Alone and Not Alone by Kate Gehan

At the club, Clarissa listens to the Dirty Dancing soundtrack on her Walkman and experiments with sitting in different positions to watch her flesh ooze through the lounge chair’s plastic strips. She flips onto her stomach and lets her head drop until her braid, thick as rope, swings down to touch the grass. Beneath the chair, her stomach and thighs squeeze through the open slats, gravity an unflattering force. Nothing could be more difficult than being the age she is now.

Jonathan walks by and snaps her back with the tip of a wet towel. It stings. His teeth remind her of yellowing shells but his wet swim trunks cling to his muscles nicely. All summer he has been teaching her how to dive after swim team practice.

“Watch this,” Jonathan says as he climbs the pool high dive. He positions his toes along the edge of the aqua board.

“Flip!” Clarissa yells.

“Show us how it’s done, Merman!” Jonathan’s friends scream from the water.

He nods, bounces a few times, and vaults high enough for two summersaults before entering the water. Everyone knows he’ll go to a big school in Florida on a diving scholarship if his grades aren’t good enough for an Ivy.

***

Before he jumps, Jonathan curls his toes across the tip of the diving board and forces quick, hyper, breaths until he is nearly dizzy. As he bounces, he takes a few of the longest breaths he can to clear out his lungs. He ignores his friends’ taunts from below. If he holds enough air in his lungs this time, he may go deeper than ever before. Jonathan takes one final gasp, launches himself into a tuck, and after a few spins, he descends.

Once he cuts through the surface, he opens his eyes to the shallow water’s burning chemicals and sunlight. He pulls himself away from it, and his nose tickles with an emerging coldness. Deeper into the darkness, away from rules. This longing to swim like a water creature is a petulant exercise, because of course Jonathan lacks the gills and the webbing. The water changes, becomes murky. A seahorse floats past, up towards the cheery surface.

His organs compress. He reaches a place of depth where paddling is no longer required and he begins to fall like a stone without moving his arms or kicking at all. Teaching his body to do this is important during the planet’s current stage, when communion with the water is still a pleasurable pastime and there is just enough dry land. Jonathan knows this stage will not last forever.

His body desires oxygen at the mitochondrial level and the mighty pressure of the water begins to wipe his thoughts clean. How many minutes has it been? It definitely seems longer than the last dive. Years have maybe passed when he hears singing in the distance—less song than vibration, not something communicated through his mollusk ears. Gargantuan mammals sense life from miles away. Perhaps they feel him in the water now, sinking down to the place where they feed from grasses, and they will welcome him. Jonathan is but a dollop of life in this place and the blackness drenches him now, seeps through his skin in a somnambulistic erasure.

Fingers and toes numb, he convulses involuntarily and instinctively turns his body around before it’s too late. Furiously reversing all of his effort, Jonathan follows the upward direction of the bubbles.

After what seems like another set of years, he wheezes at the glorious surface, beneath the diving board. His friends beckon him to play their stealth attack army game of pretend-drowning in the shallow end of the pool. Jonathan swims over to them, still transfixed by the inevitability of a time ruled by scarcities in a world where nearly everything is afloat. He is not frightened because he is learning the mysteries. The next day, and the day afterwards, his diving will improve and he will decode the songs of the deep.

***

Clarissa claps for Jonathan when he emerges, but he’s too far away to hear, swimming perfect strokes over to the boys pretending to be Navy Seals choking one another. The lifeguard blows her whistle on the shenanigans.

Swim practice begins in an hour and Clarissa decides to head over to the club snack shack for lunch. This summer she has stopped eating French fries with her sandwiches because most of the girls on the team have pancake-flat stomachs, some concave even. She wants to winnow herself into a sharp blade. She imagines executing a dive alongside Jonathan where they slice the water together, perfectly synchronized.

Clarissa sucks in her stomach and almost succeeds in disappearing her little roll of belly fat as she walks by Jonathan and the boys horsing around. Jonathan expertly flicks water at her leg and says something about her “fantastic breath control.” Because her Walkman headphones are in her ears Clarissa pretends she can’t hear, but she holds her breath as long as she can, until the fir trees along the snack shack pathway are blurry and her thoughts become microscopic objects just out of reach, floating off to some larger sea.


 

KGehan

Katherine Gehan’s writing has appeared in McSweeny’s Internet Tendency, Literary MamaThe Stockholm Review, Sundog Lit, Split Lip Magazine, People Holding, Whiskey Paper, (b)OINK, and others. She is nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Find her work at www.kategehan.wordpress.com and say hello @StateofKate.

How I Learned My Name by Sandhya Acharya

The kids in my kindergarten class would already be on the second page of their assignments while I was still remembering the letters to my name, Gobind Lambodhar Banerjee, which contained half the stinking alphabet. In third grade, I insisted people call me Gollum.

Overnight, from a freak, I became the cool kid. It was a bit strange at first. The scrawny brown boy in a class full of white kids being called Gollum seemed a bit offensive. But it gave me an identity, made me stand out. I walked around calling girls “my precious”  and they didn’t even mind. They giggled and locked hands with me. Gollum had struck gold.

My mother she still called me Gobind. She stressed each letter and ended the D emphatically. Sometimes she’d add an “O” and call me Gobindo. The “O” would trail on the air like the lingering scent of a skunk.

One day my friend Sara called and asked to speak to Gollum. Confused, Ma explained to Sara what my real name meant; ”Gobind or Govind like the the God Krishna. The blue one, you see.” I cringed. Did she really say that? I felt flushed, more red than blue. Sara laughed when I took the phone. She teased, “Gollum, are you a God?” I didn’t eat the lunch Ma sent to school for days. She made fish curry, samosas, even Mishti Doi one day. Staying away from Mishti Doi, that creamy, milky, sweet concoction, was hard. But I did. Food was a powerful tool, and I used it against her by rejecting what she made.

After I began middle school, she stopped packing my lunch three days a week. Instead, she slipped a few dollars into my hands and said, “Go have fun! Eat what you want.” It was liberating. I got ready by myself in the mornings while she made her tea, pounding the ginger and cardamom patiently. She would stand by the door, steaming cup in hand, stealing glances of me while I put on my shoes. In the evenings, two days a week, she drove me to piano lessons. She made me go, no matter how many jarring, off-key notes I played.

When I turned sixteen, I could drive myself to classes and back in our old red Corolla. I managed my own schedule—friends, library, school. I was on top. Though I’d given up piano by then, I excelled at debate and swimming. I would have no problem in getting into the college of my choice.

I didn’t see Ma much on weekday evenings then. She said she’d joined the gym. But when I studied at night, her light in the bedroom stayed on. When I came out to go to the bathroom and get ready for bed, she’d walk into the kitchen for a glass of water and to ask if I needed anything. Once, when I came back late at night from my swim meet in another city, I saw her peep down from the window. I groaned and braced myself for the questions, but when I walked in, I didn’t see her anywhere. Just a plate on the table with my dinner. It was then I realized I wouldn’t have minded her sitting across from me, asking how my day was.

A few weeks after that lonely night came my graduation. The phone rang while Mother got ready upstairs. My old friend Sara called to see if I was ready. I was supposed to ride with her. I apologized, and said things had changed, and that I’d see her at school. I bounded up the stairs and found Ma. She looked beautiful in pink tussar Sari.

“I’m ready to go if you are,” I said. As she looked at me surprised, I asked, “Can I drive?” She hugged me and patted me on the back. Before we left, she lit a lamp in front of the deities and  dragged me to the kitchen. She pulled out a little pot stored in a corner of the refrigerator and handed me freshly made Mishti Doi, which I promptly ate. The sweetness stayed in my mouth the entire two miles to the school. She held my hand while on the road for a brief moment and then mumbled “sorry” before breaking into a sheepish smile. That smile passed away too fast.

The auditorium was full by the time we arrived, so I ran to join my friends. Ma found her seat. Dozens of parents sat proud and beaming, ready to cheer their children. From the stage, Ma’s pink Sari stood out in the crowd.

The roster set on the podium, and the announcer Mr. Ross was about to start. I ran to him. He nodded, scratching and rewriting on his paper. When it was my turn to do the walk, my friends looked around surprised when they didn’t hear the familiar Gollum. Mr. Ross instead, very adeptly pronounced the words Gobind Lambodhar Banerjee. I heard Ma clapping loud from her row. I could see her tearing up as she mouthed the words, “my Gobind.” I grinned, waved her a kiss, and murmured “my precious.”


 

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Sandhya Acharya grew up in Mumbai, India and now lives in the Bay Area. She worked as a financial professional and loves to dance, run, and be Mom to her young sons. Her articles have been featured on NPR (KQED), and in India Currents and IMC connect. She blogs at www.sandhyaacharya.com.

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The Eclipse by Nicholas Cook

The brochure says this is the best place to see the eclipse, only the brochure is a year old, and we have missed the eclipse.

“People don’t bring people into the desert at night,” I say.

He unfolds the legs of his telescope and tells me I can count the rings of Saturn if I want.

Through the lens I see a fuzzy planet turned upside-down.

We are miles from anything resembling life, and the air is cold and dry. Above our heads the night sky glows horribly.

“Jill?” he asks now. He has focused the telescope on something—the word he uses here is celestial. “When will you know?”

I look at a blurry collection of dim white dots. “As soon as they tell me,” I say, and move the telescope to empty sky.

My fingers are cold, and there’s a strange wind coming from whichever direction that mountain range is. A smell, too, I can’t quite describe, like disinfectant.

He hovers lightly over the soil as if trying not to leave a mark.

***

Last year, at the time of the eclipse, rooms here were renting for over a thousand dollars. Now we rent a queen room for just under a hundred. The brochure makes references to eclipse chasers, people who believe in the celestial and other worldly transformations. They come from all over to witness something that lasts only minutes.

I stare at my phone even though it’s late, and they will not call at this hour.

He tries to find something on TV.

My eyes are dry, and the lights in the room are haloed.

“Where were you during the eclipse?” he asks.

I make up something better than what happened. “I was on another continent,” I say. The truth is I was here, with the chasers, in a room my friend had booked three years earlier. What I had felt was this—I had felt nothing.

He finds an infomercial for kitchen gadgets, something that slices and dices, because two is better than one, isn’t it?

***

Life is just one moment then another. I do not love my boyfriend, but he treats me nice, and maybe that is enough for most people.

In the morning, I take his car keys and drive alone into the desert. I find the spot where I stood a year before and pretended to be interested in what was just a shadow moving across the sun.

My phone rings but I do not answer it. I know the caller is him, I didn’t leave a note.

What it looked like: white dots floating in grey masses. Aspiration is the word they use to describe the process of extracting cells—is that to make you feel hopeful?

I call him back and say, “The Sun is just floating in space, did you know that?”

He exhales slowly and says to come back to bed or says we’ll get breakfast or says none of this.

Last year so many people had transformations. They gasped and held their chests as if they might die. One woman fainted and her friend poured bottled water over her face to wake her.

When the eclipse began, the first thing I did was close my eyes. I thought it would make the experience better. I turned to my friend and asked, “Am I missing anything?”

“What am I missing?”

“Shouldn’t I be missing something?”

 


 

image1Nicholas Cook lives in Dallas, TX, along with his dog. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, (b)OINK, 100 Word Story, A Quiet Courage, New Flash Fiction Review, Camroc Press Review, and elsewhere. His story The Peculiar Trajectory of Space Objects won second place in the Feb 2017 Bath Flash Fiction Award. Find him at @thisdogisdog.

The Body of a Man by Melissa Goode

School children walk through the Art Institute, two by two, holding hands. They are quiet. They are clearly under strict instructions, filing in behind their teacher, but still I think maybe.

***

“The Vitruvian Man” is superimposed upon himself and stretched within a circle, within a square. I lean closer. He is bare, anatomically perfect—he could breathe. In 1490, there must have been a real flesh man flayed with ink by da Vinci down to muscle, sinew, vein.

***

I sit on the front steps, eating sushi from the gallery cafeteria. He walks up the steps towards me. His security pass swings on a lanyard. His glasses catch the light and they flash, making his eyes invisible, then visible again. He leans down and kisses my cheek and smells of his last cigarette.

“What are you doing here?” he says, and it is kind.

“The da Vinci exhibition.”

He sits beside me, twenty centimeters away.

“You should come after hours,” he says. “I can show you around without the crowds.”

The sushi rice is sticky. I push my tongue across my teeth. I smile.

***

I have pushed my tongue along his neck, across his knuckles, down the ladder of his ribs. He was underneath my hands so that it was not his skin I felt, but his blood that hummed, hot.

***

His voice is low, so low, crawling around the pit of my stomach. It takes its time, scraping over and over, finding its old place.

“Are you okay?” he says.

I nod. “Sure.”

He smiles, but I see it: she was always a dreamer.

How to tell him that I am listening intently? Not to his words, but his voice, the texture of it, the timbre, the base, the way it moves through me, the way it stays.

A group walks past us up the stairs and I slide five centimeters closer to him.

***

Almost two years ago now, he took off his shirt for me for the first time. The afternoon light got in around the edges of my bedroom blind and his skin ran with goosebumps. His clavicle was a wishbone, stretched across him. I wanted to break it in two. I did. I wanted him to push me to the edge. Sometimes he said, “Are you sure?” He pressed the words into my skin. Nothing hurt then.

***

I pay attention. The things I could tell him: clavicle derives from the Latin “clavicula” meaning “little key,” because the bone rotates like a key when the arms are raised. The clavicle is the bone most often broken in the human body.

***

We danced in a club and the music beat and vibrated through me. It soared. He leaned against me, his skin burning. He kissed me, pushing a pill from his mouth into mine. I swallowed. He smiled.

“Let’s go home,” I said.

He bent closer. “Home? Why?”

The crowd pressed against us, strangers, every single one of them. They slid against us. I could not breathe. He closed his eyes and tipped his head back away from mine. The chemicals hit my veins and they ran and ran.

***

“Studies of the Fetus in the Womb,” dated 1510-1512/13. Leonardo da Vinci drew a foetus with its knees raised, its head bowed and pressed against its hands and knees, hiding its face. The umbilical cord sweeps across its body. The womb is cleaved open, like two halves of a shell.

***

The children leave the gallery and run down the stairs, a tumble of legs, arms, small bodies, oversized backpacks. They laugh and shout. They push their faces to the sun and they grow, their cells dividing, multiplying, unfurling.

***

He was illuminated by the moon, its cold wash of lilac-blue light. Shadow lines of the window fell on him as he looked into the night.

“What’s out there?” I said.

He turned to me. “Nothing important.”

I believed him.

***

In bed, he slept and I drew my finger along his clavicle, first one way and then the other, finding the halfway point, finding the ends.

***

The gallery asked him to help curate an exhibition of Impressionist works at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He planned to travel through Europe afterwards.

“For how long?” I said.

“I don’t know. There are so many things I want to see. Cities I want to visit again.”

All I heard was II, I while he listed galleries, cities, icons.

***

A drawing of da Vinci’s compares man and animal: “Studies of legs of man and the leg of a horse,” dated 1506.

***

Another drawing shows a man inside a woman: “Coition of a hemisected man and woman,” dated 1492. She is far less detailed than him. She fades into nothingness.

***

He sent postcards. One was from the Galleria Nazionale di Parma in Italy, da Vinci’s “Head of a Woman,” dated 1500, painted in oil on wood. On the back he had written—she looks like you.

I studied that postcard. “What the fuck?”

Her hair was tangled, her gaze downward, fixed on nothing it seemed. I threw her away.

***

“I should get back to work,” he says. “It was good to see you.”

He puts his arm around my shoulders and he is hot all down my side. I see his clavicle beneath the collar of his shirt. Little keyOld friend.

“Have you seen the drawings of the human heart by da Vinci?” I say.

“Of course. Why?”

In 1513, da Vinci must have reached inside a human body and pulled out the heart, or somebody did it for him.

***

In the gallery gift shop, “The Vitruvian Man” is everywhere. I buy a fridge magnet and I don’t know why. 

***

I walk back to the train and realize the actual man that da Vinci drew from in 1490 might not have been alive at all. In fact, he probably wasn’t.


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Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Best Australian Short StoriesSmokeLong QuarterlyNew World WritingSplit Lip Magazine, WhiskeyPaper, Atticus Review, (b)OINK, and Jellyfish Review, among others. One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company Jungle. She lives in Australia. You can find her here: www.melissagoode.com and @melgoodewriter.

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I Am Not a Fish by Rob Parrish

I am not a fish, but I belong under water. I hold my breath until I feel the expanse of my lungs and the rush of carbon dioxide urges me to surface, surface. I ignore the initial panic and remain submerged.

I will eventually have to return or my molecules will unify with the ocean, and I will become the waves, blue crashing on blue.

* * *

I watch my father plunge the hook into the worm. The shine goes through its body clean.

“It’s like temptation, son.”

I think about my penis, how deep the Mississippi is, and what lurks at the bottom.

* * *

I open my mouth and air escapes upward, a moment where I am between blues. I begin to sink from the tiny bubbles rising toward the circular view of light.

Toes point downward and I ascend to chase my last breath. I break the calm and bend past refraction. Head emerges at water level, but my body remains underneath the horizon, bonded to the water.

* * *

We are but a small boat on the horizon. Both water and sky were placid. My father hasn’t said anything in hours. The only sounds are the gulps of beer going down his beak. I watch the apple in his throat bob with each chug. There are no fish at our feet, just crushed cans of Hamm’s. I peer over the side and try to look past my reflection.

* * *

Arms wave at me from the beach with the wingspan of a stork. It’s my wife. Her bathing suit blends with the sand, but the bump is clearly visible. Her mouth is open, but I cannot make out anything over the crashing, the crashing.

Come back to land, her body suggests.

* * *

Before my father got full of beer and too inside himself, he would say, “Put your DNA in something.” And almost always after, he’d wrangle a fish. Still on the line, alive and bending, he’d bite into it, grinding his jaw back and forth.

“Just like that,” he would say, as he flashed a gummy smile, fish parts between his remaining teeth.

* * *

I am waterlogged.

I am the tide going out.

I am the debris yet to be beached.

I am bobbing, bobbing in the water.

* * *

My father always put his feet up on the port side of the boat. He’d lean back and tell yarns about all the women he tangoed with. Mom was never mentioned when we were out on the river, but only in the truck while on the way home.

“What’s said in the boat stays on boat.”

We’d zoom home, riverbank a blur. My hand always out the window, mimicking the jumps and dives of a carp.

* * *

I will sink like a rock and let time and water pare me down until I’m polished, until my fossils are visible under the dissolving light.

* * *

My father always said he wanted a Viking funeral. When he passed, Mom said to just throw his body into the river.

* * *

My wife only sees my head floating on the surface, but there is immense weight underneath, gut swollen with regret. Hers will be much the same once she finds out I’ve become my father.

* * *

I once told my father I wanted to be a fish. He rocked the boat with a hearty guffaw. He cracked another beer and said, “Fish are meant to be caught, to be eaten. Men aren’t fish, son.”

* * *

I am not trying to return.

I am not kicking my legs.

I am not above surface.

We should not hold our breath


Parrish
Rob Parrish’s work can be found in Gravel, The Harpoon Review, and The Airgonaut, among others. He is Editor-in-Chief at (b)OINK. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a dog named Coltrane.

 

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Falling Leaves, a Sycamore by Clio Velentza

Jake’s body swung from the Gunnarsen’s sycamore until well into the evening. The oxygen mask hung from his neck stained with spit, its loose tip dangling into the sweltering breeze. Nobody was comforted by the solidity of his shadow, falling shimmering across the arid afternoon. We stood around it, blinking the sweat off our eyelids. A toddler shuffled into it for some relief from the heat and stood swaying, gazing upwards. Someone snatched the child back into the folds of the small crowd. Its wail made us wince.

The particular detail of the oxygen mask alarmed us most. We had ever seen him use one. The kids were already on an expedition to find the lost tank, surely having rolled off into a rain gutter, when they were promptly ordered back home. A couple of people resumed the search, but came back shaking their heads.

Becca’s hand paused on my shoulder, then pointed to the house behind the tree. The older Gunnarsen girl, Sylvia, was standing by the upstairs window, watching. I’d never seen her with her hair drawn up before. She reminded me of a plucked bird of prey. Even from this distance she was all angles and hollows.

“Look at her waiting,” Becca said, her warm, sticky hand on my shoulder again.
Jake was cut down, clumsily lowered onto the ground through the stifled curses of men wobbling on garden ladders. We took a step back as one. In the amber light his hair was the same shade of ginger as when we were small. The stubble around his swollen mouth shone golden. I was always jealous of his smooth, nondescript features, so soft and feminine despite his sturdy athletic build.

The ambulance sat quiet underneath the massive sycamore, as if embarrassed for its lateness. Medics were bent over the body, their latex-clad hands each pressing a different spot on Jake. One hand was over his eyes, covering them as if the sky was something indecent. I liked the contrast of the white car and the bright blue gloves against the undulating pale greens of the scenery. I would paint this as soon as my new oils arrived, I decided. Jake’s shape would be dim, dissolving into the parched grass. You wouldn’t even be sure he was really there without the thin white gleam, made with the finest brush, indicating the oxygen mask.

The door to the Gunnarsen house was left open. On the front step sat the middle sister, Erika, sobbing in the arms of her mother. Erika was in that paint-spattered Rocky Horror t-shirt she always wore in art class. Months in and still not showing. Girls whispered that they would kill for her flat tummy. We saw her clutch her stomach and retch on the flower bed.

“Pity about the baby,” said Becca. “Growing up without a daddy.”

Sylvia was still watching from the upstairs window. Perhaps she had never moved. Only her head was slightly tilted, following the body’s descent.

“Jake would be a crap father,” Becca went on, low enough for only me to hear. I wiped the sweat from my lip. She leaned in. “Remember the day he beat Cole black and blue?”
I shook my head although I did remember, I just wanted to keep Becca’s words out.

Through the corner of my eye I saw some of the kids inching back to the forbidden scene. They seemed unimpressed with the sight. One was already yawning and rubbing its eyes.
“Though Cole did say Sylvia had a stick up her ass.” Becca sucked her teeth, shrugging.

Erika kept vomiting and was carried off indoors. Our eyes turned to the gaunt figure in the window. Sylvia’s paleness shone through the gloom like the evening star. Even now in late summer, with school nothing more than a quiescent threat, her illness kept her cooped up inside on a strict regime of lung-strengthening exercises.

Any other girl in her place and we might have pitied her. But it was impossible to pity Sylvia: she radiated the unrelenting, destructive power of lava. At her birthday party someone had made drunken fun of her fit of laborious coughing, and she’d thrown a full can of Coke at him without batting an eye. The boy had needed stitches. I recalled staggering into the hallway afterwards and finding her sitting on the floor, working her oxygen tank. Her face was blurry, almost smiling under the plastic, eyes closed, dark eyebrows arched and chin up.

And then I realized.

“Oh,” I said, took a sharp breath and shivered.

“What?”

Becca was glancing around, listing Jake’s friends and enemies. A jumbled string of names of no consequence. The small crowd was now full of holes as everyone began to wander back home, absentmindedly considering dinner.

I contemplated the tree. It rose and rose and expanded, a disheveled giant of twisted, peeling limbs, making our gated community seem puny: little model houses, little model lives. The bark was mottled in a pleasant scale of greys and greens. The climbing rope was still hanging limp from Jake’s expert knot. The pale-edged leaves that had been dislodged by the commotion were falling softly on the body, and a medic was brushing them off.

The stretcher was rolled into the ambulance, its doors grated shut and it drove off. No joy in the sound or touch of metal, I thought. Unattractive in this hot, earthy evening, when dust and remnants of poplar fluff clung to our lips and lashes.

Again the urge to paint overcame me. No, oils wouldn’t do. It would have to be watercolors. Vague and mute, diluted into near nonexistence, brushed broadly until the paper warped and our figures distorted.

The upstairs window was empty and the door to the house was shut. The voices trailed off. I caught snippets of funeral talk. Inwardly I agreed; a sycamore wood casket would be lovely. A good, solid way to travel. Maybe Jake’s parents would order one on their way back.


2NjE3ewT

Clio Velentza lives in Athens, Greece. She’s a winner of Queen’s Ferry Press The Best Small Fictions 2016, and her work has appeared in several literary journals including (b)OINK, Corium, WhiskeyPaper, The Letters Page, Atticus Review, and Wigleaf.

 

 


 

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Birthright by Ron Gibson, Jr.

The fathers made off with the night. The dark, the stars, the galaxies. The moon even had chain marks from where the fathers had tried to pull it down with a 4×4 truck like an ornery stump. It hadn’t given. The moon was a node of bone still sticking out of the fractured morning.

Walking to the north end of the island, smoke trailed out of the green mountains to the south. Other children hadn’t noticed. Eyes ahead, coastal winds pushing their footsteps toward school, they too must have noticed the signs of their father’s departures at home.

“Fuckers,” I thought.

“Little bastards! All of you! I would’ve left all of you, too, if I was younger!” yelled Old Man Morgan from his front porch, shoulders shaking with laughter.

Some children looked, then kept walking. I stopped. I glared at him until his shoulders stopped shaking and he glared back, stony-eyed.

He knew what I was thinking. He recognized the ghosts in my eyes.

“It’s a shame Ricky Bowen’s father won’t be around… What’s an island without a sheriff?”

Without giving an answer, Old Man Morgan looked to the smoke out of the south, jaw tight, eyes watery with worry.

“Good luck sleeping with no night, you old fuck!” I shouted, mimicking the old man’s gross laugh from earlier.

<>

When I was small, my father took me hunting on the mainland. We didn’t have a dog, because my father hated dogs, so he sent me sprinting into the brush to scare up game.

Blurs of white, brown and tawny feathers would explode from underfoot, rocketing past my waving arms into the marble skies above, before my father pulled the trigger. I would watch the birds tumble back to earth, feathered confetti, mangled clockwork, bags of blood. Sometimes the wind blew them back toward me and I would catch them against my chest like a football. They would flap in my arms, eyes wide, bloody newborns.

<>

Moving my right wrist in a circle, cracking the joint, the way my father wrung the necks of wounded birds, I said to Jim, “Let’s kill him.”

“Who?!”

“Old man Morgan.”

“But, why?!”

“You heard him. He called us bastards. Every single one of us—bastards.”

“He was just being stupid.”

“So are you. If you end up on the wrong side of this thing, I’m not going to help you. I may have to kill you too.”

“What are you talking about?!”

“You’ll see. You don’t smell that? Smoke. Fire. Something new is coming.”

Eyes wide, Jim looked as if he had something to say, but said nothing.

<>

When my father shot me, I lay still in tall grass, bleeding, eyes full of marble skies, the right side of my body on fire. He said it was an accident. Said something about the pheasant zigging instead of zagging. Said the wind must’ve carried the buckshot off course.

When he turned his back to take a swig of bourbon to steel himself, I couldn’t tell if his shoulders were shaking from crying or laughter.

<>

“Shhhh…” I hissed at the others, our shoulders silently wrestling with laughter.

The sky was still bone-white at midnight. No sign of night anywhere, except the trail of smoke out of the south. Every so often a match head of flame burst from the treetops, then hid again beneath the thick, green canopy.

All throughout dinner, our mothers acted as if the smoke that made us wheeze and cough must be hay fever. When I told my mother that the mountains were on fire, she said, “The whole world is on fire at any given moment. Don’t worry about it.” When I asked where was father, she said, “Working late.”

“Now,” I said, and threw the first handful of gravel like buckshot at Old Man Morgan’s front window. It scattered loudly and a curtain moved.

Another handful of gravel thrown by Jim slammed against the side of his house.

Another handful of gravel shot down out of the Sutton’s tree next door on Old Man Morgan’s rooftop.

Another against his back door.

Another against his front door.

Everywhere. Gravel flurried like hailstones. Kids laughing on all sides.

I yelled, “Who’s the bastard now, old man?!”

Old Man Morgan crashed through the screen door on the front door, shaking with fury, tears in his voice, “You sons of bitchin’ bastards! You sons of bitchin’ bastards!”

I stepped forward, handful of sin, and threw a fastball. My fist-sized rock nailed Old Man Morgan straight in the chest. The wind shot out of him, bringing him to his knees, gasping, unable to regain his breath.

<>

My father carried me a mile back to the car, holding me like a bloody newborn against his chest. Eyes closed, I breathed in his body odor, his bourbon-sweet breath. I wanted to live in that moment, to be part of his body, to never touch the ground again, to never feel the burden of gravity.

But then he unceremoniously dumped me, face-first, on the hood of the car.

<>

When Old Man Morgan came to, we had strapped him to his kitchen table like a dead deer to the hood of a car. One by one, everyone got their shots in. Punches to the face, the stomach, the testicles. At first his eyes were full of tears and pain, groaning with each new impact, but then something deadened, turned steel, became an abandoned tenement.

Surrounded by ghosts of himself as a boy, Old Man Morgan tunneled further down within, alone, a planet hiding life.

<>

Even though I felt the cold car hood against my bare chest, felt the sting of tweezers digging into my skin, plucking out lead BBs, heard my father’s grunting, swearing and labored breathing, I pretended I was dead.

I was not there. I was a planet, a comet, a galaxy holding its breath whenever the telescopes turned its way.

“Knock it off, dammit!”

<>

I slapped Old Man Morgan back to earth. He groaned when the burden of gravity weighed on his chest and dared him to breathe.

Everyone was gone. I sent them home. Even Jim, who was now crying about his part in all of this.

Before Jim left, I told him that he was good, that I was proud of him, that he’d done all that I asked of him and I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.

Jim quietly accepted it as if spoken by his own father, and walked home a hunched figure, alone in a bloodless night.

Old Man Morgan blinked repeatedly, before staring into my eyes and I into his. We didn’t say anything for a long time. He looked like hell. Bruised, bloody. He looked like I felt, and I think he knew it.

“Why do you hate us?” I asked, unexpectedly bursting into tears.

“You know why.”

My face contorting with pain and rage, I choked out, throat tight, knotted, chest spasming, “Yeah. I guess I do.”

I bent over his strapped-down body, laid my wet cheek against his badly bruised chest and listened to his old heart, a telegraph message from his father to mine to my future son, calming my emotions.

I let out long, deep breaths, matching his, before asking, “You think they’ll ever come back?”

Old Man Morgan said, “I don’t think so.”

I kissed his cheek, then his forehead. The room felt hot, as if the fire had finally crawled out of the mountains, taken over the entire town, taken every piece of our lives, everything we had ever known, ever hated and destroyed it in order to start over, in order to find a new way of being.

“What do we do now?”

<>

When we got to town, my father bought gauze and other first aid supplies from a country store. In the backseat of his car, his hands were hot and gentle. He took time cutting surgical pads to size, rolling gauze and securing it all with medical tape.

When he was done, he asked me to move around a little. The right side of my body was still pain and fire. I was half of a mummy, because I was half-dead, now, I thought. Like the earth’s poles: one half six months of day, the other half six months of night. While one half of my life had fallen into shade, the other half would be spent waiting for my father to finish what he had started.


Ron6
Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in Moonsick Magazine, Real Story UK, Easy Street Magazine, Rabble Lit, (b)oink, Mannequin HausStockholm Review of Literature, Cheap Pop, New South Journal, Jellyfish Review, Whiskeypaper, Unbroken Journal, Crack the Spine, Gone Lawn, etc… forthcoming at L’Ephemere Review & Midwestern Gothic. Find him @sirabsurd.