Fall 2020 Issue
by James Bates
Abr and Bnr were two aliens sent to earth on a fact-finding mission from the planet Zerros by the supreme commander, Knx.
“Find out if the planet is ripe for takeover,” Knx told them. Collecting planets was a hobby of his, and he was in the mood to add to his collection.
“Will do,” Abr said.
“You can count on us,” added Bnr.
They left the next day.
The Universal Portal System deposited the two of them onto a subway platform in New York City. After they each instantaneously shape-shifted to resemble humans (Abr wearing kakis and a pink polo shirt and Bnr dressed in skinny jeans and black tee-shirt), they followed the crowd up a long escalator to street level, right in the heart of Manhattan. Immediately they noticed something odd; some people were wearing face mask coverings and others weren’t.
Abr whispered to Bnr, “What’s going on?”
Bnr sniffed, “Maybe it’s because the air smells so bad.”
Abr held his nose and nodded, “Probably, but I’m going to find out for sure.” He put out his arm and stopped a young man sauntering by carrying a skateboard. “Excuse me. Could you please tell us why some people are wearing those things on their face?”
The young man had dreadlocks and wore a red tee-shirt and baggy pants. He gave them a perplexed look. “You mean, masks? Haven’t you heard about the pandemic?”
Neither of them had a clue but Bnr was quick to play along. “A little, but tell us what you know.”
“Okay,” he said, agreeably. “It began in China in 2019 and spread around the world from there. It got bad here in the States in March of 2020 and has stayed bad ever since.”
“Wow!” Bnr exclaimed. “That’s about…”
“Yeah, it’s been over two years, now. Wearing a mask has helped slow the spread of the virus.”
Abr asked, “Why doesn’t everyone wear one?”
The young man shrugged, flipped his dreadlocks back onto his shoulder and said, “Because they’re idiots.” He put down his skateboard, stepped on and skated off down the sidewalk.
Abr and Bnr watched him weave in and out of the crowd.
“We should get masks,” Abr said. “To be on the safe side.”
“Yes, we should,” Bnr agreed. “And to fit in. Say, I have an idea. Let’s try an experiment.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Why don’t you wear a mask and I won’t. We’ll see if it makes a difference.”
“Sounds good,” Abr said. “I’d like a black one like the guy we talked to had.”
“Great,” Bnr said. “Let’s go get you one.”
One year later, Bnr, the non-mask wearing alien, returned alone to Zerros. After he completed his initial de-briefing, the supreme commander summoned him.
“What happened? Why’d you come back alone? Did Abr die even though he was wearing one of those ridiculous masks?” He laughed, “Abr was always kind of a gullible sort.”
“No,” Bnr was quick to respond. “The mask helped him a lot. He never got sick.” Then he grinned sheepishly, “On the other hand, I got the virus and almost died. It was touch and go for a while, but,” he pointed to himself, “as you can see, I made it back just fine.”
Knx was unimpressed. “Whatever…Getting back to Abr, if he’s not dead, why didn’t he come back with you?”
“You’ll never believe it, sir.”
Bnr grinned. “He met a lady.”
“Impossible. You scientists aren’t supposed fall for that kind of nonsense. You’re all about the science. Research. Facts. Testing and more testing. You don’t have time for romance.”
Bnr grinned even more. “Never-the-less, sir, that’s what happened. ‘Hook, line and sinker’ is the expression they use on earth. ‘The whole kit-and-caboodle.’ The…’’
“All right! I get your drift.”
“He’s in love, sir.”
“What! What kind of stupid thing is that to say? Love. It’s a bunch of…,” Knx was beside himself, not one inclined toward anything to do with amorous intentions. “It’s a bunch of crap, that’s what it is.”
“He’s really smitten, sir. It’s pretty emotional for him, too, and he’s not used to dealing with feelings.”
“I should say not.”
“And it’s complicated.”
“How so?” The supreme commander was on shaky ground when it came to talking about love.
“Well, she’s brilliant. She stands in the harbor of New York City and is kind of a beacon for liberty. She’s got a lot of responsibility.”
“I can imagine.”
“Yes. She’s made of metal and Abr adores her. He’s with her all the time taking care of her, cleaning her and watching out for her. She doesn’t move much. Plus, she’s kind of quiet, but he enjoys talking to her even if she doesn’t talk back. Like I said, he’s very smitten.”
“Even with this pandemic going on he’s not worried about getting sick?”
“No, sir. He wears his mask. He’s being safe. He’s very happy.”
Knx was quiet for a moment. Then he sighed, giving Abr up as a lost cause, and focused on Bnr. “Okay, then. What about the mission to take over the planet? You were there for a year. Should we attack now?”
“No, sir. I’d wait. The pandemic will kill many more people, especially if they persist in not following the guidelines. It’s inevitable. After that happens it’ll make dealing with them that much easier. Less people to worry about.”
“That makes sense.”
“Thank you, sir.” Bnr was quiet for a moment and then added. “Sir, if you don’t mind. I have an idea.”
“Speeding along the takeover.”
Knx was not a patient man. “Get to the point, Bnr.”
“Well, sir, I looked into getting a job at one of the pharmaceutical companies that’s working on making a vaccine.”
Knx was intrigued. “Yes?”
“You know with my credentials I’m a very good scientist, right?"
“The point, Bnr.”
“Well, I’ve done a bit of research. I can make the vaccine look like it will work, but, in reality, it won’t work. People will be excited to take the vaccine, but it won’t help them. More people will die and it’ll throw the world into chaos.”
“You sure you can do that?”
“Piece-of-cake, sir,” to use an expression on earth.
Knx grimaced. “They sound like an odd bunch.”
They are, sir. Extremely.”
“So, you get a job with a pharmaceutical company and mess up the vaccine. Right?
“The pandemic goes on and people keep dying because the vaccine doesn’t work.
“Yes, sir. And chaos ensues.”
“And the takeover is easier. It’s brilliant, Bnr.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Knx was silent, grinning, thinking about adding another planet to his collection. Life was good.
“Um, sir?” asked.
“When do you want me to leave?”
“As soon as possible.”
“I’ll go tomorrow.”
“Good.” Bnr stood to leave. “Oh, and, Bnr.”
“Don’t get hung up doing what Abr is doing.”
“Oh, I won’t. It’s not good science.”
Knx smiled. He was liking Bnr more and more.
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in many online and print publications. His collection of short stories, Resilience, is scheduled to be published in 2020 by Bridge House Publishing. All of his stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.
The Story Therapist
by Peter Murphy
THERE IS NOTHING in the room apart from two chairs and the therapist and yet it is as it should be; it's all in the preparation. The wall was painted about a year ago and not as well as it might have been but its faint defects are not a problem. There is nothing as distracting as perfection; a simple consultation room can relax clients and make them doubly receptive.
A story therapist’s words are his instrument, no less than a surgeon’s knife. They are primarily used to ensure clients have a close relationship to characters in the narratives they are encouraged to produce. To ease them in they are invited to run with a narrative carefully selected for them.
This therapist favors a popular generic option, which invites variations, according to the needs of clients, on the fable of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, always aiming to position characters and plot around the client’s needs, as he understands them. This is what is happening now, with the current client, a small woman, who has just taken her place in the chair opposite him.
He understands she’s done something dreadful but makes no judgments. A problem only exists if the client perceives one and it is precisely because something is troubling her that he will try to take her to a place in her imagination where she can deal with it. With this in mind, he outlines the story of a dog that has become so fascinated by wolves that it has taken to following them as they hunt. It is also intrigued by the kill and the sight of blood but this, he explains, isn’t critical. In offering these narrative elements, like tempting sweets, he looks for a reaction in her face, her hands, even for hints of unsteadiness in her voice.
As he predicted, her hands immediately become still and her eyes narrow. Sensing her engagement with ambiguities of being and act, of which the dog is emblematic, he continues developing his story line. It is not yet time to let the client make the story her own and run with it unaided; she might use the opportunity for evasive action or placing decoys in the path of truth. No, her storytelling will be properly managed over regular consultations once the diagnosis is final and the therapeutic strategy has been completely thought out. It is, however, appropriate to encourage her to dip her toe in the water and frame a narrative in which she might make her first, tentative yet very illuminating steps.
'OK, off you go now. Picture your dog approaching a pack of wolves, coming closer and closer, so that it can smell them now, just as – it must know – they can smell it. Why does it take such risks? Why don’t they tear it apart the instant its presence is apprehended?
It seems absolutely convinced of its safety perhaps because both it and they sense that it is, at heart, one of them; or at one with them.’
Unexpectedly, even to this trained professional, the client stirs and, he believes, a hand trembles just perceptibly, which he takes as something like an implicit instruction – command – to up the ante.
‘There is a hunter moving through the forest. It is late and he has taken the wrong path. He senses that there are wolves nearby and that they can smell his fear. Suddenly, he is seen near a great black animal a short distance from the pack – but there is something different about it. Look, it’s seen him! It leaps into the air and, as it does, appears to pass through an unseen dimension, an invisible fire, such that its very limbs are changed and the great, gaping jaw – fume flecking those terrible teeth – is undeniably that of a ...’
But there is nothing in the client’s eyes now and the therapist is somewhat disheartened. Has the immediacy of the scenario tempted him into going too far at the client’s expense? Why didn’t he pause for just long enough to let her make just one small, revealing suggestion as to what might happen? Ah well, the moment has passed. Hopefully, she will hold onto the story till the next session. In any case, they are already in the concluding five minutes of the first exploratory session, just enough time for a few suggestions as to how she might prepare for the next, after which his personal assistant will discuss the preferred payment method and the most convenient time for future consultations.
I’m an Australian writer. I write poetry and short stories and take photos. In my poetry, I record the world around me and in my stories I explore the quirks of consciousness.
by Don Tassone
IT’S SUPPOSED TO RAIN all day, so I’m in no hurry to change out of my pajamas. I go downstairs and make myself a cup of coffee. That’s all I have for breakfast anymore.
I step into the sunroom. I hear the rain hitting the roof and the skylight and see it falling straight down all around me.
It’s chilly, so I pull a blanket over my legs as I sit on the sofa with my back to the brick wall that was simply the back of our garage before we built this room 20 years ago.
Sunroom is a misnomer today. The sky is bluish gray, the color of despair. There is no sun at all. Watching the rain, I feel like I haven’t seen the sun in a long time.
I rest my coffee cup on my lap, wrap my hands around it to warm them and close my eyes.
My mind returns to a painfully familiar question: how could I have been so foolish? I didn’t mean to hurt you, let alone drive you away. I assumed we would always be together.
But I was thoughtless. I regretted my decision as soon as I made it. I was filled with remorse and begged your forgiveness, but you couldn’t forgive me. You could no longer trust me, you said.
I don’t blame you. I blame myself.
I wish we were sitting here together, sharing this blanket. I wish we could talk again. I feel so alone without you.
You used to love this room. You used to love me.
It’s raining harder. The wind is kicking up, and raindrops are now pelting the windows.
I sip my coffee. It’s lukewarm. I go back inside to heat it up.
“Good morning,” I say.
“Morning,” you say in a flat voice, your back to me, buttering your toast.
Don Tassone is the author of a novel, Drive, and four short story collections: New Twists, Sampler, Small Bites and Get Back. An avid runner, Don lives in Loveland, Ohio. Visit him at https://www.dontassone.com.
by Tavi Black
“ISN’T HE HANDSOME?” the mother asks her two daughters, looking through the glass of the entryway, pointing out a red-headed man on the far side of the pool. Red-headed like her, but the man’s hair is brighter, not auburn, not dark. The daughters note the man with red hair in a blue Speedo, but can’t identify him as “handsome,” as anything but a stranger. Why does she point him out? Why should they care? “No way,” they say without more than a glance, scurrying towards the locker room.
When they’ve changed into matching pink bathing suits and have snapped flowered bathing caps over their heads, the girls make for the pool. The young blond one runs, though she knows she’s not supposed to run, can’t help herself, and hurls her body into the shallow end of the pool, a splash that elicits a whistle from the life guard, though the blast is half-hearted, brief, stilted. It is a Tuesday afternoon and there are very few swimmers, just a few college students doing laps, a couple of other families with small kids. The girls are old enough to swim without floating devices. They are excellent swimmers, six and eight. Big girls at the pool, at the community college pool where their parents have a membership.
The older, dark haired daughter takes her time, dipping her toes daintily into the shallow end, and then wading down the stairs until her hips are submerged. She gets goose bumps on her arms even though the air in the enclosed room is like that in a greenhouse, humid and warm. The heavy chemical odor of chlorine stings her eyes. She blinks, clear water dripping off long black eyelashes. The little blond one splashes and dives, a slippery little fish, all smiles though the chlorine causes bright red welts to rise on her pale, sensitive skin. The pleasure is worth the discomfort. She is used to discomfort.
The girls, preoccupied with the warm water, with the joy of movement for the sake of itself, don’t notice their mother over there, across the room in her black one- piece suit with the low-cut lines, her long red hair loose (she has yet to put on required cap,) over there smiling and talking to the man with the bright red hair, his cap off too, his skin freckled like hers, his stomach sucked in, though there isn’t much of a gut to suck, and his chest lifted and pushed out, forward, toward her, though there isn’t much of a chest to lift.
The young blond girl does somersault after somersault towards the deep end of the pool and she imagines that she can breathe under water, she’s done it once, she’s sure. Was there a little pocket of air, a bubble that was filled with oxygen so that she could breathe, take a tiny breath to keep her underwater longer? Is she a mermaid? Is this an old memory coming back because once upon a time she lived underwater? The slight young girl flips and does a handstand on the bottom of the slick pool, tiles cool and slimy under her small fingers and her cheeks turning red, holding breath, holding on until the very last second, until no, it seems she cannot breathe underwater now, the liquid filling her nose and she sputters and coughs and reaches her head toward the surface. But she’s gone too deep, her petite toes barely reaching the surface and when she flips the air seeming so far away, so far, that when she finally breaks the flat plane her lungs are bursting and gasping for oxygen, for life. Her arms flail, little mouth open like a sunfish on the deck of a canoe, gaping, yawning, wide.
Her sister sees her sputter and cough, spies arms flailing before even the lifeguard notices trouble. The older girl is used to watching out for, looking after her sister and she rushes to her side, holds the little one tight and pounds on her back, her warm, dark hands comforting, calm on the cool skin. The lifeguard has risen and has walked to the edge of the pool, though he, a college student, does not seem alarmed, is not rushing into the water. He stands in red trunks, tan arms crossed, looking annoyed, down at the two little girls. The older sister searches for mother, but her back is to the girls, still with hair cascading, still talking, standing with her short hip jutting, not seeing her youngest almost drown. Did she almost drown? The older girl decides she will tell the story like that, tell her father that she, the elder, the responsible girl, has saved the little one, see if it matters, see if her mother listens to her tell the story.
The young girl recovers and pushes out of the circle of her sister’s grip, smiling up at the lifeguard, a teary grin on her face, a look her mother has labeled her “pigface.” The older sister lets her go, lets her continue her acrobatics, though the young one makes sure not to stay under too long this time, wonders how it is she breathed that one time underwater. The older sister stays close until they both get cold, waterlogged, until their mother eventually joins them, cap on, all smiles, such fun.
The girls want to keep warm, love the steam room, all hot and sticky and their little lungs barely able to breathe in the thick, sweltering atmosphere. When they’re done swimming the mother leaves them in the steam room. “I’ll be back soon,” she says. But she’s not back soon. The girls steam then shower, then steam again, singing songs, laughing behind their hands at the fully naked women in the open shower room. Some skinny, some large-breasted like their own mother, some shaven, some gruesomely fat, with rolls of white, dimpled skin around their middles, hanging from their buttocks. Old women, young teens with tight thighs, but the girls are afraid to stare too long, and only take glances, small glimpses from under the cool stream. Side by side, one dark, one fair, barely reaching the controls, nudging the knob to make the water just right, just perfectly tepid after the hot, hot steam.
Still mother is gone, so they dress in their clothes, stashed in the locker that the older girl remembers the combination to, buttoning their own shirts, snap, snap, zip. Drying their hair under the machines on the wall—meant for drying hands, but they keep pushing the button, standing under the warm air. Women brushing and coloring and covering nearby, in the mirrors, smile at the girls’ antics, paint lipstick on mouths and blush on cheeks.
When the girls are ready, the dark haired one steps out into the pool area, bare feet, soft skin, looking for a sign of the red hair, not the bright red, but the deeper, auburn, familiar hair. She sees neither, only a swim-capped woman doing laps and a family with a baby with orange water wings. She returns to the locker room and puts on her shoes, tells her sister they’re leaving.
“But she said to stay here,” the little one says, unsure.
“She said to stay in the steam room,” the older one reasons, “and if we had done that we would have passed out. We could’ve died, even.”
The little one almost understands, nods.
The girls put on their coats. It is fall, heading towards winter. They march out into the lobby. Should they ask to use the phone, the younger one wonders? Call Dad?
“No, Dad’s busy. He’s at work.”
They push past the glass doors, past a receptionist who flirts with a skinny boy, out into the crisp air, smell of leaves, burning fire, apples and exhaust. They sit their butts down on the hard cement and wait. The girls have spent hours as patients, as penitents, in queues, on curbs, are good at it, quiet, unassuming, unafraid. She will eventually come. She always comes, eventually. Coffee in hand, cursing, tense, speeding car, squealing brakes. Or sometimes she will come laughing, lighthearted, joking, crazy with fun. Today will be one of those, the dark-haired sister guesses. She tries out a smile on her own face, practicing.
The girls play a game— I Spy—then sing songs by Donnie and Marie, by the Beach Boys. The chilly wind begins to settle inside their bones; all memory of the hot steam fades from their bodies. The sun lowers, down past the trees in the distance, past the buildings and the telephone lines. The older girl takes her sister’s hand, pulls her into the lobby, past the receptionist, into a small cubby with the vending machines. She digs in her pocket and finds two quarters she’s been saving for emergency. Looks at the payphone, looks down at her sister who’s pushing buttons on the vending machine.
“Are you hungry?”
Candy bar in her sister’s little fist, back out of the cubby, past receptionist, into the cold, down on their butts. Dark haired girl refuses a bite, tries out a smile. Then, finally, eventually, their mother’s car. Dark and speeding, squealing. Headlights on, pulling up fast, dangerously close to their little feet, then the window cranked down, then what the hell are you doing out here? I told you to wait inside. And the older sister lets the smile drip from her mouth. She was wrong: it is not one of those days, crazy happy.
After graduating from the MFA program at Lesley University in 2008, several stories of Tavi's were shortlisted for prizes, including the Fish One Page Prize and the Donald Barthelme Prize for Short Prose. Her debut novel *Where Are We Tomorrow?* (First Place winner in the PNWA 2016 literary contest and finalist in the 2016 Nicholas Schaffner Award for Music in Literature) is under contract with TouchPoint Press to be published in spring 2021.
Look for upcoming stories in Literary Mama and Levee Magazine.
Cogs and Gears
by L.S. Engler
FIVE O’CLOCK, hit the alarm, switch to snooze. Five fifteen, hit the alarm, get out of bed. You prepared your coffee the night before so all you have to do is push a button, and by the time you’re out of the shower, it’s ready, though slightly burned because you linger in the hot water and steam. Get dressed, do your hair, pack your lunch and realize that the clock on the microwave is wrong. Barely manage to catch the bus, and it’s the seven-twenty, not the seven-five, so you’re stuck in traffic that makes you late, though no one seems to. Everyone is already droning away with the hum of tedious work, typing, transcribing, copying, calling. A few guys from Accounting hover at Steve’s desk, lingering, laughing. Eyes drift toward you, but you keep your head down, you keep to yourself, you don’t dare think that they’re actually looking at you. They’re looking past you, to Louise a few desks down, to the water cooler, to the window of the conference room, where they’re setting up for the March birthdays, tasteless cake and fruit punch at lunchtime.
You’ll spend that office birthday party in the corner with your flimsy plate, and no one will tell you about the smear of blue icing on the corner of your mouth. You don’t even realize it’s there until you get home, hurrying for the bathroom after another long, rough bus ride. You just can’t use the office toilets, you just can’t stand that claustrophobic stall, people gossiping in front of the mirrors, not realizing you’re there. Even though you’re certain no one said anything because no one noticed, you’re mortified. You clean your face and take another long hot shower because you don’t know what else to do. Make a frozen dinner that stays cold in the middle, unwrap an ice cream sandwich, watch the evening news and the occasional sitcom that you don’t bother keeping up with because you can’t relate to any of the characters and the laugh tracks drive you crazy. Set the coffee pot so that it’s ready in the morning, brush your teeth, get into bed. You can’t sleep, thinking of guys from Accounting snickering at Steve’s desk.
Five o’clock, hit the alarm, set to snooze. Five fifteen, hit the alarm, get out of bed. You prepared your coffee the night before so all you have to do is push a button. A gear in the cogs of a well-tuned machine. It’s okay. You’re used to it. You’re ignoring the guys from Accounting snickering at Steve’s desk, they’re setting up the conference room for the June birthdays. You sit in a corner not noticing green frosting on the corner of your mouth, you prepare for another long, rough bus ride. But then, someone notices. Bobs his head in a nod, smiles slightly, brushing his thumb against his own mouth to inspire you to do the same. You extract the mess from your burning red race and you panic, not knowing what else to do. You contemplate wiping it on your slacks, but they’re khaki, they’ll stain, you’re a big enough of a mess as it is, so you pop your thumb in your mouth, and he laughs. You want to crawl under your seat and die, but he’s still smiling, makes some cheesy, cheery comment. “Guess you were saving it for later.” Then you breathe. “Guess so.” And the gears squeak, shifting, shaking off a little bit of rust.
L.S. Engler writes from outside of Chicago, though she grew up chasing dragons in the woods of Michigan. Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Pulp Modern, Phantaxis, Bards and Sages Quarterly, and the Saturday Evening Post.
by Rachel Oblak
YEAR AFTER YEAR the family portraits went on the wall, and year after year she smiled in them. The smile, never fully genuine, was little more than a grimace by now. Dark circles surrounded her eyes. Cheekbones, collar bones, and shoulders protruded through pale, papery skin. At fifty, she easily looked twenty years older, her one palliative against the wasting gone with her daughter.
It was hard enough before marriage—when she needed only to feed her mother. Her mother was a hungry one, always needing to be the center of attention, to be favored, to be affirmed. But she was a dutiful daughter herself and did not begrudge the reassurances of love her mother claimed she’d die without.
Her father, afraid of her mother’s unpredictable anger, taught her the best way to deal with her mother was to give whatever her mother asked for. Misinterpreting his fear as patience, she admired her father as he silently endured the castigations, never once raising his own voice or hand to the woman who regularly raised both to him. She did everything she could to emulate her father and was rewarded with something like peace so long as her mother was sated.
She was ripe and well-trained by the time she met the man who would become her husband. He didn’t feed on her the same way, demanding like a cuckoo chick in a foreign nest while the nestlings starved. He was more suave than her mother, luring her in and making her feel talented and valued, though never as talented or valuable as himself. She felt special for being noticed in her mediocrity.
He talked about his dreams. She would be such an asset to his career. She wanted nothing more than to be needed by those she loved. Being needed was being secure. So she dropped out of college and got married, sacrificing her own dreams to feed his. Martyrdom was second-nature to her by now.
Not able to abandon her mother, she found herself feeding both—her mother and her husband. On a single soul they both grew sleek and plump. Her own diminution at first only showed in her eyes, where the lifeforce began to dim. Then it showed on the scale, dropping first to 100 then to 90 pounds, as she began to pick at her food more than eat it. Her mother gave backhanded compliments about her small breasts and bony hips, jealous of her ability to fit a size 2 petite. Neither bothered to ask why she was losing weight.
She cried when she found out she was pregnant. How could she give any more? For the last several months of the pregnancy she was on bed rest, a fetus feeding from within, her husband and mother feeding from without. She thought, perhaps even hoped, the labor might be the end.
There were times when she genuinely loved and wanted to nurture her infant. Most of the time she resented her though. Like her own mother, her daughter could never seem to get enough love, and she hated how inadequate that made her feel. Coldness became her only shield. Most days, she got through by fantasizing about getting in her car and driving away, starting over with no one dependent on her, no one who needed her attention or her energy.
Years passed, and her own daughter grew. Her daughter had so much energy and individuality. She would find herself hungrily watching it, envying it, craving it, hating it. She tried to warn her daughter, to teach her to stifle that light. At times she didn’t know if she did that to protect her or punish her for being so bright.
Then one day as a pis-aller when she was especially depleted, she stole a little of her daughter’s life. She justified it by telling herself that she was giving it back to her daughter in her own fashion. She began feeding more and more, unable to slake her emptiness. Her daughter’s shine began to diminish ever so slightly, but it was the price she had to pay to survive. She found it surprisingly easy to steal the life, relishing in being the more powerful one for once.
She worked hard to never be as cruel and hungry as her own mother. A request here, a demand there. By now she had realized that she couldn’t fully abstain from devouring another while others devoured her. She accepted the cycle.
Her daughter wasn’t like her though. She was insatiably curious and quietly willful. At some point she began to resist. It wasn’t as easy to pilfer her vitality. As she grew into a young woman, her daughter put up shields and created distance, first emotional, then physical.
And then one day her daughter left, cutting her off.
She wailed with the betrayal of abandonment. Without her daughter to sustain her, she knew it would only be a matter of time before she was reduced to a shriveled, empty shell. Her daughter sent an apology by post, but refused to return. She decided she would have preferred her daughter having died to this.
Still, as she looked at shifts in the family portraits chronicling the changes in the family and the changes in herself, a small part of her, the same part that had dreamt of running away herself so many times, was proud of her daughter. Her daughter had found something she hadn’t—a way out of devouring and being devoured. A vision, no longer an active fantasy, flickered before her eyes of how things might have been different.
People commented on her appearance now. They couldn’t pretend her skeletal look was “fashionably thin.” Her husband and her mother blamed her daughter. They promised to never leave her, nor she them, though she didn’t fully understand the feeling of dread that accompanied those words as she divided herself between them one more time.
Rachel Oblak is a psychotherapist by day but has always had the heart of a writer, beginning to craft poetry and stories as soon as she learned to write in elementary school. She loves writing fiction that straddles the line between realistic and fantastic to explore deeper themes. She has previously been published in literary and peer-reviewed journals.
Wedding Prep or, The Funhouse
by Nina Shevzov-Zebrun
AS I SET UP their registry, I have no legs. It’s new, this distortion, and I’m pleased. In the twisting, roving funhouse of life, somehow I remain recognizable.
I still wear pearls, pour fat-free half-and-half and set charger plates for weeknight dinners. I worry about tulips and hungry deer and think will the Club be open the Fourth of July?
It’s only March. It’s rainy in Connecticut, and firecrackers are a lifetime away. My son will die before then, likely a few weeks after he marries. It doesn’t matter why.
Another step and the distortion intensifies. My head shrinks and I grow wormy legs. I select dish towels, skillets, a toaster and flutes—monogrammed His and Hers. All this for nights they’ll drink across dimension, toasting the day they ignored the truth. For mornings she’ll scramble eggs or reheat pizza while faraway normal rises with smoke. But most of all for you—you sympathetic spectators—who apologize with a sorrow that stinks of comparison. Distant suffering is sweet, isn’t it? Admirable, appetizingly grotesque.
Now I’m a line, a height without width. I’m recognizable only from the front. I order the flowers like paying for air, or the privilege to look at trees. Flowers are natural, effortless and short-lived. They decorate and they die. They should be free.
In the next mirror, my head is missing. I’m hips on stilts, but still myself! I secure the polka band, that lucky find. He’ll be drugged, in a wheelchair—but I’m sure he’ll dance. She’ll pull his legs while I push his chair and like a young storm he’ll laugh. I’ll accordion his arms and in patty cake our movements will silence, connect and teach.
You can’t learn without being surprised.
Now I’m a speck. A pinpoint staring at stars, begging tell me I have a shape. It all happened so quickly, while we were dancing and laughing. Think what you want, you onlookers. I know I’m unrecognizable now.
So I call the minister and ask am I doing this right?
He says doing what?
After some thought, I say honoring.
I am currently a medical student wishing I were a writer. A graduate of Harvard College, I am interested in the intersection of medicine and art of all sorts. I live in New York City. My first piece of fiction is forthcoming in The Writing Disorder (Summer 2020).
Go to Hell
by Charles Rammekamp
FOR ABOUT ten years I was an adjunct in the English Department at a local community college. I showed up at night, after my day job as a technical writer, the campus deserted, the department offices empty. I liked it this way, the sense of being a kind of Zorro, no people in authority there to put me in my place. In fact, I was the authority figure.
I taught English 101, composition and rhetoric, one class each semester, always at night. The students wrote essays – narrative essays, descriptive essays, analytical essays, comparative essays, persuasive essays, a whole series of essays – and my job was to grade them. We read samples in the text book, discussed them, did writing exercises in class, when we weren’t doing grammar lessons – it’s and its, whose and who’s, complete sentences, punctuation.
In my very first English 101 class, a dreamy-eyed kid named Jeremy slouched in a backrow seat. He wore a baseball cap with the slogan, “Go to Hell” on the visor. But he wasn’t a troublemaker at all. Not that he was very engaged in class, but he wasn’t disruptive, either. Once, in fact, I had to ask him not to light matches. He seemed to be lost in some sort of “experiment,” oblivious to the rest of the classroom, to see how long he could hold the match before the flame burned his fingers, how long he could stand the pain. He did not put up an argument when I asked him to stop. I was sure this kid would be gone before the semester was over. School did not seem to be his thing.
In the very first essay – a descriptive essay, for which we read and discussed Eudora Welty’s “The Corner Store” and Salman Rushdie’s “The Taj Mahal”— Jeremy wrote about his grandfather drowning his grandmother in the bathtub on Christmas Eve. It had been a mercy killing – the lady had Alzheimer’s. Jeremy wrote about his head nearly exploding as he ran from the house, after the discovery, and walked the winter streets alone. The whole family had lived together.
Wow. This was basically what I found so fascinating about this job. The pay was pathetic. Fortunately, I did not have to try to make a living from my teacher’s pay. It was like extra money for me, spending money, on top of the salary I got from my full-time job as a technical writer for an appliance manufacturer, writing instructions for using microwave ovens, assembling stand-up fans, and troubleshooting faulty toaster ovens. This was like real life. This was why I felt like Zorro.
Sure enough, after about five weeks, Jeremy stopped showing up in class. The rest of the class continued taking quizzes on misplaced and dangling modifiers, pronoun references and sentence fragments. They wrote a ten-page term paper complete with footnotes. They fretted about grades, but I was pretty generous on that score. Life was too short and difficult as it was. Why add to their troubles?
Milly Spaay, the Department chair, called me into her office after I’d turned in my grades one semester, about five or six years after I’d started teaching there.
“You’re not doing them any favors by inflating their grades, Roger,” she scolded.
But yeah, that’s exactly what I was doing them – a favor. Go to hell, Milly.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Me and Sal Paradise, was published last year by FutureCycle Press. Two full-length collections have been published in 2020, Catastroika, from Apprentice House, and Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books. A poetry chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.
by Alexander Joseph
He is the patron saint of the broken morning. God gave him this patronage, but he does not know he has it. Instead, each morning he wakes to a headache, a hangover, somebody running a buzz saw, or a lawnmower next door. His coffee is always too bitter or too watery, or he has just run out of grounds and instead sips from a cup filled up by the tap because of course he is also out of tea. If he showers the hot water is gone, if he wishes to read the paper it has landed in a puddle. For a while he tried to sleep in, to skip the broken morning, but he just couldn’t sleep past nine. Eventually, after years of anger or of fruitless planning to make the broken less so or even fixed, he settled on waking to all that he has always awakened to and tried to enjoy the little things, the fact that there even is water and that some people say a cold shower is good for your health. He has learned to play the breakage, to twist the fracture of getting what he never wanted, to wish for no coffee and finding himself with a cup full of good strong brew. He does this not with anger despite how every morning he wakes into this same, tainted space. He has never known different. Well, at least until he met her.
She is the patron saint of the good breakfast, of steaming coffee, of Eggs Benedict and blueberry pancakes, of slippered feet walking without a rush or a care across a hardwood floor. She programs her coffeemaker to start at five thirty and every morning, when she wakes, there is a pot ready for her. Sometimes she forgets to put grounds in the top of the machine the night before, but upon waking the grounds are always and miraculously fresh. Because what she is given is perfect, she has never questioned where it comes from. When it snows she sits at the counters and watches birds in the bush by the window or if she gets up early enough, somehow still perfectly rested, she will watch the pastel of dawn spread like spilled paint on the canvas of morning sky. If it is summer, she will sit on her stoop, the ants will avoid her toes, the sun will dim until is it nothing but butter warmth without burn or sweat. Sometimes even the wind will take on a scent of baked goods or flowers or perfume and blow in her direction. She has never awakened hungover, or tired or bedheaded or grumpy. Well she hadn’t until she met him.
They met a few times and eventually spent the night together at her house. All the patron saints of worry, and maybe even other holy things with lungs, held their breath as the sun came up and into the sky above the room where our saintly couple slept. The sun rose, and then so did the patron saint of the broken morning, looking beside him at the saint of dayglow gold and cozy pillows sleeping beside him. Her body was hot and it pained him to move away from it and out of bed, but he was determined to make a good impression. He walked to the kitchen, the hardwood of the whole house frigid on his feet, the toenails on his bare feet a little bit longer than he would have liked anybody to see, especially her. The coffee was on and he couldn’t believe it. He took two cups from the cabinet, filled them up, found some creamer and sugar and put it in one of the cups, leaving the other black, that way no matter her preference she would be happy and he would drink the other, also happy because she would be.
She woke to him shattering a cup of coffee on the floor. She laughed at his clumsiness, for the patron saint of slow mornings, of brunch, of three cups of coffee drunk over two hours and the Sunday crossword was not afraid of broken things. Her smile put the white shards on the floor to shame. He said he would clean up the pieces, she climbed across the bed. He still had the cup of coffee with the creamer and the sugar in it, just as she liked. They shared the single cup. The floor was a mess. The space between them was better than heaven.
The morning was broken and perfect and shattered and exactly what it should have been.
Alexander Joseph is a 26 year-old, Jewish-American writer. It is said in the Talmud that there are three ways to be a good Jew: study, prayer and acts of loving kindness– he thinks of his writing and work as an educator as a mix of all three.
Alexander has received many accolades for his writing, most recently his novella, The Last of the Light, was a finalist for the 2020 Orison Fiction prize and his novel, Traffic, was shortlisted for the 2019 Faulkner Award for a “Novel in Progress.” He is the host of the podcast American Wasteland, on which he reads his short stories has an MFA from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where he currently teaches creative writing.
by Martin Dodds
THE DAY six year-old Iris Briggs finally went missing was a typical early summer's day on the coast in the North East of England. That is to say grey and breezy with the occasional spattering of sunshine. Iris's family lived close to the beach and spent most of the weekends between May and October there. It was cheap and easy for them, and her dad could leave most of the parenting to the turbulent waters of The North Sea.
On this Saturday Iris decided to give her family one final chance to join her. She was ready to grow her world and was willing to take them along. She asked them in her earnest way to come and play with her to come along and do something new. Her dad, whose face was hard to remember—he’d barely looked up since September—was glaring at his iPad. “Go dig a hole in the sea, Iris,” he said, not knowing what he did.
Iris’s brow crumpled and her eyes set. She took a little breath and gave him another final chance. “Will you come and help me Daddy?” She tugged at his flamingo shorts.
At this, a little grin almost pulled his eyes from looking at DIY videos for projects he would never get around to doing.
“No,” he said “Digging a hole in the sea is a one-man job."
Her little hand tugged his shorts again.
“Do summat else, anything but bother me. We are at the beach, Iris. Go and find another little girl to play with.”
Iris took a bigger breath, picked up her yellow plastic spade. “I am a girl,” she said, then walked towards the sea.
It tickled a bit when it washed her toes. The salt in the air filled her nose and made her eyes run. “I am not sad,” she told the water, and the sea stroked her foot and spoke back in its whispery voice. Iris walked until the waves hugged her knees and softly, reassuringly squeezed her calves.
“Now, where shall I start?” Iris brushed her chin with her thumb and finger, a surveyor finding the best spot. “This will do,” she told nobody. The sea replied in the breaths of its rise and its fall.
The yellow spade made not a splash, but a rasp and a crunch as Iris had expected. When she pulled it up, she had made a hole. She dug a little deeper and the hole grew deeper too, like the hole had always been there and she just had to find it. Eventually, the hole turned into a pit and she had to climb down into it to carry on. She kept going until the sea was higher than her head, which wasn’t that deep but pretty good for a hole in water. Apart from her legs, she was still dry, the sea still held onto those. She stopped for a minute to look at the walls, at the things floating by; bits of plastic and seaweed, the odd fish, but not like those on the fridge magnets at home; these were brown. It was like being at an aquarium, not that Iris had ever been to one, but dirtier and more like real life.
A crowd had gathered, not that Iris knew because she was busy digging the hole with her little spade, just like her dad had told her. Finally she reached the gravelly bottom, looked up and saw a face peering down at her. The face looked like her, but older in an odd looking sunhat.
“How are you going to get out?” The face asked, simply.
“Hello,” replied Iris, ignoring her father’s instructions about strangers. “Not sure, I haven’t thought about it, I’ve been too busy digging I suppose.”
People took selfies with the hole, or gazed at it in wonderment; some simply glanced and wandered on, not realising this hole in the sea was worth their attention.
Iris’s dad stayed planted on his once fluorescent beach towel and grimaced at the sun; it was making it difficult for him to see the screen.
“Why don’t you dig some steps?” said the face, whose name incidentally was also Iris. And without waiting for the little girl to answer the first question, asked another, “Is there anything to see down there? In the sea?”
“Not really,” said Iris thinking about steps, “it’s a bit murky to be honest.”
“Oh, that’s a shame,” said the face. “You know, you might be the first person to dig a hole in the sea.”
Iris shrugged, not quite knowing what to say to that.
“Why do you think I am so deep?” she asked, the question bubbling from nowhere. “You’re all the way up there, but when I started the sea was only up to my knees.”
“The sea can be a bit like that,” the woman replied. “Mysterious."
Iris looked at her properly for the first time. She was in black and white, like an old film, or as if she were underwater herself, looking at Iris.
“Well, I’m going to carry on for a bit and dig a tunnel that way.” Iris gestured out to the open ocean.
“Oh, OK,” the face smiled down at her. “Just be careful not to get lost, the sea can be a bit tricky.”
Iris dug at the wall of her hole and set off towards Norway.
Other people had gotten their own spades now and tried to dig holes in the sea as well, but of course they couldn’t so the small crowd eventually got cold and bored and left. They forgot about the hole and the girl who dug it, either having the memory mocked into fantasy in pubs or dismissing it as one of those strange dreams you have when you catch a bit of a cold; which most of them did after spending the afternoon in the North Sea.
The woman waded besides Iris’s tunnel on the sea bed until the water lapped above her waist, then her shoulders and then over her hat so that her hair billowed out in dark clouds. Iris could have seen her if the water hadn’t been so gloomy and she hadn’t been so busy digging.
Iris carried on digging, not fully understanding the amazing thing she was doing. If she spent less time daydreaming in school and concentrated on her lessons, she would realise it was impossible to do such a thing.
As for her Dad, he eventually did look up when his battery died. He cast his eyes about him in a bit of a daze, as you can after staring at a screen for too long. He had a vague recollection of a small girl tugging at his shorts and incessantly demanding his love. Never really knowing what he had lost, he went home.
Martin Dodds is a teacher of young people with Special Needs. He lives in Derby, right in the middle of the UK. They studied English at Sheffield Hallam University and submitted a short story collection for their dissertation. Martin is taking tentative steps in their career as a writer.
END OF FLASH FICTION
by John McKernan
The Y closed all this week for repairs so I've been walking at night after the green shadows cool 4th Avenue 4-6 miles 10-11 o'clock
Last night I saw a man fall in such a silent slow-motion ballet that it seemed like he was actually getting ready to lie down and go to sleep crosswise on the concrete sidewalk
I thought of all the times in Omaha I woke up in unfamiliar beds parks living rooms front yards driveways cars Three times even my face down in a pool of vomit or drool Just remembering that makes my body hold the shape of fear
When I passed that young man I asked "You OK?" I don't think he even saw me or heard me. He was doing that forward dream-lurch that accomplished sleepwalkers and drunks perform when they believe it's an open field ahead
He looked exactly like me when I was 18-19 but he was much better looking I could recognize that after-shave lotion anywhere on this globe And that jacket I thought George Lambert had stolen it after the Boys Town game For a moment I felt like punching him and robbing him Who knows? He might be wealthy
I didn't I walked on through the orange glow of Jake Finch neon into Huntington darkness I didn't want to tell him to empty his pockets I didn't want to find another one of those pathetic phone-call dimes or one of those solitary blue never-used wallet Trojans
by John McKernan
You screamed When others wove their shrouds of silence
You hooted When others bowed low & scraped their brows
You grinned at the stop sign When others slowed their trikes at the intersection
You wrote of family When others spat on their brothers & sisters & mothers & fathers
You did billboards When others brought scissors & thimbles to a postage stamp
You published other poets When others kept cold shoulders warm
You ate a hamburger When others genuflected to threads of chlorophyll
You taught freshmen When others created programs in eyewear & mannequin guidance
You gambled on everything When others assembled anonymous guidelines
You rode a horse down a dry ravine When others took cabs to penthouses in great cities
You laughed out loud When others jingled their tongues & fingers
You wrote poems When others groveled before bright thrones of guilt
John McKernan - who grew up in Omaha Nebraska in the middle of the USA - is now a retired comma herder after teaching 41 years at Marshall University. He lives in Florida. His most recent book is a selected poems Resurrection of the Dust. He has published poems in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Journal, Antioch Review, Guernica, Field and many other magazines.
by Nigel Ford
Excitement fills the air, whirls in unknown caverns and over treacherous seas. The waves are huge, metres high, mountain tops tuft in the spray, deep valleys, so deep, the sand and fish flash down there, a deadly see-saw. Makes you shudder, seated comfy here, in the telly glare.
Get up and go, that’s the way, nothing gained, at the ready shorts worn, knees bare, bag packed, camera stowed, careful planned, nothing to lose.
A wealthy person by all accounts, of the sort that does not need to do much, most of it done now in fact, travel, that’s the thing! See the world, that every-changing glass globe paperweight, rocks without alliance, skids down the lane of mystery, so much wished to go, dreamt of, envied, desired.
Change the channel.
A whispered click, and it’s done. A hero of mankind. A truly stalwart soul, ready to take anything on at the drop of a hat.
Durations follow each other, one at a time. Some shooting past too quick to grasp. Others sail serene on into the future and gone.
That was the mock of life. All that needs be is grab it. Sails away, too late for fright, excitement fills the veins, anticipation fills the head, the cock crows loudly, here I come, pointed to pierce the big wide womb of world’s adventures as I zoom up and gone, disappeared, the armchair empty, stares dumbly at the buzzing screen.
A sudden swirl of traffic noise. A door slams. Silence pours around. The screen buzzes on.
Password to the golden days of yesteryear
Flows of golden myth kick the sunshine on the dole, here is the world of nothing to do at all. A perfect world of peace and quiet. All those other things exoluted. Kicks and screams of protest faded into time long go go. It’s a body like any other. It has a crop, a head, appendages, toes and fingers. Alive and deadly still.
The auras hover, reminisce, float, dive and chatter in the silence. The heads stir, shake, quiver, subside.
There was a memory there. A glimpse of past life.
A loud grunt pours into the room, kicks up the dust motes into a writhe of storming flicker lights, dance about this particular world in a frenzy of worried present.
Past stills the myriad souls.
Each mite a life to come or gone. Each life made of potcher paste, ponderous certain it was there once. Blurred around the edges.
The body twitches, stirs, erupts sudden into precocious laughter, quietens, stills, fades, stops. Only to twitch, stir etcetera all again. Another memory chased by.
Envious eyes watch the scene. Could that have been so much fun? Why this heap, a useless lump, what right the useless lump. Why not me instead? Why can’t eye recall such events occurring bright as life itself?
It’s a secret, that’s why, that lump in the chair, is stuffed with secrets milling everywhere inside its fat stuffed body. Stare and envy, much good that will do you. You, who look, you who crave, you who want to split it open and peer inside.
No way that can happen. You haven’t got the password.
Improvement of circumstances owing to a logical act
Worried about clothing. It’s hot. In a suit. This is an occasion when, according to mores of etiquette, a suit is to be worn.
There are many kinds of suit. And not all of them are of the same within the kinds. Being tailored to fit the shapes of different people. Therefore, it follows that no two suits are the same. Once off the peg or made to measure and worn, they all become individual.
Despite my fears and despite having a fearful dislike of suits, this one has been found, in good condition mind you, in the Oxfam shop.
Therefore, it’s fit has been shaped by a unique individual, not my own.
It is hot. And a ride in an airconditioned vehicle is implausible. A car is not owned. A taxi beyond means. Buses infrequent. Trains non-existent. Therefore, a bicycle would be expedient.
The tyres are not pumped up as they should be, and the owner of the bicycle is now perspiring profoundly, although now perched on this bicycle and trundling up a not steep but long gradient.
The only glimpse of hope is that there must, at the top of the hill, be an appositional gradient and that is being looked forward to.
The sudden rest, the freewheeling downhill, the wind in the hair, the perspiration drying, the sodden warmth of the suit escaping. Whoosh! That is definitely being looked forward to, with considerable anticipation.
Hoping that, according to the rules of nature, and the consequent humidity created by the body and penetrating and softening the shapes, creases and seams held by the suit earlier with such persistence, that it would now, during this arduous mounting of the hill, become reshaped by the time the summit was reached and then, as the bicycle free-wheeling increasingly rapidly down the other side, the breeze would dry the suit swiftly to the shape of the body.
And then become less uncomfortable.
Perhaps, even comfortable.
I work as a translator, writer, visual artist and dramatist. I am English and live in UK and Sweden. My stories, poems, flash fiction and essays appear regularly in literary magazines in Germany, USA, UK, Ireland, Norway and India.
END OF PROSE POETRY