To My Saint, the Lady Who Does the Car Insurance Commercials, Save Us by Ron Burch

I know you’re not real. I know you’re only an actor pretending to be a multi-insurance salesperson, but that doesn’t mean I won’t stop believing. It’s good to see you there. Kind of, what they call reassuring. You know what a messed-up time it is. The world is falling apart. It doesn’t look good for us according to the science. Let the other crazy bastards believe what they want; it doesn’t matter; we all know what’s coming. Sorry, got off track there. My parents are dead. Don’t have much. But I look forward to your commercials. I know, laugh, some crazy lady out there is writing fan letters for your commercials. I worry they will stop you. Eventually, we know they will. Commercial franchises only last as long until the next dip of their market charts. I worry I won’t see any of you, you and all your fellow saints, any longer. My friend Tasha said that if I wrote to you, it wouldn’t make any difference, that there isn’t anything to believe in anymore, that the organized religious stuff is just a cash grab, but there must be something to believe in, and the more I thought about it, the more I discarded things to believe in. What a horrifying list. Some of the things, I didn’t know I could, and would, discard. I shocked myself at the end of it, when I looked over what I had left, discouraging. But then one of your commercials came on the tv, you know, the one we’re you’re all at the opera and it’s a disaster. Lol, I love that one. You’re funny and smart and witty and can play multiple characters, and the ensemble is right out of a sitcom, in a good way!, even better than that lame one about the friends. Tasha says you’re just an actor and you won’t care and that you won’t even respond to this. She says always writing you and not getting anything back is like ghosting. That’s the problem. All our leaders are ghosts. She’s invited me to an event about the climate, and I’m down to my last stamp, but I ask you again, My Saint Who Does the Car Commercials, Save Us before we have to save ourselves.


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Ron Burch’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including South Dakota Review, Fiction International, Mississippi Review, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His new novel JDP was just released from BlazeVOX books. He lives in Los Angeles.

Everything Was Great Until It Wasn’t by Theresa Boyar

At first the new babies were fascinating and you poked their fat bellies and stroked their eggshell heads and when your mother wasn’t looking you pressed your thumb, not too hard, on the soft indent in their skulls and pulled back at the jumping pulse you felt there. They listened to your stories and could be dressed up and made up with the lipsticks you found in the bathroom drawer but your mother didn’t like when you did that and look, she told you when she had to throw out the tubes of broken color, you had wrecked them all.

You noticed the babies changed her, your mother. They changed the way she looked at you and talked to you. You were no longer her sweet girl because her sweet girls were now in matching carriers and you wondered what had been pulled out of you while you slept, what had been subtracted or stolen, and given over to your sisters and their tiny spoons and jars of pureed peaches the color of that sunrise at the beach before the babies came when your mother had swung you by the arms, your feet swirling in the cold foam where you were sure there were sharks and your mother said no, no, there weren’t but just to be safe she would never let you go.

And when the babies started walking, prowling through the house, tearing up your best things, ruining them, biting the head off your only Barbie and chewing up your wax souvenir from Ocean World like candy, the once-smooth dolphin mangled by all those rows of sharp new teeth, you complained to your mother about the injustice of it all and when she told you look, it isn’t easy and you said yeah and she said she needed you to just be helpful, to be smart like she knew you were, because babies were a lot of work and not everything was a five-alarm disaster, you said yeah and you guessed that made sense but you still didn’t think it was fair and you grabbed their favorite crochet blankie when no one was looking and stretched it until there was a foot-sized hole in the middle and you buried the little red mallets to their toy xylophone in the backyard, and that felt better.

And when a snowstorm came and you and your mother worked together afterward to build a fat snowman, your sisters gathering pebbles for eyes and a mouth and helping in this tiniest, flimsiest way, and you all stood back and smiled and then your mother said it would be funny if she lifted you on top and your sisters said yes and you said yes and up you went and really, everything from up there was changed and wrong, you sitting over the middle section, clinging to the snowman’s head, your sisters’ grey snowsuits churning the snow like surf, and you told your mother no, you didn’t like it and wanted to come down and needed to come down and your mother said it was time you grew up and you felt the cold moving up from your feet like water and tried not to cry because you were sure if you moved too much, you’d fall and it was so far down, your own eggshell head would pour out on the snow in warm spoonfuls the color of sunrise and peaches and your mother crossed her faraway arms and said what the snowman really needed was hands and produced the little red xylophone mallets from her pocket and jabbed them in the snow somewhere beneath you while she laughed and your sisters clapped and from above, you were pretty sure you felt the earth tilt you farther away on its axis until all you could see was three gray shadows circling close together through the snow.


Theresa Boyar’s fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in The Florida Review, Poet Lore, Juked, and Tar River Poetry. Her essay “Peaches” was selected as a Notable Essay of 2000 by the editors of the Best American Essays series, and her chapbook Kitchen Witch was published by Dancing Girl Press. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her husband and two very barky dogs, Darla and Cooper.

Whiteout by Maria Poulatha

I’ll tell you a secret, Mama, like I used to do under the tent of bed covers, where we would crouch in our warm human scents and I’d whisper, “I stole a crayon. I love Walter. I saw God in the pool. Don’t tell Father…” But what I was really saying was, “I love you,” which you knew because you knew me like a mother knows a daughter, from the space I had carved within you with the nudge of rump and elbow, by the breadth of spleen and liver I had displaced. Knew me from the first time you positioned me on your breast as the nurses had taught and I bit right through you to draw milk and blood and you gave a little scream, they said.

Mama, you will hear on the news that I gathered my gear and took off for the mountains alone. I left behind my Garmin watch as well as Brian and I know that he’ll be happy to have that watch. It can take you to the end of the world and back, perhaps even to the underworld and back. That’s why they call it the Fenix. Brian is the tallest mountain I have ever encountered: jagged, pitched and frosted. Why did I wish to conquer him? Because he was there, so wanting and petulant.

I once saw a woman drive off a cliff. I was running in the mountains, she was coming from the opposite direction and before she drove by in her silver Renault, I looked at her face. I can tell you one thing and that is that her face was sober. Something made me look back and when I did I saw her car continue its ride off the mountain. For a brief moment everything seemed normal, the vehicle in flight, the pilot in control of her craft, the air around the car pale as down feathers. I did not bother to cover my ears. Later on the news I heard that the search team believed there were several women in the car. Bloodless limbs were scattered all around the crash, a half-dozen bent arms, smooth torsos and blank faces poking out of shrubs and mounds of dirt. But then we learned that the woman driving the car owned a clothing store and was transporting a carload of mannequins. The fireman who reported this on the news looked like he was trying not to laugh and people noticed this. To me he just looked relieved, not to have to collect so many human pieces.

You will hear on the news that the weather has changed for the worse, that it will be difficult to search or rescue. Have I ever needed to be rescued, Mama? Don’t you worry, I will be somewhere else, far from the sniffing dogs, ordering hot wine and sausages and the matronly owner will ask, ‘More cheese?’ and I will nod until she stops serving and plants her fists on her wide hips and says, ‘You look cold and tired. You will not go out into that storm.’ And she will hide my muddy boots and shush me into the barn and spread a thick gamey blanket over the hay next to the steaming manure. The gentle bodies of cows will sigh and shuffle and as I am about to sleep, the farmer’s son will enter with a tin mug of milk and I will ask him to scratch my back and invite him to wrap his milk-strong arms around me and we will keep each other warm, like hot bread under cream. I will breathe in the sour dough of his skin and snore.

The men will tire before the dogs do, although they will not say it. They will trudge along, like heroes on duty, but they will begin to think of their wives at home, warming dinner, dressing down. They will begin to wonder where their daughters are at this time of night. Are they in their bedrooms in their long nightgowns and fuzzy slippers, reading schoolbooks? They are probably not, sirs. So go home, tell them, look for your daughters instead. It is cold now, but I am warmed by dung-pasted paws, caressed by long docile cow lashes, touched by a man who knows how to use his hands because he must.

When the snow covers the ground perfectly, it’s as if nothing has ever tread here. It was not a priest, a soccer coach, a distant uncle. It was my own husband who broke me. You’ve seen some trees in the forest, 50 meters tall that burst into the skies lush and green. But inside they are being eaten hollow by parasites until suddenly, the fragments undone, the sap drained, they yield to a pile of mulch. I didn’t tell you because I knew it would break your mother’s heart. Or maybe I didn’t tell you because you already knew, you who knows me the way a tongue knows the mouth it is hinged to.

Because it was there: the most arrogant, flippant words uttered by man.

It is so cold. But there is a freshness to such cold. A newness. The dull tinsel of pine needles rustles overhead, releasing its medicinal sweetness. Everything that is beautiful appears to be out of reach until you touch it, then it is no longer out of reach, nor is it beautiful. So the saying goes. It doesn’t matter because nothing changes between mother and daughter. The umbilicus unwinds and unravels, it thins to flossiness, to delicate hair, to microscopic cilia. But there is no end to it.


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Originally from New Jersey, Maria lives in Athens, Greece with her husband and daughter. Her stories have appeared in Split Lip Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, Copper Nickel, Okay Donkey, trampset and elsewhere.

Catholic School Girl by Jeanine Skowronski

1.
I’ve been trying to grow wings, which sounds crazy, I know, except Cara has a pair. I swear. She shows them to me every time we change for gym class. They’re small — just two fuzzy, little knuckles raised about three inches below the nape of her neck — but her mom, who’s president of the PTA, promises they’ll get bigger with a little holy water, so, after school, Cara and I sneak into the church’s vestibule, dunk our fingers in a font and bless our shoulder blades.

2.
In Sister Jerome Gaudentius’ seventh grade class, we learn religion. She tells us we believe in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. She tells us only men can wash the pope’s feet. She tells us Paul fell off his horse and Lot’s wife turned to salt after God drowned the earth and everything wasn’t hunky-dory. She tells us Lucifer had wings, until he didn’t, and now we (unlike him) better not get seduced by evil. She won’t tell us, but I’m pretty sure Satan lives underneath the girls’ bathroom, the one between the two kindergartens. The tiles give off a heat that seeps through your penny-loafers, even when you avoid the cracks. I try not to go in there, the same way I avoid the fourth floor and Marnie Levinsworth. This school is full of monsters and ghosts.

3.
Cara and I loiter in the back stairwell. She runs a finger across my back and frowns. You need something stronger than holy water, she says, and hands me a shampoo-sized bottle of chrism. Blessed by Pope John Paul II, it reads. Cara’s mom got it when they saw him say mass at Giants Stadium.
Two drops before bed, Cara suggests, but I never take the oil out of my backpack. I feel too guilty to use it.

4.
Whenever Evan Merkle misbehaves, Sister Jerome Gaudentius flings an eraser at him. She keeps a set, just in case, lined up on her desk: fat, yellow rectangles, pink pencil toppers, a translucent watermelon wedge particularly good at leaving juicy, red welts. Once Evan learns to duck, so do we.

5.
Cara tells me that my wings won’t grow because I think too much. It doesn’t matter how much oil (or water) I use; it doesn’t matter if I only say an even number of Hail Marys before bed. Your mind has got to be light, she says, like a feather.
Maybe, I say, except wings aren’t all fluff. They’re also flesh and blood and bones that’ll break if you ever crash down to earth. Something to carry, you know, not just something that carries you.
Cara blinks at me a few times. Marnie Levinsworth has had wings since fifth grade, she finally says.
OK, I say, even though we both know Marnie Levinsworth’s wings aren’t real.

6.
Sister Jerome Gaudentius’ pulls me out of lunch to tell me to eat more. She remembers back in first grade, I used to toss the crusts of my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches underneath the cafeteria tables. She remembers, last week, I passed out in gym class and my mom showed up with orange juice. I tell her she’s wrong because she is. I’m not starving myself. I don’t tell her I’m always a little sad.

7.
Before First Friday mass, Evan Merkle whispers that his sister Liz said that Monsignor Kasprowicz once told her that if you try to smuggle a Eucharist out of church, it’ll turn to blood in your pocket. No one believes him, not really, not even Cara, but during communion, most of our class takes the wafers with their tongues. I don’t take communion at all.

8.
Sometimes, I think I’m going to hell because my parents weren’t married in a church. Sometimes, I think I’m going to hell because I don’t like Marnie Levinsworth. Or Sister Mary Gaudentius. Sometimes, I think I’m going to hell because I can’t write the Our Father on graph paper without touching any horizontal lines. Sometimes, I think I’m going to hell because the other 7th grade girls deserve wings more than I do. I can’t remember the last time I thought I was going to heaven.


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Jeanine Skowronski is a writer based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Reflex Press, Tiny Molecules, Complete Sentence, Crow & Cross Keys, Lunate Fiction, and Fewer than 500.

Strategy by Kari Treese

We started playing monopoly in bed at night when we canceled cable and tired of the
DVD’s we owned. The TV loomed in the dark hanging above the dresser.

I always picked the shoe, you the car. I let you be the banker once, but it took you so long
to count change, I relented and took over. I think it isn’t that you can’t count change quickly, but
that you prefer to let me take the role that demands more labor.

For the last three nights in a row, you win monopoly by purchasing every property you
land on, even when this seems unwise. Last night, when I turned out my light, I whispered into
the newly dark room, “I’m never playing monopoly with you again.”

I hate to lose. You know this. Tonight, I try your strategy. I buy everything I land on: Park
Place, Marvin Gardens, Pennsylvania Ave, Illinois, the electric company, and two railroads. I
think I’m off to a great start until I see the spread of cards littering your side of the bed. When
you hit free parking right after I get stuck in jail, I know I’m beat.

You have enough paper cash over there to start stacking houses and hotels on the triplet
of pale blues and that annoying pair of purple you managed to acquire by chance.
I wait three turns before I ask, “Are you letting me win?”

“No,” you say. But I think you are lying because you grin when you say this. “Playing
cautious,” you say when I roll my eyes. “Because it looks like you’ve got a good chance.”

I know you are lying when you say this too because you can see the cards and the money
dwindling from under the board on my side of the bed. “Don’t let me win,” I say.

You buy hotels the next turn. When I roll an eight, I throw up my hands and stomp to the
living room. You get me to return by telling me, “It’s chance, love.”

“I don’t need you to tell me how the game works,” I mutter while I follow you back to
the bedroom.

The next night, when I open the box, the car is missing. You say, “I don’t want to play if I
can’t be the car. I’m always the car.”

“Just be a different piece. The hat or the dog?”

“No,” you say. You suggest a list of other games I don’t want to play because I want to
beat you just once.

We settle on backgammon, because it’s quick and we’ve wasted half an hour. I beat you
three times before we turn out the lights and I know you tried. It was you who threw up your
hands in the last game when I had you skunked with two pieces still on the bar.

I find the car a month later when I’m vacuuming under your side of the bed. I think about
placing it back in the box, inviting you to play tonight. I rub my fingers over the bumps and
grooves. I’ve beat you in nearly every game since we quit monopoly. I’m stingier with strategy
than you.

When the car plunks into the toilet, I think about how you said “It’s chance, love.” I tip
the handle and watch the car swirl out of sight.


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Kari Treese is a writer and math enthusiast currently living in Middle Tennessee. Her work has appeared in CHEAP POP, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, Lunch Ticket, BULL, and others. She tweets @kari_treese.

My Secret Life as a Chain Smoker by Quinn Forlini

When I was six, a man at the corner store force-fed me cigarettes: four in a row that first day, and it was enough. I tried to fight it, pursed my lips and turned my face away as he came at me with the sputtering flame, but my arms were about as thick and breakable as matchsticks. And something clicked with the nicotine, all my organs danced to that sultry song, and my body leaned into the next inhale like a plant bends toward light. Soon I couldn’t stop long enough to brush my teeth. I became a prisoner of my patio at home, where my parents spoke to me through the screen door as I lined up lit cigarettes like disintegrating finger bones. And okay, all that was a dream. But this is true: in 1975, my grandfather got a Marlboro sample pack in the mail. He didn’t smoke, so he gave them to my father, who was eighteen and breathed his first cigarette that afternoon. States away, my mother had started in eighth grade when friends struck a match against the brick in the back of the school, huddled in rain. I’m fascinated by the ease of these beginnings. I, too, crave this small drama, want the tiny violence of something in a back pocket kept ready to burn, to crush with the sole of my shoe. Each cigarette a blank, helpless voodoo doll of myself, my piecemeal insides crinkling like brown tobacco paper. What do I have to blame for what’s broken? I want something inside me to keep catching fire. I want to let my pollution bloom. So when I need another, I triumph. I strangle their throats between my fingers. I murder them one by one.


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Quinn Forlini (she/her) has writing published or forthcoming in Catapult, X-R-A-Y, Jellyfish Review, Longleaf Review, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA from the University of Virginia and lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

A Sequence of May Days by Elizabeth Fletcher

After Sudha Balagopal’s “Life Times Nine”

 Nine:

That was the birthday you hired the ponies. Never mind that I thought ponies were for babies. You grinned, delighted with yourself, dark circles cradling your eyes, oblivious I was withering inside. Even then I knew you were making up for the year you spent crying in your bedroom after Tommy died. Making up for all the grilled cheese sandwiches I burned to keep us fed when dad was on the road. For drifting around as a phantom mother who longed more for the child she’d lost rather than the one in front of her. 

 

Twelve:

I’d been waiting for this birthday for years, ever since a girl in third grade returned from winter break with dainty amethysts dotting her earlobes. As her studs turned to hoops and dangles, I wheedled more for my own pierced ears. Twelve, you said, spinning a tale of this rite of passage that would begin with Chunky Monkey pancakes. A girls’ day, you said. Finally, I thought, something my dead brother couldn’t overshadow. On the day I officially out-aged your firstborn, you popped two blueberry-flavored Eggos into the toaster for me. You stood at the counter while I ate, drinking coffee in your faded blue bathrobe. After a few sips, you told me to wipe the scowl off my face. You’d forgotten your promise. Or maybe you remembered but hoped that I hadn’t. We drove to the mall that afternoon in silence, the windows rolled down in the unseasonable heat. As we walked across the parking lot, you said my hair was a mess. I combed it with my fingers, pulling at tangles. The piercing gun sent the gold vermeil post through skin and soft tissue. Such relief. Tears ran down my face and I didn’t have to explain myself. 

 

Eighteen: 

I was rinsing my juice glass of pulp when you asked if I had any special requests for my birthday dinner. No, I answered. I told you and dad last week that I had plans with my boyfriend. He can join us, you said, it’s your last birthday at home. My jaw set, choking back a torrent of words. Your need hung in the silence, your eyes somehow sad even when they were smiling. Then I saw it, the flicker of judgment, the unspoken comparison to your sainted boy Tommy who would have grown up to choose family over a significant other. I stormed out.

 

Twenty-three:

I’d been home for two days after ten months in France, crabby from jet lag and forming my mouth around clunky English words. My internship wouldn’t start for three weeks, and this would mark the longest stretch I’d been at home since the summer after my freshman year. I’d picked a school on the East Coast and time abroad to put miles between us, between the way I’d never live well enough for two. Before you even offered birthday wishes, you sighed and said you wished Tommy—never Tom or Thomas—could be here with us. Merde, mom, don’t you ever get tired of clinging to your grief? You have no idea what it’s like, your voice scalpel-sharp. You’re right, I said. But it wasn’t as if dad—as if I—didn’t miss him too. Yet we moved beyond carrying just our grief. You? That’s all you have to show for yourself.

 

Twenty-five:

I was in the full-bloom of pregnancy, counting down to birth day. The baby I already loved beyond words kicked and pushed as though trying to create more space within the tight embrace of my belly. I dialed your home number, both familiar and foreign. I’d only called dad’s office in the past two years, the one channel of communication carrying news big and small: my elopement, dad’s hernia surgery, your volunteer work in the NICU, the neighbor’s cat scaring off the songbirds. I rubbed my bulge—unsure which child inside I was attempting to soothe more. You answered. Heart in my throat, my voice unnatural, I said, Mom, it’s me. I heard muffled sobs on your end of the line.

 

Forty:

This year marked milestones for both of us: I now qualified for “Over the Hill” cards and you qualified for Medicare. You suggested we celebrate my birthday with a long weekend in Chicago, mother and daughter. After check-in, you went for ice. I found you thirty minutes later, sans ice bucket, at the far end of the opposite beige wing, trying your key card in every door. The next morning, as I was putting earrings in, you said that Tommy had been coming at night to steal money from your purse. I sat hard on the bed, treating you as I treated my daughter Amalie, now a teen, asking careful questions, marshalling myself to stay calm as I listened more than talked. That afternoon, after our stroll to Lincoln Park, you napped. I stepped into the hall, called dad and said, something’s terribly wrong.

 

Forty-nine:

You remembered. I’ll never know if you did it on your own or if you asked nursing staff for help, but you called to wish me a happy birthday. You sounded cheerful, your voice warm and honeyed. I told you that dad had sent me a beautiful bouquet of tulips from the both of you. I’d already dropped in pennies from the year Tommy had been born, the kind with ninety-five percent copper, into the water to prevent drooping stems. I glanced at the arrangement, the soft pink petals catching a shaft of sunlight, an emergence akin to hope. I told you that Amalie was driving down for the weekend and, along with her father, promised me breakfast in bed. You told me how lucky I was to have such a loving daughter, how sorry you were that you hadn’t remembered my birthday. But mom, I said, you did remember. You called me. You said you didn’t think so though you hoped I didn’t feel like an afterthought. You said, happy birthday, I’m sorry.


 

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Elizabeth Fletcher writes and teaches yoga in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Leaping Clear, The Nonconformist, Tiferet, Gone Lawn, Flash Frog, and more. She can be found online at www.esfletcher.com or on Twitter @esfletcher.

Totems by Matthew Zanoni Müller

With the kids out of the house Stacy took up pottery while Rick took out his skis to mix business and pleasure on trips to the Rockies. “Can you believe it,” he said, “they use dynamite to start avalanches, to control the inevitable.” She made plates that came out long and wobbly. “They look like someone played Frisbee with them,” she told her teacher. “At least they’re playing,” he said. Everyone laughed.

In Utah, all the roads through the passes were closed the next year and Rick was stuck at the lodge. “This is the dream,” he said. “I’m happiest out here on the slopes in all this white.” She imagined it like a kind of heaven. Where was she happiest? The earth seemed to close in around her, encase her in glass, blue marble that it was. She made bowls and bowls and bowls, imagined filling each one up. They escaped the cabinets, lined the shelves and windowsills, cradled the nothing that was always there.

The next year she couldn’t have had a thirst big enough for all the cups that lined up on every nightstand and countertop and end table. The year after that she had exhausted dishware, so she planted brightly glazed decorative mushrooms that grew on metal stakes in her garden. They would never fade. This was when Rick disappeared. Buried in white. “The inflatable saved me,” he said after the rescue a day later. “I floated right up to the surface.”

The following year she started on the totems, nothing religious, just shapes: a red ball, stacked on a blue ring, on top of flaming wings. Rick made the poles. The totems filled the rooms with undefined ritual. He broke his left leg on a tree trunk going off-trail and lay around the house amid the towers of her clay cosmos, the pinwheels and flowers and four-pointed crowns. The grotesque smiles of the planet’s faces. He was her only congregant. “Church,” he said. “I’m at church.” She flicked him lightly on the shoulder. “Don’t be silly,” she said. “You go off into the snow for that.”

The next year his tracker sent out another signal. Ski patrol went out to find him under the white. They just kept digging and digging while she waited for the call, for the inflatable to engage and raise him up again. Days passed and still they could not find him. In the empty silence she imagined him in the white, searched for him through it as though it were the emptiness on her wobbly plates, the emptiness in the bowls she’d thrown, the cups that lined her shelves. She imagined him growing right out of the ground like the mushrooms in her garden, saw him twisting through the cosmos somewhere out there among her totems, and the more she looked for him, the more she realized he could be anywhere in it, anywhere at all. Even everywhere.


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Matthew Zanoni Müller is a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction and a community college professor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including BULL, Southeast Review, The Boiler Journal, Hippocampus, and others. He lives in Western Massachusetts. To learn more about his writing, please visit: www.matthewzanonimuller.com

Daylight Savings by Fiona McKay

Ten minutes waiting in line. She snips them, pastes them into the app on her device, and is more than halfway up the line. Another maybe three minutes, she estimates, snips those, and is rewarded by reaching the top of the queue. She’s getting so much better at estimating these things now, and there are bonuses if you got it spot on—you could double or even treble your time, it’s been said, though she hasn’t, yet. But every day she’s improving.

This morning at breakfast, she estimates that it would take Emily seven minutes to eat her cereal. It takes eight, but that had been a pretty good call, and leaves her with only one minute of staring at a small girl picking up each individual cheerio with her spoon, draining the milk off, and eating it. Seven minutes saved. Seven minutes of not watching that. Seven minutes of not tamping down the desire to yell ‘would you just eat the damn cereal already’ over and over until they are all crying. And seven minutes banked for later, to use as she pleases.

There have been some issues that need to be smoothed out, and the manufacturers are aware of them, they say on their website, and are working on it. There are glitches. Users report fuzzy feelings after they snip. That hasn’t happened to her, but she has felt some jolts, and some confusion. She would be sitting with her device, calculating the snip and hoping the kids wouldn’t disturb her calculations, and once she has snipped, there would be a slightly jagged hole—her on one side of it, the children on the other, staring across, puzzled. Something she’s meant to answer, maybe, or something she should have noticed. Something. It only lasts for a second, less than a second, though maybe these intervals are getting longer, the more she snips. Maybe. Emily and Tom looking at her for a fraction longer each time, as though she isn’t quite there.

After she drops them to school, she runs errands and straightens the house, snipping as she goes, watching the minutes build up in the app, watching it glow and pulse. After she collects them from school, and only snips a little during snack and homework, she feels her joy begin to gather in her, like a secret. The sun is shining, and the kids are happy to play in the garden. In this moment, their heads are bent over some small insect that moves on Tom’s arm—a beetle or a butterfly maybe, and Emily holds her soft arm out to take whatever it is. This is the perfect moment—nobody is fighting, or shouting, or bleeding from grazed knees. Quietly, she closes the back door.

She makes coffee and takes down the best biscuits from their hiding place, takes out the book she had been saving. But first, she opens the app. Three hours, it says. Three whole hours snipped and stitched together out of all the tiny pieces of wasted time during the day. If she looks closely at the screen where all her minutes are stored, she can see Emily staring at her as she spoons up cereal, Tom prodding her arm during homework, all those little moments. She presses the button that says Use Time Now, and all the memories vanish. The day greys around the edges, the way it always does during the Time-Use phase. She tries to remember breakfast, and what had annoyed her. Something about cereal. Something about reading practice at homework later in the day. No, it’s gone, entirely gone. For a moment, a small pain presses through her chest and she thinks she might cry, for some reason. Then it is gone, and she opens her book and settles down to read, uninterrupted, for the next three hours. Three hours while the clock stands still, while the world stands still, before the next minute turns.


3332D9F2-F3B7-4D0A-89DD-472DA083BDE3

Fiona McKay lives beside the sea in Dublin, Ireland with her husband and daughter. She is a flash fiction writer and is also querying a novel. Writes with Writers’HQ. Words in various places, including: Reflex Fiction, Janus Literary, Scrawl Place, EllipsisZine, The Birdseed, Twin Pies, Bath Flash. Tweets about writing at @fionaemckayryan

The Cost of Helium by Kinneson Lalor

When we go to court, I agree to tell the truth. I tell them when we met, a cubic metre of helium cost one dollar and seventy-five cents. I wore a new skirt that crept up when I walked from my desk to the lab and I spent the day pushing it back over my knees. I dragged a nauseating feeling I shouldn’t be there, like still being half-drunk as the sun rises.

Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. That’s what my PhD was in. And his. We measured magnetic fields around atomic nuclei, compounds contracting invisible lines with exclusive gravities. We were scientists. We believed our tissues were the same, that atoms from our hearts would resonate.

Laboratories account for ten percent of helium use. Superconducting magnets need liquid helium to keep them super cold. Four point two Kelvin. It sounds bearable when you measure it like that. But in celsius, it’s nearly three hundred degrees below zero.

I was planning our wedding when the first shortage came. I didn’t mourn the loss of the balloon arch. Our supervisor needed to move the magnet, but the groom-to-be got to finish his thesis first. I could finish mine after. There was no helium to waste so the magnet was transported at cryogenic temperatures. We got married. I could finish my thesis soon. I peed on a stick. The magnet broke in transit. The stick showed a plus. For once, I couldn’t do the maths.

Helium comes from decaying radioactive substances. It’s very light. Released, it goes up and up and up into space. Gone. Like no other material on earth, it cannot come back. I drove around all day looking for balloons for her fifth birthday. I don’t recall where he was. Not there.

The judge is a man. I explain I wanted to be doing experiments, not scrambling to keep the instruments alive. The government hoarded the stocks then flooded the market. New helium is only found in natural gas wells but fracking is more lucrative. In the shale formations, where rocks split into thin layers under pressure, you only find oil, molasses-thick. It has a rainbow shine that disappears every time you try to get closer. I never finished my PhD. I raised a daughter.

Helium Shortage 3.0 was all politics. Russia, Qatar, Tanzania. That’s where helium will come from in the future. No one trusted the supply. A cubic metre of helium cost seven US dollars. But she was too old for balloons by then and I developed an instrument with improved insulation and integrated cold heads to recondense the helium, recycle it. A new machine that didn’t need replenishing. It made money. He wants his share.

The judge looks bored but not the kind of bored where you could joke about it. He doesn’t understand. Not the cost of absence from a market, not how things break when you move them in their incorrect state. Not the cost of helium in divorce proceedings. He thinks coming up with an idea while ironing pleats in a school skirt is because of the opportunity to iron, not despite it. He rules. The injustice sits like lead on my lungs. I cannot breathe.

I’m a scientist. I know lead. Have felt it. Always. When I was twenty-one and pushed my skirt back over my knees. When I watched our daughter roll hers up and take photos in the mirror.

Lead. Galvanised and cold. But it’s so malleable I thought I was making shallows with the smallest of pressures. And maybe I did. But it’s also dense and hard and immoveable in bulk.

Lead. It’s almost a win to know its name.

Because I know it tarnishes upon exposure. I know its isotopes are the end products of radioactive elements. And I know helium comes from radioactive decay.

Helium. Of celebrations and balloons.

Helium. The cost of lightness.

Our daughter will graduate tomorrow. I was feeling sentimental for the things I’d lost so I bought balloons. And I will blow each one up. With nothing but my lungs.


KinnesonLalor

Kinneson Lalor is a mathematician and writer living in the UK. Her work has appeared in places like the BFFA Shortlist, Reflex Fiction, and Cease, Cows, won #1KWHC 2021, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and is included Best Microfiction 2022. You can find her, her dog, and her chickens on Twitter (@KinnesonLalor), Instagram (@kinneson.lalor), or via http://www.kinnesonlalor.com.