Close Down by Stefani Cox

The girl at the bar has words for me, wants to see the draft version of her story. She’ll tell me anything, anxious to escape a dark, sticky room of clustered hands and wicked moonshine.

Tap tap tap until I find her face again. Pay attention. These syllables can curl and arc like boomerangs. Don’t miss a one.

A man walks over all questing eyes and roving digits. I am an ordinary body, she says, the extraordinary ones go home by three. When the check arrives, he leaves alone.

Girl hurls a cocktail that will or will not implode, green vodka, tumbled olive. I apologize to the owner, as I pull her to the door, cheeks red at the embarrassment of night.

 


 

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Stefani Cox is a speculative fiction writer and poet based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published to LeVar Burton Reads, PodCastle, The Mantle, Mirror Dance, and FIYAH, among other outlets. She’s also an alumna of the VONA/Voices workshops and has served as an associate editor for PodCastle. Find her on Twitter @stefanicox or her website stefanicox.com.

Watermelon by Ellen Ellis

When I was four, we grew a watermelon in the backyard garden, under the split-trunk oak. Every morning the screen door would rattle from the passing of my two velcro sandals and the neighbor’s dog would bark as I squatted, square knees and dirty hands, to inspect that watermelon.

It swelled like summer passes, hair grows, knitting knots, so slow you couldn’t tell it was happening until one day it was bigger than I was. Sweet striped shell, vine and leaves. The critters ate all the tomatoes but they left that watermelon alone. Indomitable watermelon, under the sun and the tree and dog’s crossed eyes.

Kelly says I would sit out there next to the watermelon in my little yellow dress, toes in the dirt, talking at rocketship speed to my variegated friend, making squares with my two sky-sweeping hands. Outlining that craggy four-year-old universe to a very good listener.

July I tried to catch it in the act – get up early, tiptoe down the stairs, edge the screen door open far enough so that (holding my breath) I could fit my round kid belly through the gap. The moon, enormous, hung in the hot air. It probably knew how that watermelon just kept growing, but Mom’s following feet kept me from asking.

One morning it sat smug in the sunlight, self-satisfied in its mysteries, and the next it was a crater in the August earth, a severed stem trailing leaves. Our biggest white bowl overflowing with red flesh, a spill staining the tablecloth. Kelly put a whole slice in her mouth at once and the juice ran down her pufferfish cheeks, dripped in red rainspots onto her turned-up collar.


 

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Ellen Ellis’ work has been a finalist on Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Top 25, and received the Margaret C. Annan Memorial Prize and SCBWI Student Writer Scholarship. She’s based in Chicago, and her story “Noise” was published in Wigleaf. 

That Motherfucking Light / Cuánta Luz by Maria Alejandra Barrios

Me and Pablo just met and we’re both depressed. I’m depressed because I don’t have a visa and I don’t know where I’ll sleep next month. Pablo is depressed because his pot business is too small and he’s scared he is going to get caught.

His real name is not Pablo.

My parents spent a lot of money on a fancy Ivy League education in New York for me. My J1 is about to expire and soon after that, if I don’t get an extension I’m bound to go back home to Colombia. Pablo is from Colombia too but that’s not why he sells drugs. He sells because he’s hanging out with the wrong crowd and he likes easy money. He likes meeting new people every week, too. That’s how we met.

“Fumas?” He asked at a house party in Crown Heights.

“I do now,” I answered, taking the cigarette from his hand.

While I took the first hit, I thought about RCN showing the marihuana cultivos being burned to ashes in the 90’s. I thought about the other Pablo and his reign of violence. I thought about the eight-year-olds selling drugs in Medellin on the streets. I thought about me swearing papi I would never smoke. I thought about me promising it to God when I was little at Catholic School. Pablo interrupts my thoughts:

“That’s not how you smoke. You have to inhale the smoke and hold it until it burns as it tries to get back out.” I thought for a second about papi and god but the thought in my head doesn’t last long. The burning in my throat does.

After we met that night, Pablo and I start hanging out almost every day. We both work mostly at night. He sells his stuff and I think about what will happen if the visa doesn’t get here in time and I will have to go home. I think about where home is. I think about not having a country. I think about how there’s no end in sight. I don’t sleep, and Pablo doesn’t sleep either. So it works out.

“That’s why I’m bad at this business. I’m too scared.”

“I am scared too.”

“And that’s why you don’t do anything. Maybe you should come with me tomorrow.”

The next day we get together to do his round. We speak to all of his clients and smoke with his favorite ones. The last couple of the night offers us chicken. Pablo lights up a joint and says:

“I know what I said yesterday, but you shouldn’t do this. It’s too dangerous. I would rather have you not do anything.”

I imagine the land under my feet splitting in two. I hear my mom’s voice “Come home. You’re spiralling, mija.” I hear the voice of my therapist: “are you sleeping?”

“It’s okay.” He says like he could read my thoughts. I wonder if he can.

Pablo gets caught the next day selling but he doesn’t stay in jail long because it turns out his par-ents have money too. It also turns out his real name is Pablo.

He calls me from prison telling me that he misses me. The week after he comes to my room in Bushwick and kisses me. He kisses my arms, my hair, my forehead and my sunburned chest. In that paisa accent of his, he tells me that he loves me.

“Pablo?” I ask but he doesn’t respond.

Pablo holds my hand. He says he’ll go back to go school for real this time and I don’t say any-thing because I don’t have a plan.

“Pablo,” I say, “Pablo, don’t fall asleep.” But he does.

And I think that Pablo and I don’t have a country but we have something better together, his snores go quiet and all I can hear is the noise of the sirens outside. I hold Pablo’s hand not caring about waking him up. I squeeze his hand harder and prepare for the road ahead.

He wakes up and tells me to go to sleep but I can’t close my eyes. I can feel the land opening up and swallowing me like it does every night. I feel the warmness of the earth and the mud. Except this time, I’m not scared. All I can see is the light.

That motherfucking light of love.


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Maria Alejandra Barrios is a writer born in Barranquilla, Colombia. She has lived in Bogotá and Manchester, where in 2016 she completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester. Her fiction has been published in Hobart Pulp, Reservoir Journal, and Cosmonauts Avenue. Her poetry has been published in The Acentos Review. Her work has been supported by organizations like Vermont Studio Center and Caldera Arts Center. She lives in New York and is currently working on her first short story collection and her first novel.

Fishing in Ketchikan by Samantha Peterson

Baranof casts its magic over us on a grey Friday morning in June. It starts with a cut, knife angled under its fin, fish still wriggling on the wooden table as he peels away the meat. Flop-flop, as he flips it over, mouth open in a big gaping O- like it might say something. But all we hear is the wind and the water lapping at the rocks and the boat near the shore. He tosses the bones, tail, head in a bucket by his feet. No more stirring, just scraps.

“Food for the eagles, later,” he says, his hands wet, clumps of guts glistening like jelly.

I’d had trouble reeling it in, my palms sore from their grip on the rod, forearms burning, the feel of its tiny teeth still on the tip of my finger from when I’d held it, thumb packed into its mouth.

“Yelloweye Rockfish,” he’d noted, and we’d admired the bright blood-orange of its body, head spines long like flames on its back, the golden color of its eyes wide-wide-open.

“That’s a good-sized catch” he’d said, tossing it into the hatch, and I listened to it bounce, the heavy thwack of its tail against the hard wood, wrestling for breath.

After, we eat our catch by the fire; potatoes, tomatoes, fresh aioli spread out onto our plates, hot coffee, flames thawing our feet still stuck firm in their boots. I scrape my dish clean, suppress the urge to lick it, tongue craving every last trace, mouth full with the taste of pepper, garlic, butter, wild. Across the beach, I watch the boat nod from the water, white meat swimming in my gut, full now, happy. Clouds wrap the sky in gray, but under the small wooden shelter we glow, warm bits of blueberry crumble still stuck on our lips.

When it’s time, he throws the bloody bucket in the boat, the gentle purr of the motor pulling us farther from shore. We watch him throw the carcass to the eagles, wings back, talons sharp, bowed like hooks. We sit like that-still, drifting- the white-brown body descending, the quick whoosh as it grabs at the small head sinking before soaring back up into the trees, carrying its catch deep out into the wild where it belongs.


 

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Samantha Peterson is a freelance writer and medical biller from Scottsdale, Arizona. She graduated from Arizona State University with a B.A. in English and Creative Writing and is currently in the process of relocating to Juneau, Alaska with her husband and their dog.

Ted Cruz Tries to Fight a Grackle Over a Single Tortilla Chip by E. Kristin Anderson

and loses, of course. Nobody ever wins a fight with a grackle. At least that’s what Ted is telling himself as he walks back to the picnic table where the rest of his family is pretending to not have been staring at him. Ted knows they were. Who wouldn’t stare at a man chasing a bird through a park? But there’s only so much Ted can take. After the week he’d had? This was a tortilla chip too far. Maybe (as his wife would later insist) it was just one tortilla chip. There are plenty more tortilla chips. Still. Just one can be powerful. Just one vote in the Senate. Just one Tweet. Just one loose button on Ted’s shirt. Just one camera recording when that button pops off. Sometimes just one thing sets everything else in motion. And sometimes that motion is Ted tripping on an old, rotted tennis ball and falling on his ass as a grackle gets away clean to a magnolia tree. It was a female grackle, his older daughter had informed him, shortly before the bird snapped her beak around that one tortilla chip Ted had been about to put in his mouth. He brushes off his grass-stained khakis in an act of futility as he sits back down next to his wife. At least the park isn’t crowded today. It’s almost too quiet and when someone finally crunches down on a pickle, Ted feels like he can breathe again. His younger daughter nudges the bag of chips toward him, but he refuses. Ted feels that bird watching, knows she’s waiting to swoop in again and take what’s his. And he’s never felt less hungry in his life.


 

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E. Kristin Anderson is a poet and glitter enthusiast living mostly at a Starbucks somewhere in Austin, Texas.  She is the editor of Come as You Are, an anthology of writing on 90s pop culture (Anomalous Press), and her work has been published worldwide in many magazines. She is the author of nine chapbooks of poetry including Pray, Pray, Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night (Porkbelly Press), Fire in the Sky (Grey Book Press), 17 seventeen XVII (Grey Book Press), and Behind, All You’ve Got (Semiperfect Press, forthcoming). Kristin is a poetry reader at Cotton Xenomorph and an editorial assistant at Sugared WaterOnce upon a time she worked nights at The New Yorker. Find her online at EKristinAnderson.com and on twitter at @ek_anderson.

Honey by Leonora Desar

After my husband died I started drinking coffee. I drank it before but I never liked it, not that much, his death kicked something in me. It’s as if it turned on a secret gene, a gene for liking coffee. I drank it. Then I went out and got some more. There’s this place, like Trader Joe’s, you stand in line and the guy makes you the coffee. He stands behind the counter and wears a shirt, Trader Joe’s. Maybe that’s the name of this place. I forget things. It doesn’t seem important. Like clothes, sometimes you want to put them on and sometimes it feels like too much. Like making the bed, you have to unmake it anyway, so why bother, make it, unmake it, doesn’t it give you such a headache?

I stand in line like that, at this place. Without a stitch. Some people look at me but most don’t, it’s just the way these things go. There are things on line, candles and aromatherapy and cigarettes, the people look at them and not at me. Sometimes they look at a breast and then a cigarette, they look like hey, which is better. Then they choose the cigarette.

I stand here and think about my coffee. It’s hard to stay awake these days. I am falling asleep right now. Some guy has to scoop me up and he tries not to cop a feel, especially with this whole Weinstein thing. He doesn’t want to end up on the cover of Page Six. He smells like alfalfa beans and Brussels sprouts, he has a beard and there’s some gray in it, hiding, I want to pull it with my hands and feel it, I want to pull all that gray out, I want to feel it with my hands.

There are aromatherapy infusions, in little candles, I guess that’s to counter the weight of the cigarettes. The cancer.

The line it goes and goes. It never stops, I think I’m about to get somewhere when we bend the other way. And it reminds me of a car, like on the freeway, I sit back and let myself enjoy it, the ride of it, the bending back and forth. A man catches me, he says woah, and I say woah, and we woah like that together. It sounds like woe woe woe or row row row your boat, my breasts are getting tired, they want to lie down awhile, and then one of them does, it lies down in some honey. It just curls up there. The nipple is long and droopy, it wants someone to suck on it, a person or even a kitten, that will do.

One walks by. There is some white on it, it looks like a little hat, like something my son would wear, if we had one. The cat stops and sniffs. Then he walks away.


 

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Leonora Desar’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in River Styx, Passages North, Black Warrior Review Online, Mid-American Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Quarter After Eight, and elsewhere. She won third place in River Styx’s microfiction contest and was a runner-up/finalist in Quarter After Eight’s Robert J. DeMott Short Prose contest, judged by Stuart Dybek. She was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize, is a three-time nominee for Best Small Fictions 2019, and has three stories forthcoming in the Best Microfiction anthology.

In Foxfield by Kara Oakleaf

There are hundreds of plants and flowers native to northeast Ohio, and I think each one must be covered in thorns.

My mother leads me, my husband, and our four-year old through the grasses; she knows this place better than we do, but it changes between her visits and there are few markers to guide us. We’ve already taken one wrong turn, wandered down the wrong path until the slope grew too steep, too shaded by trees taller and older than what we’re looking for.

I’ve told my daughter we’ve come to visit a special stone with her grandfather’s name on it. I didn’t say ‘grave.’
My father’s ashes are buried on the hillside of a sprawling nature preserve, a spot unrecognizable as a cemetery. There are no arched headstones, no groundskeeper mowing circles around the graves, and no cut flowers. There is only wild, green growth. The grass is tamped down along narrow paths where other footsteps have passed, but we can see across the hills and valley, and for now, we’re alone.

I haven’t been back since the burial, when the spot we’re looking for was at the center of a large clearing. But the landscape has shifted since then, and nothing, nothing is recognizable. The world has grown up around this patch of earth where we marked his life, covered it with wild, shifting plants and flowers. Now, we’re wading through an overgrown meadow thick with raspberry bushes and prairie grass, parting thorny stalks that pierce my fingers no matter how carefully I try to grip only the tip of a leaf. Around us, the air is alive with the hum of bees and tiny insects. Weeds and wildflowers reach past my knees, sometimes taller than my daughter, and my husband guides her away from the thorns. Every few feet, we stop so she can watch the butterflies flitting around the flowers, their long tongues dipped into the center of an aster.

She’s old enough now to ask questions about him, the grandfather who disappeared from the world while she grew inside me, readying herself for it, cells in bloom.

When she was an infant, I dreamed of seeing the two of them together, as if everything were normal. But then, he’d ask me her name or how old she was, and I’d go silent, stunned I’d never told him these simple, essential facts. For whole, long seconds after I woke, I would not be able to grasp the reason they’d never met.

Back then, I thought I had plenty of time before she’d ask about him. I believed it would be easier now, but when she wants to know why he died, my throat closes around any possible explanation, and no answer will ever feel sufficient.

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My mother and I comb through the wilds while my husband holds my daughter above the thorns. Each time we think we’ve found the spot, we step around and over the plants, pulling vines to the side, the thorns catching our skin. I’m unprepared for this landscape; it’s summer and my calves and arms are exposed, now covered in almost imperceptible scratches, pinprick droplets of blood rising to the surface. A line of stems catches my back and snags three thorns through my shirt and into the skin. I hold still while my mother pinches the tip of the stem between two fingers and pulls. One at a time, the thorns break away from my skin and the fabric of my shirt, and we keep searching. We search for so long the trip feels like more of a quest, one we might not complete.

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I tried to explain this place to my daughter before coming, that it was special place to remember her grandfather. But when we first arrived, she looked out the window for a moment and then told me, “I still can’t remember him.”

She had expected a memory, some impossible memory, to appear in her mind when we got here, and it felt like I’d already failed her.

Finally, my mother finds a stand of wild bergamot, waist-high purple blossoms reaching into the air, and knows we’re close. I nudge the raspberry brambles around them in different directions, and then a bit of sunlight falls on the ground and across a piece of stone. Only a corner is exposed, but I know it. Brick-red, a flat rock lying nearly even with the earth. It’s been swallowed by a tangle of plants and grasses growing live and wild around it. My husband finds his way back to us and steps into the thorny vines, pressing them into the ground until there’s the smallest clearing and we can see part of his name, carved into rock. Enough to show this spot of earth to our daughter.

For days, I’ve steeled myself, knowing I’d be here with her. I don’t want her to see me upset, because I don’t want her to stop asking about him. I need these moments, when I can still bring him into her life in some small, insufficient way.

We tell her his name, pointing out the letters etched in stone and for a just few minutes, she sees something of him.

I want to stay longer, but there’s nowhere to sit in this tangle of shrubs and vines. But we’re here, she’s seen it, and I’ve stayed calm. It’s enough, and it isn’t.

We step out of the thorns to leave this place, this strange and overgrown place that looks nothing like a cemetery but seems to understand something of grief – how massive and wild, but so often invisible it is in the face of the living world. It is a kind of reassurance, to return years later to a part of the earth that makes you wade and dig and claw your way through tangles and knots of vines before finding what you’re looking for. Even the thorns catching your skin with every step are a reassurance, a response to a question you hadn’t spoken aloud.

Yes, they tell you. Yes, it is still supposed to hurt.


 

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Kara Oakleaf’s work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Jellyfish Review, Monkeybicycle, Nimrod, Stirring, Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her fiction has been listed in the Wigleaf Top 50, as a finalist for Best Small Fictions, and appears in the Bloomsbury anthology Short-Form Creative Writing. She received her M.F.A. from George Mason University, where she now teaches and directs the Fall for the Book literary festival. Find her online at karaoakleaf.com.