- 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 Ploughshares, Copper Nickel, Witness, 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 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 wreathe 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.
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 Letters, Menagerie 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.
- 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.
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
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,
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Reka Nyitrai
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
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
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.
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.
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
 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.
 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.
 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).
- Attn: Butchers & Locksmiths by Joel Hans
Which bone of mine opens the door back home?
A. My malleus, timpani that first percussed with my mother’s voice,
B. my hyoid, anchor that dredged up all my boldest words, like I love you and I’ll always be here for you and pee makes the trees die,
C. my femur, hammering me around the track’s last corner, the crowd cheering, my mouth a tinderbox of pennies and phlegm,
D. or my phalanx, showing my girls how to pluck notes from a sunflower’s sunbaked head?
E. My vomer, bearing the smell of eager apples penduluming in a high desert orchard,
F. or my stapes, dithering even now to the confidence of toddlers with too-few teeth chomping down on golden carrots still dressed in dirt?
G. Nothing, because I’m too old, the magic of childhood lost as my bones fused together,
H. or nothing, because a door opens only upon receipt of what I’m not willing to sacrifice?
I. My calcaneus, the pain of stepping on toy blocks in the carpet at night,
J. my mandible, the pain of tasting bitterness in the citrus I took out a mortgage just to try,
K. or my radius, the pain of forgetting to remember the last time I held my last child,
L. or my ethmoid, the pain of having not come home sooner from this trip far, far, to the end of the world,
M. or my carpals, the pain of letting them hurt me just so I could hear their apologies, touch their whole cheek, back when they were young, their bones so soft and malleable and full of magic?
Joel Hans has published short stories in West Branch, No Tokens, Puerto del Sol, The Masters Review, Redivider, and others. He holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and previously served as the managing editor of Fairy Tale Review. He lives in Tucson, Arizona with his family.
- The Masked Rider by Vincent Rendoni
Do not touch the Zorro books in the garage. You could release the Masked Rider. You think you don’t know him, but you do. He only appears at the end. After the colonizers are slain. After the governor’s daughter is bedded. Foolish Zorro, riding high into the sunset. He does not see the true villain. Mistakes him for his shadow.
The Masked Rider is surrounded by flies. He slurs his speech. He talks about baseball and tv. Mad shit about Ronald Reagan. He is on our hero’s tail, in his slipstream, charging forth on his donkey, spirited and slender, but still an ass. The Masked Rider should be weighed down by his beer gut, his diabetes. But no, he moves with the grace of a dancer. Swift and exact, he puts his cutlass through Zorro’s back. He goes fast. This is mercy. He’s going to a better place, without blood or corruption or fighting.
The Masked Rider then goes to the village. He frees the landowners, the peasants, the whole of California from strife and pain. And when everyone has ascended, he looks at you. Danger. Close the book. Close it now. You think you don’t know the Masked Rider, but you do. He will leap off the page and give you chase. You may yet escape. For a time. Finish school. Settle down. Have children. Live long enough to think life is too long. May he find you then. No need to invite sooner what’s coming later.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Vincent Antonio Rendoni is the author of the forthcoming full-length poetry collection A Grito Contest in the Afterlife—the winner of the 2022 Catamaran Poetry Prize as judged by Dorianne Laux. He is a 2022 Jack Straw Poetry Fellow and the winner of Blue Earth Review’s 2021 Flash Fiction Contest. His work has appeared / will be appearing in The Sycamore Review, The Vestal Review, Quarterly West, The Texas Review, The Westchester Review, Necessary Fiction, and many other venues. He can be found online at www.vincentrendoni.com/writer and @warshingtonian.
- Tourists by J.D. Hosemann
It was another brewery tour for Jared and me. The fifth since we’d been married. Or was it sixth? I can’t remember. We were at the part where the guide finally lets you smell the hops. I brought a handful to my face, sniffed, and immediately forgot where I was. Had we come to Austin or Asheville? Portland, Oregon; or Portland, Maine? Or does geography matter in the age of American microbreweries?
Jared sniffed the hops in his palm and said “Oh, nice.”
Just then everyone’s phones screeched at once and people dug in their pockets. Severe weather was fast approaching and we hadn’t even begun the tasting. So the guide skipped the barley segment and took us directly to the bar, but not before I dropped a few hops into my clutch.
Jared, ever the lightweight, pretended to evaluate the first of his unfiltered ales. But by his third, he’d changed the subject to babies.
“I know it’s your body,” he said. “And I respect that.”
Thankfully the phones screeched again and I pulled mine out.
“What’s it say?” he asked.
“It says thunder and lightning. It says rain. It says tornadoes and flashfloods. It says earthquakes and hurricanes.”
Jared took another sip of beer and said “I guess we should head for the giftshop.” We collected tall beer glasses and liked them more than the beer itself. We had a cabinet full of them at home. All smooth and curvy, with the names of different cities printed on them.
I asked Jared if he thought we should leave, if we should take shelter somewhere else, but he just shrugged. He said it would blow over. Just a summer storm. He said people make too much of it, that’s why no one comes this time of year. Jared and I were opportunists, always going places in the offseason.
In the giftshop, I could hear the wind blowing outside and wondered about the rental car in the parking lot. Did we buy insurance? I thought to ask Jared but he was rotating a glass in his hand, holding it to the light, testing the balance on a flat surface. But when we heard little pops on the building’s tin roof, Jared turned and looked at me.
“Did we buy insurance?” he asked.
“Sounds like hail,” I said. “I’m going to check.”
The light outside was unlike any I’d ever seen. Everything appeared a yellowed sepia. The water in the canal was choppy and little balls of hail shattered on the asphalt. I found it all quite beautiful and wished I could remember where we were, which city this was. I thought I’d like to come back one day.
All the cars in the parking lot were white or silver and I was pressing the lock button on the keys, listening for the honk, when I saw the little girl. She was standing between vehicles with no adult in sight. Everyone had taken shelter. “Are you okay?” I asked. Suddenly the rain came down hard and I couldn’t hear what she said. She ran up to me and grabbed my hand. I pressed the lock button again and the car directly behind us chirped and blinked its lights.
Inside the car we had to yell to hear one another. “Are you okay?” I yelled.
“The car is probably not the safest place to seek shelter,” the girl responded loudly.
“Yes, I know. But it’s a rental. I couldn’t remember if we bought insurance. I thought maybe we should move the car beneath an awning of some sort. I mean with the hail and all. Where are your parents?”
“Ah! You’re a tourist!” yelled the little girl. “Have you tried the microbrewery yet?”
When she said this the wind picked up and I wondered if tornados ever hit cities or if they only happened in rural places. But I stopped thinking about the wind when I noticed the water seeping into the floorboards. The little girl noticed it too. She looked at me and said, “I’m scared.”
“I am too,” I said.
“Do something,” she said.
I reached into my clutch and pulled out some hops from the brewery. “Here, smell this.”
The little girl leaned over the console and sniffed. “What is it?”
“They’re hops. They’re from…”
“I have to go,” said the little girl. She turned, flung the door open, and bolted into the parking lot. I wanted to yell after her but knew not what to call her.
I didn’t notice the rain had stopped until Jared tapped on the window. He was bone dry and carrying a bag from the gift shop. “Jesus,” he said. “Were you out here for all that?”
Months later we’re at home. I open a cabinet and one of the many tall, curvy glasses leaps to the floor. I sweep most of the pieces into the dustpan, but, on my hands and knees, I find some large shards under the counters. I grab one with my fingertips and flip it over. On it, small red letters spell Nashville, Tennessee. And, for a long while, I sit on the floor trying hard to remember anything at all about Nashville, Tennessee.
J.D. Hosemann lives in Jackson, Mississippi and teaches English at Tougaloo College. His stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, New World Writing, Gone Lawn, The Hong Kong Review, and Night Picnic Press.
- The Brains by Ruby Rorty
I plant brains out back to help me think. I can’t say whose. In the mornings, I pour coffee over their folds and sprinkle the grounds as fertilizer. At night, the bodiless brains’ dreams drift past my windows like jellyfish. I fall asleep watching them and their phosphorescence seeps into my own dreams. In these dreams, I am brainier than ever.
I am proud of my brains, so I write a letter to the brain people at the university in town. Secretly, I hope they will give me an honorary degree. A man in a lab coat comes and shakes my hand. He digs up my garden and bags the brains. When he thinks I’m not looking, he kisses each one through the plastic.
I ask if I can come visit and he tells me it will be best for everyone if I don’t try to contact my brains at their new home. He leaves, and my garden is full of fresh dirt and coffee grounds. At night, the windows stay dark.
Ruby Rorty is a poet, journalist, and environmental justice researcher in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Cool Rock Repository, Paddler Press, and Mythic Picnic Volume 8. Ruby tweets @RortyRuby and Instagrams @ruby.rorty
- Does the Pig? by Nick Story
Does the pig run?
Does the pig run and jump over the fence?
Does the pig, fleeing the farmer, run toward the fence, to jump the fence?
Does the pig, fleeing the farmer, who is brandishing a dull rusty knife, run toward the fence, which is in disrepair, and leap into a kind of freedom?
Does the pig, fleeing the balding farmer, who is brandishing a dull and rusty knife, a knife he inherited from his grandfather, speed toward the fence, rotten from termites and broken by teenagers the night before, to find himself in freedom?
Does the wiry-haired pig, fleeing the bald overweight farmer, the man who is holding tight to his grandfather’s knife, a knife used to cull generations of pigs, flee toward the broken-down fence, sailing over it to freedom?
Does the pig with wiry white hair, who just this morning was concentrating on a mud pool he favored, run from the farmer—who looks like he is at death’s door to be honest—and yet who is still white-knuckling a knife, a knife he got from his grandad, a knife used to slaughter pigs over many decades, a knife that was once iron in a quiet hillside, does this pig run to toward the fence, broken by local teens during a night of drunken balance beaming—though the teens were only a proximate cause since the slats had been weakened by termites—to freedom?
Does our friend the pig, covered in mud from his favorite mud pool, run from the hungry farmer who loves his knife, the knife that Pappy gave him to spill gallons of porcine blood, a knife that was once quiet iron living, in its way, inside a hill, does this very pig zoom on over toward a fence—a fence used the night before in a balancing act by two teenage girls staying out later than they told their parents they would, drinking from a bottle of wine—and pass into a realm of freedom?
Does the muddy pig, who was recently having some of his best mud thoughts and mud sensations in his mud pool, fly from a farmer who wields his grandpa’s knife—a knife used in the past for killing animals but before that was just sitting there in the dark earth—fly from the farmer and toward the fence, luckily broken by two teens under the moonlight—teens who, the night before laughed when the wood snapped and caught each other—and does the prenominated pig, picking up speed near the end, jump gracefully over the broken fence into freedom?
Does the pig belong to a trinity we might call “knife—pig—man,” a configuration in which the man dreams of being a knife, the knife dreams of being iron in a hill, and the pig dreams of being a drunk teenage girl balancing on a narrow, rotted board, the same board whose nocturnal collapse has cleared the way for the pig to jump into freedom?
No, no. The pig stays where he is.
Nick Story is from Columbus, Ohio. His fiction has appeared in The Normal School, The Indiana Review, Monkey Bicycle, and The Common. His website is nick-story.com
- Two by Stephanie Dinsae
Bitstream (The Body Keeps Score)
mumbledata dreambones chucklepoint
A bitstream is something like a transference of data.
A succession of layers all working together to achieve the same goal: longevity.
The bits point to each other for guidance and lessons, all formed by a collection of family units.
Sometimes the different layers resonate with each other.
They take on similar appearances or build or mannerisms.
Sometimes the father-layer has consistent phone issues and is terrible at communicating.
Likewise, his estranged son-layer has terrible luck, replacing phone after phone, and is terrible at communicating.
Sometimes the grandchild-layer is stubborn and resistant, sometimes the granddaughter-layer gets it from the mother-layer and the mother-layer gets it from both her parent-layers.
A transference of data can look like:
Vivid dreams that cause both a grandmother and her foreign grandson to mumble, chuckle, exclaim in their sleep.
A vicious patriarchal system wrapping itself around a grandmother and her children, forcing them to attempt to wrap the same system around the granddaughter.
The genuine care and protection that a mother shows to her child and that he, in turn, shows to his daughter.
A surplus of rhythm, but a scarcity of ways to use it among grandpa and grandson.
The adulterous bones that emerge in certain husband-layers of the family units.
Sometimes the data is the body in all its encoded glory. Family secrets held in code-block. Inheritance a twisted tunnel of traits. Freedom a generative flower pushing forth from its embedded roots.
- I am lying on this table of rock. My wrists and ankles restricted.
My insides chosen to be picked open for the taking of my flesh,
I want to say I am sorry but I think that’s just the eagle’s beak
nipping at my gut and I am not used to the feeling of feeling so open.
- I opened myself to those I thought were my people
and they called it a burning, a scorching of the truth. Now my intestines
dangle outside of my torso and I am told this is supposed to be
punishment. I am uncomfortable but somehow, this is the freest
I’ve ever felt. My guts spill across this slab of rock, my heart quivers.
- I brought my truth to my people and they called it a burning,
a burning of any facades and half-truths I tried to claim
as my own. They called it a burning. A burning I tried to own.
I tried to claim facades and half-truths. Claim truths and half-
facades. I tried to claim my own burning. I brought a burning to my people
and they called it the truth. I called it the truth.
I brought my people to the burning and they called it a facade.
A facade of burning. A truth of half-burning. Truth claims to be half-facade.
Truth claims to be half-burning. Half-truth tried to claim my people.
My people claimed the burning. I learned how to stew
in the discomfort of being so bare, supposedly against my will, but I chose this.
- I gave permission for my insides to be pecked out. Gave permission
to be pecked out. To be pecked. Out. To be pecked out. My insides to be.
Permission for my insides to be out. Permission for. Permission for me.
Permission for me to be. Out. My limbs straining against the restraints.
- I can no longer tell if I am trying to break free or contain my fear.
Am I trying to break my fear or contain my free. Stifle my free.
I saw what happened when I unleashed myself the first time,
my throat still thick, warm with repressed
flames of my memory, my lips charred with forbidden saliva, my pleasant
combustion imminent, I saw myself in the flames.
Stephanie Dinsae is a poet and Black Classicist from the Bronx. She is a 2019 Smith College graduate and has received an MFA degree in Poetry with a Joint Concentration in Literary Translation from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Stephanie often writes poetry about shame, myth as it relates to Blackness and her own life, video games, and the flexibility of memory. In 2021, she was named one of six Bronx Poet Laureate Finalists and won the DISQUIET Literary Prize in Poetry, publishing her poem “Dey” in The Common‘s Issue 22. Her favorite things to do are dance around to music and obsess over astrology. In case you were wondering, Stephanie has major Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius placements.
- I am lying on this table of rock. My wrists and ankles restricted.
- Two by Shane Kowalski
The Dark Staircase
The dark staircase leads to nothing. But we take it every once in a while, to another possible fate. Silently, a figure in white is digging a grave for you. It is “Purity.” It’s enough to make you want to splash your blood on white linen and scream. It’s enough to kiss passionately on a black horse in a thunderstorm before you die. This toppled chair indicates something intimate happened. Christine, where are you driving tonight, in this heartbroken fog?
A Fresh, Shallow Grave
These tire tracks indicate a swerve into the dark field. In the field is a hollow. In the hollow is a fresh, shallow grave. Christine, do you know this spot? Did you drive here one crisp night to remember how we used to feel? This metaphorical moon tells me a feeling can be mutual across many years. Most nights it feels like a knife is being sharpened at my throat. Dreams sluice out like juice from a squeezed orange. I’ve been like this forever. Who have you been leaving dead on the side of the road lately?
Shane Kowalski lives in Pennsylvania. He works for the United States Postal Service. He is the author of Small Moods (Future Tense Books).
- Anglerfish by Rebecca Ackermann
The waiter cleared the table outside the cafe’s front door and slipped two mint-green paper menus onto two white plates. I opened my mouth to object, fingers tugging on the stretched-out sleeves of my mustardy sweater. I was hoping for an inside seat.
“Thank you,” she said first and slid into the sunnier spot. The waiter put his hand on the back of her chair to wish her, only her, a delicious meal. She smiled with white teeth and a fluency I had never seen in real life.
She told me about her job at a flashy digital agency as I watched the sun play with her clean hair and white skin as if they were pools of saltwater. Her blue eyes held a ring of green in the middle that I could see when she opened them wide, wider to tell me about the size of her new office.
“I could put a hot tub in there it’s so huge!” she said. “Get in hot water to get out of hot water, you know?” I didn’t. But I was enjoying her light reflecting back on me, making me seem more appealing than I knew to be true. I was afraid that if I looked away, I would lose my own potential.
“Should we split the calamari?” she asked, making the same face as her profile pic. “Or are you one of those people who doesn’t like to share?”
“I can share,” I said.
“You look like you might be a pig for squid. Are you a hog for a cephalopod?”
“I don’t think so.” I said carefully.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I appreciate a girl who can eat.” Her blue eyes searched my sweater; I drew my arms in tight. She was testing me for weak spots. My jokes could be like that too, but hers were better. My mother told me I scared people. “No one’s out to get you,” she’d said, pinching my arm between her fingers. “Try not to bite everyone’s head off.” She was too kind to say what was real: I was hard to love.
We ordered the main course and three men turned to admire her as they passed. One stopped and asked if he could take her picture. She ran a hand down the back of her neck and offered him her left side. That’s when I realized our outdoor seating was good marketing: a beautiful woman makes a shiny lure. In my whole life, I had never thought of myself as bait.
“I’m glad I found you,” she said, pulling my mind to attention.
“Me too,” I said.
“I always wanted a sister,” she said and reached her pink hand across the table, palm up, waiting for mine to fill it.
“Me too,” I agreed, even though growing up, I only asked for a dog. I placed my fingertips on hers to see how it felt and she snapped her other hand on top of us both. Our hands were the same, except for my nails, short and chewed on. Hers long and impossibly iridescent.
“Now that you’re here, I don’t think I’ll ever let you go,” she said, showing me her teeth like she had to the waiter. She barked a laugh, her hands still holding mine, her nails starting to find skin. “My sister! My very own sister, can you believe it?”
The waiter placed the squid in front of her and I watched the creature’s smallest tentacle reach for a slice of lemon. It was an illusion; the dish was warm and grilled. I stretched my own arm across the table to stab a bite. She pushed the bright white plate two inches closer to me.
“Are we sharing?” I asked.
“You can have it,” she smiled, leaning all the way back in her chair. “I’m not hungry anyway.”
I was starving. I forked puckered legs into my mouth over and over, as she mooned about a trip to hidden hot springs, each pool more scalding than the last.
“Sounds uncomfortable,” I said, a bite lingering in my cheek.
“Oh, you know the story of the boiling frog,” she said.
But I didn’t.
“Suffice to say, it’s quite pleasant actually!” she laughed. Heads turned at the table on the other side of the glass door to catch the source of her perfect sound.
“You like things hot, I guess,” I said.
She cocked her head like a curious seal.
“Hot tubs, hot springs…”
“I run cold,” she said. “At least that’s what my boyfriends tell me!”
“Me too,” I said, a little warmer after filling my stomach. “Maybe it’s genetic.” But then why did she choose seats out in the early winter air?
“Have the last bite,” she gestured at the plate, one arm and one lemon left in an eddy of speckled aioli. I obeyed and washed it down with iced tea. She told me about the regular mud baths that kept her skin young and flexible.
“It’s like being buried,” she purred. Suddenly, the world in front of my eyes flickered and faded. Then the sirens, the freezing pavement on my neck. I couldn’t move or speak but I was still there and so was she.
“She’s mine!” I heard her shriek through sobs to a cast of blurry figures. “Let me stay with her!” Her silky arms wrapped around me, she brought an ice cube to my lips, still sweet with tea. She lifted me into her car on her own, cooing nursery rhymes as she worked. The last thing I remember is how the leather seats stank of the beach.
Rebecca Ackermann is a writer, designer, and artist living in San Francisco. Her short fiction has been published by Barren Magazine, Wigleaf, Flash Frog, and others. Her essays on tech and humanity have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Week, and elsewhere. You can find her tweeting bad jokes and strong opinions @rebackermann.
- Some Things We Just Make by Blake Bell
At first, her ghosts are just shapes, but in time, they grow into themselves. Her sister cuts her bangs, and her husband starts writing lyrics again. The dog aggravates her parents. They’ll spend eternity with a yapping puppy who won’t train like Jack, their beloved golden who passed before them. The new dog thinks the grass smells like dead animals now—and not the kind he’d like to roll in or eat—but ones that serve as a warning: nothing lives here.
“Nothing leaves here.” Momma’s dyed-blonde hair has come back gray. She combs it incessantly. “Death isn’t a place. There’s no coming or going. We just are,” she says.
But Maggie tears into books and falls deep down dark-web forums. Maybe she can bring them back. “But you still are, aren’t you? A shade, but still, a shade.”
The how-tos and spells and rituals require wildly different materials. Some say sage and star anise and lavender. Others require goat blood and chants in writing Maggie can’t understand.
Your drawing needs darkness. It’s empty, her art professor says, standing over her unshaded bedroom sketch. The wooden bed she designed for her lover centers the room. Frankenstein’s monster, an antique dream, brought to life.
Now, Maggie studies her husband; he’s smooth not stippled. His songs are all about walruses. The night before the accident, they’d watched a nature documentary about Arctic walruses and their disappearing habitats. Nowhere else to go, blubber-filled bodies fell slack from cliffs and bounced to their death on the rocks below. “Stop this,” Adam says. “You don’t know what could happen. We could change.” “Remember all those horror movies we used to watch?” her sister asks. “No,” Maggie lies. “But I remember watching Practical Magic over and over.” Mary’s face fragments into crosshatches.
Maggie smells butter. Mary is ten, and her cheeks are so full of popcorn when she laughs, it spills out the sides of her mouth and onto the couch they share. The movie is loud, but they are louder, and soon, Momma stomps up the stairs. You know better than this, Maggie. Y’all are keeping us up, Momma says.
“Do you remember what it’s like to be alive?” Maggie asks each of them, but none will say.
Build it! her professor says, pointing at her pencil. Maggie’s grip tightens. The dots grow in the corner of the room, multiplying, creeping toward the bedpost. That’s more like it, he says.
When she goes to bed, curling wooden arches threaten and cradle her. She sleeps on her husband’s side and buries herself in her momma’s quilt, squares of ornate flowers and ferns. When she wakes up, time starts over. She opens her eyes and peels the quilt back. Under the bathroom mirror, hot water steams from the tap, and Maggie draws shapes in the fog with her finger pad. A dog, a car, silhouettes of necks, twisting.
Blake Bell enjoys writing and teaching teenagers writing in South Louisiana. Find some of her recent work in Entropy Magazine, The Adroit Journal, and X-RAY Magazine, or visit blakelbell.com and follow her @blakelbell.
- My Uncle Lived in the Future by Parth Shah
He mailed the paperwork when I was still an orca. The hungry days. Unyielding seasons of screaming water. Mother obsessed over deciphering their sound, preoccupied when kinfolk sank to the rocks. I died in the alien net before we could learn the language, and I became his nephew. My rebirth is at a hospital close to the ocean and close to the post office where he mailed off the forms. My uncle comes in the morning to hold me, dressed in his customary polo and slacks, square glasses with silver frames like beams of a bridge. He built bridges for the state, one in every county. Always building, unable to ignore connections. My uncle lived in the future. Itineraries were his prose. He planned sweet sixteens, sangeets, he edited college essays and filed taxes. He engineered the visa process for relatives and friends and strangers, including my parents. My parents. He didn’t ask if they wanted to come. He learned their names and saw a fate outside of una. They didn’t know english but they could speak two languages already, a third would be an easy extension, especially with a television. I saw him the other day on the train, an orb of buttery light hovering by my seat as we crossed the seabridge over my grave. My uncle lay in bed that last year, watching movies, immobilized by his tired lungs. I gave him the password to my netflix. For his profile, he chose an avatar that looks like a bollywood policeman, aviator sunglasses and a handlebar mustache. He was always clean shaven. When black hairs started to accompany my whiteheads, and some aunty caught me kissing a swim teammate at a matinee, my uncle told me on this land I can choose who I want to be, but once I choose, I must memorize my script.
Parth Shah is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Wyoming. Prior to graduate school, he produced podcasts for NPR. He logs his writing at parth-shah.com
- Two by Flower Conroy
The shell’s tomb, the materials breathe.
The darkness of matter is bottomless.
Perhaps in 1839 Johann Jakob von Tschudi meant to crown you blunt mouth. Did you know the symbol ℞ descends from Jupiter & is abbr. Latin for Recipe which in turn meant take thou? Neoteny regenerator. Ideal human model. Water monster. Of tiger. Not apex predator cat or Victorian slang for prostitute—but rarest salamander with poppy seed eyes. Found only in one complex of lakes, one of which no longer exists. If noon’s the vortex hour where Poseidon anagrammed into poisoned & marsupial into I am a slurp then anagram reinvented itself into a rag man. Meanwhile you just float timorous carnivorous in your bath, sorta smiling—as if you’ve got this primitive streak business all figured out—hypnotic buoy. You’ve a Sea Monkey Cum Cabbage Patch Kid verisimilitude to you that makes me think of that extraterrestrial & chimpanzee couple holding their hybrid alien-monkey (human) baby. (Where’d you think we came from?) To’ve syntax & imagery work in equal measures. Like the spirit of the staircase glancing over its chilled shoulder. Or the threat display of a devil’s flower mantis.
So I’ll be wed in the Church of the Holy
To detect such designs, however, is not necessarily to understand them. Why do we prize rarity & not its cousin, deformity? The arbitrary unmasked is the occult science of aesthetics. Filament to stitch the tear in heaven shut. Sometimes the only way to please a deity is disbelief. For you breathe, slip of chromosome, chosen one, you serve as example of the impossible made possible stepping into the god particle light. I speak of the uncanny valley, wheat cake & whelk brewing between your must reeking pages—wattle. Don’t stew. Rake the leaves off the concrete sidewalk so the pathways from the saber-toothed to the throat radiate. Unencumbered usher us slightly wounded toward wreckage uncalled-for. How to cope—this daily barrenness, its hot polish? I bleed you gill-side on a piece of paper; white spore print telltale sign you’ll kill me. Destroying Angel, it’s best to leave you unmolested.
LGBTQ+ artist, NEA and MacDowell Fellow, and former Key West Poet Laureate, Flower Conroy’s the author of Snake Breaking Medusa Disorder (winner of the NFSPS’s Stevens Manuscript Prize), A Sentimental Hairpin (a Small Press Distribution bestseller), and Greenest Grass (or You Can’t Keep Killing Yourself & Not Expect to Die) (winner of the Blue Lynx Poetry prize, forthcoming 2022). Her/their poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, American Literary Review, New England Review, Prairie Schooner, and others.
- Candlelight by K.C. Mead-Brewer
Strike a match, light a candle, here we go. In this version of the story, the messenger urges his horse on, faster faster, away from the blood-soaked fields of Vlad the Impaler’s latest battle, off to inform The Impaler’s beloved that he is alive, he has conquered, he will return to you soon. But only messengers bearing bad news ever reach their destination in time.
The Impaler’s enemies enchanted a lunar moth to flutter up to the princess’s window, collapsing upon the stone sill as a missive and single drop of blood. Her beloved is a man of many mysteries and horrible miracles, and so she falls upon the ominous letter at once, convinced it must be from him, until the note, its soul, it says: welcome to the end, my dear. your impaler is dead, and your window is wide open.
I think you know what happens next.
In a fit of grief, the princess leaps from her tower, determined to rejoin with her lover in death. Too bad, then, that when her body smashes against the castle moat below, she only continues to fall and fall until she reaches the other side of the water and meets air again, sitting up in a fog-chilled churchyard, the tombstones bright as teeth. She’s in search of her lover, Romeo. It’s a secret, a rendezvous, yes! She’s ready. Together they will make their romantic escape. But the tombstones tilt into a grin and the fog tightens like a noose. The moon has never cared for poetry. A gruff friar steps forward, shaking his head and saying to her, “Come, come away. Thy husband in thy bosom there lies dead.”
And you think you know what happens next, you’ve heard a version of this story before: The way the young woman weeps over her lover’s corpse, soaking his doublet with tears. The way she plunges his dagger into her bright chest, intent once more on joining him. The way the wound rips through her until she falls inside herself, through the centuries of different lands, different waters, different arms and deaths and versions.
It would be so easy for this to be a dream.
If dreams bother you, consider how your lovely lips pucker to blow out a candle. Consider how the flame must feel, blushing, breathless, believing itself about to be kissed.
Consider how it may be lit anew by match after match after match.
Consider how, in some versions, the princess is elated by the news of a violent man’s death. Free of him at last. How she clutches the lunar moth’s remains to her chest and paints her lips a glowing red with its blood. How she falls into action straightaway, taking command of the castle for herself. How she flees the dead churchyard for a life on wild horseback, leaving Romeo blinking and dry in her tomb. How a woman like this, knowing Death so well, might have been a ghost all along. How she floats out to greet the weary messenger and silences him with a kiss. “No, no,” she tells him, a hand in his hair. Licking, breathless. “Let’s pretend we never heard a thing.”
K.C. Mead-Brewer lives in Baltimore, MD. Her fiction appears in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Carve Magazine, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. 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 information, visit kcmeadbrewer.com and follow her @meadwriter.
- Two by Rubén Casas
It started simply, with a wish: “I wish every word was as fun as ‘kumquat’.”
“That’d be fun,” I replied.
Later that week, when I needed a paper towel but couldn’t immediately recall the word for what I needed (or, I did, but I also thought of the word “napkin,” and could not quickly enough reconcile the tension between one word and the other to designate what it was that I was asking for, precisely), I said: “Could you hand me a—that—a…please, hand me a ‘kumquat,’ please.”
I asked for a kumquat and got a paper towel.
A few days later I proffered the right item (a receipt we’d need to make a return) when all I heard was, “Do you know where the ‘kumquat’ for the shirt I bought yesterday ended up?”
It’s been nine months. It seems as if every 10th word we say to each other is “kumquat.” Kumquat means “love;” it means “no”; it means “blowjob,” “pizza,” “tired,” “sad,” “not-it,” “your turn,” “book,” “car,” “nerd,” “shower,” “nap,” “dinner,” “phone charger,” “gas,” “not now,” “dog,” and so much more. It’s never confusing, what one of us means when the other says “kumquat.”
The bag of kumquats my coworker gave me on Friday on the way out of the office has sat on the counter all weekend. Neither of us has discussed what it would mean to eat them, or to throw them out, or to give them away. But we’ll have to sooner than later. I hate to think what would happen if we just let them go moldy and bad.
The sun did not rise today. Or it did rise, but didn’t see it. Couldn’t tell. The smoke is thick—thicker than it’s been for weeks. It’s also overcast, supposedly. That’s what the weather report says, anyway. What it is is hot. The weather report says it’s in the 90s, but it feels hotter. Is it humid? Or is it dry? Yesterday conditions were dry. Today, I think, they are humid.
What I can see is round-the-clock red glow down the street. The fire station on Canyon Road must have been upgraded to a field station. Last week the glow was yellow, when the station served as a makeshift pantry. I went to see what was on offer and left with a box of baked beans and three boxes of macaroni and cheese.
“Enjoy it while you can,” said the volunteer who greeted me on the way out. “Wheat isn’t growing. No more mac ‘n cheese.”
Tomorrow’s high is going to be 93, says the weather report. Smoke quotient will be at 5 again. No progress has been made on the ORWACA mega-fire, and conditions are supposed to worsen by the weekend, when the smoke is expected to merge with a volcanic ash cloud coming up from the South Pacific. The weather report says they’re talking about adding a lettering system to the smoke quotient scale to designate even worse air quality, accounting for factors outside of forest fires. In this case, volcanic ash.
The clock says it’s 11am. It could be 7pm. The smoke quotient today is 4C. I could see into my neighbor’s yard, which is something, but I’m not supposed to be outdoors for more than 10 minutes because an atmospheric river is dumping inches of acidic rain all around us. According to this e-mail, we’re not supposed to eat any food we grew ourselves outdoors if we didn’t harvest prior to Monday.
My houseplants are dead.
I said earlier that I could see into my neighbor’s yard. That wasn’t true. My neighbor doesn’t have a backyard. We have small patios.
Today’s weather report said that world bee populations are increasing, reversing a trend that’s been observed for at least a decade. Because no one really understood bee colony decline to begin with, it’s not totally understood what’s behind this reversal. The high today was 97. Smoke quotient was 4A.
The constant glow down the street went from red to purple. I don’t know what that means. The news says that the ORWACA mega-fire has grown. Smoke is at 5C. It’s 101 out. My neighbor came by about an hour ago and knocked and knocked. I didn’t answer.
We’re being evacuated. My neighbor, who is sitting next me on this bus, is telling me that he came by earlier to tell me that we were going to be evacuated. “I was sleeping,” I lied. “Well, no matter. Here we are,” he says.
This is my neighbor’s second evacuation, I’ve learned. My watch says it’s 10am. My watch stopped working weeks ago. I tap on the glass, expecting nothing to happen. Nothing happens. There’s an announcement. We’ll be on the road for three, possibly four hours. No stops. We are to keep the windows closed as much as possible. We are encouraged to sleep. Someone asks where we are being taken.
We were each given a shortwave radio. There’s nothing to listen to, though, except for the recorded messages coming from FEMA. At night, someone somewhere sends out old episodes of “Coast to Coast,” so that’s something.
My neighbor hasn’t been seen for days. No one knows when he was last around. His cot and his things are all accounted for. The last thing he told me was that the fires and the smoke were all a cover. A cover for a sunless sky. He said that the sun had not been rising for months now. “We’re being lied to,” he said. “There’s no more sun.”
The camp loudspeakers are playing “Walking on Sunshine.” No one seems keen to finish their lunch. Today is a can of pineapple chunks and a chunk of summer sausage. The summer sausage had a sticky film on it, which was a chore to remove, but once it was off it each bite was salty-minerally good. When the song ends, people just sit and stare. Some get up and throw the remnants of their food away. I ask the little girl next to me if I can have her pineapple juice. She slides the tin in my direction.
The little girl has taken a liking to me. She brings me cuttings from a plant that grows nearby; it thrives in dry, rocky soil. The leaves are heart-shaped and variegated: some are a transparent milky white, some are a velvety, fuzzy black. She also brings small piles of flint and turquoise, which she says is food for the plant.
No one is bothered by the expanded playlist we get with meals now. The rotation includes, “Here Comes the Sun,” “Good Day Sunshine,” and “Soak up the Sun.” The temperature has hovered around 103 for weeks now, the smoke quotient around 4B.
Today’s FEMA report brought new information: the ORWACA mega-fire is 51% contained. It’s been 52 weeks since the fire broke out. Smoke quotients have been hovering around 2B. Temperatures remain high, but seem to get above 100 only occasionally. I saw a bee today.
Rubén Casas is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest.
- A Real Boy Blankets the Earth by A.A. Balaskovits
Now voices are silent, like stilled wind-chimes or green mold. Before it all went kaput, crash, boom, there were whispers about the carved-out-of-soft-pine-wood boy who told fibs loud enough to reach every ear from Atlantis to El Dorado. Whose body grew incrementally with each false word. Expanding like silly-willy-putty. Heavy as a father’s calloused hand on his child’s knee. He was the type, they said before they said no more, who grew out instead of growing up. The only voice is his. Even the air can do little more than whisper across his body, diving in and out of the divots in the unfortunate softness of his wood.
Not all the living went under his body without resistance. Before the wood-boy crashed his pinkie over her head, a barren mother decided she would not be the last of her last name, and collected blood from her nicked finger, the salt in her eyes, and her last beet-root. She buried these under an ancient willow tree as gnarled as her fury. When she heard his screech of a voice say, “I am alone and I miss you,” she spat at the fat pinkie above her head and was smushed.
The mother wasn’t the last to die like that, but they were all dead now, so no one remembered her, because there was nothing to remember, except a growing piece of carved wood who covered the entire world, and the bones rotting-dull beneath him.
The past will be forgotten with no voices to sing it into the present, but a future born beet-red never does.
She came screaming out of the mud as only blood, salt and root can. Her head fit inside her mother’s skull, and this she wore because it was warm, and because there was dried salt in the sockets. As she licked, she tasted the memory of ire so red it reminded her of herself. She had no language, no voice, but she did have her mother’s rictus teeth and a belly full of hunger.
The fingers were easy to climb. When she touched his surface-wood, it came away in the clamp of her fist, and this she swallowed down the length of her. She heard him cry out and followed the noise, eager to find its source. Many days and nights she walked, stopping only to bend over to tear more of him for her aching belly. She shat out splinters.
When she reached his face, she was surprised to see he had one like the skull she wore, though his eyes were painted white with black dollops instead of a cavern of emptiness, and he had lips made of molasses, sweet stickiness.
He said to her, “You’re not real.”
He said, “They were mean to me.”
He said, “I’m innocent.”
Each time he spoke, his body gargled and grew, and the dirt groaned underneath. She did not know what his mouth noises meant, because she had no words in her head. Her nose liked the smell of those painted lips, and she reached for them.
“No!” he cried out, and thrashed his head back and forth. He made to pull himself up, but he was too heavy, and could only twist. “You’re not real, none of them were,” he said. “I’m as real as apple pie and vinegar. Don’t you see? Can’t you see I don’t deserve this?”
She snatched those lips off of his face. They tasted sour, and raw, and oozed down her hand like a wound. The absence silenced him, and it was delicious. She pulled off more pieces of him and passed them across her mother’s teeth into herself. When his wood skin scraped across her mother’s molars, the teeth clinked together in a sound as bright and delicate as the blue above.
A.A. Balaskovits is the author of Strange Folk You’ll Never Meet and Magic For Unlucky Girls. Winner of the Santa Fe Literary Arts Program Awards, her writing has been featured in Best Small Fictions, Kenyon Review Online, Story, Indiana Review, and many others. On Twitter @aabalaskovits
- Preserved by Joshua Hebburn
While sitting at the bar I see your doppelganger. She’s peeling a garniture orange at the table beside the one where the man with tight black rubber gloves, using a long thin silver knife, removes long thin almost clear slices of Ibérico from a hock screwed into a wood hock cradle on a special ham cart. I think of this feeling I have standing in front of my fridge. I do that a lot, stand in front of my fridge. I like how it smells, I like the dim, familiar light. I keep my fridge clean. Sometimes I smell my leftovers, say, Orange Chicken, sitting there in a bag. Then Orange Chicken diminishes like a light being turned down, orange chicken to just orange to the air. I smell the cool air. Fridge air, fridge light. I can’t smell the light, but thinking about it, I feel like I do. Maybe I do. Maybe light can be smelled. The windows in my apartment are always open. I hear the hum of the fridge and neighbors’ voices and noises. The voices don’t form words, the clatter and thump a significance, unless I will them to. I don’t. I close my eyes. Once, I thought I heard the pop of a bottle of champagne but I decided, I decide, it was a car, or something. I stand close to it, to the glowing interior, in the cool air. I see the glow through my eyelids. Then I open my eyes. I see the full glow. I watch. I watch the little bulb’s minute variations. There’s a white undertone to the light. In my last apartment, the undertone was yellow. There was more flicker. You can watch anything if you don’t think too hard, especially something like the fridge, which can’t show me anything other than what I expect, for the most part. It’s not a phone. It’s not a television. It’s not the human face, on which the lines are seismographic. I have this feeling there’s supposed to be certain things in the fridge. These are a block of Kraft cheese slices, broccoli, ketchup, milk, spring mix or baby spinach, Dijon mustard, a head of cauliflower, salad dressing, deli slices of cheese and deli sliced meat, a box of Arm & Hammer with the little tab popped, and a few cans of beer. These are Kirin, usually. I look at these things. I may hear the words that are their names, but they’re more words than names. If all the things are there, if they’re well preserved and neat, if they’re in the usual positions I put them in, I feel good in a fridge way. I move away when I get too cold.
Joshua Hebburn edits fiction for Hobart. His own has also appeared in New World Writing, X-R-A-Y, and Forever Mag. He lives in L.A.
- Two by Leanna Petronella
Your green eyes are butterflies. Your long eyelashes are their trillion legs. “Foom foom,” I say, flapping my hands at your head.
We will marry soon! I will wear my mother’s ring!
Sometimes I look at you and try to make you strange. If a lemon is yellow’s bumpy eyeball, if a banana is a comma in sunlight’s long sentence, if a corncob is rows and rows of teeth wrapped around the beehive’s emptied bone – then you are just some man sitting next to me. I toy with that terror.
It’s almost summer here in Texas. I am going mad with bluebonnets, as I do every spring. The fields measle so suddenly. It seems like a warning, and I struggle with it, blue’s unloosed rage against its careful white spots.
And I love the long unfolding of an image, how it flips and flips. I love to bouncy-house myself until I popcorn out the world. See the clouds that I make? I oil and salt them. Their kernels are copper umbilici, they crunch between my teeth.
And I want to witch out, slamming stars with my broom. Can you hold this, my need to rumble with myself? Will you love me when I return, covered in straw and snouts, will you brush off my mud as I tell you about it?
In bed, I nuzzle you with an old teddy bear. I lug my cat towards your face until she meows unhappily into your chin. I nudge your armpit like I am trying to crawl inside you, and what is it that I need, that I am looking for?
Your nephew understands. Five-year-old piglet, ringleted, sunny, he tapdances stuffed animals on your head and shrieks as you pretend not to notice. Curled in your lap, he idly pulls your beard. Sweet elf, romping chunk, I want to mother him and also be him, laying my head on your shoulder. What a toffee pull of shame, this tender confusion.
Here comes the dog! He throws his body against you and starts licking your face. Your nephew pokes an elephant’s soft trunk into your ear. You drown in dog, nephew, and toys, and why do I love this, your trampling?
Pull me down again, love. I float high above. I’m trying to measure the distance: between myself and my mind, between my heart and yours, between terror and comfort and peace. I won’t do this calmly: I hear hooves latch for no reason to feet. Such a thunder to chase! Then I crash back to you, where was I, oh I know. What I’ll try to remember: all flowers need stems. Is it barrier or bridge, the connection from roots to bright opened heads?
The bluebonnets are in their field. Their bones peek through, getting fresher and whiter.
The green sea of your eyes. Whose legs kick up, who flew too close to the sun? I could melt across the sky with you. I think we can take it with us: the leap and the paint, the honey taste of wax, the gold rings that outline your pupils. I float among longings. I could get somewhere, all taut with horizon.
One Good Push
When my friend was in high school, her boyfriend built her a robot. It was a prom-posal. The silver arm extended from her locker, the invitation clenched between its pincers. I can see her, fiddling with the lock, expecting only her usual private mess. Then the mechanic whirr, her startled gasp, the sharp arm reaching towards her. I guess the boy peered over her shoulder, memorizing her locker combination. I guess he measured the locker’s width and made the robot to fit inside. I never got a robot, but when I was twelve, my pediatrician told me I had child-bearing hips. I never got a robot, but once I had a pet rabbit, whom I sang to, who liked to hump my bunny slippers, popping pink against my toes. And what did they do with the robot for the rest of the day? Did my friend lug it around in her arms, jiggling to hush its spastic motion? Did the boy show it off in the lunchroom, cheering as it rolled uncertainly across the floor? It gets cuter and cuter in my mind. And then after the proposal: “I made this for you,” the boy says. “You can keep it.” I never got a robot, but I wonder about the distance between locker and floor, the crash of shattered metal. I never got a robot, but what girl hasn’t held that door open, deciding. When they go to prom, the girl dances like a cornfield, her blonde hair caught in the sky’s blue chewing mouth.
Leanna Petronella’s debut poetry collection, The Imaginary Age, won the 2018 Pleiades Press Editors Prize. Her poetry appears in Beloit Poetry Journal, Third Coast, Birmingham Poetry Review, CutBank, Quarterly West, and other publications. Her fiction appears in Drunken Boat, and her nonfiction appears in Brevity and Hayden’s Ferry Review. She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. She lives in Austin, Texas.
- How You’ll Go by Wendy Oleson
Human, be honest—you’ve mistaken us for the living. Even the wisest and most steely among you catch yourselves wondering if we haven’t shifted against our wire stands, if the red paint of our mouths hasn’t spread. Did our eyelashes flit once, twice against porcelain cheeks? Because your flesh is soft, you hear the swish of our petticoats and the creaking of our shoulder joints. You fear our placid faces. You smell your own decay.
You’re sad. Desire hardens your chest or yields a dripping emptiness no matter how dutifully you tighten the knob. We need only stillness while you suffocate in your bed sheets, dream of live burial. Loneliness frightens you awake. We can’t feel sorry for you though. You represent billions of neurons, eons of evolution, instinctual memory, imperialism, and industry—should we be impressed you’ve made it this far?
We don’t mean to be critical. We’re grateful—if anything can be grateful to exist. You’ve bestowed upon us the plague of consciousness, and it does burn a bit. We know how the cycle unfolds. You put us in the crib with her, so she may learn to love. Love for the sake of loving, the way it instructs and possesses her. She gazes into our eyes, and you hope she loves well and is well-loved in return. You hope it’s enough.
It’s almost admirable the way you treat your little girls. But it’s not who you are.
Show us how the boys play.
You teach them to court death. Death strapped to the waist, clutched against the chest. A ten-pound seduction in steel. Teach the boys they’re gods while wielding weapons. (Our eyelids flicker open.) Magazines click into place. (Glass eyes scrape against their sockets.) The machines make metallic rain. (We blink each time your boys reload.)
Our universe is expanding.
You’re nothing but fear and dust.
Wendy Oleson is the author of two award-winning prose chapbooks. Her flash appears in No Contact, Fourteen Hills, the Adroit Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly: Best of the First Ten Years, and elsewhere. She’s managing editor for Split Lip Magazine and lives in Walla Walla, WA.
- Three by Jose Hernandez Diaz
The Moon, 2050
A man in an At-the-Drive-In shirt bought a new car because his old car had disintegrated. The new car was a flying car. It was the year 2050. The man in an At-the-Drive-In shirt flew in his flying car to the zoo, except the zoo was on the moon. When the moon had first been colonized in 2025, the Americans brought baby zebras to the moon to start building the species on the moon. Eventually, there were too many zebras roaming free. They were rounded up by astronauts and placed into a zoo. The zoo of zebras was a major attraction on the moon. Right next to the ballet of penguins. When the man in an At-the-Drive-In shirt finished his day at the zoo of zebras and the ballet of penguins, he had an iced coffee at earth set. “The earth is so old-school and nostalgic,” he said to himself, as he sipped his iced coffee.
Meeting James Tate in Heaven
I met James Tate at a carnival in heaven. Tate was riding the bumper cars with his cat, “Lucy.” I was smoking a cigarette on the Ferris Wheel with my dog incidentally named, “Carnival.” We met in line to buy hot dogs. “My name is Jose,” I said. “I’m James Tate. Nice to meet you,” he said. We ate our hot dogs at a bench with graffiti scribbled by fallen angels. Tate asked me a couple of questions: “What’s your favorite season?” “Autumn,” I said. “Who’s your favorite baseball team?” “The Dodgers,” I said. “I like the Kansas City Royals, myself,” he said. As the clouds darkened and the carnival ended, the jugglers and clowns packed up for the next town in heaven. Tate and I shook hands, said our goodbye, and went our separate ways. Tate, to a fancy cocktail party with the original nine muses. Myself, to a library of forgotten saints on the other side of heaven.
The Man and the Dragon
“People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.” ― Ursula K. Le Guin.
A man in a Jimi Hendrix shirt walked a dragon to a liquor store. The dragon was named Louie, the Dragon. The dragon was purple and green. The man in a Jimi Hendrix shirt tied the dragon to a pole outside of the liquor store as he purchased marigolds and an umbrella. It was only slightly raining, a drizzle.
Next, the man in a Jimi Hendrix shirt jumped on the dragon and flew over the freeway in the jagged city. The man saw cars and buildings below; he felt like a star. The dragon only obeyed his owner, the man in a Jimi Hendrix shirt. He had nurtured the dragon since infancy.
The man in a Jimi Hendrix shirt finally arrived at a gothic cemetery. The man laid marigolds on the dragon’s mother’s grave. He’d promised to take care of her baby dragon until it grew strong and independent. The man in a Jimi Hendrix shirt and the dragon sat by the grave until sunset and then flew back to the suburbs.
Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. He is the author of The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020). His work appears in The American Poetry Review, Boulevard, Colorado Review, Conduit, Georgia Review, Huizache, Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, and in The Best American Nonrequired Reading Anthology 2011. He teaches creative writing online and is a Guest Editor for Frontier Poetry.
- hex is coming. are you ready?