Present Tense by Melissa Ragsly

The first thing you do when you walk into my apartment is go to the bathroom to wash your feet. This takes longer than I expect but you’re very drunk and you’re breathing hard not just from the smoking or the stairs, but also from the singing.

You are uncomfortable in your work shoes, but more uncomfortable with the way your feet smell in an apartment that is not your own. You will not risk it. There is a process. You need to take off the shoes and the sheer black socks too. They’re damp with the cold but also with your sweat. You can never keep from sweating even on the first really cold day in early December.

I hear, behind the closed bathroom door, the water turning on and off and I hope you don’t puddle the floor like you do sometimes. When the faucet is shut, I hear you trill something familiar, The Pointer Sisters? Not the lyrics, just the melody in oohs and coos. You squirt liquid hand soap in the tub, since when you tried to use the sink last time, you fell and almost hit your head on the toilet. When you come out your feet are clean and dry, and I smell lavender. Your pinky toe nails need attention. They curl over, uncut. Your feet are the smallest part of you.

You’ve always been big. You showed me that video your mom had done at the mall in Bayonne—an early iteration of green screen—where you stood in front of a staticky rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge, like you’ve just jumped off of it and landed standing in the river. On the little TV at your mother’s in Jersey City, you looked uncomfortable. What were you? Eleven? A zebra-patterned t-shirt and shorts set—watered down new wave—from a department store’s husky section. Your skin looked stretched across a growing frame. A boy awkwardly looking at the camera forced to be there by a well-intentioned mother. But it wasn’t that simple. There was a hint in the way you connected to the lens. You didn’t mind being in front of it. There was a reason to be there, it was just the wrong time. You couldn’t be something good if the first thing people thought when they saw you was something bad. On the screen, I saw your hope. That your body was just temporary.

You’ve told me how it feels to have people look at you and immediately only one word comes to minds. We’re all reduced to one word, I rationalized. And you asked what I thought that word would be for me and I paused and guessed girl?

You said:

There’s nothing wrong with being a girl, but fat is something you’re always trying to change. I’m something no one wants to be.

You had the same face then that you do now. I can’t help but put you in present tense. This is all the past.

The last time I saw you was in your casket, so strange to see you there, in a suit, just like at work, except your eyes are closed and all these co-workers sit on folding chairs watching a slideshow projected above you. We look at the dead you and the captured-living you at the same time.

I haven’t seen these people since I left the job, fired really. I don’t work, just take the baby to the park and push the stroller and listen to podcasts, needing to hear people talk, not sing. I came for you because I hadn’t talked to you in awhile and I kept meaning to. I hadn’t heard you sing since that last night at karaoke.

You still have the look of an alter boy with a strangely dated pompadour. Your cheeks are still as red as ever. Are you even thirty now? A few days before, your father told me you couldn’t breathe and you went to the doctor and they questioned you: Why are you here? They told you that you should be in the E.R. They called the ambulance and you died inside of it while it was in motion, the sirens blaring down Newark Street.

Forget this place. Let’s hear you sing.

In our private karaoke room, we bring a tower of plastic cups from the office kitchen and screw top wine from the liquor store. I buy a bag of chips at the deli.

You sing Jolene and you sound like Dolly.
You sing Cabaret and you sound like Liza.
You sing Complicated and you sound like Avril, over-enunciating all of the words to make fun of her voice. You’re funny too.

You have the song binder in front of you and while you scan it, you fold a foot up on to your knee to rub it through the leather. They hurt you and you have that look on your face like you want to sing some blues, some man-done-me-wrong shit. That body you feel trapped in, you know a song is its escape route.

We finally sing a duet. It’s one of the only times you sing a man’s part. You are Eminem and I’m Dido. I never know any of the words you sing, I have to read along, but my part, I can close my eyes. It’s not so bad, it’s not so bad. You say I sing well, but I’m always just under the note. And flat. But we are not here for me.

I take the binder, open it up to a random page and let my fingertip fall. I plug in the code and wait for whatever song comes. Sing yourself out. It doesn’t matter what plays, your voice is a skeleton key. When it’s over, we’ll make our way back to my place and you can clean yourself up and sleep.


 

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Melissa Ragsly’s work has appeared or forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Best Small FIctions, Iowa Review, Epiphany, Hobart, and other journals. She is an Associate Editor for A Public Space and a Program Coordinator at the Authors Guild. More can be found at melissaragsly.com.

Mending Bodies by Kristin Kozlowski

The husband knew he was broken when he kissed his wife goodbye and left for work. He felt the crack the night before, on the back of his thigh where the wife didn’t notice, where it was hard for even him to see. Twisting at a cruel angle, he squinted into the bathroom’s full-length mirror to see what it was. The crack, like a stress fracture across a dinner plate, was thin and crooked and pinched a little when he walked.

But every day, a new crack. A jagged lightening bolt across his right shoulder blade, one below his left knee. The crack on his forehead was the most conspicuous, and he caught his wife looking at it during dinner. Looking, looking away. She didn’t say anything, but left a tube of KrazyGlue on the bathroom vanity for him.

Still, he cracked when he walked the garbage down to the curb, and when he stuck the electric bill into the mailbox, and when he sat on the toilet to take a dump.

When the wife cracked, it happened all at once. A sudden shattering like dropping an egg. Her cracks all radiated from one spot just below her clavicle. Unlike his, hers looked like a spider web, or a cracked windshield; every crack related to all the others. A solitary trauma that was woven together piece by piece, year by year, until it sprang from inside her.

After the wife shattered, the husband found her crying in the corner of the garage. She couldn’t find more KrazyGlue. Had he used it all?

After that, they sat together at the kitchen table every evening and smeared glue into each other’s crevices. They experimented with putty. Caulk. Tile grout. In a moment of desperation, the wife stapled the skin of her legs together. She used the stapler they kept in the husband’s home office, the one the color of a fire engine. Her blood was just as red.

While he slept, the wife listened to the husband crack, a high, whiny sound. She tried and failed to remember their life before. She couldn’t remember the first time he held her hand while he drove them to dinner in his rusting Cutlass, the one that bucked at every red light. And she couldn’t remember their house when they bought it, when it was empty of furniture. Some nights she wondered where her memories went. Were they lost in the cracks?

They kept their blinds drawn while they tried to fix each other, but nothing held them together. The wife tried needle and thread. Twine. She duct-taped her middle like a girdle.

The husband bought a nail gun. It was the first he owned. He kept it in its box in the garage where he told himself it was a last resort, but the wife found it one day. She laid a bath towel on the tile floor and set the nail gun next to it. She ran an extension cord from the outlet with the dim nightlight.

The husband thought of lazy Sundays. Of televised football and cold beer; the hum of the mower when he cut the grass, leaving a diagonal pattern. Those days were gone; replaced by ones filled with the constant binding and mending of bodies.

We shouldn’t— he told the wife when he saw the nail gun and the towel and her desperate face. But it will hold, she promised as she lay on the towel, her fingers linked over her belly. If we do it right, it will hold.


 

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Kristin Kozlowski lives and works in the Midwest US. Some of her work is available online at Longleaf Review, Pidgeonholes, Occulum, Flash Frontier, and others. She’s currently (and always) working on a novel. If you tweet: find her @kriskozlowski.

Nostalgia is Stupid by Hadiyyah Kuma

Because ghosts are dangerous things to keep inside my hollow stomach. To keep them from prodding around in there I drink fennel tea and refrain from cheese.

You are especially curious about my gallbladder. When I shift around, I feel you tossing from side to side. Talisman, basketball, that ball-in-a-maze puzzle I cannot solve.

You are all I eat in the morning because I’d rather not drink Ensure. And when I go to sleep, you and your friends rise up in my throat like bile. That’s a tease, you, that’s funny. Faking sourness to get what you want, which is to bother me.

When the water shut off in our apartment Monday, I waited for it to come back on. But I dreaded what it would look like because it is always so dirty when it returns.

Most new things are ugly. They need to be broken in. Most new things smell like rubber or chemical or plastic. You liked the smell of plastic because your father worked in a toothbrush factory. You liked plastic water bottles left out in the sun. Burnt CD cases I put too close to the fireplace. The handle of a microwaved takeout spoon. That is one of the oddest things you told me about yourself. One of the eccentricities that made you my favourite ghost. When I first met you, you smelled like bacon, which I do not eat.

I recoiled when you touched me.

Then you started to smell like fabric softener. Down at the laundromat, I stood by the machine and saw you swimming, fully clothed but shoeless. Dancing at home, rolled up in the carpet I clean once a month while thinking about it’s oldness. Sniffing up the carpet cleaner, my guilty pleasure, my eccentricity. My mother’s carpet, then my father’s carpet, then mine. Twenty years and it is ruined in three places and it smells numb. Numbness is that plastic emotion I feel when you enter my esophagus. I never told my mother I almost swallowed LEGO. I was not scared then or now. Even when your toes catch on entering my trachea, I don’t make a move.

Maybe you are not dead. Maybe you are just resting, like the pipes, lying dormant until I really call on you. On Tuesday the water returns, awakening slowly and breaking the newness in.

I will never recoil again.


 

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Hadiyyah Kuma is from Toronto, Ontario and no longer enjoys horror films. Her work has been featured in the Jellyfish Review, the Hart House Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Acta Victoriana. Find Hadiyyah on Instagram @hadiyyahaha, but please be aware that it is not as funny an account as it sounds.

The crawlspace by Leanne Radojkovich

At Gran’s, the vast luminous sky made me feel as if there was nowhere to hide because even if Gran or Mum couldn’t see me behind a rock – God could.

During the day I rambled around paddocks looking for creatures so I didn’t feel so alone. I pushed over rocks and skinks squirted off. I hunted cicadas whose whir mysteriously stopped when I drew near. Once, a rabbit dance-hopped on a pocket of grass until a falcon’s shadow slipped across the ground and it froze.

That rabbit stillness stole through me when Mum and Dad argued. My heart would be bursting, but I’d appear composed on yet another crazy-angry drive from town to Gran’s. I didn’t realise how young they’d been, high school kids when I came along, cornered by Gran to do the right thing. When they yelled at one another at her house, she’d peel potatoes for tea without skipping a beat. I’d peel at her side, grateful for a job. After tea she’d sit at her special seat at the kitchen table, facing the front steps. I sat next to her overlooking a straggly mānuka that had grown backwards, almost flattened by wind whooshing across the cleared land. Gran chain-smoked Cameo Mild’s and we spent the evenings playing rounds of Scrabble and cards in silence, bar the click of tiles or whisking of cards. I’d look out the window between turns. I could have been gazing out the porthole of the spaceship in Lost in Space. The Robinson family had been marooned on a similar blank landscape.

Bored, during one especially long visit, I’d tried peeling a Barbie from a lump of wood. She ended up with stump-arms, bean-bag-body, and knob-legs – just like the Robinson family’s robot. I slipped into the sour crawlspace under the front steps where the earth was cool and soft as fur. Dug a hidey-hole with a spoon and left her there.
It wasn’t until I returned from overseas for Gran’s funeral, years later, that Mum told me about the baby. “That’s why she insisted your Dad and I make a go of it,” Mum said. “When she got pregnant at 14, her father had whacked her so hard she fell down the front steps and lost it. Buried it right there, later, to spite him.”

I remember sitting with Gran in the kitchen. Bunny grass grew through the mānuka and the morning sun made a Milky Way of their trembling tips.

Mum and Dad were in an uproar in the back room. He slammed the door on his way out – for the last time, although we didn’t know that then. There was just me and Gran pretending we didn’t hear his car roar down the driveway spitting gravel.

I told Gran about the ugly Barbie in the ground. Gran froze, then half-smiled when I told her I felt less lonely knowing she was there.


 

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Leanne Radojkovich’s début short story collection First fox was published by The Emma Press in 2017. In 2018 she won the Graeme Lay Short Story Competition and was a finalist in the Anton Chekhov Prize for Very Short Fiction. Most recently her stories have appeared in Landfall, takahē, and Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand. She lives in Tāmaki Makaurau, Auckland, but her flash fiction street art has travelled the world. Find her online at leanneradojkovich.com.

A Change in New Glarus, Wisconsin by Jan Elman Stout

Oskar and Cole were tweaking on meth when the shit went down. Oskar’s mom had organized a private search party, fully expecting we’d find them flanked by trouble. We hunted for the boys round-the-clock for two full days before giving up. Cole’s mom said, If they wanted to be found you’da found ‘em. We knew she didn’t give a damn but she had a point.

The boys emerged from the woods a day later, clear-eyed and hungry. When they were ready to talk they said the town was going to change, although they couldn’t say how. But they’d known it as soon as they reached the heart of the grove and spotted the amber fingers on the white birches lit up a cold neon green. Foxfire fungus, we said, full of ourselves.

We interviewed them separately and they both claimed that seconds after seeing the eerie glow a rust-colored light split the sky in two and it sucked them both in. They couldn’t say how they came back to us, only that the mushroom and green apple scented wind from the rotting birches foretold change.

We were skeptical; we knew those boys’ mischief. Cole’s mom clucked and said what
we’d all told ourselves, Those boys been doin’ too much crank.

We’d been asleep at the hour the boys swore the events had transpired. But we read that it hadn’t stormed that night. And the moonless sky had produced no heat lightning.

Now the town was on edge.

For weeks we watched both boys closely. We had to admit they seemed changed. The sores on their bodies cleared. They weren’t so pale. Their eyes weren’t moving a mile a minute. They smelled of fresh cut grass. Oskar’s mom cooked them schnitzel and sauerkraut and buttered noodles. They ate every morsel and asked for more.

Cole borrowed the community push mower and went door-to-door offering to trim our lawns for free. Oskar applied for a paper route and got the job. Every week around dawn we heard the thwack of the New Glarus Post Messenger Recorder hitting our front doors. Cole’s mom whispered, Wait a month or so, we’ll see.

We searched for signs the boys were taking drugs again but there were none. After six months they were still clean and hard-working. They weren’t doing meth or any drugs. But aside from their behavior, as far as we could tell, the town hadn’t changed.

A year after the boys emerged from the woods a gusty wind encircled the town, the air braided with the pungence of mushrooms and green apples. We followed its path and hiked ten miles northwest to Mount Hebron, where we stumbled upon an old water storage tank flipped on its side. A corroded section had crumpled and created an entrance. One at a time we climbed inside. We knew at once it was the boys’ refuge though to us it felt stifling.

Small plastic bags were strewn around the bottom. It stank of rust and sweet smoke. A
waterlogged H. P. Lovecraft poetry collection was open to the poem, “The Ancient Track.” Scrawled in permanent ink along one wall of the hideout were the words, Please make it stop.

We climbed from the tank without disturbing the contents. We didn’t know if the boys might return and we didn’t want them to learn we’d uncovered their lair; we wanted to protect them.

We followed the winged seeds of the rotting white birches as they were carried on the wind toward New Glarus. As we rested beneath the moonless sky we smelled the intensifying earthy, sweet air. And we’d wait, wondering what would happen to the boys when the town changed.


 

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Jan Elman Stout writes short stories and flash fiction. Her work has appeared in Literary Orphans, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, 100 Word Story, and elsewhere. Her flash has been nominated for the Best Small Fictions anthology in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Jan is Submissions Editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. She is currently working on a flash collection. Jan can be reached on Twitter at @janelmanstout.

Famous is Always Better Than Dead by Tommy Dean

On those days that neither of us felt like living, we bought candy cigarettes and Twinkies, drank soda until our eyes swam rheumy, feet dangling over the wooden bridge edge, promising each other we’d be the first to jump, that the one left high above would watch the other until we no longer struggled against the mild current. “Look for the air bubbles,” you said, hands pulling out your ponytail for the eighth time that morning. Thirteen, but so small, I knew you’d never even make a splash, a dragonfly finally landing, coasting down the river, the fallen queen of a Coors light box. I played along because I’d let you get away with anything, even death.

I promised I wouldn’t follow, that I’d have to stay alive, because the people would demand a witness. Sure, they’d blame me, but you thought I was strong enough to take it. The accusations, the threats, the whispers and the stares, the way adults would look at me sideways, wondering. “You’ll be famous, Gavin. Famous is always better than dead.”

I promised I wouldn’t love you either, that I wouldn’t keep the strings of hair I cut away the time we got lost in the woods, the ratty strands caught on a gasping tree limb, the one we thought had come alive for those frightful five seconds. You hugging yourself, elbows rubbed raw from cutting our own trail, you swearing the river road was just around the next hill. The little dot of blood on your cheek, a dollop of frosting I couldn’t resist.

“If you’re gonna kiss me, you better do it now. I can’t escape or nothing.”

“Let me just get my knife,” I said, because even though your words said yes, I knew you really meant no.

“We agreed it had to be the river.”

“I’m just cutting you loose, Candy,” I said. Maybe even then I knew, goosebumps and that waving in and out feeling creeping over my back, the way you feel when a VCR tape ended and the screen went all scrambly like you were the last person on Earth.

The day it happened, the day you didn’t float, the day you didn’t wait for me, the sheriff showed up at my door. I’ll admit, for once, I wasn’t thinking about you. Your crooked smile with those bucky rabbit teeth, the way your knees turned in toward one another, how your breath always smelled like a Jolly Rancher baking in the sun. No, I was playing Sonic, battling my way into the Metropolis level, thumbs aching from pressing so hard on the controller, caught up in the blur of colors, collecting rings.

They sat me down in the living room, my mother wadding up her robe in her hands, not even apologizing for the state of our house, the fact that she hadn’t gotten dressed yet, the bowls of half-eaten cereal, the milk gray and warming.

After the sheriff cleared his throat for about the tenth time, I said, “I was supposed to be there.”

“Where, son?”

“At the river. That’s what this is about, right? Tell me Candy sent you. Tell me it’s a joke.” My voice cracked, and I remembered the way she used to mock me, her own voice going higher and higher until I laughed, pushing her shoulder away, because I couldn’t handle being so close.

“Honey, there’s been an accident,” my mother said.

“You can do better than that, Mom,” I said, bouncing up, feet pointed toward the kitchen.

“Gavin,” the man said, chewing on my name like a popcorn kernel stuck in his teeth. “We need to talk about Candy.”

“If you’d just go get her,” I started, but my mom’s hand was on the back of my neck, and the sheriff looked away.

“I should hit you,” I whispered, but the man didn’t move, didn’t reach for his gun, wouldn’t even look at my face.

If it had been a joke, you would have begged him for more flair. He would have waved you away, citing regulations about unholstering his gun. His resolve though wouldn’t have lasted more than a minute. Your tilted eyebrows would have said it all. I know you’ve already fallen in love with me, so do this one thing for me.

But love never guaranteed breathing or floating or safety or pride in being alive or the last second remembrance of your voice, all gone like the last drop of water circling the rim of a drain. Your name mentioned every night after supper, my children innocently asking for a little reward for eating a third of their food. Candy, they whisper, or laugh or rage, or shout. And a little of your fame flames up in a story my wife has forbidden me to tell.


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Tommy Dean lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. He is the Flash Fiction Section Editor at Craft Literary. He has been previously published in BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash Fiction Review. His story “You’ve Stopped” was chosen by Dan Chaon to be included in Best Microfiction 2019. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.

Something from Home by Kathryn Kulpa

Her caseworker has decided Gran needs to be in a potato-free zone. No potatoes, no tomatoes, no eggplant. Gran was never mad for eggplant, and tomatoes she only liked if they were the big drippy summer ones, not the bloodless things they put in salads here, but how can you keep an Irish girl from her potatoes?

They’re all nightshades, the caseworker says. Cause inflammation. You watch, she’ll be walking again.

I looked up nightshades and something came up saying deadly nightshade, so who knows? Then I fell into a Google hole of tomatoes being love apples and how people thought one bite would kill you, like Snow White, and how strange that they would mix love with poison, but then I thought about Josh and it didn’t seem strange after all.

But I don’t think Gran’s arthritic because she likes potatoes, nightshades or no. She’s 97 years old. She outlived two sons. She’s Gran to everyone, me and Mom and Nana, but she’s my great-grandmother and she’ll have a great-great grandchild soon, if my brother’s girlfriend doesn’t change her mind. Gran lived on her own until her fall, still cooking on her old double oven. Now she’s in this bland, eggshell-colored room, fragile as an egg herself.

We’ve tried to cheer it up with cushy pillows and flowers. There’s an old photo of Gran we keep on the particle-board dresser so the aides know she was a woman to be reckoned with once. It’s my favorite picture of her. She lies in tall grass, her face holding every mystery. Bedroom eyes. She’s looking up at someone. Is it Grandpa? Or her dog, watching over her? A good man is hard to find, but a good dog is everything. The field she’s in is spiky, unmowed, but there she is in a skirt, not a bit itchy or bothered. Her stripes lay flat, as mine never do. She lived in a time when people ironed. My surprise when I opened the fridge to find her skirt in it, damp and smelling like pie crust. Skirts were sprinkled. Shirts starched. Nana had given her an iron that did all that, but Gran said gadgets couldn’t make proper pleats. Grandpa was a sharp dresser, she told me once, approvingly. As if that was all I needed to know about him. His plane was lost in the war, so that really is all I know. Gran was good in a crisis: two in diapers and a bun in the oven but she carried on as postmistress, air raid warden, all the things that people needed desperately once. Can she remember any of it?

She forgets my name sometimes. Calls me Gertie, one of those names no one has anymore, and I can’t think of any aunt or cousin with that name, so maybe she was a friend. Someone Gran shared secrets with, before she was Gran. Maybe Gertie was a mess of a girl like me, stripes never lying flat, lipstick too red, no better than she ought to be, as they said in the day. Whoever Gertie was, she’s the kind of friend who never forgets the potatoes. When I visit, Gran’s already reaching for the insulated bag.

“Baked tonight?”

“Mash. Extra butter and cream.”

“Ah, you’re a good egg, Gert.”

And if that caseworker gives me the stink eye, I just stare right back in her face. There’s a certain point at which people shouldn’t have anything else taken away from them. When Josh blocked my number I cried and Gran said, Don’t be an idiot, girl: I’ve lost more than you ever will.


 

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Kathryn Kulpa is a flash fiction editor at Cleaver magazine. She was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her flash collection Girls on Film. Her work is published or forthcoming in Pidgeonholes, Smokelong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, and Milk Candy Review.