image by bart plantenga
Raking – Heather Cook
before the sun rises,
i find myself hauling insecurities
the same way
i haul leaves and debris
from my yard in the fall.
i know this because
i miss the bag many a time
and i am
shaky and weak while raking.
when i am done, gusts of wind
move them back on the lawn
and clog my fence.
i know this because
i have had fifteen personalities,
none of which are loved by me.
sometimes i rake myself hollow
to bury them inside.
this year, i want you to know,
i’ll let insecurities bounce about my yard—
let them decompose.
make a choice to
feed my leaves to earth worms.
Heather Cook studied literature and creative writing at the University at Buffalo. Her work has appeared in The Magnolia Review, East Coast Literary Review, Ghost City Review, NAME Magazine, and others. Sometimes she feels alive.
Imagine The Flies – Kathryn J Barrow
I dip my hands into suds and take a dish. I need to finish, to start watering the front garden, but dishes done first, imagine the flies. The water’s hot, it must be. No one in their right mind could dispute it, they wouldn’t, would they?
Bubbles twinkle, pink, blue and purple in today’s sunlight, shining through the window. Soon it’ll be gone when it finds its way to the front. So graceful. Would make many a ballerina envious I would think. Gliding its way behind clouds, trees. Thinking about it, no other weather’s like that, take rain, and wind, they hungrily let themselves rip, everyone’s aware of their presence. Still, I suppose the sun gets itself noticed more extravagantly.
I bet in deserts they don’t think like that. It’s much worse for them out there. It would savagely sore and burn, dry and scorch.
Then again, my plants will be thinking the same if I don’t get them watered. I remember last year. I’d not watered anything for three days. I’d come back from a retreat forgetting to ask the neighbor to pop round with a watering can. My plants were drooping, petals lying lifelessly on the beds and leaves like crispy bacon.
Shaking off the memory I dip my hands into the water. To my horror, it was cold. I’d left it recklessly. My plans for the day ruined. The sun nearly at the front. I threw the cloth in anger, I’d have to start again. It landed on the plant atop the window sill. I watched water drip onto the soil, where it soaked it up.
I knew what I needed to do. I emptied the bowls contents, picked it up and went into the front garden.
My plants would live, at least until tomorrow.
The Remaining Twilight- Connor Lucey
It was that time of year when, if the seas were calm and the city didn’t spin, the sun could set like a ball in a drainpipe, straight down between corroding skyscraper walls into the canal. People would fill the long, tree-lined parks that bordered the waterway for the spectacle, nudging up to seawall railings, setting up blankets and chairs in the grass, and filling nearby outdoor cafes. The point was to witness something beautiful together. If they were lucky, they’d be in a part of the world that was mild and comfortable. Everyone might feel the sun smoldering on their bare arms and still enjoy the sea breeze, mellower here than at city’s edge. They were lucky today.
On the terrace of one parkside cafe, at a battered wicker table with a good view of the event, sat three strangers. The first to the table was an older gentleman with thinning hair and rough hands swollen with arthritis. He had spent the morning on his usual neighborhood stroll and sat down for a coffee when the parks were empty. The second was a young woman, a university student who had skipped her afternoon class to come to the park and write. There were still chairs open by that time but no free tables, and this particular old man, she’d sensed, might let her write in peace. The third was also a woman, more toward middle-age, and was grateful for any seat. Minutes earlier, she’d convinced her partner to watch their infant son so she could step out of the apartment for a few moments’ peace.
For all three present, the golden hour was an unexpected bonus.
The new mother, eager to talk with anyone other than her husband, broke the table’s silence. “They say we passed within sight of Hawai’i this morning. Did anyone see it?”
This was a usual greeting, of course. They’d all grown up with the stories of what came before. There were the books, the videos, the archived technologies, taught in school and kept at the library. But they’d never known life as anything but this. No one in the city had. So it was common practice—fashionable, even—to fill small talk with topical thoughts and phrases about land: something no one had, and yet everyone had in common.
The man shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not.” The sun was low enough between the buildings that he had to squint to address the woman, who sat at the front of the table. “I hear it was a clear day though. The islands’ green mountains must have been wonderful.”
The student stopped scratching in her notebook but pretended not to notice the conversation.
“I heard the same thing,” the woman said, sighing. “I don’t remember the last time I saw a coastline, I’ve been so busy lately. Japan, I think, spring before last. We spotted cherry-blossoms with the field glasses.” She turned to the student. “How about you? Did you see Hawai’i?”
The young woman closed her notebook. “No, I didn’t.”
“When was your last time, then?”
“I don’t know. When I was a kid, maybe? It’s not very interesting to me.”
The old man smiled, and the woman prodded playfully, gently. “You don’t care about it at all?”
A tight smile in return. “Not really. I’m sorry if that offends you.” They both waved it away, so she continued. “The land is just something we’re taught to fawn over, I think, like it’s more than just an occasional disruption in the horizon. Why should we care if people used to live there?”
The woman nodded her head. A large group of children, all undernourished and none over the age of twelve, passed by the table. They were shouting and laughing in the light, which now reflected off the canal and seemed to buff every seam of rust and decay from the buildings overhead. Clothes dyed colors with names like “forest green” and “slate gray” hung threadbare off their bodies.
The student’s was a common way of thinking among the younger generation, as it had been with the woman’s when she was that age. The lore of town limits and road trips and earth, not water, as far as the eye could see—of a reality that didn’t shift constantly, ever so slightly, beneath one’s feet—these things were spoken of reverently by others, as religion, and imposed on them unwillingly. As far as she had been concerned, that was an ancient world, settled, spoiled and abandoned by people who had left them with nothing but a floating hunk of metal and stories of a better life long gone. Something in the woman began to change, though, as she got older. In the last few months, especially. The past didn’t seem so distant anymore.
The student shrugged. “I mean, if they said tomorrow it was safe to return, I might think differently. But you can’t live life that way. Waiting for the past.”
By then the light neared the horizon. Chatter and whistling echoed through the trees as birds from all across the Pacific prepared to roost for the night.
“I worked most of my life on the farm barge,” the man said, leaning forward, “and there wasn’t much supervision. The nights we passed close enough to some shore, if the moon was hidden, people would shove off from our loading ramps in homemade rafts. Hundreds of them over the years, paddling toward a black smudge in the distance. They knew the consequences if all of it were true. That was worth the risk, I suppose. We called them crazy then, and wrong. But these days I wonder.”
As he spoke, the sun touched into the water and sank. A hush had fallen over the crowd, soaked in ever-deepening shades of light until, at last, the source was gone. The show had ended. In the remaining twilight, everyone clapped.
Connor Lucey is a salty New Englander living in the Pacific Northwest. He received a BFA in Creative Writing from Portland State University and is editor of The Absurdist Fiction Magazine.
Hitchhikers – Jane-Rebecca Cannarella
I leave strands of my hair like fragile worms in all spots I go: a cat burglar dropping a calling card. Filaments like the fraying pith of an orange separating the skin and fruit; the threads of my body depart like little stowaways in all sections of the city and surroundings. Philly is filthy with my shedding.
The evening of January 20, 2019, felt just like a night three years earlier when I drank Espolon from under a stranger’s tongue with a cocktail straw at a club in Fishtown. He was tall and drunk with eyes so grey they reminded me of the tabs on soda cans, and when he put his arm around my waist and dared me to drink from out of him and use him as “a human cup” I decided not to pass up the chance. How often do you run into grey-eyed strangers whose mouths are red solo cups as they startle dizzy girls? I pushed my hand through the curtain of my bangs to see him better, but visions are distorted when you stand too close. He tipped a shot into the mug of the underside of his mouth.
It was a feeling that lived in a soup of alarm and erotics and disgust and excitement. That evening in January I stood in a house in the Philadelphia suburbs that wasn’t my own while pet sitting and pretended to be the sort of adult who could own that home. I welcomed the warmth of the stew of emotions that existed like cytoplasm, a mess of alive. My face was wet with the whiskey I filched from the cabinet like a little kid who wears a spaghetti sauce beard, and I sent impulsive texts begging for a boy with cheekbones that were sharp as daggers to come play grownups with me at the house that wasn’t my own. He was a stranger like the other stranger but had a mouth like the pit of a nectarine; hunger is better than thirst with his body that holds flowering flesh to eat and eat and eat. Somehow the same but totally different.
When he finally agreed, I wandered around the house unmoored and enthused like the time I took the ferry from New York to Connecticut as a little girl and marveled at all of the deep red jellyfish that sidled the side of the ship with their tentacles like noodles and sticky seaweed hairs. I remember being frightened but delighted at the proximity to such stinging. In the house in the suburbs, the shaggy dog ran between my legs sharing my excitement, we paced all the steps like captured explorers trying to pass the time as it slowed into honey. My stomach was seasick.
He arrived out of a carshare in a tempest of mussiness and shared inebriation and eyes like gallows. He threaded his hand through my bun with knuckles made from the stones of peaches while we stood at the foot of the stairs, the blonde dog at our legs. And once, when I was a teen, I had the most perfect plum while sitting cross-legged at Jones Beach with granules of the beach in its purple stretched skin, and the syrup spilled over my chin as I grinned like a clown at the sea. The whipping atmosphere pulled the flyaways around my face into the spiderweb of nectar on my cheeks.
In the pretend land of what if this house was ours in the home in a suburb I could never afford to live in, I tilted my head all the way back to look at the headboard with cracks in the wood like filigree. My face was plum-juice wet and it captured the strings of our bodies greedy but combined. I smiled like a clown against the grains of his face, rough like sand.
* * *
The next morning, after he left but before I got out of bed, I looked at the red-purple pillowcase with the nightcrawler shapes of my escaped brown strands swimming in the divet-ed wake. I wondered aloud to the bodies of cilia strands whether I made a mistake and thought about how nice it was that they could escape my body with its impulsive choices but I couldn’t. My sighs disturbed them in the pleats of where heavy heads rested from the night before. Fallen threads from my frame don’t second guess their choices.
On the nightstand, my phone hummed with unread messages, tiny swells. Strangers become less strange when you attach hitchhikers to their belongings, intertwining the two of you–and my body felt more familiar in the shadows of the midmorning. The messages were from the not-now-a-stranger who said that he found the fabric of my hair on his sweatshirt, played with the pieces. Followers that shared his journey back to the city; a scrapbook of our bodies linked on him.
After I read the texts, I took the bundled tresses into my fist and pulled their split edges to my lips, the warmth of emotion like breakers tunneling through me, whispered to the witch’s broom of hair, “thank you.” I held the phone close and pushed back too-long bangs to read and re-read the messages, vision distorted; a mess of being alive.
Jane-Rebecca Cannarella is a writer and editor living in Philadelphia. She is the editor of HOOT Review and Meow Meow Pow Pow Lit, as well as the author of the flash fiction collection, Better Bones, and the poetry collection, Marrow, both published by Thirty West Publishing House. Jane-Rebecca chronicles the ways she embarrasses herself at youlifeisnotsogreat.com
Prometheus On Her Rock – Sarah Michelson
He always told her that he knew the second he saw her. She was the most beautiful girl in the room, so vibrant, so fun, so full of life. He told her that he fell in love the second she caught his eye. And she smiled, and pursed her lips, and her green eyes twinkled, and she gave him a soft and delicate kiss.
They got married in the spring, in a lush garden full of peonies and roses, just the two of them and their families. She looked like she was floating in her wedding gown of silk and lace and tulle. Her mother cried and her father nodded solemnly as she walked down the aisle, bobbing and bouncing with the kind of air only love can give you.
As they lay together in bed, he ran his fingers softly across her thighs and her breasts and kissed her forehead and told her that there was no one on earth like her, no one so soft, so beautiful. He cupped her chin and patted her nose and held her so tight she thought she might meld into him, which was exactly what she wanted. Will you always wait for me? he asked. And she said Yes, yes of course, I will always wait for you.
He went to work every morning and she stayed home to paint and write and sing. She plastered canvases with acrylics and empty sheet notes with black blotches of rhythm. She danced until the sun set and her husband came home, and she would make him dinner and kiss his forehead, and they would hold each other tight again.
One evening her husband called and let her know that he’d be home late, work was intense, he said. And she nodded over the phone as much as one possibly could nod over the phone, and said she understood completely. Instead of staying home that evening to make dinner, she went out dancing with her friends, swaying her arms in the air like dandelion seeds floating in the breeze.
She got home late, so late that the darkness of the sky nearly blinked out the stars. What she expected was to see her husband lying in bed, arms open in anticipation of where she would be resting. What she saw was her husband sitting at the kitchen table, brows furrowed, fingers tapping on the cheap wood.
Where were you, he asked, and she responded truthfully— out with friends. Why didn’t you wait for me, he asked. I didn’t know when you would come home, she replied. I’m hungry, he said. I’m hungry and I got home an hour ago and there was no food for me to eat.
You have access to the same ingredients I do, she said. Why couldn’t you make yourself dinner?
He looked her dead in the eyes and simply said, It’s your job. It’s your job and you didn’t do it and I’m hungry.
So she sighed to herself, and pulled some meat and vegetables out of the refrigerator, and set about to making her husband dinner in the steady silence of the night.
The next afternoon he called to let her know that he would be home late again, that again, work was too intense for the typical hours of the day. And she said of course, and good luck, and that she loved him. And he told her that he loved her too. She decided to take a painting class in the latter hours of the afternoon— she’d always wanted to improve her hobby. She arrived back home around the time her husband would return on a typical day to start preparing dinner and opened the door to find him sitting at the table, the same pose and expression from last evening.
Where were you, he asked, and she replied truthfully that she had been taking a painting lesson. You didn’t make dinner, he said. You were going to be late, she said. You should have waited anyways, he said. So she reached into the pantry and grabbed a box of pasta and set to work preparing a meal. Her husband remained at the table, watching her carefully as she worked.
Spring turned to fall, and the couple went walking through the park on a cool, gentle evening. She had wrapped a wool scarf tight around her neck and cheeks— her skin had always been so sensitive. He held her hand as they meandered down the paved road. Your hands are starting to feel rough, he said. There are calluses on your palm, he said.
I’ve been making you dinner and painting and writing, she said. I’ve been using my hands.
They used to be softer, he said.
I’ll buy stronger lotion, she said.
They walked in silence for a while, until they finally passed a younger woman on the path. She looks like a woman who takes care of her skin, the husband said. I’m sure she does, the wife replied. The husband shot the young woman a knowing look, and she caught it in her glittering amber eyes. The wife looked away. They went home. She made him dinner. He complained that it was bland.
As they lay in bed together, he avoided her hand’s touch. He looked into her eyes and said that they seemed duller than he remembered. She said that they were still the same eyes. He turned his back and fell asleep. She got up and tried to dance in the hallway, but couldn’t summon up the energy.
Fall turned to winter and her hands began to crack in the cold. Her husband couldn’t bear to look at them. They walked through the park together. He wouldn’t hold her hand unless she put it in a mitten. They passed woman after woman, each one with gentle and soft features by her husband’s account of the matter. Look at her manicure, he said, pointing to one particularly expensive-looking young lady. That’s a girl who knows how to take care of herself. The wife sighed deeply. And that night, instead of going dancing or to her painting class, she made her husband dinner, carefully exfoliated her hands, and painted each fingernail a cool cobalt blue with painstaking detail. And that night, he didn’t hold them.
He called the next afternoon to let her know that he would be home late, because work was crazy, once again. And she nodded to herself in a way that she prayed would never translate in her tone. She started making dinner and had it nice and warm for whenever he got home, but didn’t stay to eat it with him. Instead she just went to bed as soon as the chicken left the oven. She was tired. She was so, so tired.
When she woke up, she found her husband holding her hand. Her hand looked softer than it had before. The fingernails were painted a screaming shade of red. She stretched her fingers. They moved slowly, uncomfortably. She looked around her wrist. It was full of tiny little stitches.
Her husband called her almost every day now to tell her that he was staying out late. She didn’t paint anymore— the paintbrush hurt in her hand. It was a hand that wasn’t used to grasping a paintbrush. She stopped dancing after she woke up one morning and found her foot was a full two shoe sizes smaller than it had been the night before. She lumbered awkwardly through the kitchen, trying to collect all the ingredients for the evening’s meal. She spent all afternoon on it, carefully measuring out every ingredient just so.
This is disgusting, he told her hours later. You can’t even differentiate a teaspoon from a tablespoon. Can you even fucking read?
The next morning, a new amber eye rolled around in her socket. Jammed in haphazardly by someone who just wanted to get the job done.
What are you doing to me, she screamed. You know what your problem is, he asked. Your problem is you never know when to shut your mouth. And the next morning, her lips were small and pointed and tight, like a tiny poppy stiff in the wind. One might mistake the tiny scabs of venous blood encircling them for a bit of misplaced lipstick.
Winter turned back into spring. People started staring at her in shock. She walked through the park alone— he couldn’t be seen with her, he said. Her gait was awkward, different body parts responding to different neurologic impulses at inopportune times.
When she got home, her husband was asleep. She sat at the kitchen table and stared straight ahead, one amber eye and one green eye struggling to act in unison. It was late, and he hadn’t waited for her. Her eyes rested upon one of her kitchen knives, quietly shining against the overhead light. And although it hurt, she stood up and walked towards it with a steely resolve. She grasped the knife in her hand— her fingers felt stiff— and slowly slid it into the skin just above her ribcage. She was precise. It was like carving a turkey.
He woke up the next morning to breakfast in bed. You’re so kind, he told her. Of course, she said, her green eye sparkling. The meat was juicy and sweet and cooked to a sizzling perfection.
This is delicious, he said. What is it?
She smiled, the corner of her mouth struggling to lift properly.
I’m surprised you couldn’t tell, she said. You’ve loved having it before.
Sarah Michelson is a horror writer and comedian, in no particular order. She is also a professional ghost. You can follow her on Twitter @sarah_michelson.
Featherless – Kristin Garth
Lower eyelids. Don’t dare to stare. Bear crow
talons through nightgowns, cotton threadbare. Rife
with pecks from a beak now full of hair, thrown
flesh over an avian spine, midnight
you share a communal mind. Amplitude
of bones, remainders of wings, is friendship
before you know what it means. Clouds dilute
memories of humanity. They slip
out of young pores without ceremony
from featherless flesh hiding hollow bones.
You cannot get there ever alone. The
limbs lengthening limp as you have grown
as grounded, flat as your topography—
still a featherless crow they just set free.
Kristin Garth is a Pushcart, Best of the Net & Rhysling nominated sonnet stalker. Her sonnets have stalked journals like Glass, Yes, Five:2:One, Luna Luna and more. She is the author of fifteen books of poetry including Pink Plastic House and Shut Your Eyes, Succubi (Maverick Duck Press), Crow Carriage and Candy Cigarette Womanchild Noir (The Hedgehog Poetry Press), Flutter: Southern Gothic Fever Dream (TwistiT Press) and The Meadow (APEP Publications). She is the founder of Pink Plastic House a tiny journal and co-founder of Performance Anxiety, an online poetry reading series. Follow her on Twitter: (@lolaandjolie) and her website kristingarth.com
In The Sky With Diamonds – Patience Mackarness
Someone’s already set up camp on the island, which is a downer. We pitch our tents in a circle beside the tarn instead. Everybody laughs at my solo tent. Just big enough for a dog, one of the young guys says. We hope he doesn’t mean it like that.
It was a long hard climb and we all travelled light, except for the young guys who lugged up six-packs of beer. Clearly they imagined this trip as Ibiza-at-altitude. Even the huskier one is bent like an old man. The skinnier one has brought a remote-controlled speedboat.
We slide into peat-dark water and swim out, a line of heads above their reflections. The toy boat makes elliptical loops around us. Kayleigh-Kate forges ahead, she’s training for a cross-channel swim and does multiple lengths of every lake and pool she finds.
Out come the stoves and dinners. Trail meals like dogfood, chocolate cake in a foil tin, spaghetti with meatballs. Everyone’s hungry after the climb and swim, and eyeing my sausages. I donate some to the young guys. They hand round beers. We sing, louder and dirtier than the people on the island.
We reminisce about the open-air pools and lidos we’ve swum, the rivers Wharfe and Derwent, the wave-sculpted chalk cave at Flamborough Head. The mountain tarn is our next step. Margaret, who was once a nun, says it’s like the Stations of the Cross. Trudy says, With a happier ending, I hope.
Joe and Trudy sit close together by the campfire that isn’t really a campfire but a kind of brazier Joe made from a biscuit tin. They’re in their sixties, but Joe wears a big-cat smirk, and Trudy has amazing skin, what make-up artists call the just fucked look. We all know what they say about wild swimming. We’re counting on it being true.
The stars wax as the brazier wanes. We lie flat in in a circle. I say, Magic lanterns. Kayleigh-Kate says, Harbour lights. Trudy says, Fuck the clichés, they’re diamonds. One of the young guys farts; it reverberates round the tarn. From the island someone shouts, Time for bed, Zebedee!
Lying in my miniature tent, I remember I was here before. We had clipboards and drew diagrams of how the lake formed in the age of the glaciers. The erupting spot on my chin felt bigger than Helvellyn.
At dawn it’s mountain-misty. Sheep crowd in, exploding their reputation for mildness; they seem to like the smell of sausages in the unwashed frying-pan.
The tent people come over. Four men, grizzled and spare; a mountain rescue team in training. The tattooed one’s mine.
We look up through drifting mist towards a bald-topped crag. Joe’s silhouetted, down on one knee. We can tell Trudy’s saying yes.
The two young guys straddle their boat, grown overnight to the size of a bobsled, and set off down the mountain, bouncing and whooping.
Kayleigh-Kate smashes sixteen more lengths of the tarn.
Margaret steps into the sky and soars.
Patience Mackarness lives and writes partly in an elderly VW camper van, partly in a cottage in Brittany. Her stories have been published by Lunch Ticket, Dime Show Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, The Coachella Review, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. Her work can be read at https://patiencemackarness.wordpress.com/
Our Komodo (A Kind of Love) – Valerie Fox
Mrs. Komodo, at Home
You said you’d be right back. I await. Up a tree. All our grinning kids are gone. I don’t let the watchers get close. Four of those dirty beasts perch with their binoculars and tuna-fish sandwiches. Yum. I’m afraid. I hear scratching and tapping. Like dental or scissors. They mention you are at Disney World and laugh. I’m queasy. I miss your serrated bites. I don’t feel like hunting anymore, I’m hurting. I’ve got my soaps and trailing yarn. Maybe that’s enough. I fell hard for your handsome gait. I took care of the kids. You said a minute.
Our lizards are shy, an island animal. Here’s a nest decoy. Our young have wrinkles all around their baby eyes. They’re used to us and their drastic teeth are changing year by year.
This juvenile one is April Jo. Still residing, at seven years, she has her own tree-view. Her waddle is fetching, her grin. As she grows up, we measure April Jo’s envenomed, gripping bite.
Many tests in hill-stations use goats. The meat attracts Varanus komodoensis. Same thing with lookalike automatic menus. Look, that’s where we put the goats. We aren’t doing that as much anymore since, honestly, our friends come to expect this meat offering and lose some of their hiding and hunting ways. You want to adapt a little or at least to try.
Check out her rotational chewing point, that vector. She has her mama’s eyes. Is anyone else here feeling lonely or sleepy?
The effort to survive airplanes is intense. That’s the second one today. Bacteria survive and colonize. Here we say “disease” without meaning positive or negative. Mortal, not moral. Bacteria stay in the mouth and on escaped prey. In the next activity we will join forces and form a grid. Later we’ll plug in our numbers.
One favorite study is like this. You approach an individual to see how long it takes the giant to react. “To react” means to turn and look, gaze. Keep your handwriting steady. You want your notes to be legible. If there’s enough time we’ll come back. You can guess what we mean by enough time.
We get enchanted by the direction of what we are gathering here, and we are going to go full on and four-footed. We are not a zoo. Let’s break for lunch. Be quiet for now, stay frozen.
Mr. Komodo, Extant for Now
I didn’t choose this side of the planet, I was drugged, awoke in this bacteria-free condo. Inhaled the refrigerator contents lickety-split and scratched the sofa-back raw. Can’t get these claws to work the buttons on things. Worst part is seeing clever you on-screen. And the kids, alert on their puffy, sun-filled bellies. A few limbs and branches were dangling from your dear mouth. As part of this new life there are too many kinds of milk substitutes and banknotes, so it gets super confusing. I think away my days. I whine at you on the elephantine TV: I am glad you’ll never see me this way. I yearn to hear the voice of someone who still has a heart.
Valerie Fox has published in Juked, Ellipsis Zine, Cleaver, Reflex, Okay Donkey, Maryland Literary Review, Across the Margin, NFFR, and other journals. Her books include Insomniatic, The Glass Book, and The Rorschach Factory. She has a story in the upcoming 2020 edition of “Best Small Fictions,” from Sonder Press.
Bear Aware – Sean Igoe
Bears are powerful and strong animals; they should always be treated with caution and respect.
“Wouldn’t it be great to see a bear?” said Eric, filled with infantile wonder. Cheryl disagreed with a curt “No” as Eric went into the inevitable bear impression. She was tempted to leave the claustrophobia of the tent, but it was getting dark.
Always use extra caution when moving around at night.
New York, L.A, Las Vegas… so many possibilities, but here they were, camping again. True, the very real threat of an ursine mauling made it considerably less tedious than the Peak District, but this was not a plus.
Bear attacks are extremely rare – a person is 67 times more likely to be killed by a dog.
Cheryl had been ready to turn back even before they reached the Rockies West Park Ranger Station and the revelation that they would be camping in Bear Country. Ranger O’Neil had assured them it was perfectly safe, as long as the appropriate precautions were taken. He had talked them carefully through the Bear Aware leaflet, as Eric made excruciating jokes about Pic-a-nic baskets.
Never leave any food scraps or garbage out.
All food must be carefully sealed. Even uncapped toothpaste could attract a bear.
Keep your odorous activity to a minimum.
“Your campsite should be upwind of your urine,” Ranger O’Neill had said, and then continued, with an admirably straight face, “Ensure there are no fluids of intimate generation unsealed in your tent.” That was not going to be a problem.
Back home, Cheryl had been thrilled when Eric had hidden the plane tickets in her birthday cake. Although it did ruin the cake. For a time, it reminded her that Eric could be exciting, impulsive, fun. America had seemed so appealing, but Eric had kept all the arrangements secret as part of her present. Eric wanted to see the real America. Disneyworld, Californian beaches and Broadway shows were apparently not the real America.
Store all food and odorous attractants in sealed bags or airtight canisters.
Sleep was impossible for Cheryl, with the sounds of the wild invariably bear-like to her ears. Was that a bear howling? A bear rustling in the trees? A bear hooting like an owl?
Daybreak, and Eric was fast asleep, snoring and grinning like an idiot baby. Cheryl removed her passport from Eric’s backpack, dressed and quietly exited the tent. She looked slowly and carefully around at all the so-called beauty of nature. Then, resolute, she squatted at the tent flap, silently performed an odorous activity and walked out of the wilderness.
Beer Head Barbie – Bart Plantenga
Barbie is my role model. She might not do anything, but she looks good doing it.
The guy they call Mír walked by. I saw he had transformed the “O” on his forehead into a peace symbol. As a true “peace symbol” artist, this was maybe his way of promoting world peace – or promoting himself in the name of profiting from peace – you do what you gotta do. Or something like that. Let me explain the “O”.
You walk into your local bar, the place where you know where to hang your truss or ironic gun belt. But already in the entranceway you sense something is amiss, awry – somebody’s tinkering with your gears. It’s as if good beer [not-quite obscene prices], good music [tending toward cliché – Dave Brubeck, Hank Williams, Pixies, Tom Waits], and good conversation, heat in winter and AC in summer were no longer enough. The bar owner is not the only one who suddenly got it into his head to install stuff: more TVs and slot machines, blinking beer signs, talking toilet seats, poker machines, trivia challenges, darts, billiards, retro-modern Scopitone machines – but this one beat them all. It was officially called “branding” by mags like New York and New York Press and “dotting the i” by adherents. To me it still looks and smells like a ritual, a rite of passage, but maybe also like a hipster trend.
They say it was concocted by an ad hoc scrum of barroom denizens in, some say, Chumley’s, others insist it was the Olde Towne or Rudy’s or Downtown Beirut or Nell’s – or some place like Ypsilanti, Michigan. No matter, at least it wasn’t some ad agency boardroom scheme. At least no one was saying it was stealth marketing. It did just seem to pop up out of nowhere, growing insanely popular as barroom activity in a matter of like the time it takes to down a shot of some brand name something or other. In some hoods, branding was now almost impossible to avoid. You simply got sucked in or went home and sulked. And if you were hovering in over Sally’s bar at just the right angle, it could almost remind you of that Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter.
“Dotting the i” required contestants [celebrants, acolytes, dotters] to answer weird questions: What’s the melting point of skin? How many truck tires does Pooh have to pile on top of one another to reach the honey in the tree? How many Yankee baseball caps are sold worldwide annually? Name two famous assassins who shot presidents and then were shot themselves. How many glasses of milk does it take to give you a .02 blood alcohol concentration on a Breathalyzer test, enough to have your driver’s license suspended in many states? Did Magic Johnson invent the high-five hand gesture while at Michigan State? What was the name of the prostitute who fled Sam Cooke’s hotel room taking his clothes with her? Why are yawns infectious? How long can someone survive on water and toe nail clippings? There were a million more where these came from.
The ritual usually involves mass consumption of whatever beer and whatever harder stuff goes well with beer because if you answer 3 questions in a row correctly, one of the other contestants takes a bottle cap from the bar, presses it to the victor’s forehead and smashes it into his forehead with a fierce elbow or punch or it is sometimes hammered into the forehead with a beer bottle – clinkclink – embedding it in what little meat there is to be found there. The victor might follow this with a little mock Hottentot dance or something they imagined “their man” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might do before someone removed it, revealing a bleeding, branded “O” in the middle of the forehead.
This created, as some dotters were quick to point out, a near-perfect triangle between the “O” and the victor’s two eyes. And so for months now people have been wandering around the East Village, whooping it up with this “O” brand in their foreheads. The brand eventually scabs over, leaving an indelible scar that might come in handy later in life as one’s fount of personally inscribed mythic tales as it slips down out of the main text into an illusory footnote to a not-so-exciting running narrative.
I eventually got tired of going to Sally’s or Bar Nickel Bill where I had to hear about the significance of the equilateral triangle, the number 3, the deity, the significance of 33 … It was like hanging out with new Baptist church congregants or college football fans going on about legendary fullbacks. The dotters all had their ideas about how the “O” “mapped” the mind’s eye and could go on and on about New Age Traveler [post-industrial-hippie] festivals of dotters, especially in the area outside Sedona, Arizona where they “learned” that triangles represented vigilant-third-eye angels. Some saw dotting as a corollary to the devil-Masonic, all-seeing eye on top of an Egyptian pyramid [the Great Seal of America] portrayed on the back of a dollar bill. Others pilgrimaged to Sedona’s Dotter Fest [SDF] to experience mass dottings. Dotters brought potato sacks full of SDF-approved bottle caps to sell from makeshift teepees. There were bands that sounded like the Swans or the Cocteau Twins and there were dotter workshops. The more enterprising dotters sold their own hygienic, do-it-yourself, dotter bottle cap and hammer kits from the back of a VW bus – perfect gift for the pagan who has everything. And someone – no, not Robert Anton Wilson – lectured on the significance of SDF as an acronym for “Sans Domicile Fixe” [homeless]. Some were already predicting that branding would eventually surpass tattooing in popularity. In New York, dotters were regularly being interviewed on local public access TV shows; there was a dotter convention in the Armory on Lexington Avenue where the band the Dodgy Dotters were performing when cops under order from NY’s Health Department, concerned with on-site HIV, tetanus, and hepatitis infections, busted the event.
Some dotters began openly claiming they were being unjustly barred from clubs and restaurants; others described situations involving discrimination or intimidation in the workplace. Still others announced the opening of “dotter-friendly establishments.”
The world is magic: a week earlier I had been listening to my red radio that could somehow mysteriously tune in WFMU, despite its meager proportions and despite lots of metal obstructions and concrete high-rises that had prevented mightier audio aficionados with their high-end FM loop antennas from receiving WFMU for over 25 years now. Yes, clear as a bell as I listened to Reck or Rick or Wreck interviewing the famous ex-MC of Club 57, ex-dominatrix, print media entrepreneur, and, for a time, Rites & Rituals Anthropology Professor at Masaryk University, Bikini Girl [Volta de Cleyre]. She did not want to discuss the “dotter phenomenon,” but rather Barbie and her early conversion of Barbie into a “makeshift sexual device.”
On the radio it always stops there, though, just short of where innuendo crosses over into provocation. And now here we were in the Linger Lounge, face to face, fan to crush, discussing the dynamic relationship between cocaine and fanaticism, failing body parts and complaining about dotters and the recent introduction of dotter “O” appliqués – all the rage – as we waited for our unexpurgated Barbie stories to kick in.
“It’s now like Halloween 365 days a year around here,” she noted as if we both knew that everything she uttered was instantly quotable. She had had the mighty as S&M clients and knew all their names. She could name at least 100 seminal Ohio garage bands. Her face was beautiful precisely because of its absorption of domestic pain, of milky-murky cocktails, and the ennui of the entire Midwest [Ohio]. My heart still gets hurled into an empty field like a horseshoe magnet, aorta over auricle, by a splendid face. Strange, this cosmos of beauty and how it still manages to disassemble awareness.
We discussed how she imagined Barbie must’ve felt and how her own “teen juices d’amour” had actually matted Barbie’s golden locks back and how these clandestine secretions gave Barbie’s hair a strange sheen. And how this made Barbie look punk or flapper or attitude-enhanced – or like an ICBM manufactured by Rockwell maybe in Ohio – and how all this made Bikini Girl the envy of her classmates who dreamed only of mauve boudoirs and dates with Kiss, and marrying a career military man and mistook Barbie’s mysterious sheen for Dippity Doo. Hehehe. In a silent instant our thoughts drifted to insertion.
“You asked listeners to call in with their tales of youthful dabbling in Barbie Voodoo.”
“Indeed I did,” she remembered as she sucked the last sips of Delirium Tremens from its classic stemmed snifter glass, which is perfect for heightening the mystique of this ale. Heightening a superior ale is the act that raises us out of ourselves. [Did I say that or she?]
I ultimately decided to confess how I met Barbie (cat. # T34959687) down on Orchard Street. I remember the breadth of her every skittish step circumscribed by her skirt design and anxiety. It was her first trip to NYC. Well, not her first – she’d often been chauffeured to Mattel HQ on 6th Avenue and had often dined at the Waldorf to later mingle at the Yale Club. But this had certainly been her first excursion below 14th Street, let alone Houston Street.
She did not understand why we met here. Why I gave her a bracelet of used crack vials and a necklace made of car window crystals. She did not understand my world of gallantry. Her world was filled with award ceremonies, chivalry and runway knights in perma-crease slacks. She did not understand why I thought it important that I’d broken the side window myself and had taken nothing from the vehicle. She did not understand that the GESTURE was the gift. And this was disappointing.
She did not understand why boys and girls along the parade route of her life would stick pins into her. And why others had painted crucifixes where her genitalia ought to have been. And why still other others threw pocketfuls of baby teeth at her feet of indistinguishable digits. She did not understand that the world had become a place where there was ever less to win and ever more to lose.
Barbie discussed her early days of life in Taiwan while she sipped a Blue Lagoon Margarita I’d prepared in her honor, knowing how electric blue complimented her eye shadow. And after 2 BLMs, I coaxed her into my bathtub of cheap, warm beer. OK, I hid my eyes at first.
“It’s therapeutic,” I said as I made motorboat sputters to mock her eternal affections for the trappings of wealth.
“Yea, right,” she retorted, much less naive than adventurous. She climbed in and we floated there for a long time, unburdened of all weight and doubt. I became increasingly drunk on her head – no really. Here’s how: I dipped her big coif of adjustable-length hair into the cheap, warm beer and then sucked every inebriating molecule out of her big head of hair. Over and over. She said it was OK, something she could tolerate. “I’ve been through worse.”
And this routine came to pass so that I could no longer drink beer in any other manner. This was how I got drunk. And this habit managed to keep me out of many bars where drinking was still done in more conventional ways.
bart plantenga is the author of novels Beer Mystic, Radio Activity Kills, & Ocean GroOve, short story collection Wiggling Wishbone & novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man and wander memoirs: Paris Scratch and NY Sin Phoney in Face Flat Minor. His books YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World and Yodel in HiFi + the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is the world’s foremost yodel expert. He’s also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess in NYC, Paris & Amsterdam since forever. He lives in Amsterdam.
2017 – D S Maolalai
was a year with weather
flipping like a coin
on a table; winter
with no pause
for a spring. I was
living in Toronto
of a hedonistic life, living
on my wits between shifts
at the hospital,
where I was of course
responsible. the air all the time I remember
tasted like fresh pears
and I had three girlfriends
and finally found
some good bars. once,
in the park, a hawk flapped down in front of me
but it didn’t get any squirrels. I took long walks
up Dundas with the past
on my back
DS Maolalai has been nominated four times for Best of the Net and three times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been released in two collections, “Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden” (Encircle Press, 2016) and “Sad Havoc Among the Birds” (Turas Press, 2019)
Flood Warning – Sarah McPherson
I’m squashed up on the kitchen windowsill with my feet on the draining board. Hoping I won’t be here too long, but who knows these days. The flood defences aren’t holding up like they used to, and sometimes it takes forever to pump the water out.
It happened quick this time, I only had a moment’s warning. The sirens went off and before I could blink I saw the water coming down the street. So I hopped up on the window ledge and watched it rush by. Thought I might be ok for a minute, but no. It came in under the door and up through the floorboards, swirling over the kitchen tiles and the rest of the ground floor too. Six inches pretty fast, then slowly rising up to around the ten inch mark. It seems to have stopped for now, but there’s no guarantees.
Feels like I’ve been sat here for an age but I can’t let my guard down. If it starts rising again before they can drain it I might have to leave my current perch and make for the stairs, something I’d really rather not have to do. I mean they say brief exposure won’t do any lasting damage but I’d still have to decontaminate, and that stuff’s awful hard on your skin. It’s bad enough that I’ll have to scrub out the whole downstairs floor.
Five times this year the dams have ruptured, and we’re not even in June. I wish they’d do something about it. Dad used to tell stories about before I was born, back when things worked how they were supposed to and the floods weren’t a threat. I’m not sure I believe it to be honest. He also told me there were fairies at the bottom of the garden. As if anything could live that close to the water!
It’s lapping at the cabinets, like there’s a current flowing through here. That can’t be a good sign. If I shimmy round to the fridge before I get down it’s only a couple of metres to the door and then the stairs just outside. They’ll sound the alarm again if there’s another wave coming, and I’ll have to make a run for it. If the water ever made it up the stairs… No, the drainage hasn’t got that bad. Yet.
It’s a blessing really that I’ve only got myself to worry about. After Dad, you know, Bella didn’t stick around long. Said she’d heard the floods weren’t as bad up north. Said she’d send word when she got settled, so I’d know she was ok. That was six months ago. Folks round here look out for each other of course, but it’s not family.
This place is too big for just me, but at least it’s got space to get up high when I need to. Mr Leach at the end of the road is only a bungalow. I heard he keeps his loft hatch open and the ladder down all the time now.
I’m trying to decide if it’s better to stay near the window where I can see up the street or move round nearer the door when the siren screams again and I hear the water roar.
Sarah McPherson is a Sheffield-based writer of short fiction and poetry. Her writing has appeared in STORGY, Corvid Queen, and Atrium Poetry, among others, and has been long/short-listed in competitions including Writers’ HQ Flash Quarterly and Reflex Fiction. She tweets as @summer_moth and blogs at https://theleadedwindow.blogspot.com/
Ghosted – Wilson Koewing
When Alison saw Jacob Barnes again—after being ghosted two months prior—he appeared on the light rail in downtown Denver. She stood on 18th listening to No Doubt’s version of “It’s My Life” in her giant red headphones. He wore a fashionable overcoat and appeared to stare through her as the train slid by.
The second time, he appeared on the Megatron at Coors Field on opening day catching a homerun in his beer cup.
The third, she spotted him through strobe lights at Canopy on South Broadway dancing solo in a dense crowd surveying the room. She forced through the bodies. It wasn’t clear if he saw her, but as she moved, he moved, entered the restroom and never reemerged. She didn’t notice a back exit, but there was no other explanation for Jacob’s disappearance, leave some outlandish escape through the ceiling.
* * *
Alison first met Jacob at Confluence Park in downtown Denver. She’d wandered down for lunch and sat on a rock listening to her headphones and watching the rivers collide. Jacob waded knee-deep in the water. His shoes and socks abandoned on shore.
As he wandered over, Alison conjured ways to say not interested. Instead, he sat beside her as if she wasn’t there and produced a spliff. Alison took a few puffs, which was unlike her, and agreed to shrug off work and accompany him to a nearby bar.
Alison ordered a drink then went to the bathroom to message her boss and turn on her out of office. She returned to the bar and took down her fizzing drink in a single gulp.
* * *
A week passed without Alison spotting Jacob again. No matter how adamantly she spoke to friends and co-workers, they didn’t seem to listen.
She met her closest and least reliable friend, Lisa, for martinis at a trendy cocktail spot.
Before Alison could mention Jacob, Lisa’s attention was drawn to a scruffy man seated alone at the bar who she’d had a recent fling with.
“He’s acting like he has no idea who I am,” she said, staring at him through the window.
“Can we discuss this Jacob thing?”
“He had some weird kinks, though,” she continued. “but don’t they all.”
* * *
They went on one official date to the Denver Art Museum. An exhibition of late 17th century English paintings graced the walls. Jacob was enthralled, but Alison found none of the paintings interesting, save one—a portrait of a woman about her age with pale features and life-like eyes. She could have been living right there among them; she didn’t seem from another time.
Outside, they sat in an art installation; a dozen double-sided and connected metal rocking chairs that struck notes that blended together to create music when rocked. Jacob’s droned dull like a bass, but no matter how hard Alison rocked, hers made no sound.
At the end of the night, Jacob barely uttered goodbye and disappeared onto the light rail to return to his suburban enclave.
Alison went over a week later. When she arrived Jacob practically ignored her while deep cleaning his empty spare room. She made a drink from his bar. He folded clothes, setting a few stained ones aside and placed them in a garbage bag he threw away in the alley dumpster. A young woman who resembled Alison wandered by as he slammed the lid. She recognized Jacob and wanted to say something but saw Alison and continued on.
After eating takeout and watching an episode of Six Feet Under, they shared their lone intimate moment. In the glow of a bedside lamp, Alison rubbed Jacob’s back as he pleasured himself into a towel before promptly falling asleep.
* * *
A month passed and Alison forgot Jacob again. She went about her days, fog-like and constant drifting. One morning, she locked her bike by Union Station and walked in the opposite direction of her office, intent to try a new coffee shop a friend had touted on social media.
Alison stepped inside, shook off the cold and removed her giant red headphones. The barista turned to face her, and the barista was Jacob Barnes.
“Jacob?” she said.
His face flashed no acknowledgement.
“What can I get started?” he said.
“Jacob,” she said. “It’s me, Alison.”
“Double soy latte,” he said. “Four fifty.”
Alison turned and watched a woman dig through her purse and hand Jacob a debit card.
“That’ll be right out,” Jacob said and walked away.
Confused, Alison let her gaze drift around the coffee shop. A half dozen other women, who vaguely resembled Alison, watched Jacob’s every move. One peered over a laptop seething. Another sat blasé on a windowsill clutching a hula hoop. A third wept by a potted cactus, holding the string of a red Elitch Gardens balloon hovering over her head. A fourth cackled while scribbling feverishly in a journal. A somber fifth held a leash but on the other end there was no dog. The last sat in a booth with another woman, flailing her arms as she spoke, but the other woman wasn’t paying attention. She was reading a book.
Alison removed the giant red headphones from her neck and stared at them in her hands. Outside, she sprinted in front of Union Station, past birds that didn’t scatter and across a street of cars that didn’t slow. Reaching the park beside the river, she placed her shoes upon the shore. Her foot dangled over the rushing water. She gasped when she dipped a toe in and felt nothing.
Wilson Koewing is a writer from South Carolina. He lives in Denver, Colorado. His work is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Pembroke Magazine and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.
The Narrow Corridor – Michael Loveday
He woke to a churn in his stomach, a heave in his throat.
He lunged out of bed, swayed, then wobbled a little. He made it only to the corridor before the contents of the evening’s drinking and dining splattered onto the floor. It was his best friend’s floor – his closest, oldest friend, the one who understood his intimate faults and secrets. He had walked this narrow corridor many times in his life. Its oak boards were splitting at the sides and had been repeatedly daubed with paint, lately a cherry-brown colour. In between the boards there were dark gaps, big enough to squeeze a little finger into but no more. He’d always wondered what lay down there.
When he’d staggered back from the bathroom with an armful of toilet roll to mop up the liquid and the gloopy, half-digested chunks of potato and carrot, he realized that a lot of his evening had fallen into those gaps. A fingertip alone could do nothing to get the remnants of it back. It had been a merry evening with his friend and it should not have ended up in the holes between floorboards, beyond his grasp.
He wondered if he should, in the morning, confess to his friend and explain that a part of their lives had disappeared out of reach in that rickety, old corridor. He thought maybe his friend would want to know. But in the end, he decided: he’d cleared up all that was visible, better to say nothing now.
The floorboards were mottled, cracked and uneven. At their ends, the cold, unpainted heads of nails sat at the surface. He reached a finger into the gap again, searching for something, though he didn’t know what.
Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge (V. Press, 2018) was shortlisted for the 2019 Saboteur Award for Best Novella. He also writes poetry, with a pamphlet He Said / She Said published by HappenStance Press (2011). He specialises as an editor and mentor for novellas-in-flash: https://michaelloveday.com/novella-in-flash/
Participating Merv’s – Stephen Pisani
The local Merv’s Taco Terrarium advertised its “Bankruptcy Week” a few years ago during that nebulous time between Christmas and New Year’s. I should know, because I worked there at the time. To make my current affiliations and loyalties as clear and transparent as possible, I am no longer employed by that particular franchise, or any other Merv’s. The job was supposed to be a stop gap, a bridge connecting my adolescent wandering and an adult pursuit of meaning and fulfillment. Alas, it didn’t quite work out that way. I’m not sure it ever does.
On the day I found out about the “Bankruptcy Week” gimmick, I was slumped over the counter reading the paper, careful to keep my Merv’s elf hat balanced on my head and wary of my Merv’s elf sleeves jingling their Merv’s elf bells with every flick of my wrist to turn the page. Suddenly, I stopped on an image of “Merv,” who was my boss and the owner of the franchise, and whose actual name was Chuck. The man in the picture had a halo of greasy hair surrounding a circle of baldness and a pair of the thickest glasses I’d ever seen. Surprisingly, Mr. Merv—he insisted on the formal title—looked even worse in real life. I objectively felt this way. My criticism had nothing to do with the elf ears he forced us to wear at Christmas, nor that he made us balance on a broomstick at Halloween, nor that he insisted I don a full Abe Lincoln costume during President’s week, cheek mole and all.
Mr. Merv walked through the door and barked a “Hello.” I shuffled in my green polyester suit, careful not to lose my place in the paper.
“What’s the deal with this ‘Bankruptcy Week’?” I asked sheepishly, tapping my index finger on the advertisement before Merv could get close enough to see it. I didn’t add, “This is the worst idea I’ve ever seen.”
He approached the counter and leaned over to look at the rows of coupons, raising an eyebrow like he was seeing them for the first time, like he wasn’t the one who framed them with strings of cartoonish Christmas lights and dinosaurs in Santa hats on his computer in the back office and shipped them off to the Garbonzo Gazette. I recoiled, not because Merv looked so ugly, but because his scent matched his appearance—his was the face of body odor—and also because I knew the prices in the advertisement would put us out of business.
“Gotta get people in the door,” Mr. Merv grumbled.
Okay, sure, but a hundred and thirty dollars for a chilly chameleon taco? A buck fifty-five for a boa bean burrito? One ninety-nine ninety-nine for a cold-blooded value meal: two lizard soft shells, a Komodo dragon corn tortilla, and a salamander soda pop? Ridiculous! Where else in this town could you feed a family of four for under a thousand dollars? I had half a mind to tell Mr. Merv we may as well just give the food away.
It would have been one thing if the meat was no longer fresh. You could justify selling snapping turtle at less than five hundred dollars a pound if it was some sort of prepackaged frozen knockoff. But that wasn’t the case. Merv insisted on keeping the terrariums on the counter, the snakes slipping through the fake fauna of theirs while the lizards snapped their tongues at prospective buyers from another.
“No, no, no, son,” Mr. Merv said, shaking his head at me, “we’re not really going out of business. It’s just a figure of speech.”
“Not yet,” I wanted to say. I didn’t know what to think. I could only dream of the store being a shade busier. Most days, staring at the reptiles in their glass enclosures was the only way to pass the time. I got so bored, my mind lulled itself into the believe that these animals were waiting to be adopted, rather than trying to stave off an untimely death with each day they went unclaimed. They were the only green things I ever saw; my tip jar could not have been emptier. Mr. Merv liked to bark that we don’t work for tips. “You don’t see me complaining,” he’d always say.
Business changed during “Bankruptcy Week.” Not necessarily for the better. Customers of all types flooded the place. Men, women, short, tall, children, octogenarians, bald people, people with mullets, fat people, people who looked like a stiff wind would blow them over, like they hadn’t had a good meal in weeks, and they ate like it, too.
“Let me get three of the green tree pythons,” one guy said, his finger poking the glass of the snake terrarium just to the left of the sign reading “Please Keep Fingers Off The Glass,” and two of the corn snakes, five of the cottonmouths,” and with his entire palm resting next to the sign, “let me see, yeah, one of those bright green guys hiding in the back.”
I pushed buttons on the register as he talked. The total value of his order climbed slower than the tortoises in their cage on the end of the counter. His gastronomically ambitious order could have fed a football team, all for the price of two gallons of cockroach milk. We might as well have been giving the food away.
I hit one last button and without looking up asked, “You’re sure about all those cottonmouths? They’re extra venomous, you know?” I’d never seen anyone who could handle more than two tacos stuffed with the poisonous buggers.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, because what did he have to lose? Let’s say he didn’t like them, or the poison was indeed too much for him. So what? At a tenth of their usual price, he came out ahead as long as he ate more than fifty percent of one. And if he did eat all five, risking almost certain anaphylactic shock? Well, at that point we could offer him a glass of CroFab antivenom for—I hope you’re sitting down for this number—fifty-seven dollars, when the same amount costs us nearly fifty-eight from the manufacturer. We’d basically be paying this guy to keep him out of the hospital. You’re welcome.
Mr. Merv placed an asterisk beside our advertisement in the Gazette. It corresponded to a note at the bottom that explained, Offer Valid Only at Participating Merv’s Taco Terrariums. We had to be the only store participating. The extent of Merv’s participation was cooking up all the orders that were threatening to shut us down.
“Everything’s fine. We’re doing great,” is all Mr. Merv would say about the ill-fated sale, even as I watched a twenty-five-hundred-dollar order of tuataras leave the terrarium and then the kitchen just as quickly as they entered the store, and for half the price.
If the moniker described Mr. Merv’s hopes and dreams, “Bankruptcy Week” had its desired effect. The store’s accounting certainly wasn’t my responsibility. Even without seeing the books, I knew we were firmly in the red by week’s end.
Just before closing time on Sunday, at the end of our busiest week—Mr. Merv confirmed he’d never seen anything like it—he tiptoed around the soapy floor I worked over with a mop, whistled at the piece of paper in his hand, flicked it with his index finger, and declared, “Well, we certainly can’t afford another week like that, can we?” Before I could respond, he told me, “I wasn’t speaking to you, son,” and walked away. It was only the two of us in the restaurant. I continued to mop, and he continued to absentmindedly get in my way, cursing the “birdbrained numbskull”—his words—who conceived such a “cockamamy”—again, direct quote—idea.
On Monday, when I asked Mr. Merv about the newest ad he’d placed in the Gazette, he predicted “Trade-In Week” would dig us out of the hole where “Bankruptcy Week” had planted us.
“Gotta get people through the door,” he insisted.
I read off some of the items Mr. Merv had listed as available for swap and said, “How are we supposed to cook without this stuff?”
He waved a hand and said, “We’ll make ‘em raw if we have to. That’s all the rage in insects now, rare caterpillar and medium rare slug and seared spider; don’t see why we can’t get in on the craze.”
I had more questions, but he skulked to his office behind the kitchen. By the time I turned back around, a customer had plopped an off-white toaster on the counter between us. The appliance was riddled with all types of dinks and dents, like he’d been firing hockey pucks at it all morning.
The customer waved the ad from the Gazette like it contained the words of a higher power, first at me and then the toaster. “What will you give me for this?”
The words, “I’m sorry, we’d have no use for that thing,” were just about forming on my tongue when Mr. Merv suddenly appeared next to me with one hand extended as a greeting and the other massaging every imperfection in the toaster on the counter.
“Well, what have we got here?” he said.
“Half of it’s almost completely new,” the customer said.
“Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.” Mr. Merv placed his hand under his chin. “I can see that,” he continued.
Mr. Merv offered the customer three fryers in exchange for the toaster. He accepted three more toasters throughout the day. The dented one was in the best condition. Over the course of five or six hours, I watched the flat top, the oven, and two terrariums—full of our most expensive products—make their way out the door. He tried to part with the walk-in fridge, too, but the physical impossibility of dislodging it and getting it out the door made that sale impossible.
When closing time came and our kitchen looked like the toaster section at Kevin’s Kitchen Equipment Emporium three-quarters of the way through a clearance sale, Mr. Merv put his hands on his hips and said, “Another successful day. See you tomorrow.”
I came to work the next day to find Merv in the kitchen with his fingers shoved into a toaster slot like he’d dropped something into the crevice between the driver’s seat in his car and the center console.
“Need help?” I asked.
He wiggled his fingers with a pained expression on his face. Sweat formed a line from the top of his bald head into his eyes. The beads that managed to fall between them trickled over his nose into his mouth. I couldn’t tell whether he was actually stuck until he said, “I’m not stuck. I just can’t get this darn thing out.”
He asked me for a fork and I handed him a plastic one from underneath the counter. He dug for a couple minutes until he plucked the fork victoriously from the depths of the dented toaster. A tokay gecko burnt almost beyond recognition strained the fork’s flimsy tines. I identified the gecko by the bisecting slits in the eyes I got used to seeing on the other side of the terrarium glass when things were slow.
Mr. Merv must have noticed the look on my face. “Just a little crispy, that’s all,” he said.
He tucked the charred gecko into a corn tortilla filled with lettuce, diced tomatoes, shredded cheese, and signature Merv’s Viper Sauce.
“Try it,” Merv said when he was done, pushing the taco into my hand.
I took one bite, followed by another and another, until the taco disappeared. Much as I hated admitting it, the toaster gave the lizard a solid, crunchy bite. I gave Merv a thumbs up as I finished chewing, and as the afternoon progressed, we sold whatever kitchen equipment hadn’t moved the previous day. Eventually, the toasters were the only thing we had left. Mr. Merv didn’t say so, but he seemed reluctant to part with them. I didn’t want him to either.
The next customer who entered the store asked, “What do you have left?”
I told him about the toasters, not entirely sure of Merv’s stance on selling them.
The customer donned the classic thinking man’s pose, hand tucked under his chin. “Can I see them?” he asked.
Before I could turn around, Mr. Merv plopped every toaster, one by one, on the counter. “Pick whichever one you like,” he said with a smile, “or package them together.” Without saying anything, we both understood we had no reason to hold onto them. We had nothing left to cook in those toasters anyway.
Stephen Pisani is an MFA candidate in fiction at Adelphi University. He spends his spare time working at a golf course, where he watches people chase a little white ball around a big patch of grass.
exposed – Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon
tin foil boxes half empty
remains of last night’s take-away
cold curry stinks in his musty fridge
all that’s left of Friday night
apart from his unbrushed breath
so many months of expectation
spent longing for her touch
his chance at last wine-fuelled
rash he spoke too soon of love
she couldn’t wait to leave
white wine then red
second bottles always makes him cry
tears season her absence
her plate congealed and cold
Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon lives near Newcastle upon Tyne and writes short stories and poetry. Her first chapbook was published in 2019: ‘Cerddi Bach’ [Little Poems] by Hedgehog Press. Her first pamphlet is due to be published 2020. She is a Pushcart Prize and Forward Prize nominee (2019). She believes everyone’s voice counts.
Day 47 – Bart Van Goethem
Just look at that little mouth grinding away like a tiny cement mixer. How long can you chew on a piece of broccoli, anyway? I realise she’s only seven, but still. Her jaws go up and down, up and down, up and down. In between she opens her mouth slightly, not every time, though it feels like every time, and the sound of smacking fills my ears, fills my head, fills me.
I look at her. I look at my wife next to her. She doesn’t seem to hear the noise or at least she looks like she’s not bothered by it. I look back at my daughter. Shall I say something? Shall I tell her to stop eating like a baby? Learn some manners? Finally?
I gaze at her pinkish lips. So innocent. I shouldn’t get angry with her. I really shouldn’t. I can barely comprehend what the world is going through and where it is going to lead us, let alone a child. A noisily eating child. She doesn’t even realise it. She’s just looking in front of here, smacking absentmindedly. She doesn’t notice my hard stare. So I decide to do the wise thing and look away.
Suddenly she’s right next to me, her chomping mouth almost touching my ear. Smack smack smack smack smack. The noise ricochets in my auricle, then dives brutally in my ear canal, echoing all the way down, louder and louder. The cacophony pounds on my ear drum, ruthlessly. Smack smack smack smack smack. I start to feel disoriented and I put my fork on the table. I’m trying to breathe, to just let it pass. She is almost finished eating. We are all almost finished eating. Smack smack smack smack smack. It reverberates all through my body, making me shiver. I want to yell, STOP, STOP IT, but I’m not going to. I’m the adult, she’s the child, I’m not going to snap. I am not going to snap.
And Then There Were None – Paul Beckman
So, my mother had six sisters and a couple of brothers and there was always someone not speaking to someone else, and if the parents didn’t speak their kids didn’t either, but we didn’t know why.
I was in my early twenties, home on leave from the service when I dropped in to see a couple of cousins and they told me our mothers weren’t speaking. I asked why, and they shrugged and told me I had to leave. How about a glass of water first I asked, and they brought me a glass of tap water and I took a sip and spilled the rest on one cousin’s head and spit the sip I was holding in my mouth at his sister.
I still had three good friends from high school I spoke with but no one left in my family that I talked to and that included siblings.
I forgot about a poker game I promised to play in the next night and two of the three friends that had been speaking to me stopped because I didn’t show and they couldn’t play without me. The last guy, Billy, still spoke to me. He was easy going and never liked the idea of not talking.
He saw me sitting alone in the coffee shop and sat with me and asked if I was lonesome not having anyone to talk to and I told him no, that my friends were like my family—all stupid and annoying.
How was I to know he’d take that personally?
Paul Beckman’s latest flash collection, Kiss Kiss (Truth Serum Press) was a finalist for the 2019/2020 Indie Book Awards. Some of his stories appeared in Spelk, Necessary Fiction, Litro, Pank, Playboy, Jellyfish Review, and The Lost Balloon.
Amoeba Pete – Kimm Brockett Stammen
Pete lived in a small house on Sycamore Street. Pale and flaccid, his hands flapped when he spoke, and he had a way of edging sideways when walking, as if to present the thinnest aspect of himself first and thereby reduce the size of the target he made. He had no knowledge of the name the neighborhood children had given him.
Pete lived with his aunt, a lump, housebound by edema. She wiped crumbs off counters, stacked newspapers in corners. Her wheelchair whacked against walls; the chair was wide, the house, like Pete, wasn’t.
Pete cleaned schools, including the one that the children of his block attended. Three evenings a week he edged into EastWest Public Elementary by its side door. There were mops, the big flopping kind, and buckets that, no matter how much hot water or how much soap Pete dumped in them, always smelled rancid and old.
On a Tuesday evening in spring Pete left his house, also by the side door. The front door was for his aunt, because of the ramp, although she rarely went out. He walked along to the back alley, where children were running in circles next to his car. They were yelling, they shoved each other. Pete remembered, as if in a long brown haze, a childhood with loud voices and games of running and falling and graveled knees. He didn’t know why, but when he thought back on it his childhood seemed flat. A plain dirt plane which existed merely to be traversed, and had no other function, even in memory.
“Yaaaaa!” the children scattered like crows when they saw him. To a modest distance, then watched to see when it might be safe to come back.
“Do you like cake?” Pete called into the alley. He didn’t know why he said it. The last of the cake had disappeared into his aunt’s maw that morning.
The children edged closer, turned their bodies incrementally to face him. Like sunflowers to the sun, are children to cake.
“I’ll be back!” Pete slammed the door of his dusty Mazda.
He mopped the school’s tile bathrooms, vacuumed the taupe-carpeted hallways. He’s seen a photo once of the Amazon: muddy, endless, matte, and doubtless concealing danger. As usual, there was leftover cake in the staff room.
No one had ever said he could take leftover cake, but it was so frequently there, from birthdays, retirements, teacher appreciation weeks, that if he didn’t take it it drew flies. Filching cake seemed part of his duties, and besides, his aunt enjoyed it. Why he had suddenly promised it to the children who scavenged his neighborhood, Pete had no clue.
He drove home at three a.m., and parked his car in its usual spot. He set the cake, wrapped clumsily in tin foil, on the hood. A pre-dawn crow–a smarter and more curious crow than the others–hopped along the dusty alley towards him. Or perhaps this crow, thought Pete, was also just coming home after working through the night, cleaning up others’ messes.
The crow hopped onto the hood of the car and cocked its head at him. A scrap of moonlight glinted in its bead eye. The crow would tear apart the tinfoil and eat cake the instant his back was turned. Pete took the prize into the house, found a large Tupperware, stained, came back outside and set the container over the cake on the top of his car, giving the crow a wise look. Then he went to bed.
* * *
Amoeba Pete’s a total weirdo, what a geek, how freakish, said the kids, boys and smudged girls, their mouths full of cake. It was morning, they fought over the carcass. Don’t stick your fingers in. You got more. A girl called Pricilla–a name she hated and vowed to avenge herself on her parents for–pushed a boy whose nose was streaked with blue frosting. He pushed back, someone ripped the tinfoil, the rest of the dessert spilled on the ground. There was more yelling and pushing, and somehow Pricilla’s foot landed smack on the cake.
“You kids shut the fuck up!” yelled a neighbor. The kids ran; they were in any case late for the bus.
When he rose at noon, Pete found the Tupperware squatting upright on his car’s hood, empty as if it were begging.
That Thursday there were scattered papers, moldy coffee mugs, crumb constellations on the battered particleboard table of the EastWest school’s staff room, but there was no cake. Pete opened the fridge, discerned a large container of cream, half a pizza, a smell. When his work was done he took the first two home and set them in the Tupperware on top of his car. He didn’t remember his own elementary school, but there seemed to him some kind of vague justice in what he was doing.
He turned and saw that his aunt watched him from her window. She was not really his aunt. She was the mother of his wife who had died. But he didn’t like to think about that, about the thin body angled on the bed, or how long ago it was, or the brief time they were married, when life had felt three-dimensional and he had strode through it, proud, straight, with her on his arm.
* * *
The children left notes in the empty Tupperware:
We like cake better.
You have funny flapping hands.
Then there were no more notes. Pete took colored paper and markers from a box labeled Staff Room Only, and put them in the Tupperware along with his offerings. After that the messages came back with regularity:
Cake with sprinkles.
Your aunt sucks eggs.
That last note was not nice but Brice isn’t.
Brice is not his real name.
We have a name for you. It is also not your real name.
The holidays came and the staffroom filled with cookies and things on shiny red paper plates. Cellophane, ribbon, crumbs under chairs. After the EastWest Season’s Greetings Concert, Pete stayed long hours cleaning up frosting-smeared doorknobs and punch-chocolate-fruit-snot-encrusted carpet. When he finally left it was with two full Tupperware containers. He set one on the hood of his car and brought the other inside for his aunt, who had taken a fall from her chair and broken her collarbone, and could not go out even to see her physiotherapist because the ten visits allotted by the insurance company had been used up long since. She, like everyone, was waiting for a new year.
After that the school was closed for two weeks.
Without school to go to, Pete–strangely–dreamed about school.
School was a river, non-reflective, never giving up its secrets but hiding them in a stealthy current of silt. His dreams smelled of liquid sewage and squalor, the stench of them stung his nostrils in the night and caused him to wake coughing, angry, wanting his wife. His yells clanged off the black window panes and flung themselves back at him, as if he were being thrashed, and he wondered: why? He asked himself: why? And the knowledge came to him that this was what was meant; he was meant to be single. A single-celled animal, catching food, floating, doing his work by extending fingerlike projections of protoplasm.
* * *
On the first morning of the first day of school in the new year Pete took out his garbage. They were there, the children, surrounding him warily. But like crows that have been fed, they were bold, and came closer.
“Your name’s Pete,” said one.
Pete stood sideways to the children.
“Amoeba Pete!” said another.
“That’s rude!” said Pricilla. “We don’t call you that anymore.”
“I don’t mind it.” said Pete. “Are you Pricilla?”
“No!” yelled Pricilla.
“She hates that name,” said a boy. “Can’t call her that.”
Pete so rarely spoke to people about things that mattered. He spoke to the cashier about the weather, to his employer about the job, the cleaning agents, the hours. He spoke to his aunt about the television, about cake and her collar bone. He had worked for years in a school but had never spoken to children.
He asked Priscilla, “What would you like to be called?”
She glared at him. She was a child, and she knew everything about him and had no patience for it. “Why do you cry in the night?”
Pete turned and ran. Or, as he stood there, a smear of immobility, he remembered the feeling of running. Down the hall of a school, slipping on the brown tile floor, running, out of breath, while crowds of bullies chased after him. Out the double doors, into the playground, under the swings, zigzagging through children. Barreling into walls, narrowly averting forehead-smashing poles. So many poles in elementary school, claggy with peeling tan paint. Back in to the building again, hiding, panting until the bell rang or until they found him again, the big boys and the mean girls and the ones who just didn’t like how he smelled, the way his hands flapped when he talked, the way he thought, or he grew, or the simplicity of his conception of self.
“I,” he said, and as he said it he faced them, and at the same time felt his shape shimmer and alter like light through water, felt the sun like the memory of his wife on his flesh. The crows lit, their beady eyes cocked, drawn to the nebulous edge.
Kimm Brockett Stammen’s writings have appeared or are forthcoming in Oyster River Pages, Pembroke Magazine, Cirque Journal, Rosebud, Atticus Review, Ponder Review and others. She was the 2nd Place winner in Typehouse Magazine’s 2019 short fiction contest, and was shortlisted for the 2019 Eyelands International Short Story Prize. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, KY.
Crowned Virus – Aldas Kruminis
The world had to stop
to guide us to the poison
inside our veins, to find
the foundation of our flaws.
Exposed of binary borders
and self sketched walls,
the multi-nation world
through death became one.
All the shields and tanks, containers
of archaic thoughts,
now dust underground
as we gasp for air. Within
the old world was buried, guarded
now by guns and bullets
conquered by a crowned
virus, the death that
collected our last breaths
as our voices prayed for love.
Humbled by the power, we bowed
and sheltered from the force
that suffocated our lives. Obsolete
became weapons, former rulers,
their triggers and buttons
locked and cocked in the past.
Still, the loss of sanity is severe,
the murder of truth and facts
goes unpunished, the ignorance
rides free without a mask
and spreads division
in the world dying for unity.
Clowns dressed in suits
shout misguided blabber
and blind the world,
already holding its breath,
from choosing the righteous well.
In times of struggle we turn to wisdom
to find the universal truths:
you can lead a donkey to the water,
but it still needs to choose
whether to drink or spit.
Aldas Kruminis is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. He holds and MA in Creative Writing and dreams of a career as full-time writer. His work has been published in Iceberg Tales, Terrene, Idle Ink and elsewhere. His website: http://aldaskruminis.com/