Bread

[fiction]

One morning, there are people in her house.

Caren lives alone. She never married and her last long-term thing ended five years ago. She’s fine. She likes it: those early hours sipping coffee, her cat, Guster, winding through her bare legs. She can wear her rattiest t-shirts, hum off-key while getting ready.

But now as the light slants in the front window of her little city rowhouse, two people are sitting at her kitchen table. She’s never seen them before. Their clothes are formal; the man in a yellowed button down and the woman in a white dress with a lace collar. Their posture is impeccable. They’re not from around here, she’s pretty sure.

The man and woman stare back at her. The woman looks frightened. She turns to the man as if Caren’s the interloper, a pale ghost before them.

Caren thinks about picking up a fork or a butter knife. Calling the police. Her cell phone’s in the bedroom.

Guster threads through the strangers’ legs. The man clears his throat. “Bread,” he says in a strong accent.

Caren wants to ask all the questions. She still wants to pick up a butter knife. But instead, she looks through the fridge.

“It’s low carb.” She’s apologizing to them. She’s lost her mind.

The woman still looks frightened.

*     *     *

Two days later and they’ve fallen into a routine.

The man is Michael, she’s learned; the woman’s name is Bea. Michael speaks English, badly, then translates for Bea. Caren doesn’t recognize their language.

She’s just not sure about the whole thing. They’re so quiet, so dignified. They sleep in the living room, only use the bathroom when she’s at work. They eat modestly, hardly more than Guster. She probably throws out that much in a week.

*     *     *

The next night, she brings home candy from the office. Twizzlers. They each take one and manage to eat them neatly, which seems impossible.

Then Michael brings out a fruit plate. He’s carved her last, neglected apple into thin slices that cover the entire surface. Caren feels like crying. Michael’s a magician, making something out of nothing. A meaningful gesture out of what would otherwise rot.

*     *     *

In her bedroom, she decides she will call the authorities. She’s not in any danger, or not, at least, the usual kind. But she can’t let them break her heart every night.

She won’t be that bourgeois woman whose life is transformed. She refuses to make them her new family. She’ll never truly know them and that is as it should be.

The trouble is, she shouldn’t have waited so long. It would have been easier to call right away.

Two weeks later, the number’s still on the notepad beside her bed.

There’s a knock at the door.

A tall, sandy-haired man smiles at her, lines crinkling around his eyes. “I’m looking for someone. Two, as a matter of fact.”

The living room is empty. They must be hiding.

Caren smiles back at the man. How easy it is to be with someone who speaks her language, whose gestures mirror her own.

“Sorry,” she says. “There’s no one here but me.”

 

Genevieve Abravanel is Associate Professor of English at Franklin & Marshall College. Her scholarly writing has appeared in such venues as Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Modernism/modernity, Mosaic, The Journal of Caribbean Literature, Journal of Modern Literature, and Modernist Cultures. She’s held grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Association for University Women, and the Penn Humanities Forum; in 2012, she published a book of academic nonfiction with Oxford University Press. She lives in Lancaster, PA, with her family.

Like the Fourth Finger of My Left Hand

[creative nonfiction]

So damned sick of delicate things.

My co-worker who was raped over and over. I want to time travel,
tell his five-year-old self, Punch your father’s friend in the face the next time he touches you.

Don’t say resilience. Children are breakable.

I’m tired of my toe poking through the sock printed with zebras, and I just bought the socks.
Stupid delicate things. As if they were made of sand.

How my oldest son barely keeps the sarcasm out of his response when the cop studies his license
and is surprised he has an Anglo surname. When he and a friend are pulled over
for an infraction so slight.

Control of the voice, hair trigger.

A sock that should last more than a season.

The brain’s hair-fine bridge between thought and action. Tired of delicate cycles,
how they leave clothes soaking wet.

Bones of the ear like scrimshaw, one’s favorite drinking glass,
the balance of water in semi-arid regions of Kenya.

The part that snaps that they don’t make anymore.

Your shield against inner rage that crumbles like a brittle castle

of drying sand. So fed up with delicate issues in your family, between brothers born too close.
Like who pays for the fiftieth wedding anniversary bash and is thereby king. The fur on Esau’s body.

Sick of the whiskey makers putting it delicately on their labels, Enjoy responsibly. The moment
the bridge is crossed.

The split second I’m no longer your wife but a she-devil. The delicate shift of target.
Dendrites soaking wet with Tullamore Dew, tentacles in a tide pool slammed with waves.

The fractured plastic that keeps the sliding door of the van on its track.

The cheek of our son with autism which the broken piece almost grazes

when you hurl it.

Thin quilts on the bunk beds where I lie with our sons. The vapor of alcohol on your breath
in the next room.

The door that never works again, and the boys

forgetting and standing at it to be let in. The flimsy gate of memory that then admits
a deafening howl, the party gone wrong, fists, Why did Daddy push Rogan?

The soft-spoken man I’m tutoring from Kenya who’s writing a story about a boy collecting every drop of rain. The way the man sets down the glass bottle holding spring water. He’s brought it for me, carrying it in a quilted bag.

The circle of damp
on the library’s table.

* Oh, delicate ring.

 

Laura English posts a daily blog called “Eat More Life,” a healing space for women living with anorexia. On Sunday afternoons, she teaches writing to people from all walks of life. Her work has appeared in dozens of magazines including the minnesota review, The Sow’s Ear, Cider Press Review, Adanna, and Straylight. A chapbook, Graves Too Small to Be Red (Finishing Line Press), was published last year.

A Mountain of Invertebrates

[fiction]

Austin orders an entire seafood boil for himself. He ignores the crawfish and halved cobs of corn, focusing instead on the crab legs, which he cracks open with such force the buttery juices mist Jorge’s face. Jorge’s plate is nearly empty now. He had devoured his crispy-fried cod sandwich in five minutes and spends the rest of their meal together picking at coleslaw, catching only two or three strands of wet cabbage at a time on his fork. Austin finishes a fourth crab leg and leans back in his chair. He drapes a napkin over his lap. That was delightful, he says, but I can’t eat another bite. Austin smiles at Jorge, his teeth flecked with parsley. You should try some, he says. But seafood is not Jorge’s thing. The ocean, he believes, is swarming with aliens. No need to search for them in outer space when they lurk in the darkest depths of the earth. And certainly no reason to eat them. To roll the aquatic flesh around in his mouth would be an act against God. Hard pass, he thinks. But there was still so much shrimp and sausage and crawfish and potatoes cooling out on the newspapered tabletop. He imagines biting into the untouched crawfish now: some uneasy chewing to start, then a rough swallow. Then, he suspects, the dead little fucker would be revived by the bath of his stomach acid. Reborn, it would swim down, deeper into his gut, burrowing itself within him forever. Jorge, you really must try some, Austin says again. Just one bite, please. He grabs a lobster from the pile, twists its body, and pulls until the tail separates from its torso. They could get a to-go container. There is still time. It’s what other couples might do: wrap up the remains and tote the bounty back to Jorge’s apartment, to be later consumed in a post-sex haze. But that never happens, does it? Jorge sees into next morning, and he knows Austin would leave the bag in his fridge, as he had done with a slice of vodka pizza from their first date, and the stuffed cabbage from date two, and the Thai food from the third. The chocolate cake from date four never made it home. But for all those other leftovers, Jorge made sure to eat them. He was raised to be a garbage disposal. No waste, ever. He picks over whatever Austin leaves in the mornings, shortly after Austin vanishes into the backseat of a Lyft. Off to class or work, Austin says. Alone in his kitchen, scraping his fork against the aluminum takeout container, Jorge watches the Lyft app every time, notes how the driver passes Austin’s job, and the school, and even his apartment. Jorge watches Austin slip away, upstream. Austin is squeezing the lobster’s torso now, and the red shell compresses under his fingers, cracking. Juice rains down over the newspaper. From the carnage, Austin presents Jorge with a lump of yellowish-green meat pulp, balanced delicately on his fingertips. That’s it? Jorge laughs, he has to, everything feels too wild. So much effort and mess? All of that for so little? He’s serious. He’s confused. You’ll see what all the fuss is about, Austin says. He swears it, raises the mass to Jorge’s face. Jorge thinks about the bag of seafood, how it will surely sag, the paper thinning out over time, long after tonight, eventually breaking open all over his bottom shelf. Rancid garlic butter everywhere, and a mountain of invertebrates left to rot. Jorge opens his mouth, welcomes Austin’s fingers. He rolls the meat on his tongue, fights against the stinging in his eyes and rising bile in his throat, tries to push through. Austin is a wide smile and two celebratory balled fists. So good, right? he gasps. I knew you’d love it. But Jorge is still chewing the lobster, nodding his head over and over again. The hope is the movement will guide the sea bug down his throat and he can will himself into saying this thing is good. The hope is it won’t be a lie.

 

Christopher Gonzalez serves as a fiction editor at Barrelhouse and a contributing editor at Split Lip Magazine. His stories appear or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including Third Point Press, Cosmonauts Avenue, Pithead Chapel, and The Acentos Review. He was the recipient of the 2015 Ann E. Imbrie Prize for Excellence in Fiction Writing from Vassar College. Cleveland-raised, he now lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. You can find him online at www.chris-gonzalez.com or Twitter: @livesinpages.

Patty Cakes

[fiction]

I awoke from an exquisite dream. That pissed me off right there, cause in my dream, I was being devoured by love. When I flip the switch, a billion fucking cockroaches scatter. Naturally, I go batshit crazy, careening around the room, stomping and cursing. Now the neighbors are up. “Hey, cut that shit out!” this lady’s yelling. Downstairs, a guy’s shouting, “I have to come up there, I’ll break your fucking bones. I swear.” I recognize that guy. Big, fat Hungarian dude from the second floor. I don’t know his name. Same guy who busted my balls that time I was practicing my scales on the sax.

Next day, I call this fumigator I know. “Cut me a deal, Frankie,” I say. “No can do, Jimmy. Roaches, they got no respect for boundaries, see? You wanna solve your issue, you got to fumigate the entire goddamn building. Otherwise, you’re just playing whack a mole.”

So I go see Yorgi, the super. “Yorgi, we gotta fumigate this shithole.” I say. “Buy a fogguh.” Yorgi says. I think he and the landlord are cousins or something.

Next day, I run into Patty. Patty and I were kids together. I was walking around midtown, minding my business. There she was, demonstrating, marching around in circles, yelling and screaming with a bunch of fucking losers. I hadn’t seen her in forever. Patty with her buck teeth. I always had this crazy crush on her.

“Serendipity,” she says.

“Patty Cakes,” I say.

“Jimmy, you still playing the sax?” she asks.

I was really flattered she remembered. I didn’t wanna confess I pawned it.

“Nah,” I say. “I quit that business.”

“Too bad,” she says. “I’m singing in a band. We could use some more brass.”

She hands me a matchbook: Fergie’s Supper Club out in Queens.

“Come see me,” she says.

You ask me, there’s nothing sexier than buck teeth. The guys, they used to call her “Bucky.” Not me. I called her “Patty Cakes.” Back in the day, she’d watch us playing stickball in the street, dodging taxis and delivery trucks. Outta the blue, she appoints herself cheerleader. She starts doing cartwheels on the sidewalk. Then one time, this cop tells her to move cause she’s blocking the way. He was new on the beat.

“You got a bad case of stupid,” she says to him.

“Freeze right there, honey,” he says, like he’s gonna cuff her.

“Bite my crank,” she says and takes off laughing.

After that, everybody started saying it. Every time the guys got together, somebody’d say, “Bite my crank.”

So I took the train out to Queens to see Patty.

In the parking lot, a guy says to me, “You gotta move your car, buster.”

“I don’t own a car.” I say.

“Whadda you, a smartass?”

“Nah. I’m a pedestrian.”

This guy, he don’t like that remark, so at this juncture, I’m getting invisible quick. I got no ax to grind with this asshole. You can’t be channeling Jackie Chan every time some jerkoff starts feeling his oats. A guy could get messed up pretty bad going down that road.

Anyhow, some supper club this was. Buncha hooligans chowing down buffalo wings and fried cheese. Loud and rude, too. I felt like standing up and telling these clowns to shut the fuck up, but what am I gonna do? Start a brawl? Some people are just ignorant. I elbowed my way up front so I could hear. Patty sounded sweet, like an angel.

Sometimes I wonder if things might have turned out different. Like if this hadn’t happened, or that hadn’t happened, or the phone hadn’t rung that one time…or it had. Or I didn’t decide to do what I did that one night or decided not to do. Maybe I wouldn’t be living in a shithole. Maybe me and Patty coulda been a team. We coulda played at classy places. She crooning all torchy and heartbreaky. Me on the sax, hitting those soft notes; the one’s that purr like a cat when you stroke its belly.

After the show, we went out to a diner.

“You want a coffee?” I say.

“I’m caffeine free,” she says.

I ordered her a lime Rickey and let her talk. I’m watching her teeth. She was so sexy.

She stirred the glass with her finger while she gabbed. That was sexy, too.

“Patty, be my girl,” I say.

“Bite my crank, Jimmy.”

 

Richard Graddis began his career as an attorney on the East Coast, but later moved to Los Angeles, where he became a private investigator, engaged in the business of tracking down missing heirs. He is now retired. He lives with his wife in Laurel Canyon. He has dabbled in writing over the years, but only recently took it up seriously. He spends his time writing, playing tennis, and worrying about the future of the human race.

A Compendium of Earthquakes

[creative nonfiction]

  1. The first one was in the egg shop. I was a baby, strapped to my mother’s back in a blue nylon carrier while she wandered Kotwali bazaar. Shelves of eggs, a single room with three walls and a pull-over aluminum door. All of the eggs broke. After the shaking stopped, the street dogs rushed in, thrilled, lapping the floor and shelves.
  2. They happened all the time in Dharamsala, my dad says. My brother remembers the one that broke the cottage above Macleod Ganj where the other ex-pats lived; he was in school reciting square root tables. My sister remembers, too; she had been on the roof, sweeping off monsoon rainwater.
  3. Halloween when I was 11: Katie and I went out—her witch hat, my face stamped with moon and stars—and got candy one last time. What are you? mothers asked, scowling at us. We were old now. In the morning, it was in the papers. They were rare in New England, after all. None of us had felt it, and we all wished we had.
  4. The train was too far from Matt’s house in Kent, Ohio, to hear the horn, but the vibrations woke me up at 4 a.m., 6 a.m., 8 a.m. I didn’t know yet that this is what an earthquake feels like. I slowed my breathing, one breath for every two of his, until I fell asleep again.
  5. In my lab in La Jolla, I was always worried I’d be working with radiation when one happened. I’d be closed in what we called the hot room, and the radioisotopes would spill over the bench, the floor, burn through my gloves and shoes and fry my ovaries. When one did come, I only had a bottle of saline solution. It went on so long that we all looked around at each other, wondering if we should get under the desks and hold their legs like the video said. We just stood there, eyebrows up, flasks and pipettes in our frozen hands, shaking. It passed and we got back to work.
  6. I felt one in the apartment in San Diego, too: rumble, pause, rumble. Max came back from his run, dripping, a half hour later. He hadn’t felt it: it turns out that in motion, you can’t feel the earth move under you. Oh man, he said, I missed it!
  7. In Berkeley, I sometimes startle awake at 2 a.m., bed shaking. I always wait, but when another movement doesn’t come, I know it’s just the subway shaking the ground.
  8. None of us are prepared. I have some dust masks, a hand-crank radio, but only a gallon of water stored under the bed. No canned food, no can opener, no crowbar to hack out of a collapsed building when The Big One comes. And my building will collapse: my walls already show cracks; my ceiling is already starting to buckle. No one I love has the money to live somewhere safe. Maybe this is why no one I love has bothered to get the recommended welding gloves, or waterproof matches. In the shape we’ll be in, we don’t want to survive.
  9. The last time, you were there with me. My bed was our bed for the evening; my body your body for the night. I was over you, my hands braced on your shoulders, hearts thumping. And then the bed shook. The headboard rattled. We stopped moving, eyes locked. A framed photograph fell from the wall. The ground kept shaking the building, and the building kept shaking the bed, and the bed kept shaking us, until my heart fell out of my chest and onto yours. It lay on you, throbbing, wet, ruby-red and oversized like a cartoon steak. I bled over you. The blood ran off your sides, pooled under your ribs, your belly button. You tried to place, and then shove, my heart back in my ribcage, but it wouldn’t fit. Well, you said, I think this is The Big One. You put your fist where my heart had been and stopped the bleeding.

 

Hope is a science writer in Berkeley, California. Her work has most recently been published in Lost Balloon, Pidgeonholes, and The Rumpus. You can find her at hoperhenderson.com, and on twitter @hoperhenderson.

Upward Snow

[creative nonfiction]

She is sitting in an arm chair next to a broad window that overlooks Fairbanks Avenue and Lake Michigan. She ignores me as I walk from the doorway, across her hospital room, then perch on the broad windowsill. I welcome the cold of metal as the sensation seeps through my white coat, then my scrubs, to the back of my thighs. I should inquire about her postpartum body—the new wound on her abdomen, vaginal bleeding, pain, her fevers, engorged breasts, swollen legs, bruised skin, distended belly. Instead, we watch the wind push snowflakes back toward the sky. “Look. Upward snow,” she says. “Sounds like a band name,” I reply. Then we settle into silence.

Yesterday, her baby died.

 

Whitney Lee is a Maternal Fetal Medicine physician, an assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University, former OpEd Public Voices fellow, and a veteran. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Booth, Typehouse, The Rumpus, Crack the Spine, Gravel, Numéro Cinq, Huffington Post, and Women’s eNews. She lives in Chicago with her husband and four children. Currently, she is working on a collection of themed essays about a physician’s experience with death.

Camellias in Black and Gray

[fiction]

I know I want Lea the way I do long before she pulls me into her room, but the way she shrugs the button-up off her shoulders still undoes me. She closes the door, reaching up and over her head to tear a wad of gauze off her back. She makes the white pad dance between two fingers before turning on her heel. “Do you like it?”

When I see “it,” sparks skitter across my skin. I stare for too long and the misstep makes her voice hike up one nervous tick.

“Bri?”

“I love it,” I rush to say. That’s the safe, expected response to the camellias—three blossoms total—bursting from the angry skin on her shoulder. It’s easier to say than “that’s sexy” or to gush that the piece sits so perfectly on her flesh and bone.

I know nothing about tattoos, but I decide the detail is exquisite anyway. The lines in the folds of each petal are clear and steady. There are tiny puffs of pollen peeping out from each flower’s heart. The leaves are veiled gray to help the flowers pop. It works.

Aside from a bit of shading in the slope of each petal, the flowers are filled only with the color of Lea, the kind of brown so lush that makeup companies can only describe it with awkward and ambiguously edible clichés. Mahogany Caramel. Sienna Truffle. Sycamore Espresso, Roasted Medium Dark.

It’s the kind of skin that inspires my mother to ask if “the morena” is still there long after Lea leaves for the night; to brush off my indignation with a laugh. It’s just a joke, she says. Don’t be so sensitive, she adds. Later she’ll hand me a bar of papaya soap and cluck her tongue and wonder if Lea’s mom wants some. We have extra. Doesn’t she know she can always ask?

These are the matters that haunt my mother: our various shades, our modest accomplishments, the bleach in our soap. I despise her obsessions, but I’m just as grateful that they distract her from a daughter whose only interest is spending hours on the couch with that morena, legs tangled for no other reason than for my body to touch hers. I don’t know what Lea’s distracted by, but as far as I can tell, she’s just as blind.

We’ve known each other forever, from kindergarten class to chatrooms. We’ve pantomimed heartbreak for boys who didn’t matter; cackled as we bared our budding chests to strange men online, shimmying side to side. It should be enough to have those moments, those precious bits of girlhood no one else could reach. But I want more. I want to consume her melancholy, audacity, and joy. I want to strip the petals off her back and let them sit on my tongue until they dissolve. I don’t want anyone else to ever have a taste.

I think mom would be livid if I followed Lea’s lead and pierced my skin with ink. What would she think if I let myself tip forward to drink my morena in?

“Where’d you get it?” I say. She says something about some old classmate of ours apprenticing in Lower Haight, and I have so many more questions. When? Why couldn’t I come along? Why haven’t I met her? It is a ‘her?’ I bite them back.

There are days when I think Lea’s noticed when I’ve laughed too loudly at something she’s said, or how goosebumps prickle along my arms when her shoulder brushes against mine. But in the end, I’m good at staying hidden. Invisible. A rebellion as quiet as the camellias on her back, fierce but hidden from view.

Lea looks over her shoulder and hands me the gauze. “Put it back on?”

I nod and place it back on her shoulder, adding a kiss of pressure as I run my fingers down the tape. Lea’s wearing a strapless bra to keep the pinch of elastic away from the tender canvas. I’m ashamed I noticed, embarrassed that I didn’t notice sooner.

“What does it mean?” I ask.

Lea scoffs as she shuffles her shirt back on. “It just a bunch of flowers.” Her fingers fasten the buttons. “Does it have to mean anything else?”

“No.” I watch inch by inch as tan toffee Lea disappears from view. When I look up, she’s wearing a smile that makes me wonder if I’m as invisible as I thought. “I guess not.”

 

Danielle Batalion Ola is a Filipina writer who was born and raised on the island of Kaua’i. She’s found her way across mainland America to Brooklyn, NY, where she writes stories both real and imagined with the support of her tiny dog, Stitch. Find her online @_daniola.

Trust Me, Iago

[fiction]

It is Laurie’s cross to bear, this cat that’s found a home in her abdomen. From its nature it must be a Bengal. It is frighteningly active at night. Laurie will be at a Meditation of Surveillance seminar, and she’ll feel it lunge at her stomach wall. Or she’ll be in the kitchen getting some of Susan’s aspic, and she’ll feel it clawing under her heart.

At first, she told herself she shouldn’t worry. She has bigger problems. She’s got her seminars. Her colloquia. Also: Susan’s been bursting into flames again.

While Susan’s a good sport about it—once when her arm caught fire in Whole Foods, she laughed and said, “Hurry, babe, grab one of those steaks and throw it on me!”—it really breaks Laurie’s heart. Susan laughing as she gets smaller, darker. Her fingers, from a burn at yoga last Wednesday, look like scorched wine corks.

“You just keep loving me and I’ll keep loving you,” Susan says.

“I do love you,” Laurie says. “I’m just worried.”

The abdomen cat doesn’t seem worried. It moves down to Laurie’s stomach and purrs against her navel. She feels like it must be immune to all the suffering of the world. She is beginning to hate it for that.

*     *      *

They’re at a Magical Relief from Narcissistic Desire seminar, and Susan is The Invisible Man. Laurie did the bandages herself.

Laurie watches a man at the podium as he pulls a giant mucosal baseball from his mouth and it bounces across the stage. “Seen it all before,” Susan says. “Come back when you barf a bowling ball.”

Laurie feels the cat dart past her hip. Down into her leg.

Susan starts to scream. Another burn, Laurie figures.

“Laurie,” Susan says. “We were wrong! Look! It’s nothing but a tabby.”

Laurie looks down to see the cat’s face emerging from her kneecap.

*     *      *

There are shameful moments when she squeezes the sides of her knee the way she would squeeze a pimple, trying to birth the cat in one go. But the cat never budges when she squeezes it; it only meows more insistently.

“Maybe it’s existential,” Susan suggests. “If we give it a name, maybe it’ll break free.”

A name. A name. She needs to give it a name she can coo soothingly at it. Nothing seems right. She grieves for the way things were. The marriage of her guts to the tiny animal.

*     *      *

By August, Susan has burned away to the size of a child. When they go to Whole Foods, Laurie puts her in her cart. With her burnt fingers, Susan grabs their peanut butter, their quinoa. Her eyes are gone now, so sometimes she grabs the wrong thing. Laurie lets it go. It is part of her love, this sacrifice. The cat—she has named him Iago—watches mutely.

*     *      *

Iago eats and eats. He is everything that Susan isn’t.

Their bodies form a bond that can’t be broken because it cannot be understood. It is he who nourishes her when she leaves a seminar confused. Bonsai Trees for the Technocrat ending abruptly when a woman sculpting a tree on a screen snaps the tree in half. The crowd’s inrush of breath haunts Laurie—until she is home with Iago, feeding him kippers on the porch.

Laurie folds her leg in such a way that Iago is looking up at her. His gaze is steely. She shakes her head when she sees the question in his eyes. It is not a choice she can make. But Iago continues to stare.

*     *      *

They go in to tell Susan what they have planned, but they are spared. There is only some ash on the sofa. Iago meows once, plaintively, and then she feels him coming out.

Laurie can’t abide it. Her sense of things is tied to him. “Iago,” she coos. “Stay. Trust me; I’ll be better.”

But he doesn’t listen. They go around the living room, pushing and pulling, as the sofa smolders behind them.

Laurie has no chance to mourn. Not yet. The mourning will come in the weeks that follow. Time sponged of its life, its color.

For now, Iago comes free in a jolt and lands at her feet. She looks at the hole in her leg. Iago is making for the fire escape. Later, when she is alone, when she has healed enough to think of herself and only herself, she will call into the hole, asking to be delivered another.

 

Kevin Tasker’s work has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Vestal Review, Every Day Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine. He lives in Cleveland.

How to Brew Tea for a Funeral

[creative nonfiction]

Send one of your five sons out into the night to turn on the generator. Wait for its whir to wake the village.

Strike a match and light the largest burner on the gas stove. Fill the gallon teapot to the brim. While the water simmers, reach for the canister of herbs. It is autumn, so select the za’atar, not the mint. Add the loose-leaf tea. Stir in sugar until it stops dissolving.

Enter your living room, filled with all the women of the village. Sit next to your oldest son’s wife, the mother of your granddaughter whose body is now stiff and cold. Sip your tea and murmur that she was so young. Rock her mother back and forth. Weep.

In the morning, listen as your youngest son describes how he performed CPR, how he did his best to breathe out life and beat back death. Watch your oldest son press to his chest his infant daughter, your remaining granddaughter and bearer of your name. Think what everyone is thinking: if there were no Israeli military roadblock between your house and the hospital, she might still be alive.

In two days, make tea for the entire village again, but first serve lamb. Prepare the meat so it is tender and the rice salty. Your guests will eat with efficiency, in silence. They will leave after you serve the third cup of tea.

Ensure your remaining granddaughter sees everything. She will prepare the tea when you are gone.

 

J.M. Ellison is a writer, scholar, and grassroots activist. They are interested in using stories, both fictional and true, to build community, document social movements, and imagine a liberated world. Their work has been featured in Story Club Magazine, The Baltimore Review, Columbus Alive, and other publications. They are currently finishing their first graphic novel, a timely nonfiction account of the power of community in a small Palestinian village. J.M. believes that storytelling is integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival. Their work is available at http://jmellison.net and on Twitter at @joymellison.

Photo Credit: J.M. Ellison

Plastic

[fiction]

The dead body of a sunfish lies on the sands of Monomoy Wildlife Refuge. More than any other ocean dweller, sunfish are mistaken for sea monsters. It’s why two dozen tourists ring its pulpy white body, nearly a perfect circle with twin fins on top and bottom, stomach pecked crimson by hungry gulls. The sunfish looks nonsensical, comical, its mouth too small for anything other than jellyfish. Its small black eyes are positioned on either side of its head, unable to see the world directly before it. A plastic bag trails out between its lips. The moment could double as an anti-plastic ad, but I still have to collect the body and perform an autopsy, just to give a cause of death I can clearly see. I shoo the onlookers away. They regroup twenty feet back, camera phones out, hushed murmurs of what is it? drifting between them. The incoming tide washes over their sandals. I could inform them, tell them that I work for the National Seashore, but I prefer to be confused for a government agent covering up alien landings, or some nuclear waste monstrosity floundering out of the sea. If I tell them most “shark fins” seen offshore actually belong to sunfish, the magical dead thing before us becomes a normal dead thing, and they’ll lose interest and forget. Leaving it this way, there will be talk, discussion, possibly the start of a dialogue. Even sea monsters choke to death on plastic. When Godzilla’s body washes ashore, strangled by a weave of soda bottles, fishing nets, and grocery bags, maybe they’ll understand. But for now they have this sunfish, and me, and the possibility that they are witnessing something rare and fantastic, despite how common place it actually is.

 

Corey Farrenkopf is a Cape Cod based writer and librarian. His work has appeared in Catapult, JMWW, Blue Earth Review, Gravel, Hawaii Pacific Review, and elsewhere. He is represented by Marie Lamba of the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. To read more visit his website at CoreyFarrenkopf.com or follow on twitter at @CoreyFarrenkopf.

Magic

[fiction]

Estoy corriendo on a dirt road feeling the right side of my face swelling up. Brittle and stiff mesquite se rodearon el camino. Trailers float on the mesquite milas aparte, solos, escuchando los vultures crowing as they circle. And montaña morenas stand silent squatting el cielo azul on their jagged backs.

Oigo un grito and a door slamming open. I look back at my dad standing at the doorway of our tan trailer, sin camisa, su estomago redondo bright in the sun. A belt is wrapped around his fist. He is shouting at me a regresar.

I keep running. Mi corazon pegando mi pecho, cracking a few ribs, my blood veins being squeezed by my muscles, my bones being chipped away con cada piso. I turn away, and the road ends in a patch of small Barrel Cacti.

I slip and fall before I get to the patch. Un hoyo de conejo caught my foot. Dust swirls around me, coating me and lifting into el cielo azul. Me quedo echado en mi espalda mirando el polvo y cielo. The dust drifts away and leaves yellow specks flickering around me. They flutter gently, a few calmly land on me. Son mariposas amarillas, a flutter of them. Mi ojo derecho esta cerrado, and I want to cry but I don’t. Instead I look at those little bits of yellow sun and wind flicker about in the blue forever above me and let that swell into my right eye.

 

Iraq war vet viviendo en la frontera de los Estados Unidos y Mexico, Jose Francisco Fonseca reads, writes, y trabajos con motors and tends to have aventuras en Juarez y El Paso. He is published in numerous online journals and a few lit mags, most recently published in The Iowa Review. Orgullo mi gente Americanos! You can find him on Twitter @jose_f_fonseca

O’er the Fields

[creative nonfiction]

It was true it was Christmas. It was my first day in Phnom Penh. My boyfriend bought our tickets for Cheong Ek, a genocide memorial site. Yes, perhaps I was an artist when I agreed. My boyfriend adjusted the headphones, his best friend took a Klonopin.

The tour began with facts. A curator’s voice told us that in four years, an estimated 1.5 million Cambodians died under Pol Pot’s regime, many of them in “killing fields.” I listened to this section twice. My stomach tensed up as if a ball were being thrown at me, again and again.

Tourists gravitated toward a monkey pod tree (the “Killing Tree”), which executioners used to beat children to death in front of their mothers. The sun suspended from its pendulum rod. The air was a taut sheet. Before we left for Cambodia, my boyfriend suggested we unpack the Christmas tree. What for? I asked.

Beneath the Killing Tree, fragments of bone and red cloth had surfaced on the dirt paths. In another killing field 100 miles south of Phnom Penh, local villagers have raided bones looking for gold jewelry to sell for food. Days later, we won’t think twice when ordering Tomb Raider cocktails in Siem Reap. A mediocre drink made of Cointreau, lime juice and tonic water, it was invented for Angelina Jolie, a refreshment after a long day on set raiding the tombs of Angkor Wat. We slurp them down and buy Christmas gifts in the open-air market of Psar Chaa: embroidered flats, earrings, and sundry baubles.

The truth is, I heard my boyfriend and his friend laugh about the red fabric materializing on the path’s surface. He mentioned how his mother used to plant red fabric in the chimney flue to simulate Santa’s tattered ass. I always thought she got the fabric from JoAnn’s, he said. I told them to shut up and finished the audio tour on my own, falling purposely behind. My boyfriend’s best friend said to me, laughing, I’ve been here too many times.

The tour led me to another monkey pod tree known as the Magic Tree. It was used to hang a loudspeaker. Khmer Rouge had blasted music from the speaker to drown out the sounds of victims being executed at night. The pock-marked fields behind the Magic Tree were mass graves. There were signs telling us how many victims were buried without heads, that many were naked. I was asked how I felt by another woman tourist. The graves were surrounded by wooden fences with friendship bracelets knotted to them. From the bushes, a boy asked me for money, his feet resting on a lower rung of the fence that guarded the mass graves. I did.

As I stood at these landmarks, I no longer wanted to go out for Christmas. Still, we ate lemongrass curry with rice noodles and Angkor beer at a Cambodian restaurant in a French colonial building. We visited a bar where the DJ, who had an impressive record collection, agreed to play our obvious request: “Holiday in Cambodia” by the Dead Kennedys. We took a picture next to a Santa mannequin. At another bar, we were meant to lose games of Connect Four to bar hostesses. And we did. Every time we lost, we owed a “ladies drink” to our competitor. Turns out, they pocketed a dollar off the top. I had no idea what I was doing there. When we arrived back at our hotel bar, they played different versions of “Jingle Bells” on repeat. I wanted to hear “o’er the fields we go” without the “ha-ha-ha.”

In the memorial stupa, there were 9,000 skulls stacked one on top of the other. Signs told us which heads were injured by which tool: hoe, axe, hook knife. Red and blue stickers told us male or female, under twenty years old. The tour ended with a roomful of portraits. The Khmer Rouge took a photograph of each prisoner both alive and dead. There was an image of a woman prisoner with her baby. I wanted to have something to say when I met my boyfriend and his best friend outside. Something smart, careful. It could have been any one of us, and yet I knew that wasn’t true. The faces from the photographs were once the faces on those skulls. Instead, I said nothing. It was just me and the pendulum sun, finding a slight way to disappear, a way back to the hotel.

 

Andie Francis is the author of the chapbook I Am Trying to Show You My Matchbook Collection (CutBank Books 2015). She holds an MFA from The University of Arizona, and is an assistant poetry editor for DIAGRAM. Her work appears in Berkeley Poetry ReviewCimarron ReviewColumbia Poetry ReviewGreensboro ReviewPortland ReviewTAMMY, and elsewhere.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Lenhart

The Boy Who Loved Red Bishops Too Much

[fiction]

When he was nine, he tried to catch a couple.

He thought the Red Bishops, with their striking red and black plumage, would look lovely in his cage.

He sat high on his perch in the mango tree, watching them fly wild and free, chirping busily, in and out of the reeds in the valley below. Hidden by leaves, he bit into the plump orange-red fruit and watched them weave their oval nests with the side porches at the tips of the reeds, safe from the snakes and rats. Sometimes in the nest, sometimes out, sometimes hanging upside down in a blur of fluttering wings.

When the nests were built, he waited just the right number of days before walking down to the reeds. The birds chattered in indignation and flew away. There was a deathly quiet. He bent a reed down towards him and looked inside the nest. Two blue eggs lay cushioned on the soft grass and down.

He continued his watch from his secret hiding place.

At the correct time, he went down to the reeds again. He bent his chosen reed and peered inside. Two chicks, unseeing, turned their heads towards him, entreating him with urgent cries to feed them, their mouths too big for the rest of their bodies. Their plumage was not as resplendent as he had expected; sparse brown feathers barely covered their pink skins. Still, more than anything in the world, he wanted to own them.

The next time, he came to the nest with two pieces of twine, each about half a metre long. He carefully tied each piece of string onto a leg of each bird, just above the tiny foot. He secured the other end to the reed. The mother would feed them, he thought, and then when they were soft and pretty, he would catch them, for they would not be able to fly away.

He saw the Red Bishops fly in and out of his chosen nest for another two weeks, then he went down to claim his prize.

Both strings hung out of the nest. One fledgling had flown away, leaving behind the vestige of a tiny amputated claw. The other hung upside down, dead. Grey-white maggots squirmed in a skeletal cage.

He stood there a moment. With the back of his hand, he wiped away the tears welling up in his eyes.

Many years have passed and the boy is now a man. He lives in a suburb with his wife and two teenage daughters. They all have an affinity for the great outdoors, especially bird watching. He is an active member of the Protect our Wild Birds Foundation.

He watches the doves and the sparrows visit the bird feeder in his garden. The quarrelsome mynahs visit too. And, on occasion, the raucous hadedas make an appearance.

But no Red Bishops grace his garden.

To see them, he must visit the reeds in the valley.

 

Raj M. Isaac is a South African with Indian roots. He is a retired educator, and his field of expertise is the teaching of English. He holds, amongst other qualifications, a bachelor’s degree with honours in literature and a master’s degree in education. He has written articles on aspects of education for journals and newspapers, but now mainly writes short stories and flash fiction. Isaac won the South African Writers’ Circle 2016 Annual Short Story Competition for his story “Lessons in xenophobia,” and has also received recognition for his short fiction “The cat,” “Nexus,” and “No free lunch.”

Butterfly

[fiction]

How do I explain the butterfly if I don’t explain the heat?

My sister and I were walking to the corner store to buy snacks with money from my grandma, who was dying. She had been dying for as long as I could remember though, so it didn’t really bother me. What did bother me was getting dragged to India for my entire summer vacation, just so my mom could feel guilty about abandoning my grandma and vaguely threaten to move us all to India forever.

Chennai was so hot that most days my sister and I stayed inside, picking fights and eating too much until it was finally nighttime. We spent our days waiting for the chance to lay down, blasting the frigid AC, and watching the streetlights through the ornate prison bars on every window. It was the type of heat that turned stray dogs into rabid beasts, and parents into monsters.

At the store, we stared at the aisles, the currency weird and the snacks weirder. In turn, the cashier stared at our shorts and bright tank tops, our ungreased hair and broken Tamil. We were brown in a country of brown people, and she still stared. She thanked me in English and waved goodbye.

We were walking back home when on the side of the road, I saw a flash of something black and electric blue. Perfectly preserved and perfectly dead, the butterfly stuck out amongst the piles of garbage, glinting enticingly. Crouching, my sister pinched the butterfly and shoved it into her pocket. Her knees brushed against layers of garbage, and she got up, sickeningly unaware.

When we got home, my grandma was watching the news and my mom was asleep. My sister pulled the lovely black/blue butterfly out of her pocket, now crumpled and mangled. It was unholy, like she had brought it to life just to kill it a second time. I scooped it out of the trash, and waited until nighttime. Cradling the butterfly’s broken body, I carefully pushed it through those prison bars and watched it fall back to the concrete ground. The air smelled like manure, sweet and pungent and velvety. In her sleep, my grandma groaned.

 

Sanjana Raghavan is a student at George Mason University and lives in Fairfax, Virginia. When she isn’t writing or camping out at the library, she enjoys chasing down random dogs on the street, and going to yoga to nap on the mat (and so she can tell people she went to yoga today).

The Four Walls

[fiction]

There is a room with twenty desks. Five across, four deep.

“Small class size. You should feel lucky,” the principal tells him. Each desk with a book: America the Beautiful: A Sweeping History 1776-2027. Red, white, blue, and all in mint condition. They better stay that way, for his sake.

The desktops are all a greyish plastic with a groove on top for writing utensils to rest in.

A chalkboard, blank except for his name, Mr. Garza, walls the front of the room. The name is written in cursive and stands out strongly against the slate.

The chair in which he will sit is located in the back by his station. It is wooden and squeaks.

He will sit there outside of teaching hours, when he is unbound, to compose emails on the computer supplied to him. Each day he will type twenty reports and email them home. Not all of the Parents demanded this. The truth is most didn’t. But the assertive voices won out and it became required. These voices now make up the Administration—they have total control.

He is to update the gradebook daily.

Please look up.

The tracks on the ceiling are metal, and carve out a path aligned with the gaps between the desks. For safety, but also for equity. Movements are pre-programmed to ensure that the teacher spends time with each student. A forceful dance in which only one is taking the lead. Oftentimes, the harness does not sync up properly with the teacher’s height, so that you will have an instructor who is too short and is forced to float eerily throughout the room, suspended. Or someone who is too tall, so their legs drag behind them along the brown carpeted floor. He is of medium height. Hopefully it fits.

He will be restricted in this manner for at least his first month. If he has no infractions, minor or otherwise, he may be unbound. Of course, that is unlikely. Even the smallest of offenses are counted against them. It is quite easy to add more time to one’s sentence.

According to the government, it’s an incredible solution. The extreme surplus of prisoners and massive deficit of teachers brought together to make a perfect fit, like a key into a lock.

He walks with his hands behind his back as the principal and two Parent guards lead him down the hallway. It’s a hall that looks familiar to you, except the walls are blank and the doors are closed with heavy metal bolts. The library they pass is not recognizable. Old and decrepit books lay randomly scattered within. A severe lack of funding for public schools has resulted in unsatisfactory conditions. The white paint is chipping as they pass the Parent Lounge.

They reach the room. The one he will be in for at least the next ten years for illegally selling bulletproof vests.

The room he used to learn in just one year before.

The Parents shove him in.

“Tomorrow you will teach chapter 22 from the textbook. Get prepared,” the principal states as the door is shut.

He is locked into the room that is his, and theirs, and ours.

 

D.H. Valdez teaches social studies at his former high school. He holds a Master’s degree in teaching from the University of Washington. He and his wife Holly grew up together in Seattle and continue to live in the city. They are avid sports fans and desperately await the return of the Sonics.

Mardi Gras Beads

[creative nonfiction]

Greg and I stroll the picnic grounds, slowly because it is my first post-surgical outing. His annual company picnics are always themed: Wild West with pony rides and barbeque and lasso contests; Summer Camp with canoeing and hot dogs; Carnival with actual fairway rides and cotton candy. This year, it’s Renaissance Faire, so we’ve gnawed on turkey legs, watched a mock joust, cheered on sack-racing and ring-tossing children, and tried a few games of chance.

I’m winded, but glad to be out of the house. Since my surgery six weeks ago, I have been going progressively stir-crazy. My hysterectomy at thirty-five ended our quest to conceive a child, but my gynecological issues were so severe that from the moment I woke from anesthesia, I have wanted to kiss my surgeon.

We make our way toward the petting zoo (I love goats), dodging the professional insulter, who already made fun of my hunched posture. I resisted the urge to show him my scar and flip him off, but don’t want to test my still-erratic hormones with a second encounter.

The Mardi Gras bead man steps into our path. Earlier, Greg agreed he didn’t know what Mardi Gras beads had to do with the Renaissance, or if I flashed the man for a set, he would get fired or promoted.

I say, “No, thanks,” but the tights-clad purveyor slips a few strings over my head and says, “Give ‘em to your kids.”

Greg looks stricken, but I shrug. I’d already noticed few adults wearing beads, which is why I tried to refuse. I could leave them on a picnic table or pass them to any of the hundreds of sugared-up kids. There are hordes of them, so many, more everywhere I look. Blonde like Greg, loud like me, running and yelling and tugging at their parents.

[blockquote align=”none”]If I explain, Greg will say I have nothing to be ashamed of, that he loves me, it’s not my fault, that he is happy to focus on adoption. He would say all the things I told myself when each fertility test brought bad news and every treatment failed.

“I’m tired,” I say. We make sure the big shots see us and head home.

I drop the beads on the kitchen table and head to the shower. As I peel off my tank top and shorts, I glance at the mirror. Painted on my chest and neck by sweat and cheap dye are faint dabs and smears of red and green and purple.

Greg finds me there, staring into the mirror at my naked body and the marks it carries. Smudges from the beads; my new pinched navel framed by small incisions where the surgeon inserted her instruments; a long pale speedbump the length of my abdomen from childhood cancer treatments we now know ended my fertility.

Before he can ask if I am all right, without thinking, I say, “I’m sorry.”

“No,” he says and tentatively touches my shoulder. I am pale and shaking, knocked breathless with shame.

If I explain, Greg will say I have nothing to be ashamed of, that he loves me, it’s not my fault, that he is happy to focus on adoption. He would say all the things I told myself when each fertility test brought bad news and every treatment failed, everything I stopped having to tell myself six weeks ago when I woke from surgery stunned by the absence of pain, without the fear of deluges of blood or expensive, painful attempts ending in failure. He would say everything I thought I believed but we can both see in my eyes that I don’t. Everything I don’t want to hear right now, he will tell me again when I let him.

“I just need a shower.” I step into the scalding water to wash off the marks I can.

 

Janice Dvorak has an MFA from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in literary journals including Willow SpringsThe Grief Diaries, and Florida Review, and is included in the anthology, I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out. She lives outside Boston with her husband.

Claws

[fiction]

Crusted half moons smeared down my thigh, bled through my tights in long, whispery scratches. Thigh skin bulged through tears in the fabric. When I ripped the tights off, blood pulled with them and the wounds were scab-less, fresh again. I wrestled on old jeans, jerked up one side, then the other, inched them up with one claw of a hand. Then I paced from my living room to my bedroom, tried to calm myself. The ghost wrenched. I slowed my steps, slowed my breathing, hoped he’d calm.

Fingernail clippers sparkled from my dresser. I palmed them casually, careful not to tip him off. Then I sat on the edge of my bed and breathed. The invisible arm floated, like a feather, to land on the living one, open across my knees, as relaxed as I could make it. The ghost of my left arm slithered against my palm. I closed my fingers, gently, around the invisible wrist. He bucked, jolted, squirmed. “Hey there. Settle down.” I whispered as if lulling a baby. “It’s okay.”

[blockquote align=”none”]The ghost vibrated, taut like a metal cord. His shoulder end gripped my socket while the elbow buzzed like a caught fly. If he would hold still… If I could just… I almost… almost…

His fingers tapered softly, then splintered into rough edges. I wrapped my hand around one ghost finger, held it with middle, ring, and pinky. My hand twisted to work the clippers with just index finger and thumb. My palm clamped against the ghost.

It was like watching a spider—half-squished and legs still squirming—how my fingers were squirming, squirming. It was like the scars that crackled on my shoulder—

—Calm! A deep breath. I could let my heart race, but not for long. This was my life. I had to handle it.

The ghost vibrated, taut like a metal cord. His shoulder end gripped my socket while the elbow buzzed like a caught fly. If he would hold still… If I could just… I almost… almost…

The clippers rattled to the floor. When I scooped them up, the hand escaped. It swatted for my face—I ducked.

Again, I lulled him to my lap. I found the wrist, gripped tighter, used my scraped, stinging thigh as a piece of the clamp this time. And again the clippers slipped away, edged by a flick from the ghost. Again he thrashed from my shoulder, frantic.

“You have to let me do this!” It was like strangling an animal to keep my voice soft. There was fear in it, panic. It pulsed from the ghost. It wasn’t mine.

“How about a file, buddy?” I stroked the inside of his elbow. “Can we file down those claws?” I dug out an emery board. The ghost wriggled fiercely and, again, got loose.

We needed a break, so I sat. The emery board dropped to my lap. My right nails were jagged, too. I pressed a point into my palm, studied the pinprick indentation. Then I ran my hand over the file—the jeans gave it traction—ground the nails smooth to the ends of my fingers.

But what would make the ghost arm still?

While I was thinking, he was investigating. He must have been. There was a frizzle in that left thumb. He pressed too hard—emery board hopped—but with the next swipe, he figured it out. My right hand held the board to give him leverage and, one finger at time, the ghost filed. When he finished, he ran the nails along the soft inside of my right elbow. The edges were like silk.

I hadn’t mastered the ghost, just tricked him.

Before the accident, I never noticed how it took two hands to squash a spider. One to lean against the table, the other to strike. I never noticed that it took two hands to zip, two hands to button. It took two hands, somehow, to put on lipstick. This ghost, he could help me—if he felt like it—or he could make it harder.

I knew about phantom limbs, then. I could have handled that. I knew about the clenching, the aching, invisible muscles, and physical pain that wouldn’t stop. I knew about hands that jutted from shoulders and itches that couldn’t be scratched. The doctors, the therapists, the pamphlets all told me. But the ghost was something else. Drugs and shrinks and mirrored boxes—they couldn’t cure me.

It wasn’t natural, this thing that clawed into me. He should have clung to the dead arm. He should have shriveled like the muscle and bone and stringy nerves. He should have died with the snarl of raw meat that they cut from me.

 

Allison Wyss is obsessed with body modification, dismemberment, and fairy tales. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Booth, Juked, Jellyfish ReviewPANK, and elsewhere. Some of her ideas about the craft of fiction can be found in Reading Like a Writer, a monthly column she writes for the Loft Literary Center, where she also teaches classes. And she tweets—mostly about toddlers, writing, and resistance—as @AllisonWyss.

 

How to Love Your Child Without Your Neighbor Reporting You to Child Services

[fiction]

Til has just fallen asleep when an elderly woman bends down to the stroller and gushes, “What a putty baby. Dat a putty baby.” He’s asleep, I whisper, and could she please just fucking move along, too low for her to hear the violence in me I guess, because she’s just getting started. “Putty putty baby. Putty, putty putty baby.” I need Steve, but he’s in the haircutter’s a few shops down, getting trimmed for our appointment with child services in twenty-seven minutes. Some neighbor reported “inappropriate sexual behavior from homosexual dad” when she saw me do a raspberry on Til’s belly—his favorite thing in the world. The guy at child services laughed about it but also said he followed up on all calls. “It’s more common than you think,” he said.

Maybe I’ll dance for him; maybe I’ll howl like a dog. The one thing I won’t do is slap him till he’s sullen and ruined. I will never do this, I tell myself. I won’t do to him what my mother did to me. But I’m scared shitless that some rabid gene, some violent little protein, will make me hurt this bundle of noise.

“Putty putty baby. What a wittle worm. What a ittle bittle worm.” If Steve would get out here, he could remove Grandma kindly. As she’s reaching into the stroller to put her hands all over my child, this quiet corner screams to life. A load of scrap roars down a chute from a construction site, Cannibal Corpse blasts from a second-story window, Til wakes and wails, and Grandma walks away in a huff.

My one job was to produce a baby content as a tick for our interview. And I’ve blown it. There’s a stack of unread baby books on my bedside table—So You’ve Adopted an Ulcer! Two Million Factoids You Wish You’d Read Before Becoming a Dad! How Not to Kill Your Baby in Fifty Incomprehensible Lessons! How to Love a Little Boy! The titles all end in exclamation points to prove love is frantic. When I ask Steve what parents did before baby books, Freud and Melanie Klein, he reminds me that Victorian children were treated like bugbears and doorstops. Infant mortality, he says, was like 110%, which seems unlikely.

Death metal, construction workers, and Til are full-throttle now, so I scream too. Which feels great. Passersby grin like I’m a savvy, well-read parent who knows what to do when their child won’t stop screaming.

Maybe I’ll dance for him; maybe I’ll howl like a dog. The one thing I won’t do is slap him till he’s sullen and ruined. I will never do this, I tell myself. I won’t do to him what my mother did to me. But I’m scared shitless that some rabid gene, some violent little protein, will make me hurt this bundle of noise.

Passersby frown now, eyeing me like Do something! Do that thing on page twenty-seven of Seven Billion Ways to Love Your Child without a Neighbor Reporting You to Child Services! Advice darts holes in me. “Hold him. She’s hungry. Don’t you have a pacifier? You have to rock her. He’s bored. He wants his mother.”

I bury my face in the stroller because I’m crying, which means I’m broken, no good at this and never will be. They’ll tell me this at our appointment in thirteen minutes. Less now. I need to get Steve, but it’s soft and heady down here. Til has shit his diaper. Stinker, I say and laugh—it’s Steve’s turn—as a puff of little hand pats my cheek. “Hey,” I say. My son is all screamed out and grinning like Where’ve ya been? Do that thing you do with my belly. That loud, silly thing.

 

Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press) and Conversations with S. Teri O’Type (a Satire). His fiction has appeared in PANKIndiana ReviewJellyfish Review and others. He is a consulting editor for The Best Small Fictions 2018 and the managing editor of SmokeLong Quarterly. He lives somewhere in Europe with his husband and the potential of family.

Picking Out Bananas

[creative nonfiction]

Now I’m able to just state the facts: My daughter goes to a school in the city, my son goes to the public high school. I try to leave it at that. I no longer feel compelled to go into all the rest.

Before my daughter started coming home for visits, when she was still unsafe, they had to interrogate me to get at the truth. When you meet someone new in the suburbs, the questions about kids always come, usually just after where do you live, and right before where do you work. Two kids, I would say, a boy and a girl, how ‘bout you? And this was often enough because most people don’t really want to know about your home or your kids or your job—they are just seeking that toe-hold, that point of purchase that allows them to talk about their own home, their own kids, their own job. But some persisted.

[blockquote align=”none”]My daughter was curious before we arrived, although my wife and I felt gutted. We were relinquishing our most sacred responsibility, even as we knew that we had no choice.

My son’s a freshman, I would say, and I named the high school, and sometimes, if the person I just met had a child at the same school, this offered an escape from the grilling. But sometimes not. My daughter’s in eighth grade, I’d then allow. You’ve probably never heard of her school, I’d say when they continued to dig; it’s a residential treatment center (although I still preferred to think of it as a therapeutic boarding school). I would let those three terrifying words hang in the air, waiting to see if they provided a passage back to drinking a beer or to watching my son play soccer or to picking out bananas at the Jewel in peace.

In those first months, right after my wife and I dropped our daughter off at the residential treatment center (back when I could still sometimes convince myself that it was a therapeutic boarding school), when I met new people and they asked about my kids, because in the suburbs the questions about kids always come, usually just after where do you live, and right before where do you work, I would say way too much.

My daughter was curious before we arrived, although my wife and I felt gutted. We were relinquishing our most sacred responsibility, even as we knew that we had no choice.

The staff took our daughter upstairs to show her where she would live, to introduce her to her dorm-mates, while the dorm manager met with my wife and me in the well-appointed first-floor living room, saying words like Unusual Incident Reports and Restraint Protocols and Crisis Intervention Staff and other more positive words that I didn’t hear and still can’t remember.

When they brought my daughter back down to say goodbye, her curiosity was replaced by tears and she wouldn’t look at us or hug us. She didn’t say goodbye; she shouted don’t leave me here! In the weeks and months after we dropped her off (abandoned was the word that rattled around inside of my head), the mask of terror she wore when we left her proved impossible to forget.

In those early months I would buckle immediately, admit from the start that I’d locked my daughter in a residential treatment center (although to cope, I had to think of it as a therapeutic boarding school) because the tumor of pain and guilt was so large and pulsated just below the thin membrane of my skin, and because a single question about my kids was enough to lance it open and let everything out. So I’d offer evidence of the autism and the mood disorders and the violence and the suicide attempts, and I felt like I needed to tell them everything so that the person I just met could understand, could forgive me for what I’d done to my daughter, even if she could not forgive me, even if I could not forgive myself. And the person I just met would manage a few awkward words of sympathy or worse before they put some distance between us, returning with relief to drinking a beer or to watching their own son play soccer or to picking out bananas at the Jewel.

 

Jeff Hoffmann’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, The Madison ReviewNew Madrid, and Sanskrit among others. He was awarded the 2018 Chris O’Malley Prize for Fiction, and he’s currently pursuing his MFA at Columbia College Chicago.

The Earth From Afar

[fiction]

You are in the car hurtling through real darkness—not in-the-city darkness—with your friend who has been dead and not on this earth for some time now. Your hands on the wheel, your dog in back, your friend beside you, hands folded neatly in her lap. She’s wearing the same white sneakers as always, faded red hearts on the sides. You speed down winding roads, along a coast, stars endless against the black, layered sky. Heat radiates from the pulses in your necks, though your hands are cold, your toes aching. A silvery thread connects the two of you—your neck to hers and back again. An inverted 8, an infinity. She always loved the number eight, her boyfriend said, when she killed herself on the eighth of November.

Eight: it fastens to you. Infinity: adheres to her.

[blockquote align=”none”]Infinity is a spiral, a siphon, and where it deposits you seems, at first, like a blanket on the beach under the night sky. An empty stage, scuffed wooden floors.

Do you think this is just a regular trip? Flatness and grime, the humdrum everyday? Are you afraid of glittering, stubborn infinity?

You are. It is like a wooden hammer on the top of your head.

You look quickly at your friend. In life, she was the biggest lover of sky you knew. Not you. You cowered beneath it.

Sky, she’d breathe, her neck thrown back.

Each of us terminates unto ourselves, you’d say. This blunting off, this mute-feeler world.

You were giddy with dissent. Still: you loved it safely, secretly, through the filter of her. You felt endlessly surrounded—until you weren’t.

But none of that matters now. Your hands fly off the wheel. The car races forward on its own, your friend beside you. And it is in this acceleration that some quick pluck happens, pinched fingers darting in to snatch some stuck stitch from your chest. And something larger zooms in again, so vast you can’t even see it—but you feel the shadow and the rip. And now you can see the earth from afar, all lit up from some unknown other place. Its familiar blues and tans, its dark shadows. It happens so quickly as you race by and by in your car—and you have never felt such awe, and you have never felt such joy.

Infinity is a spiral, a siphon, and where it deposits you seems, at first, like a blanket on the beach under the night sky. An empty stage, scuffed wooden floors. A deserted house, wind gusting through. Sand and dust under your fingernails, under your feet, blowing in your eyes and mouths, no ceiling, no doors. You are bared before the sky, absolutely. Unbounded, surrounded. Your dog sits quietly, looking out over the inky sea, breeze gentle in his soft fur. Your friend’s grubby white sneakers with red hearts on the sides shine dully under the starlight.

And the red is dull, and the red is dull, and wouldn’t you break this whole story open and run from it if the red were any brighter, if the red were any other way?

 

Alyssa Proujansky has studied fiction in Ithaca, London and New York. She was recently a runner-up in contests held by Atticus Review and Psychopomp Magazine, and a finalist in Third Coast‘s 2018 Fiction Contest. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Passages NorthThird CoastColumbia JournalHobartMoon City ReviewAtticus ReviewPsychopomp MagazineFlock and elsewhere. Her website is www.alyssaproujansky.com.

 

A Reckoning

[fiction]

Bill Withers pours through her window, a melody that sways with the breeze. Lovely Day. Bill knows that her gold-flecked curtains will emit the heavy sun shining against her walls. She stretches her body like a cat. Hell yeah, she is flexible these days. Certain things don’t matter anymore, the size of her ass, what her roommates think if she re-reminds them to rinse their dishes, if a man sees her before she’s had enough time to stretch her hair into a tight bun, or a carefully crafted pineapple, or curls with big enough coils to twirl along her finger. She can stand nude with a teeny tiny Afro, send them shoulders forward like her body can only take so much of itself. Feeling herself in the most proverbial of proverbial ways.

It started when she turned thirty. Like the first spark of a riot’s fire, some see her sexiness as a destructive thing, undignified even. Compare it to the Rodney King Riots or Rihanna’s Work, your choice. For her, and likewise Mario, it is a reckoning.

Mario is not her man, but a fine one nonetheless. Hard enough to come by, but too unsure to live under. Something of an abnormal attraction, a man who likes James Baldwin and John Coltrane but cannot grow a mustache. Not a sprinkling of fuzz above his lip. She wouldn’t have dated him in her twenties, not a man without a beard let alone a man without a mustache. Her ex-boyfriend had a beard, a beard and a chest, a chest that felt like it was made of satin, skin so smooth it could make your head spin. She has learned that a chest like that should be revered but not overrated, a beard even less so, a mustache merely minutia.

Today, she feels like dancing. She dances in her seat on the train, when walking to work on the rigid streets of the Upper West Side, while at the desk that her manager walks by every so often to peak over her shoulder, these same shoulders that pull her sexy forward and send it into the faces of imprudent men. She dances for herself, inside of herself. They want to dance inside her, too, but of course, this is impossible. So they tell her she has a nice smile, nice legs, and she’s so smart, damn, she’s so smart. Let me touch that, they wish aloud, and she laughs at them in her sultry staccato way.

Today, she walks into a Harlem sun that is fighting gentrification with the goal to give her heart away. Today, she will hand it to someone, Get a feel of this weight. Do not hand it back yet. Just hold it, fool, and hold it tight. Horns and curses careen off of cars coming to a slow stop, allowing passengers with voices as loud as their bodies to lean out of the window. She dances as she passes them by.

[blockquote align=”none”]It started when she turned thirty. Like the first spark of a riot’s fire, some see her sexiness as a destructive thing, undignified even. Compare it to the Rodney King Riots or Rihanna’s Work, your choice. For her, and likewise Mario, it is a reckoning.

When she gets to the bar, he is not Mario. He is wearing hunter green pants, slim fit. Brown boots that make him look taller, 5’10”, maybe 11” with an ego. His sweater reminds her of the Cosby Show and her grandmother’s hands. When he smiles, he looks like he is also thinking. In the past she has sworn that men cannot smile and think at the same time.

He says he wants to dance with her, because of course, he can see the way she points her toes and bends her knees and rolls her hips from side to side.

Does he know the cabbage patch or the butterfly? No, she stops herself, what do the young kids call it? “Can you break your legs?”

He raises an eyebrow and questions why he would ever intentionally break his legs, but his smirk shows that he knows what she meant.

“Do you salsa?” She shimmies in her seat, an implication.

No. He eats it though.

“Do you ballroom,” And immediately she knows she needs to clarify. “The Detroit Ballroom? It’s a black thing.”

He doesn’t ballroom, at least not the black way.

“Do you step? Chicago style step?” she asks him, thinking of Darius Lovehall.

Step? No, he’s from Texas.

“Holy Ghost dancing? Do you clap on the two and four?”

He laughs. He’s not as sure about Jesus as he used to be.

Still she gives him her heart, but without him knowing Jesus and all, she will request it back in the morning.

 

Janelle M. Williams received her BA from Howard University and her MFA in creative writing from Manhattanville College. She was a 2017 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and her work has appeared in KweliAuburn AvenueThe Feminist Wire, and Writopia Speaks. She tweets @Janelleonrecord.

Photo credit: Kelauni Cook

Mean Streets

[fiction]

Lynette told me to drive her to Tompkins Square on Friday night so she could score some pot. This was during the early nineties, the very last days when New York was Scorsese City. You could buy almost anything you wanted off the street as long as you had the money and the connections.

“Stay in the car,” Lynette said as I pulled up alongside the curb next to the park. “I don’t want you screwing this up.”

It was all too easy to picture me screwing things up. The first time I’d ever seen a drug deal, I had a knife pulled on me. Two men were swapping cocaine for cash in front of a brownstone and as I walked by I blurted out how this was so cool. The dealer snapped open a switchblade and I burst into the gutter, chasing after a taxi that was cruising down the block.

With this incident fresh on my mind, I agreed to remain in the car and watch Lynette through the rearview mirror. As a twenty-year-old bumpkin from Bensonhurst, I couldn’t help but admire how she swaggered along the sidewalk, strutting towards the dreadlocked guy slouching next to the park gate. As she passed him a roll of bills, I wondered if I would ever learn to handle myself the way she did, maneuvering through a world that I only knew through Velvet Underground albums and edgy films from the seventies.

With her leather jacket and dark frizzy hair, Lynette seemed to be the pissed-off love-child of a dispirited hippie and an undersized punk. It was an image she played-up in her photography. She had built a sizable collection—and a budding career—by capturing those final moments of a decadent world that was withering away in the light of imminent gentrification.

She was chatting with the drug dealer when his partner emerged from the park with a plastic bag. After she inspected the merchandise, Lynette began gesturing with both hands and shaking her head. Finally, she tossed the bag back to the dreadlocked man and retreated to the car.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” she said.

Lynette’s hands were balled-up into fists as we passed a series of low rise brick buildings with boarded-up windows. When we stopped at the light, she reached into her pocket for a cigarette.

[blockquote align=”none”]It was all too easy to picture me screwing things up. The first time I’d ever seen a drug deal, I had a knife pulled on me. Two men were swapping cocaine for cash in front of a brownstone and as I walked by I blurted out how this was so cool.

“What happened?”

“I asked for smoke,” Lynette said. “They gave me a bag of crack.”

“Really?”

“I told him I want pot not crack,” Lynette said. “So the guy tells me I should have asked for weed.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle as the light changed.

“Your slang is out of date,” I said.

“It’s not funny,” Lynette told me. “I’ve always asked for smoke.”

Lynette took a deep drag of the cigarette.

“I can’t believe they didn’t give me my money back,” she said.

“You asked a drug dealer for a refund?”

“I don’t see why not,” she said. “He didn’t have what I wanted.”

I laughed again and Lynette smacked me on the shoulder as I pulled into a space across from her building. The force of the slap was not terribly hard but it was strong enough to convince me not to ask if she wanted company that night.

“Even I know not to ask a drug dealer for money,” I said.

Lynette flicked her cigarette into the ashtray.

“So you’re a fucking expert now?”

I could have pointed out my sudden doubts about her own street credentials, but I held my tongue. I said nothing as she got out of the car and started towards her building. Iron gates covered most of the windows and there were traces of graffiti on the brick façade.

As Lynette sidled around a homeless guy sleeping on the front steps, I wondered how she would react if I leaned out the window and shouted that maybe neither one of us was such a fucking expert at anything. She might have laughed at her own bullshit or she might have never talked to me again. For now, it wasn’t worth the risk to find out.

With her stark silhouette of leather and denim framed by a doorway of rusting metal and cracked glass, Lynette still looked to me like a character in a Scorsese movie, a supporting actress from Taxi Driver or Mean Streets. All I could do was stare like a star-struck film student, watching her move from scene to scene, letting her show me how it was done.

 

Craig Fishbane is the author of On the Proper Role of Desire (Big Table Publishing). His work has also appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Quarterly, Gravel, The Good Men Project, the MacGuffin, New World Writing, The Manhattanville Review, the Penmen Review, and The Nervous Breakdown. His website is: https://craigfishbane.wordpress.com/

Eating the Leaves

[fiction]

She starts training for everything at once: motherhood, the apocalypse, a local 5K. The Pulitzer-winning earthquake that promises to obliterate the Pacific Northwest. A high-altitude decathlon. North Korea.

She stops drinking (but still drinks some, because obviously the world is terrible and who can bear it?), stockpiles prenatals, buys new shoes. Functional shoes.

She reads a book about real/whole/just-totally-no-holds-barred-fucking-totally-real food and the pleasures of a radiant pregnancy. She skips presumptuous chapters contingent upon the handy availability of tropical organic produce.

She goes to the woods and looks around, hard. She is underwhelmed by the prowess of the survival-guide illustrator. She intently wants to recognize the edible leaves—to discern poison from nutrition—but they all look the same, green on green on green.

Days pass. Weeks. She gets better books, listens to podcasts, writes her senator. She runs, everywhere, but always, ultimately, to nowhere, sleeps the thick black sleep of the irretrievably exhausted. She buys walkie-talkies, wonders to whom she should give the second device.

She rejects excess, donates wildly.

She wades through old photographs, despising them—their flat immortality, their shallow, bulletproof intimacy.

She returns to the woods—marginally older, the same—pockets packed with color print-outs of leaves.

She studies the earth, glides her thumbs over the flimsy fawn-soft green. Panic rises in her like a fist, a tight and bloody, aching thing.

She studies the photos. But every leaf looks like a leaf, especially the ones that will kill you.

Even so, now, while the hospitals still run on power and the mountain is standing and there’s no propitious alien life-form blossoming in her gut, she must learn.

So, she plucks a leaf—a leaf that looks as much like the artist’s rendering as any leaf—

and she begins to eat.

 

Amanda J. Bermudez is a writer and director based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to film and television, her work has been featured at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, the National Winter Playwrights Retreat, the Yale Center for British Art, and in a number of literary publications, including Concis, Sick Lit, Spider Road Press, and Iron Horse Literary Review. She is a National Merit Scholar, a recipient of the Jameson Prize for excellence in essay-writing; a Writer’s Digest national award winner, a nominee for the Spotlight Culture & Heritage award, and winner of the 2017 Cinequest Film Festival screenwriting award.

Unreliable Objects

[creative nonfiction]

July 4, 1976. Our town parade, when everything waves—beauty queens and politicians sprouting from convertibles washed and dried in the street with soft rags the night before, Betsy Ross flags nodding off porches. Firemen’s kids pelt non-firemen’s kids with hard candy, sirens moan, only this time, nobody’s hurt. Everyone still smokes.

And later, in the simmering summer dark, my mother jams her thumb in the slamming screen door, then weeps over the bathroom sink just before the fireworks are set to go off.

Perhaps the water pouring over her thumb feels like the only kindness in her life that night, with three shaggy kids, a pissy husband, and not enough money, never enough money, jobs coming and going.

Perhaps she’s thinking, I didn’t sign up for this.

I’m five, and I’ve cried—when my mother punishes me for pocketing a pack of Dentyne in the Bradlees, after I drop my milkshake, all those times Billy convinces our parents to snap the hall light off. That’s when my bed is soaked in shadow, and all the shapes I can name in the daylight—doll dresser picture-book—dissolve into mute strangeness, bleak and unrecognizable, these unreliable objects, refusing familiarity.

Some tears are real; some, ginned up. But it’s July 4th, I’m five, and my mother is the kind of person who tangles with Stop & Shop cashiers when they overcharge for paper plates, the mom who can draw us to her soft hips with a single don’t-push-me holler launched from five backyards away.

How has she forgotten herself here at the sink, neglected to remember who she is in the order of things?

Also, does the house smell like hot dogs? Do sparkler sticks lie spent and black on the front steps, do fireflies begin their blinking as bats cut low over the brook? Perhaps my hair smells like chlorine from the community pool, and I’m connecting the dots between mosquito bites starring my shins. I’ll bet you this: We make contact. Billy pinches me, Michael flicks a towel at Billy’s ass, hunts him down for a wedgie.

I’m telling you, I forget so much. But I remember this: What moms do. What kids do. What dads do: Clean. Complain. Earn money. Stay together.

I remember that jammed thumb. The center will not hold, not when it’s sodden with tears. Water smooths, weakens; salt corrodes. And she’s everything—my mom, not my dad—alpha, omega, amen. I know the truth, my instinct slashes right through his black belt in karate, the stories about fishing and hunting and, later, dodging a stray bullet in North Philly, to find my mom, the core, the tiniest nesting doll and the one I’m counting on to straighten up, dry off, and make the whole world spin.

Even now, on this star-spangled night, before I can ride a two-wheeler or lace up my own sneakers, I know everything was better before I was born. She was blonde and thinner, but I made her dark—loosened her belly, leached gold from her hair, kept her home, even if she was the first person in her family to graduate college.

Day after day, I observe and do the math: Motherhood = forced subtraction. She and her sore thumb are at a loss, stationed in the wrong bathroom, the kids’ bathroom, not the blue bathroom where Saturday nights she leans against the vanity, pressing her lips to spread Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow across the field of her mouth, the bathroom where I perch on the toilet seat with the frosted blue bottle of Avon’s Rapture cologne, the scent with the stopper that resembles a tulip, or a flame, sinuous. Rapture—not a word I can use in a sentence, but a word whose implications I understand (lady, high heels, leaving the house)—seven suggestive letters unfurling in gold script across the curvy torso of the bottle.

The blue bottle sits in the blue bathroom in the blue house where everything happens—the new kitten pukes in that corner, the tall mother cries in this one—not for the first time in her life, but the first time in mine, so the first time that matters.

Because the world is small as she spins it, and on July 4, 1976, the world is this stout blue house, four bedrooms, five people inside, and I am five. So, a jammed finger, one that didn’t even break, didn’t even leave a scar, mothered by a stream of cool water, sparks everything tonight.

 

Laurie Granieri is a former journalist and director of communications at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts. Her work has been broadcast on NPR, has appeared on American Public Media’s On Being blog and as part of River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” series; in ELLE magazine and at Boxcar Poetry Review. She is a regular blogger at Relief. She lives in New Jersey.

Lookin’

[creative nonfiction]

New in Indianapolis and recently divorced, Charles went out to Madame C. J. Walker’s Ballroom in 1942. He heard it was the place for Negroes to mingle. On a mission to find a nice colored girl to start over with, he straightened his tie before following the music up the stairs. There he found a tuxedoed band, perched up on a roulette wheel bandstand, shimmying out the foxtrot that couples danced to.

He took in the scene from the bar, his eyes flitting from one lovely lady in a fancy dress to the next. As he sipped a too-expensive shot of bourbon, he saw another man eye his broad shoulders and shined-but-worn shoes before coming over.

“See somethin’ you like?”

“Plenty,” Charles said.

“Looky here, Jack,” the man said. “Meeting a girl at Walker’s depends on how much you got in your wallet and who your daddy is, see? And if she ain’t happy with both, all you’re going to get is ONE dance, if you’re lucky.”

As Charles watched smooth-talking men in stylish suits lead those women onto the dance floor, he realized he couldn’t make any time here. So he stayed a while for the jazz, and watched the spectacle before walking back to his boardinghouse.

Where else was there for a colored man to find a suitable girl? Not like the wife he had to marry down in Georgia when he was seventeen, the one who said the baby was his, and later that it wasn’t.

He hadn’t found that suitable girl at the churches he’d tried. They were either too old, married, or not very attractive. And the mother of the one he had approached had snatched her away because he was divorced.

Neither had he found the girl he was looking for out at the Sunset Terrace, where the brown sugar went to dance. They were good-looking all right, sporting outfits that clung to their charms, with jaunty hats tipped over done-up hair. The ones he talked to sho’nuff looked like sugar, but their salty talk tasted too much like his past.

On his walk back home, that girl in the mailroom at work ran through his mind. Like always. The white girl with enough guts to talk to him like a straight-up man. The sweet one whose soft skin he imagined touching, even though the Klan would string up his damned fool self for looking at her, like they did those two boys a few years ago, down the road.

And yet, Charles did finally sneak down to the mailroom, whispering sincerely to her what he’d practiced in his mirror.

“I don’t mean to be out of line, but I want you to know I like you. Very much.”

She stared at him. Weighed his words intently.

“I’ve thought of you too,” she said.

 

E. Dolores Johnson’s writing on race has appeared or is forthcoming in The Buffalo News, the Women of Color Anthology: Boundaries and Borders, and Narratively. Her multigenerational memoir about mixed-race life also shows the browning of America and changing attitudes about race-mixing. She is looking for a publisher. Johnson completed the Memoir Incubator program at Grub Street and studied creative writing at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. She has been awarded residencies at Djerassi, Blue Mountain Center, Ragdale, and the VCCA colonies. She has consulted on diversity for think tanks, universities, major corporations, and nonprofits. Johnson holds a Harvard MBA and a Howard University BA. Follow her on twitter@ elladolo.

The Girl Who Will Fly

[fiction]

My daughter, the ballerina, has a mane, thick as a horse’s, and bronze from two weeks ago, when she dyed it. It’s impossible to get the whole thing in your hands. Delicate flyaway strands escape my fingers.

She sits on a stool I have wedged in the bathroom. A ray of sun lights up the bronze strands like fire. Truthfully, I prefer her hair loose and free and black, the way she was born, but today I will braid it and wrap it in a bun.

I haven’t braided my own hair since I was a dancer. She regards me as though that were a hundred years ago. I pull one section of her hair over, then another. Left and then right, three parts equal.

That’s what she wants, three parts—a father, me, and the ballerina. But his promises were as weightless as I used to feel. My feet are heavy now. She will forgive me for having just myself to offer.

I will fix everything. It will be just as it was with me and my mother, who had magical fingers that ran through my hair and tugged at my temples. I can feel in my fingertips it will be all right.

When the braid is finished, I wrap it tightly around her head. It will be perfect, and no one will be able to say otherwise. Not the girl at school who called her a showoff, or the boy who said he prefers blondes. Not her dance teacher, who called her too tall.

When I was a dancer, and my teacher told me to slim down, I didn’t say a word. But my daughter is tougher and fiercer than I was, with eyes of black rock.

I wasn’t strong, but I danced as long as I could, even after high school, after my pudge turned into a lump on my belly, after the other girls pointed out I didn’t have a ring on my finger, after “fat” was the kindest thing they had called me. It was a small town then too.

The bronze will grow out. Already, I see a sliver of black coming in at the roots.

They will not tell her who she must be. They will not touch her. She will fly away, high, over all of them. I will not hold her down. I will make her understand she never held me down either, that even now, in my heavy black shoes, I feel as though I might lift off the ground with her.

I can see a time far ahead when she will stop dancing, too, but she will never forget the feeling. Even after she has a bump of her own, or later, when her legs are swollen and etched with veins, even then, the muscle memory will remain, and she will remember exactly what it is to lift off the ground and take flight.

 

Lauren Kosa is a Washington, DC-based writer, with fiction and essays in Origins Journal, Fiction Southeast, The Writer, Vox, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and elsewhere. Follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurenKosa.

You Will be Saved

[creative nonfiction]

for Rose Williams

Close-cropped curly hair, pitted, blueberry skin—my first reaction was dread, with my incipient bias spluttering warnings: They are all violent. All a bit crazy. Stay away. We ignore each other—I huddled by the corner grading answer sheets while you ruled a coterie of veterans of shelters, prisons, rehabs, halfway houses. Bianca a juvie at twelve. Her girlfriend DeeDee who spent the days in class braiding her hair. Whose ex, Ariana, hissed at them in Spanish throughout the high school equivalency class.

I am taunted by the hour: “You speak funny. Whatcha doin here? Why don’t you go back where you belong? You Arab bitch! You think you better than us? Meet us outside… What, you chicken? What, you Buddhist or something?” I had dreamt of becoming the female version of Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love. Now, I cringed and started searching for another job.

Till one day you surfaced showing a piece you wrote. “You really brainy, huh? Which grade did you study up to?” And then, “I write good?” Flashing a smile at my nods. The next time the class mimicked me, you stop them. “Let her be. She’s Bomb Diggity!”

I learn about your babies: “They my angels even though they got different baby daddies! Girl, I was bad. I sinned then.” About your dealing at Detroit. “Girl, I wish I had just had a taste of it once before the cops came!” This time though you claim, “It’s different. Jesus is here.” And, “Read the Bible with me! Jesus will save you!”

You predict a brilliant future for me. “Just watch, you will get a good man. And lotsa babies.” You leave outlining plans to try for your GED, and then college, and promise, “You are my dawg. I will write you.” You send one letter—bordered by brown stick-figures and red-pencil flowers. And I never hear from you again.

 

Jonaki Ray studied chemistry and computer science in India (IIT Kanpur) and the US (UIUC), and, after a brief stint as a software engineer, has returned to her first love, English. She is now a poet, writer, and editor based in India. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have appeared in The Matador Review, So to Speak, Indian Literature, Sigh Press Literary Journal, Coldnoon, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Wire, The Times of India, and elsewhere. Her work is forthcoming in the American Journal of Poetry and For the Sonorous.

Honors for her work include first prize, EAL category, at the 2017 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest; longlisted at the 2016 Writers’ HQ International Fiction Contest; shortlisted, ESL category, at the 2016 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest; and longlisted for the 2016 RL Poetry Award. She was selected as a writer-in-residence at Joya: AiR, an inter-disciplinary residency program in Spain (Spring 2016); and La Macina di San Cresci, Italy (Summer 2017).

Getting Away

[fiction]

I whizz by houses in my old neighborhood at such a speed that they are just a blur to me. The sirens are blaring from behind, getting closer and closer. I kick my piece-of-shit Dodge into fourth gear and push the accelerator to the floor. There’s a jolt and it feels like we’ve jumped into hyperdrive.

I look over to Nicole, my object of desire, her knuckles are cataract-white from gripping the armrests. I swear she’s ready to have a heart attack if it wasn’t for the impossibly large Cheshire grin on her face.

We are the Romeo and Juliet of the modern era; we are Bonnie and Clyde for the twenty-first century. I look back over to her and my heart melts as I see such excitement and beauty in her face. She’s like a child on her birthday, when all her friends are huddled around waiting for her to open the gifts. Her eyes are tabby cat big, and so magnificently blue that I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes on the road.

She whips her face towards me, auburn hair waving in her eyes, and shouts, “Faster! Faster!”

I grin and we hit the top of a hill and it acts like a ramp: we sail through the sky for a good twenty seconds like we’re in a Die Hard movie. Both our hearts are in our throats and she’s screaming with delight like she’s riding a rollercoaster.

When we make contact again we hit hard and my head smashes off the ceiling of the car. It hurts and I lose control a moment and swerve onto the sidewalk. I keep my foot on the pedal and come back onto the road again. The sirens are long gone now, we’ve lost them. The only sound I hear is the squeal of the angel next to me. And then all of a sudden she screams like there’s a ghost in the middle of the road. But it’s not a ghost, it’s a living person who’s caught in my headlights like a moronic deer.

I swerve hard to my left and smash into a large tree. For comic relief, a dozen crab apples fall onto the hood, denting the shit out of it. My Dodge is fucked.

I’m bleeding from my forehead and I look over and see that Nicole’s got a gash on her head as well. I think my right leg is broken too.

She looks over at me and smiles, blood dripping down her face like tears. “How pissed do you think my Dad is that you kidnapped me?”

“I don’t know.” I pause and spit out a tooth. “Do you think he’ll still let me show up for work tomorrow?”

She laughs at this. It’s not a hearty bellow, but a silent giggle, something only people in love give from an inside joke.

“Oh, well, I was trying to get fired anyway.”

She rests her head on the back of her seat and closes her eyes. A moment passes.

“Nicole?” She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t move. The sirens are here now. They have finally caught up to me.

I reach over to grab hold of her perfect tiny hand. I want to feel the warmth and milky smoothness of it. I touch one of her long delicate fingertips, the nail is smooth as glass. I continue down her long slender fingers when an officer sticks his head through the window and tells me not to move.

 

Matthew Sarookanian is a photographer and writer living in Toronto, Ontario. “Getting Away” is his first published piece, thanks to Lunch Ticket. In addition to this story, his play, Haunted, appeared at the InspiraTO Festival, and Then He Wakes Up premiered at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Follow him on Instagram, msarookanian, and Twitter @msarookanian.

Photo by Ian Brown

Spark

[creative nonfiction]

(after Wilkins)

What I remember most clearly is the heat.

What I remember is driving in the heat to the house with a chain-link fence surrounding the front yard that was patchy with green and yellow grass. I can see the tree in the front yard with its one branch that curved toward the porch where there were chairs (plastic, maybe). I may have been wearing shorts if it was summer. Was it summer? Or was the heat because it was California? There may have been a dog. There were most assuredly other people, maybe a younger brother, a man, a girl.

What I remember is walking inside the house, being asked if I wanted a drink. It may have been Pabst or Natural Ice or Bud Light or Budweiser or Corona. I don’t know. I don’t know what I drank. I’m sure now that we talked, in a group or alone. I can hear myself laughing, full throated and boundless. We might have played dominoes smacking them onto the wooden kitchen table or knocking with our knuckles when we had no bone to play.

What I remember is nothing, nothing and then the wall near the bed, pale and cold, staring at my face partially submerged in dark sheets. Eyelids weighted by mascaraed lashes, I looked at the white wall and waited. My cheek slipped and pushed in rhythmic waves. Do I move my arm back, push against him with my hand? Does he shove it away? When do I whisper into the pillow top, no no? Will the man in the next room hear? I don’t know. I don’t know who lives here. I can still hear my blood throbbing through my ears, feel my heart still, then pound, banging around inside my chest. A piece of me wants to say I can taste whiskey on my breath, smell smoke in my hair.

What I remember is lying still. The television could be on in the background, the muffled sounds of dialogue sweeping over my empty thoughts. Do I fall asleep? Or do I lie awake for hours in a trance waiting for the light to spill through the tattered curtains in the morning? Are my eyes closed, or is it the wall I am staring at in the dark? I don’t know.

I am there through the night awake or asleep. I don’t know. Whether I was awake or asleep, whether I stared at the wall or slipped into a cautious rest, the light spilled in through the tattered curtains and the room is stifling when I sit up on the edge of the bed. I look around for my clothes. Do I clutch a sheet to cover my skin? I don’t know. I can’t see the pieces I collect or recall the order in which I put them on. A piece of me wants to say I said something or he did. Is my breathing rough? Is my voice low and cracking from the smoking and the dehydration?

When I leave the room, I go to the kitchen to get a drink of water. I can see through a door ajar that no one was in the next room. I drink water. Do I bring him a glass? Or does he follow me to the kitchen? Is it his hand on my shoulder that tenses every muscle in my body?

I see myself closing the door to the house, the screen smacking against the frame, walking past the tree and the grass, shoving the key into the car door, holding the wheel in my hands. I am numb and confused, and I am alone. Do I really just drive home? Do I maybe stare at the house, at the shadows the limbs make on the spotty grass, at the splashes of dirt behind steel fence links? Am I breathing when I start the car engine? How hard do I press the gas pedal with my foot?

There is so much I cannot remember. I want to say, it doesn’t matter that I don’t or can’t or won’t remember. I search the dark stumbling with my hands out groping for the missing. I can feel the heat, can see in snatches grasped as if by the flickering fire light of the Bic I used to keep in my pocket. Snap, spark, flame, heat, breath.

 

Kari TreeseKari Treese is a writer and mathematics teacher in Southern California. She received a bachelor’s degree in writing studies from University of Washington Tacoma and a master’s degree in education from UCLA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, Crab Fat, and The Fem. Find her outside counting rocks or climbing them.

When My Mother Held the Sears Door Open for Me

[creative nonfiction]

I wanted to follow my brothers and sisters through. I did not mean to walk into the glass door beside the open one. My body, though slight, could not slip between its molecules; I shattered that crystal barrier. I created the shards that brought the pain and the blood drops and the shame.

It was gray rain that day, and almost dusk-time, and so my eyes were more blurry than normal; they were always blurry because we were practicing faith in God and not doctors, but this was worse. And I saw my mom, saw her dark line of an arm extending from her body, deduced that she was holding the door, but I chose the wrong one.

A male employee carried my nine-year-old body, which I had thought weak but knew then had a conquering power of solidity. He brought me to a back room, for employees only, where he used a first-aid kit to mend my cuts.

No second aid would follow because God was trusted instead. I have two physical scars: on my nose, on my knee.

When I was lifted high above the staring shoppers, I buried my face in my hero’s shirtsleeve and pretended this did not happen, that I wasn’t a pathetic half-blind girl but a princess in a parade. My blood could be rubies and not liquefied pain. My fear could be joy; the broken pieces of glass could be diamonds raining down on my unscarred face.

 

Sarah Broussard Weaver’s essays have been published in Full Grown People, Hippocampus, The Bitter Southerner, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. She is an MFA candidate at Rainier Writing Workshop and lives in Portland, Oregon.