Lifted

[flash creative nonfiction]

I juggle the groceries in my arms: a box of granola bars, a chunk of ginger, an onion, a carton of eggs. I only came in here for the eggs. Ahead of me, a woman juggles her own groceries, plus a ruddy-faced toddler screaming for sweets. The registers in the self-checkout line are all taken.

A handful of hard hats ring up deli-wrapped sandwiches, sodas, and chips, thick fingers fumbling on the touch screen. I realize I have been staring when I make eye contact with one of the men; I shift my gaze to their steel-toed boots, willing them wordlessly to swipe faster, pay quicker, so that we can all be on our way. The mother in front of me, the businessman behind me—we all have places to be, places more important than this self-checkout line. We have done what we came here to do—select our purchases—and our goal now is to pay for them, get in our cars, and move on to the next item on our agendas. On mine: sending a package at the post office, returning a pair of pants that don’t fit right, picking up a book of poetry on hold at the library.

On hold.

That’s where we are, caught in the in-between.

My uncle Eric, a European computer programmer who speaks fluent English, French, Flemish, and code, attended a conference in France about internet privacy. During a conversation over dinner, Mark Zuckerberg asked him why the French were more reticent about adopting Facebook than Americans. My uncle offered his explanation. The French language is built on two verbs: ETRE and AVOIR. To be and to have. All other verbs rely on these. English, on the other hand, depends on a foundation of action verbs. While the French value ‘being’ as the ultimate action, Americans protect their right to do above all else. Waiting in the self-checkout line, we—the mother, the businessman, and myself—are stripped of this fundamental right.

I watch intently as the construction workers retrieve their receipts and lumber towards the exit. The mother and child ahead of me and I take hurried steps to occupy the empty registers. Relieved to be freed from the fetters of waiting, I ring up my groceries with relish. Eggs. Beep. Granola Bars. Beep. But it is while searching for ginger in the system that a strange sound makes me stop mid-swipe. It is a voice, and the voice is singing.

I twist my head to the left, to the right, to the left again, but I find nothing out of the ordinary. I stop and listen. The voice is still singing. It is coming from behind me, this honey-soaked song, a dark spiritual amongst the cacophony of commerce. I turn my body and find its maker.

She is wearing the guacamole-colored apron required of all the grocery store employees; a black visor with a lime green ‘P’ sits atop her close-cropped curls. Her hands are gathered quietly on the podium in front of her, and her eyes watch her hands. Her lips are barely moving, but it is she, without a doubt, who is singing.

The hinges of my jaw soften. My hand forgets the ginger it holds. It is not a song I know, but it’s not a song I don’t know.

There is nothing to be done but to stare and listen and wonder: How often does she sing like this, in the self-checkout line? Did her grandmother teach her this song? Does she sing it to her baby at night? Will her boss reprimand her for this?

My gaze sweeps the faces around me for confirmation that what I am hearing is real. The businessman wearing a crisp dress shirt and navy tie does the same. Our eyes meet for a startled second before our bodies return to the machines demanding our attention. I continue my search for ginger, but my pulse slows. I feel my cells rise and fall, following the intoxicating lilt of this strange woman’s offering, a lullaby made of milk and bone that holds its own against the metal clang of shopping carts and the harsh clatter of cash tills.

Carmella GuiolCarmella de los Angeles Guiol teaches and studies creative writing at the University of South Florida, where she is the nonfiction and arts editor at Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Toast, The Normal School, Spry, and The Inquisitive Eater. You can sometimes find her in the garden or kayaking the Hillsborough River, but you can always find her at www.therestlesswriter.com

Eternally, Jane

[flash fiction]

Dearest Andrew,

I hope this letter finds you, unlike the others which have gone astray. I cannot start my day without writing to you.

With everyone off fighting The Kaiser, Charlotte now helps me roll out the pastries. Despite having to run it by myself, business is good. I have attempted a new recipe with a secret ingredient. People seem eager to buy it, because, I think, it helps ease the heartache of absent loves.

Irrevocably yours, Jane

*     *     *

Treasured Andrew,

Please thank your superior for the note.  How kind of him to take the time.

I am quite busy today. Charlotte keeps pestering me to know the secret ingredient for Heartache Cakes. I tell her only that understanding is better than knowledge. That puzzles her.

Yours, and yours alone, Jane

*     *     *

Most Beloved,

Dad wrote. He is baking away at headquarters, keeping our boys fed. He says he worries about me, but I can’t think why.

The Heartache Cakes are flying out of here on wings. No one can keep their money in their pockets long enough to let me restock.

Ever yours, Jane

*     *     *

My Love,

I received the package today, but have not yet opened it.  Yes, Father Schneider received his.

I apologize for the brevity of this note, but I must return to my kitchen.

Hurriedly, but perpetually yours, Jane

*     *     *

Dearest Husband,

Charlotte’s begun to spend every moment with me, saying, of all things, she worries because I am too cheery. She is a dear, but I fiercely defend my time alone. I feel if I do not write to you, I will wither away.

She is asking more questions about the secret ingredient for the Heartache Cakes. No doubt, she received an offer from a rival bakery.

I pray with every breath that you are restored to me soon.

Yours everlastingly, Jane

*     *     *

Andrew, Andrew, Andrew,

Pardon my poor script. I rather burnt my hand stoking the ovens. This last month has proved terribly difficult. Dad says I should rest, but I cannot with business so strong. Charlotte scolded me about smiling so often. How absurd.

It is ridiculous. You are not gone. The belongings the Army sent are meaningless. The returned letters are a mix up.

Charlotte tells me I do not understand. I told her once she finds true love it will forever fill her heart as yours has filled mine.

Unerringly yours, Jane

*     *     *

My Sweetest Heart,

Charlotte, Dad and Father Schneider do nothing but reproach me. They hound me so.

As soon as I write the letters to you, I cast them into oven. The ash, the steam from my tears and the imperishable emotion rise in the heat. My cakes, which are our cakes, are touched by this and therefore changed.

Everyone who eats them knows as I know: despite the madness of war, love is forever. If something is forever, it is never lost.

With that understanding, I smile again.

Rest assured, I will never stop loving you.

Eternally, Jane

The ninth daughter of a surgeon who accidentally cut off the tip of his own index finger, Virginia Elizabeth Hayes developed a keen eye for the absurd at an early age. She has been published internationally in literary magazines and journals. She is the author of the novels A Saint Nobody’s Heard Of and Welcome to Lamentation.

Bats in the Attic

[flash fiction]

There are bats in the attic. I’m not being euphemistic. There are bats in our attic and they are pushing me to the border of my sanity. The scuttling and whispering of teeth and wings above our heads sets my teeth on edge. Somehow, you sleep, your chest rising and falling with criminal ease. When you finally wake, they’re still. You cluck at me and leave me with a blue pill to help me sleep. They’re quiet once you’re gone.

Every night for a week I lie awake listening to them cavorting smugly in the space above our heads. Every morning you insist it’s my imagination, like those other things that weren’t there, the cries in the night from ghost babies.

Today I wake in the yellow midday, and swallow the three pink pills you’ve left on the counter with cold coffee. I wipe the wet ring underneath the mug with my sleeve and run the faucet until the dishes look clean, then place them on the shelves. I carry myself with dread to the nursery, and continue the awful work of packing it all into cardboard boxes. Tiny booties that have never been worn, rattles, and stacks of cloth diapers. We’ll try again soon, you keep promising. But you haven’t touched me since they wheeled me out of the hospital, stunned, broken ribs and battered face, with no baby. The crash changed everything.

I am nuzzling a teddy bear against my cheek when I hear that familiar fluttering paper sound, wings on drywall. I dial your number, but you send me straight to voicemail.

I arm myself with a frying pan and wool gloves, and tie one of your wispy scarves around the bottom half of my face. Then I ascend the ladder and crawl through the trapdoor. The attic is dark, dangerous terrain filled with mountains and minefields of cardboard boxes and unsupported slats. I creep along the border. My breath, kept close by the scarf, is loud in my ears. They’re louder, fluttering madly. I swat at them with the pan, but they’re fast. They know where to hide. Bats can fit through holes the width of a pencil. I tear open the boxes, howling a war cry. Summer clothes, unstrung tennis rackets, stacks of magazines. I smash them all. Where are you when I need you? I can’t see them but they’re everywhere. I hear them swooping and gliding, stretching their wings aggressively. After a while I start to cry, because this would never happen if you were here.

When you come home, I’m lying in a circle of broken Christmas ornaments.

“Bats,” I say, my heart battering the walls of my chest.

You look at me for a long moment, and I touch my fingertips together and reach for you in a desperate prayer. “Please,” I whisper.

“No bats,” you say in a voice as hollow as an empty grave, and begin to sweep the thin, fragile, colored fragments of glass that surround me.

Dana Mele photo credit: David McQueen

Dana Mele lives in the Great Northern Catskills with her husband and son. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Right Hand Pointing, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Bird’s Thumb, and Mad Scientist Journal, among others. She is currently working on her first novel.

(the danger of becoming small)

[flash fiction]

After an argument that night in the grocery store over the merits of grass-fed cow’s milk, your lug-headed boyfriend told you to keep quiet, to take up less space, to become less noticeable. So you sucked your breath inward, purpling your skin from lack of oxygen and subtracting your sound from the universe. Then you folded yourself limb upon limb, in halves, then halves again infinitesimally, until you compressed yourself into the space of an atom, then you went even further, causing nuclear fission and an explosion more powerful than the heat of a million suns, thus collapsing the space-time continuum. It is in this way you were reborn, upending all of creation, casting your boyfriend and the grocery store into the great void.

G.G. SilvermanG.G. Silverman lives north of Seattle with a very compassionate husband and a very cute dog, whose markings resemble a tuxedo. G.G. has won awards for her short fiction and is currently at work on a short story collection as well as the follow-up to her first novel. When not writing, she can often be found hiking, downward-dogging, and training on her compound bow. She is fairly certain that coffee is what keeps her alive. For more info, please visit www.ggsilverman.com.

Rivka

[flash fiction]

Rivka Borek had plans to become the youngest ever five-time champion on Jeopardy! She told me this our third day at science camp, by which point I was completely in love with her. Rivka had thick curly hair, kind brown eyes, and fuchsia glasses that perfectly matched the brackets on her teeth, but I think it was her insatiable curiosity that attracted me the most—the sense that through Rivka’s eyes, nothing could be irrelevant.

Lacking the courage to put any of these feelings into words, I offered to help her study after dinner. Rivka’s dorm room shared the same scuffed tile and generic wood furniture as my room one floor below, yet for me the space gleamed with the intoxicating mystery of girlhood. Bracelets and necklaces looped through a small metal tree on the desk. The open closet revealed snatches of colorful sleeves. A brush lay on the dresser, bristles densely packed with Rivka’s brown hair.

We sat cross-legged on either end of her bedspread. I held up one side of the flashcard for her to see. Tonight the topic was World Geography, so the card might read “Myanmar” or “Bahrain,” and she would have to come up with the capital city. Or it could say the name of a city or a town, and Rivka would name the country to which it belonged. This was practice she could have easily carried out on her own, and I flattered myself, imagining she had accepted my offer because she wanted to be with me.

I was not the only boy to have developed a love interest that first week. The New York State STEM Advancement Program, colloquially known as “science camp,” catered to the promising scientific minds of middle and high school students around the state. Among the older set especially, the prospect of finding mates was far more exciting than the prospect of expanding their scientific know-how. At eleven, my comprehension of sex was akin to my comprehension of photosynthesis: biological processes whose steps I could list out on command, but which seemed to have little bearing on my daily life. I had the idea that I would like to hold Rivka’s hand, to share a coke out of the same tall straw, yet even these modest goals seemed as unreachable as the moon. Always there were the facts between us.

Did I know the average white shark lost 30,000 teeth in a lifetime?
Did I know the ancient Egyptians believed the world was rectangular?
Did I know Venus was actually the hottest planet in our solar system?

Later, I’d understand that sharing these inane pieces of trivia was Rivka’s way of showing compassion, her attempt to include me in the factual world where she felt so alive. But at the time I only despaired that this avalanche of information was killing the romantic mood.

At eleven, my comprehension of sex was akin to my comprehension of photosynthesis: biological processes whose steps I could list out on command, but which seemed to have little bearing on my daily life.

In desperation, I consulted my roommate, a thirteen-year-old named Stacey Chang, who had a girlfriend back home in Schenectady. I knew because he had decorated his side of the room with a hundred photos of the two of them together, a chubby redheaded girl with her arms thrown around Stacey’s narrow shoulders.

“Let me tell you something about women,” said Stacey. It was 11:30 p.m., well past curfew, but everyone was sprawled in the hallway studying for a physics exam the next morning. “Women are skittish creatures. They must be treated gently. Have you ever had to get a mouse out from behind a piece of furniture?”

I confessed I had not.

“Well,” said Stacey, “you can imagine. You go at it with a broom, it runs to the other end of the sofa. You try to move the sofa, and the mouse moves, too. It requires great patience. Finesse. You’re not gonna get it right your first try.”

After Stacey had disappeared on a vending machine run, another boy, who had been eavesdropping, scrambled across the hall to my side. He was small, wiry, with a crop of whiteheads on his chin. Though he must have been in my physics class, I don’t recall ever seeing him outside this single interaction, and I never learned his name.

“Dude,” he whispered solemnly. “Forget all that. You just gotta go for it.”

And this is what I did. Against all probabilities, utterly flouting my nature as the cautious boy with the color-coded wardrobe and the self-imposed code of foods eaten in a certain order off the plate, the words just flung themselves from my lips: “Rivka, will you go out with me?”

We were walking back from biology lab. The August afternoon was still, the colors brighter than usual. Rivka’s hair had gone crazy in the humidity, fanning out around her like a cirrostratus cloud. She cocked her head. “Go where?”

“Nowhere,” I said, baffled. “Just, you know, out. Will you be my girlfriend?”

She thought about this, raising her eyes skyward exactly as I’d seen her do when pondering the capital of Fiji. We had halted in the middle of the sidewalk. The crowd of students parted and surged around us like water rushing past two boulders. Then it was just Rivka and me, alone beneath a ceiling of low, purple clouds that heralded rain, and suddenly I knew just from the length of the silence what her answer would be.

I don’t remember the exact terminology of her rejection, only that as I was turning away, tearful and humiliated, she reached out with sudden tenderness to touch my arm: Did I know that when two people who were in love gazed into one another’s eyes for three minutes, their heart rates synchronized?

Many years later, after college, I would utter these very words to my then-girlfriend, Sarah. We were fighting—we were always fighting—and in an effort to deflate the tension, I felt myself reaching for that odd fact with its perfect balance of science and sentimentality.

Sarah was not impressed. “Are you kidding me?” she fumed. “Are you actually kidding me with this shit?”

She grabbed her bag and swept out of the room. A moment later, the front door slammed. I fell back in bed and stared at the ceiling fan. At that time I was living in a nice two-bedroom outside Boston. I worked as a software engineer at a cybersecurity company. I had done well for myself. Every so often I turned on NBC to watch Jeopardy! It had been a while, but I was certain I would recognize her face.

Tessa YangTessa Yang is a first-year MFA candidate in fiction writing at Indiana University. Raised in Rochester, New York, she received her BA from St. Lawrence University in 2015. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in r.kv.r.y quarterly literary journal and Fine Linen Magazine. When not reading and writing, Tessa enjoys watching baseball, playing Ultimate Frisbee, and yo-yoing.