Fairest by Star Su

The jungle gym in the strip mall was transformed into a tea party café overnight. Mushroom foam and plastic lily pads were plucked from the mud-rubber ground, rolled over by periwinkle marble and re-planted with three-legged chairs, aquamarine gems in the backing. She suggests fairy lights and smoothie names to the manager, tastes rare cheesecake and chocolate mousse, licks the cream clean from the acetate ring. They do a soft opening with his daughter’s fifth birthday, sending invitations sealed with rainbow wax, cardstock recycled from a time when she still wrote love letters. Her handwriting is beautiful when she presses the gel pens hard.

The parents sign permission waivers and receipts with pens from their own purses, pass her unwrapped gifts, ask her if the nail salon next door is any good. She tells them her stepmother swears by it. The manager squeezes her shoulder, promises to be back before cake. He thinks she can handle this alone. She is proud of this.

The seven little girls are hungry and carsick from the carpool, three of them were laid in the trunk they tell her. They forget their aches momentarily when they see the dress-up closet, running their fingers on the cherrywood knobs, rose-gold birds and willow branches embedded on the mirrors. She lets them pull out the vanity, spill creams and serums across the floor, the air flush with primrose and neroli. She watches from behind the counter, reminds herself that distance is the fulcrum of love. They will come to her soon.

Her father’s secret ingredient for a rainy day was maple syrup sweetening a milkshake when he was home long enough to use the refrigerator. She empties a bag of frozen organic strawberries into the blender, punctures a carton of cream with her keys, and wraps her hands around the maple syrup’s neck. The children twirl around as they drink, condensation slipping down their palms onto shirts with tags still on, each one more than her week’s paycheck. She unlocks the drawers at the top of the dress-up closet, taking down gowns that could be mistaken for the real thing, clouds of chiffon and organza sleeves. Only two of the seven girls fight. Scissors cut paper, rock cleans soft hands again. Loser wears the polyester Mulan dress, the only one without a petticoat. She braids their hair, a four-stranded waterfall, securing it first with clear elastics, then with sparkling pins or soft ribbons, their choice. They ask who taught her? and she answers, my stepmama. It is easier to invent a stepmother than to remember an absent mother.

She zips the seven girls into their outfits, making sure the thermostat sends a warm breeze through the changing room. The strip mall will charge them more for this, but she doesn’t care, doesn’t want any of them catching a cold. She fetches scepters, capes, slippers, clip-on earrings, until she calls the girls not by their name tags, but only, yes princess. When they are hungry again, she passes silver spoons around, unfurls crown-printed napkins on their laps, heats up quiche and spaghetti bread bowls, cookie-cuts vegetables into a bouquet of flowers. She promises them cake if they each eat three carrots, two cauliflower florets, one stalk of celery.

When the birthday girl makes her wish, the parking lot has emptied. The parents must have found the wine cellar in the complex across the street, or fallen asleep after macaroni grill, toenails still drying in their foam separator. She is afraid of going to the bathroom, a ten-minute walk down several sticky-floored corridors to Applebee’s. There are seven of them, but the girls are still young, young enough to think magic should anything strange happen. She forgets store policy and lets them unwrap the gifts. They have moved on from words to thanking her with lip-glossed kisses.

Birthday girl chooses the last wrapped gift. The tissue paper opens, closes like wings. In their wake, there is a basket of apples. A new variety. She has seen neat pyramids of them at the grocery store, from the same company that engineered cotton candy grapes and cake-batter pumpkins. Skeins of lollipop red, gold flecks. The stem is ordinary, brown and shriveled. She is as excited as the girls to try them. The seven argue, holding the apples to the buttered light, before choosing the largest, most perfect orb for her. They let her go first, lips cracking as she lodges teeth into tart skin.


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Star Su grew up in Ann Arbor and currently an undergraduate at Brown. Her fiction is in or forthcoming in Waxwing, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly. She reads for Split Lip Magazine. Find her on Twitter: @stars_su.

the revivals we cleave, we endure by Vic Nogay

when she came to me at dawn / i was already spinning in the water up to my ankles with my long cotton cardigan pulling wet and winding up around my knees / body nude but glitter-sparking in the summer sun / there were mothers and sons and grandmas with their dogs and husbands walking by and looking without looking / and some even looked / like really looked / but i couldn’t be moved by any force but my own / my arms open wide while the world renamed me Beautiful because i was alive / and coming alive again.

when i came home near noon / light and heavy and sparkling new / i shed golden champagne skin of the morning around carelessly in the garden and on the sun-kissed heads of my children so they would grow roots and grow strong and grow real and irrefutable / i left some in our bed and painted it on my reflection in the mirror so i could see it when i didn’t believe / i sent some through the air vents and down drains so it would travel far and maybe come back to me too / someday / when i might need it.

when you woke at dusk some nights later / you thundered / unhinged the sky into your orbit / in the rain / you opened your mouth to let the water soothe the blackouts stuck to your teeth / cavities or carbon or the colossal crack of gunfire // you choked / forked a single speck of glitter from under your tongue / and spit it out at your feet.


VicN

Vic Nogay writes to explore her traumas, misremembrances, and Ohio, where she is from. She is an animal cruelty investigator and a mother. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Emerge Literary Journal, perhappened, Free Flash Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, and others. She tweets @vicnogay. Read more: linktr.ee/vicnogay.

Why Did the Morandi Bridge (14.08.18) by Zoë Meager

Of all the things unknotting themselves in the garden, he brings me this armful of hopeful white blooms. I haven’t got the heart to tell him that pear blossom is not a picking flower. So for now we are happy as dogs. We sit on the front porch, dipping our toes in the sun while on his phone, an Italian bridge collapses.

“Bridge is an Italian card game,” he tells me, and I’m thinking about moving, one player at a time.

In Genoa, at least 39 people have died, says the news. At least. As if time did not know any other way of passing. As if it never knew how easy it is to be a wide-mouthed river, swallowing years whole.

We walk the narrow hallway and from my arms the pear blossom reaches out to brush the walls, and some parts of it shake loose and make a trail to remember where we have been.

On the kitchen bench is too much rhubarb. He finds a recipe from the greasy pages of Cooking for One, because it’s the only one new enough to be in metric and neither of us are handy at converting.

“My mother used to wash the stones from rice,” he tells me, and with a clumsy elbow the flour for our crumble goes rushing to the floor. Now we’re dipping our toes in the white-starred galaxy, each writing our names, separately, then rubbing them out. It would be different with rice, I think, you might make the effort to rinse it. With flour you would only get glue.

After lunch, I settle the blooming sticks into a vase on the kitchen table where we can look upon them kindly. By tomorrow, it will all have fallen apart in a spinning shower of petals. And tomorrow, his stoneless mother will arrive, run her fingers through the white drifts on the tabletop and ask me again, “Aren’t you looking forward to the pears?”


Zoë

Zoë Meager is from Aotearoa New Zealand. Her work has appeared abroad in publications including Granta and Overland, and locally in Turbine | Kapohau, Landfall, and Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand. There’s more at zoemeager.com

It was 1687 when a falling apple fell in natural motion by Tanya Castro

The galaxy sits in my palm. Only until it becomes a fist like watching a shark open his mouth and your life hanging on to nothing. There’s a story my father would tell my brother and I as children, there was once nothing until there was genesis. My father would list creation and I saw how it sat on his tongue, in the way that the stars sit against space. Everything sits on atmosphere. On the third day, when dry land was created, there was finally something to sit against light and sky. A reflection was born. The trees were created as well. A shadow was born. My father still tells me the story. Only now, I know how creation feels. It sits against me as I sit against it. The story ends on the seventh day, when creation finished like the way I watch a galaxy disappear when there’s nothing to hold on to. It was named gravity. The way humans fall.


TCastro

Tanya Castro is a Guatemalan-American writer from Oakland, California. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Poetry at Saint Mary’s College of California. Tanya’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Acentos Review, Anser Journal, Floresta Magazine, and FEED Lit Mag.

On the Way to School, a Storm by Katie Cortese

My son stares out his window, a question on his lips about blues and grays while bronze threads stitch the clouds together overhead. When we pass the Wells Fargo, the blades of its ornamental windmill blur in the wind.

“Molecules,” I say, and “refraction,” pointing up toward the sun, which is blotted out behind an endless slab of altostratus.

“But where’s the blue now?” he insists, fingers rubbing as if to conjure the color. Scientist’s son, raised on a diet of doubt. “Where’d it go?”

“Nowhere,” I say, when I should say everywhere. “It’s up there still. Above the storm.”

He frowns, unwilling to take my word. “Why is the sky blue anyway?” he says. There’s defeat in his voice. He knows this answer. He’s asked me before.

“The sky is every color,” I say, like always, “but blue waves are shorter and smaller, so that’s mostly what we see.”

Even if it’s the correct answer, it’s the wrong one, and tears come. It’s visible, the continent of questions massing within his ribs that he lacks the diction to release.

“Rods,” I say, fingering my necklace of polished stone. “Cones,” I say, “perception.” But those words are wrong too. They stoke the rumbles within him the way a blend of water and sand and 600 kinds of poison can force gas and oil to the head of a well. What we don’t see inside the belly of the earth while we’re hunting our treasures are the fissures that prime faults to slip, triggering tremors that rock the places where we sleep at night and grow our food and raise the kids we try to make better than we are.

Tears marble his cheeks while one hand claws at his chest. “But that’s not—” he tries. “It’s not what I think.”

“Okay. What’s your theory?” We are almost to his daycare. In an hour I’ll stand in the bottom of an auditorium filled with three hundred bent heads, a pointillist painting too dim to discern.

“Well, the earth’s round,” he starts, “and it spins. So some parts turn upside down.”

“Sort of,” I say, “but gravity—”

“So when it spins, I think the ocean falls into the sky, and the sky falls back in the ocean. Blue and blue,” he says, palms up.

The light before us turns red, and I stop beside a coupe where a woman wields a wand to magic her lashes longer. My son’s eyes find mine in the mirror. He is frozen, waiting for me to correct him. A tear still clings to his jaw, but when I smile, his lips part too.

“Blue and blue,” I say. “Blue and blue, blue and blue forever.”

I don’t notice the light change, but he does, his finger a twirling turbine. “Come on, Mom,” he says. “Let’s go.”

As the first drops fall, I comply, and when thunder snarls behind us, it’s a tiger’s low purr from somewhere out of sight, still many miles away.


KatieCortese

Katie Cortese is the author of Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories (ELJ Publications, 2015) and Make Way for Her and Other Stories (University Press of Kentucky, 2018). Her work has recently appeared in VIDA Review, Gargoyle, Indiana Review, Blackbird, and The Baltimore Review, among other journals. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.

The Corner of My Eye by Doris Cheng

I saw Meredith at breakfast today. It had been two, maybe three years since I’d seen her—really looked at her, that is. She usually resided in my peripheral vision, like a dust mote floating in the corner of my eye.

“Hi, Mom,” she said.

I was overcome. I loved my girl so much. “Honey, how did you sleep? How are things at school? Tell me everything.” I noticed her hair was in a complicated French braid; she must have learned to do that on her own.

She proceeded to tell me all about a fifth-grade project that involved toothpicks and copper wire and teeny tiny robots. There was some sort of classroom drama. I tried to pay attention. But I was packing her little sisters’ lunches and trying to remember who needed to bring their violin and who needed to return their library book. The dog tipped over the garbage pail and I had to wrestle a chicken bone from its mouth. I know I missed some details. But I thought, thank God I never have to worry about Meredith.

Around then Hallie’s anxiety got so bad she began levitating. I had to meet with the principal and child psychologist and drive her to a social skills group twice a week so she could play board games and practice keeping both feet on the ground. On top of that Fiona developed amblyopia. Her left eye starting rolling around in her head like a greasy marble in a ball socket. When I wasn’t driving Hallie to therapy I was on the Internet researching “levitation treatment” and “child has loose eyeball.”

I ran into Meredith in the kitchen. I’d come in to fix myself a cup of tea and saw her peering into the refrigerator.

“What’s going on, sweetie?” I was happy she was there. I hadn’t seen her in a while though I knew she was around. I could tell she’d gotten taller and more womanly.

“Nothing much. Everything’s fine.” She closed the fridge door. “We’re out of yogurt.”

“Sorry. I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to get to the store. Your sisters, their appointments—”

She told me it was no biggie. She was understanding, full of grace. I told her I was grateful to have an independent and resourceful daughter who always did what was expected of her. I hugged her.

I’m kind of fuzzy on Meredith’s high school years. I remember her little sisters were putting me through the wringer. Hallie needed gravitational therapy, which meant I had to tie cans of soup to her feet every night and force her into a heavy-footed walk. Fiona’s doctor recommended she get a mechanical eye. I was buried in insurance paperwork and probably a little depressed. I think Meredith played field hockey. Or maybe it was lacrosse. I vaguely recall there being a stick of some sort. Whatever it was, I’m sure she did well because she’s a team player. Other kids might drink at parties and throw up on people’s lawns, but not her. She’s too considerate for that.

I passed her on the stairs from time to time. Each time she was more self-possessed than the last. Sometimes I felt a hand reach its way inside me and strum a high minor chord along my rib cage. The note reverberated in my chest cavity.

The last time I saw her was in the spring of her senior year. Or maybe she had already graduated, I can’t say for sure. I woke up, looked out the window, and saw her in the yard tending a roaring flame. She was inflating a hot air balloon.

I ran downstairs. By the time I got outside she was already in the basket. The balloon began to float upward.

“Come down, Meredith!” I told her she had to let me know where she was going. She wasn’t licensed and besides, she would need a warmer jacket if she was going to spend time in the stratosphere.

Meredith untied the ropes. She tossed out some ballast and the balloon began to climb. I shouted at her to be careful. I wanted her to know that a mother’s love is infinite, but I wasn’t sure if she could hear me at that point.

She waved. The balloon crested the tree line and found an air current. A sudden gust took it up and away. I couldn’t tell if she was smiling. She kept waving until she was just a dot on the horizon, no bigger than a dust mote. The dog started barking and I turned to shush it. When I looked for her again she was gone.


DorisCheng2020Square

Doris W. Cheng is a Taiwanese American fiction writer. She received an MA in English Literature from Columbia University and teaches fiction and poetry in NY and NJ. Her stories are forthcoming or have appeared in New Orleans Review, Witness, Berkeley Fiction Review, The Normal School, The Cincinnati Review miCRo, The Pinch, and other literary magazines. She is an alumna of Tin House and the recipient of a 2020 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Grant for feminist fiction. http://www.doriswcheng.com

You Will, You Will, You Will by Jad Josey

The stippled frost on the south side of the neighbor’s roof means it will be too cold to surf comfortably, not without a hood and booties. This will not sway you. Your fingers will turn ghost-white beneath the not-white sea foam, beneath the too-white clouds stacked from horizon to horizon, beneath the white-hot sun burning where you cannot see it.

When the wild turkey stops in front of your car, his rectrices fanned wide and proud, you will collect his gesture as a sign. It will be days before you remember this sign, but it will matter again. You will carry the moment and shape it behind your eyes until it shines the way that suits you best.

There will never be a way back to your heart. When someone asks me how I know this, the silence with which I answer will break me in some small, nearly imperceptible way. I will hope they do not notice my undoing. I will hope, at least, for the kindness of their pretending not to see.

The ocean will be alive and swirling. A seal will follow close behind as you paddle through the dense bulb kelp destined to be gone by spring, ripped from its mooring by the plain hands of the sea. The seal will rise from the buoyant, salty water, taller than you expect, and then it will vanish in the way that memories often do.

You will stop using the rearview mirror unless absolutely necessary. Seeing the world moving away from you, the image flipped askance, has always felt unnerving to you. You will commit yourself to this ritual.

You will always remember the last time we saw each other, how you left with so few words. You will not recall the things left unsaid, but you will endure the echo of their absence. The casual cruelness of your silence will ring louder than whatever you might have spoken.

You will paddle for some of the bigger set waves. You will pull back at the last moment, offshore wind blinding you with sea spray, the reef draining beneath the almost-inevitable drop. You will regret the decision, but you will not regret having a choice.

You will long for love until it shows up, and then you will sigh, you will exhale, you will tap your white fingers on the steering wheel as you watch it recede in the rearview mirror. (I know what I said earlier, but this is one of the few times it will make sense to use the mirror.)

You will maintain your contempt for birds, especially large flocks of birds, no matter the kind. Their contact with the sky too reckless, hollow feathers too garish. Unless the bird is a wild turkey with iridescent tail feathers. Even then, you will tolerate it only because it offers you a sign.

A fleet of pelicans will glide along the scoop of an ocean swell, bending their arc toward you, the tips of their wings nearly touching the surface. You will slash your arm into the sea, the torrent of water impotent against them. They will carry on unperturbed. It will be the only thing at which you fail today.


Jad Josey resides on the central coast of California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Glimmer Train, Passages North, CutBank, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. Read more at http://www.jadjosey.com or reach out on Twitter @jadjosey.

Fusarium oxysporum by Noa Covo

My uncle was buried as his banana fields burned. We left his house empty and sat shiva in the city. It was cramped in the apartment, visitors squeezing in on couches that could barely hold their weight, but none of us suggested we should have stayed in his house and watch his life’s work go up in flames.

When I was a child, my uncle used to take me to conferences. His scientist friends would invite him, the ones that used his banana fields to do experiments. They didn’t really have a choice in the matter, as my uncle and his neighbor Joseph were the only two banana farmers around. My uncle would go in an unbuttoned checkered shirt and drink cup after cup of free coffee and tell everyone they didn’t know shit, that the fungus would get here, eventually, that it would mutate, that it would kill his bananas and then he’d die of grief. I asked him once how he thought the fungus should be stopped, and he gave me a withering look and told me it was the scientists’ job to figure it out, not his. The scientists liked telling me things when my uncle was distracted. Maybe they thought I had potential.

My uncle knew his wife would leave for the city after he died. He told her that wouldn’t save her, that if the fungus didn’t get her, he would haunt her for the rest of her days. The fungus fascinated him. He kept close tabs on any plant disease that could possibly be a mutated version, he printed out articles and studies and read them in bed at night. The fungus hadn’t gotten anybody’s crops but his. It didn’t even get into his neighbor’s, Joseph, a man my uncle hated. He used to drive in his tractor to where his field ended and Joseph’s began and spit right over the line.

The day after the shiva ended, I returned to my uncle’s house with some gasoline in the trunk. I went to the shed and found the keys to the tractor. I drove until I reached the end of the field, where Joseph’s field began. I dumped the gasoline. I lit a match.

Joseph’s bananas were surprisingly flammable. They shriveled up in the heat and dropped to the ground. I wondered what the scientists would do, now that all the local banana fields had been burnt up. I decided I didn’t care. They didn’t know anything, didn’t even know to tell me how flammable bananas were, how easily whole lives could be consumed.


Noa Covo’s work has been published in Jellyfish Review, Okay Donkey, Hayden’s Ferry Review online, and trampset. Her micro-chapbook, Bouquet of Fears, was published by Nightingale and Sparrow Press.

Palace Tent by Lindsey Harding

Night falls as we make our way back from the bathhouse on crunchy gravel, teeth brushed but little else clean. Our tent is a palace, a gray nylon dome for a dozen. We number just six. Even on tippy toes or jumping, I struggle to hang the lantern from the center ring. The kids cheer when I do, when soft light fills the tent, enough for us to read while the youngest plays with a plastic alligator.

Later, after we close our books and click the lantern off, a stuffed turtle casts wavy bands of blue light from its shell across the tent walls. We quiet one by one. The youngest resists. He’s three and shark-like, moving, always moving. Now he makes his way from one sleeping pad to the next, from one sibling’s side to another’s. Plastic alligator in hand. Then blanket in hand. Then blanket wrapped around his body like a cocoon. Eventually he comes to me, hands empty. “Can I lay on top of you?” he asks. I am to be his sleeping pad, he my blanket.

Someday, I think, he’ll be too big for this. He’ll need and want more space, like his brother across the tent, body unfurled, frugal now, bones and muscles only. “Sure, buddy,” I say, rolling onto my back, releasing my arms from my sleeping bag. “Come here.” He crawls on. His head rests on my chest, and a hand flutters to my hair. His fingers comb the ends, a ritual that pulls us both toward sleep. I wrap my arms around him and hold fast. His weight against me, the swirling blue lights, all of us here in this one place with cicadas calling from the woods and whispers of night’s coolness—peace settles upon us, dense as the dark. My nose smarts.

When all is calm, all is dark, a memory, like a knife, slips through this peace in a single cut. Yesterday in the car, we had stopped for to-go burgers and fries and drinks. One drink, root beer to the brim, fell between the seats, a pass from one brother’s hand to other’s incomplete. I had raged at this spill as liquid soaked the already stained carpet, splashed onto stuffed animals and jackets scattered on the floorboards. “What is wrong with you?” I screamed. “You’re nine years old. This is ridiculous.” Meanwhile, both boys cried, the younger one for the drink lost and the older one because of me, my sudden temper, my disappointment.

In the tent, bathed in watery blue, the youngest breathes, and I feel his breath as my own. Someday, I wonder, will I yell at him the way I yelled at his brother? Will I make him cry, too? A spilled drink was all, is nothing. Ten feet away, the older boy sleeps, arms and legs flung about, deer limbs. I must have held him like this once, years ago.

I feel in this moment a multiplicity, the echo of bodies against mine, words reverberating across time. In this cavernous tent, there’s room for our family now and then, all the thens since we became a family. There’s room, too, for the distance time commands and the growing bodies, the expanding lives our children lead, will lead, will lead them away, further and further, from us. This space yawns before me even as the baby tucks his knees to my ribs, his breath on my arm humid, insistent.

The turtle light shuts off, its automatic timer expired. The tent disappears. We are both inside and outside among the droning insects, the cracking branches, the star-filled night. Time, too, becomes diffuse: I yell again while I hold tight to me what I cannot bear to lose while I apologize in the morning.

“I’m so sorry,” I say the next day, the breakfast fire spitting smoke and white ash as you throw sparks. “I was wrong to yell like that in the car, and I’m sorry.” I feed wood shards and dryer lint into the haze. You grit your teeth and strike the magnesium rod again. A flame steadies, holds. “Yes,” we cheer as the fire begins to crackle, to roar, its heat climbing to our palms, our cheeks as we stare into its blue center, where I can see all the fires we’ve made and put out.

Soon we’ll eat oatmeal and Pop-Tarts while the three-year-old roasts the marshmallows that remain. And later, we’ll take down our palace tent, tuck it back into its canvas bag to store until next time. But I’ll imagine the dome remains around us after we put out this fire and head home, contracting and expanding to fit us, the shape of us, as we grow.


LHarding

Lindsey Harding is the Director of the Writing Intensive Program at the University of Georgia. Her flash fiction and stories have appeared in CRAFT, apt, Spry, Soundings Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Boiler, and others. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband and four children.

If by Cheryl Pappas

If I were ice I’d sculpt my way to you over a century or two. I’d rise and roll and sink and swim into the shadow depths, just to inch closer to where you are, north or south, somewhere or nowhere: everywhere. I’d rise, all aglimmer, hoping sun would catch my light, that you’d see.

Come summer I’d turn to vapor and find myself on a cloud; I’d rain on you in Newfoundland, where I’d spot you on a city street, outside the bookshop, twirling that girl’s hair, steps from the shelter of the shop.

I’d stay pooled on the pavement a moment too long, let myself be a mirror of you and the girl dry inside, laughing. I’d see you leave.

I’d attach myself to the sole of an old man’s shoe. He’d take me to his third-floor apartment, the floor a maze of magazines and photographs. I’d find a photo of a glacier and crave the certainty of stone. I’d become meshed with paper, a spruce tree from the west. Hello, old tree, I’d say.

I’d barely be, there in a plastic box waiting for pick up. At the first fierce wind, I’d hitch a ride straight to Gibraltar. I’d drop myself off on the heady branch of a stone pine, the rich scent a pleasant repository for pain.

This terrain would suit me. I may solid to rock or branch, let water become a distant memory, let the languor of ice become a dream.


Firenze_red_car

Cheryl Pappas is a writer from Boston. Her work has appeared in Juked, The Chattahoochee Review, Jellyfish Review, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, and more. Her flash fiction chapbook The Clarity of Hunger will be published by Word West Press in 2021. Her website is cherylpappas.net and you can find her on Twitter at @fabulistpappas.