above our heads. Above, he points. Above. I wrap him in the gauze until the gauze is gone and he is gone and in my hand is no more gauze and in my hand is a diamond the size of a new bar of soap. The janitor from Durango doesn’t see the diamond. He’s looking at the wrap of his legs. The shape of the gauze. I rest the diamond atop his bald head. He’s smiling. We’re smiling. He’s saying the door won’t open.

    ________

    Benjamin Niespodziany’s work has appeared in Fence, Fairy Tale Review, Hobart, and others. Along with being featured in the Wigleaf Top 50, his writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. With three chapbooks out, his debut full-length will be released in November 2022 through Okay Donkey Books.

  • Two from Black Swan Theory by Kyle Marbut

    If I still believed in dawn, I’d rise to meet it. That I rise at all is nothing to do with light and everything to do with the modern discourse: gravediggers on a smokebreak under my window lament skunks run amok in the cemetery across the lawn, exhuming generations in search of their nightly grub. They’ve so uprooted the great oak who shades the mausoleums it’s begun to bow into the rooftops. Roused, I roam the aisles bedheaded in my lingerie, knocking on stained glass and caskets, waking the saints. That parade of corpses behind me, crowding, cheering. As if at any moment I might usher them into the sky crowned in sunshower, rather than offering trust-falls into a landfill. The second morning of my life I’ve been mistaken for rapture.

    ***

    One way to think you’ll live forever or at least that you’re alive is eating celery soup and finger sandwiches while sprawled across a crimson sectional and revising the new atlas of the passing daytime sky. I’ve never had much patience for what’s right. I carve secret passages from the larder to the library to the well, flood the basement with a hose and toss glowsticks down the stairs, paint doors on the walls and set mirrors in all but one of the actual doorframes. More than a home, I’ve wanted a destination. To know the self not by its reflection but by its absence from the only way out.

    _________

    Kyle Marbut is lying low in a blanket fort. They live in Virginia, where they write, teach, and take long walks with a lantern in the dark. Their poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Ethel, Fairy Tale Review, Poiesis, and Longleaf Review.

  • Dead Sprint by Evan Nicholls

    The skeleton crossed the finish line and was halved at the waist. Exploded by a ribbon. Then the announcer cued a procession of rats to haul the bones away. “They hope to add body to the broth,” the announcer remarked. We handed each rat a water cup. The last, wearing the skull, we bathed in Gatorade.

    _________

    Evan Nicholls is a poet and collage artist from Virginia. His chapbook of poems and collages, Holy Smokes, is available from Ghost City Press. Find more of his work at enicholls.com.

  • Chew, Swallow, Chew by Ai Jiang

    They attached a zipper to my stomach, not to my womb. They said this would help the process run smoother, faster, if the babies could consume nourishment passed broken only by mouth and saliva. I watched as they inserted the baby, a worm, which would later metaphorize into one of them. Within me, I felt tiny legs and arms sprout from its malleable body, stole what I chewed. When it left me, I was a skeleton, and it a plump, pulsing, purple entity with a thousand arms. It unravelled its millions of folds before unzipping me, next child in hand. They told me I should be honoured, that my role was a glorious, glorious thing. Be thankful it was you, they’d said. And the choice, what choice? but the single one presented to me?

    ________

    Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She is a member of HWA, SFWA, and Codex. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in F&SF, The Dark, Uncanny, The Puritan, Prairie Fire, The Masters Review, and her debut novella Linghun (April 2023) is forthcoming with Dark Matter INK. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online (http://aijiang.ca)