Lost, and by James Hartman

Five years ago I lost my faith in people. I was sick. When I swallowed food it felt like a million swords sliced my stomach. My weight plummeted. Extensive testing revealed no abnormalities. I was hospitalized, a feeding tube implanted in my throat because I kept throwing everything up. The ER doctor, after reviewing all my tests, said to my husband, “What do you mean you don’t have a diagnosis?” Rob told him that none of my tests showed anything. The ER doctor pointed to a sheet of paper and said, “Your wife’s endoscopy shows three small cancerous tumors in her stomach lining.” Rob read the paper and screamed. He had to be restrained. I couldn’t speak. There was nothing so helpless. The endoscopy was the first test performed by my gastroenterologist who said my results were negative and referred me to a rheumatologist. I didn’t find out until after the operation that the ER doctor had told Rob of its severe risk. Too much time had passed. The tumors were wedged too deep. That operation cured me, and there is only a slim chance this type of cancer will return. Or so they say.

At my interview for consideration of admission into veterinary school, the director asked me why I chose to pursue this particular career. I said that even when the patient can speak, they are still screwed. I said excuse my language but human beings were shit, wielding more ability to produce harm than prevent it, and I did not want to devote my medical skills to saving them. Instead I chose animals. I said I needed to save as many animals as I fucking could.

After graduation, my director’s recommendation letter got me hired by one of the best 24-hour emergency veterinary hospitals in Michigan. My first year I got the overnight shift. Six straight nights without seeing one patient. The others played cards. I read my veterinary books. The others, I could tell, wondered why I didn’t interact with them, but they got used to it. On the seventh night, a woman came in with a badly limping Chihuahua. Aggressive questioning uncovered that she had accidentally slammed the pantry door on Lucy’s leg. I told her Lucy was very lucky not to have suffered any fractures. I gave her medication for Lucy’s bruise, and on the way out I told her to watch what the fuck she was doing. Maybe asshole was uttered. The woman called the next morning and complained. My manager agreed the owner was an asshole, but I couldn’t actually call her one and must control myself or disciplinary action would be taken.

On March 17th, around ten, I was reading when Sarah phoned me in back and said, “Prepare yourself.” That wasn’t procedure. Procedure was, “Get everything ready, now!” or “Look alive, it’s time to roll!” So I didn’t understand. The young man who brought Mister Samson in was hyperventilating. One second he and his young cat were napping together, the next Mister Samson’s breathing turned odd. He kept squinting at his back legs, confused. He couldn’t stand. He could only drag himself forward with his front paws.

And then I understood. At veterinary school, I had never witnessed this condition. This kind of thrombosis occurs when a clot breaks off from the heart and saddles the point where the aorta branches into each leg, blocking up blood until the lungs congest with fluid. Often the result of advanced heart disease, which cats are too good at hiding. It can also develop from congenital heart defects. Unfortunately it can’t be prevented, stopped, reversed, or cured.

I brought the young man back, something we are not allowed to do. Mister Samson’s breathing was severely labored, his legs without pulse. When he saw his owner he meowed with excited longing and this accelerated his heart rate, which accelerated his lung congestion, and he started gagging. The owner’s left hand caressed Mister Samson’s belly and his right massaged his head, his ears, telling him he was a good good boy, the best boy anyone could hope for, that Daddy was right here, I’m right here, I’m right here, as I administered the Euthasol.

It was the three of us for I don’t know how long. He cradled Mister Samson and murmured, between loud convulsions of tears, how much he loved him.

I had never seen anyone cry like that.

He said, “Do you believe they really go to a better place?”

I told him that, yes, Mister Samson was already there, running and jumping around, probably chasing a chipmunk.

“How do you know?”

“Because that’s what he deserves.”

I answered every additional question. No, there was nothing you could have done. No, you did not cause this. Yes, he felt you. Yes, he knew you loved him. No, you’re right, this wasn’t fair.

The sun was flushed above the trees. Sarah told me she called a taxi and waited with the young man for it to arrive, helped him in, and handed the driver cash. For days his car sat in the lot. I began to fear that he would call and file a complaint against me, demanding to know why I hadn’t done more to try to save Mister Samson. I feared I would be fired.

In early April the young man walked in and asked for me. I finally entered the room, and he did not look up. He in no way acknowledged me. I thought, This was it, he would berate me and I’d be fired.

“I just wanted to thank you,” he said.

I waited.

“You were very kind to me,” he said. “You helped me, in a difficult time.”

He started crying, trembling and spasming uncontrollably. And I hugged him. I don’t know how long we hugged each other, but when I came out to meet him it was very dark, and when he left, it was very bright. I watched him get arranged behind the wheel of his car, and as he pulled away he looked at me, and waved.

 


 

James Hartman’s fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions, and appears or is forthcoming in Blue Fifth Review, december, Gravel, The Airgonaut, New World Writing, and Jellyfish Review, among others.  His scholarly work is featured in The Hemingway Review.  He has several degrees, including a Master of Fine Arts in Creative writing, and lives in Michigan with his wife.

 

Touch Tank by Jan Stinchcomb

The showers by the filthy restrooms don’t work, but she presses the metal button and closes her eyes, remembering fresh water. She runs her fingers through her hair and pisses on the sand. Then she begins the long walk to the pier, which still bustles, but with a different kind of activity, the pushers and prostitutes having taken over. They give her weird looks when they see her baby bump. She smiles and explains that she is looking for the old aquarium. A woman with perfect eyeliner and no front teeth points north but warns her that all the fish are dead.

She walks on, past the old carousel and the now empty vintage candy stand. It is coming back to her. She remembers this place. She goes down the stairs to the aquarium and is reassured by a tattered banner announcing feeding times for the seahorse family. Yes, this is definitely the right place. She pushes open a cracked glass door and proceeds, waddling a little, down a ramp into humid darkness laced with decay.

A woman sits in an algae-lined touch tank that was once filled with pastel sea stars and squishy sea cucumbers, creatures that made little kids squeal. The woman is naked except for a halter top covered in little shells and anchor charms. She seems confused when she sees the baby bump but then she says, Ten bucks. Or any food you have.

I don’t have any food. And I haven’t seen a ten-dollar bill in forever.

Then I can’t help you.

Are you the mermaid?

Ha. Not exactly. Or I could be. But you need to pay.

There used to be a mermaid around here when I was a little girl. You could get a picture with her.

Nice. Listen, sweetie, you’re in the way. I might have a customer.

There’s nobody outside.

The woman sighs. This is no place for a pregnant lady.

But I’m going to have a seahorse.

Congratulations. Now get out of here.

Fine, but I’m coming back for this tank. I need it. The ocean is going to turn me inside out. Soon.

She goes back outside and sits down in the sun. Her back is aching. There is no way she can keep walking.

She wakes with a start after an unintended nap, but when she thinks of opening that glass door again, she feels like a little kid pestering her parents in the middle of the night. This is something she barely remembers, but there was a time when she lived in a house and had two parents who slept in a bed. Then there was the mobile home, but, as her mother insisted, it was in the classiest location ever, near Paradise Cove in Malibu, with a man who was not her father. Still, no matter where she lived, she always felt like she was on the outside. The kid who could never get her teacher’s attention. The tag-along who was invisible to the other little girls, even when she was invited to the party.

Her mother had warned her about everything. No mushroom clouds, no secret concentration camps, but they’ll keep pushing you further to the edge until you’ve lost all ground. It’s easy to be forgotten.

She opens the door and slips back into the warm darkness of the aquarium.

Little has changed. The mermaid looks at her in surprise, then recognition, then annoyance. There is a man with her now. He is wearing a sailor suit, but it’s impossible to tell if he’s really in the navy or if this is his fetish.

You, get out. Now.

The sailor turns and frightens her with his glare. Her dry lips quiver but form no words. She spends the rest of the day wandering around the pier until she settles, once again, on the aquarium steps. Late in the afternoon the touch-tank mermaid appears, no longer angry, and shakes out an old sheet.

Do you want me to help you take care of it? Is that it? Because I don’t do that anymore, honey. It’s too dangerous and you’re definitely too far along.

No. It’s not that. I’m not worried about that.

You’re not?

No.

She doesn’t know how to explain herself. She imagines a sea creature inside of her, never a baby, and when it comes out, she will give it to the ocean. If it’s even breathing. She knows nobody, nothing, lives long in this world. All she wants is soft fingers on her flesh, a warm palm, the sensation of another human body near hers. She has an idea.

Do you give massages?

Who told you that?

Someone on the pier, she lies. A woman.

The mermaid tosses her head, and then her expression changes so that it almost looks like she’s consenting. Is it your back? Is your lower back bothering you?

Yes. It’s my back.

I guess I could do that for you. Massage your lower back. But you’ve got nothing to trade?

Maybe we could trade massages.

The mermaid smirks but they end up walking into the dark aquarium together. They find an empty tank and climb in, pressing their bodies against tiny grains of sand as the salty dust kicks up around them.

What happens next is like drifting. She grows so warm that she could easily fall asleep, or better yet, drop endlessly through space. It’s pleasant yet disorienting to surrender to someone else, to lose consciousness knowing that another living person will stay awake. She wishes she could fall asleep forever.

As she nods off she is already starting to dream. She’s down at the sea with the mermaid, but they are both young girls and the world is back to the way it used to be. She feels hopeful. Even the light is different. The mermaid kisses her forehead and tucks her into the blanket of sand.


 

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Jan Stinchcomb’s stories have appeared most recently in Whiskey PaperAtticus ReviewFive:2:One andGamut Magazine. She is the author of Find the Girl (Main Street Rag, 2015) and she reviews fairy tale-inspired works in Notes From Rapunzel’s Tower, her column for Luna Station Quarterly. She lives in Southern California with her husband and children. Find her at http://www.janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.

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The Night Season by Evan Nicholls

When autumn came, the professor’s drought ended. He was offered a new office, and having curated things all his season, now brought with him an armada. Like the sequoia desk, which faced due north after much grunting. The hawk skull, placed gingerly on the lip of the wood, milk-colored and dry. And his two mismatched wingbacks, one green and patterned in sunflowers, the other slate. Last, the portrait of an indian blackbuck fixed to the eastern wall. But after arranging the collection with care, he heard chirping from the window pane and looked. There was a grasshopper on the other side. Later, he put his nose between two pages in a book of shinto. He had pressed there a cherry blossom, but hadn’t remembered it to smell so much like moths.

 


 

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Evan Nicholls attends James Madison University (‘20) and is from Fauquier County, Virginia. He is involved with JMU’s literary magazine, Gardy Loo, and has work appearing in CHEAP POP, Penny, and formercactus, as well as forthcoming in The Jellyfish Review. Follow him on Twitter @nicholls_evan .

All the Best People Die Young by Hannah Gordon

Callie once told me she felt like dying all the time. She couldn’t envision herself living past twenty-one. Said when she dreamt, she was always in her twenties. Never older.

“That means I’ll die young. My dreams always come true.”

All the best people died young, she said. Poets, musicians, actors. Artists struggled. She considered herself an artist in the making.

I liked lying in her bed and listening to British rock bands. She hardly ever stood still, so while I would lie there, letting Morrissey fill the air around me, she would pace her room, trying on random tops that littered the floor or grabbing at odd books, flipping through them briefly before tossing them back to the ground, as if she could never quite find what she was looking for.

Every day after school we’d either drive to my house, where we’d eat Oreos and watch Dr. Phil and Maury until my Mom got home, or we’d go to her house, where her parents were never home. She’d make us banana pancakes, and we’d eat them on the deck, overlooking the lake. Sometimes she’d smoke a cigarette, relics from her last relationship.

“Matt Davies?” I’d asked her when she told me they were official.

“He’s eighteen,” she said, sweeping her lake-soaked hair into a high ponytail. Then, “He can buy us cigarettes, LeAnn.”

Callie lived fast. Walked fast, talked fast, drank faster, smoked faster. It was as if she thought someone was about to take it all away—just like that. When her dad actually did take away her cigarettes, angry tears ran down her face, and she told me, “I can’t wait to fucking move away from here.”

It was assumed I’d just go with her. Like I’d follow her until she died young. I never asked what I was supposed to do after that.

On the weekends we’d steal money from her dad’s sock drawer and take mini road trips. Usually we drove down into Ohio, and we’d laugh at how bare it was. Like life didn’t exist there.

“At least we don’t live here,” she’d tell me, hand out the window, two-dollar sunglasses on, one cigarette in her lip and another tucked behind her ear. I could barely hear her over the roar of the radio and wind.

Callie wanted out of Michigan. She needed out. We lived in the Irish Hills, practically a ghost town, full of run down Wild West theme parks, haunted lighthouses, and men in wife beaters who spit tobacco outside gas stations. They’d whoop and holler whenever we’d stop to fill the car with gas. Callie didn’t care. She’d lean against the car, long legs gleaming in the sun. I’d hunch next to her—wearing all black because she thought it was cool—and scowl at them.

“Men like that don’t deserve your time,” she’d say. “I bet they have daughters our age.”

Callie had daddy issues. That’s what the other kids in class told me.

“Why do you hang out with her?” they’d ask. “She’s a bitch. And she has daddy issues.”

I often wondered if I really loved her. Or if I was just going along with it until something better came along.

One night, she wanted to become blood sisters, so we sliced into our palms and held hands until it ran red down our arms. When we let go, you couldn’t tell which blood was whose, and Callie said this was the whole point.

“Now I’ll be with you always,” she said. “And when I die, I won’t really die, because my blood will flow through your veins.”

She didn’t die young, though. A few years later, she got married. Has a second kid on the way now. I went to the wedding, but I sat in the back, and when it came my turn to congratulate her in the processional, I told her she did it: she made it past twenty-one.

“What?” she said.

“You always used to say—”

“—I was a dumb kid. It’s so good to see you.” She squeezed my hand tightly, and I wanted so badly to check if the scar was still there. I didn’t, though, and just like that, she moved the line along.

One night during junior year, we snuck out of her house and rolled my car to the street, a bottle of jagermeister in her purse. We met up with two of the guys from school and drank the whole bottle that night.

I woke up the next morning to her lips against my ear. “LeAnn. Let’s go.”

The sun was just beginning to rise over the hills, illuminating all the skeletal buildings, empty for twenty years now. Everyone always said how great the Irish Hills were in the eighties. So full of promise. And then it all crashed down.

We crawled in through her basement bedroom window, into bed, dirty clothes still on. The following week, the boy’s mom found a bracelet in the house. That’s how she knew we were there. Callie took the fall, though. Swore to her parents it was just her.

“You didn’t have to do that,” I told her.

“Yeah I did,” she said. “You’d do the same.”

I really didn’t know if I would.

“Hey,” I said that morning in bed.

“What?” she asked, her licorice breath washing over my face.

“Do I look like a movie star when I kiss?” I asked, thinking back to the previous night, how we all kissed each other in the kitchen, laughing at how funny it all seemed.

“No, you look like you,” she responded. But it didn’t sound like a bad thing.

I awoke sometime later. The sun was low, so I assumed it was mid-afternoon. Callie was still asleep next to me, her hand extended across the bed, a jagged scar on her palm, her fingers tangled up in my hair, like she’d been reaching for me.


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Hannah Gordon is a Detroit-based writer, coffee addict, and amateur baker. She is the managing editor of CHEAP POP. Her work can be found in Ellipsis Zine, Maudlin House, WhiskeyPaper, Synaesthesia Magazine, and more. When she’s not writing, she’s hanging out with her cat and watching cooking competitions or TV shows about vampires. You can follow her on Twitter at @_hannahnicole.

 

One Man’s Treasure by Brandy Wilkinson

Jim and Cheryl are not in agreement about the arms. Cheryl spotted them right away: two shiny plastic hands reaching up from the pile of junk on the flea market table, tagged $5 for the mismatched pair. She wants them for the shop displays, but Jim has his eye on a grab-bag of retro pinback buttons instead. That’s inventory he can move, a shoebox-full in one Saturday, if the right group of teens wanders into the shop. But Harmony Street Vintage is nothing without Cheryl’s eye for design, so he relents. She smiles and kisses his cheek, but something about the way she carries the arms, how the fingers tangle in her hair, makes Jim doubt himself.

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He has underestimated the hands, it turns out. Cheryl creates little vignettes around the store, rotating stock every time they go out picking or come across something special at an estate liquidation or tag sale. The hands hold silk scarves in polka dots and paisleys, women’s watches with delicate bands and locked-up gear trains, the occasional small kiss-lock wallet; they peek up through stacks of orange and yellow Bakelite bangles. Cheryl whistles Celine Dion while she works. It is quite a thing to see.

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When Cheryl quits, she tells Jim she’s taken a job as Manager at the big antique store up in Arcadia, effective immediately. That is half the truth. She’s also taken a position as the owner’s new girlfriend. She leaves the hands.

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Jim keeps up the front of the shop, makes sure the stoop is swept and the windows are clean. Two years after Cheryl moves, he uses his pocketknife to peel off the vinyl list of store hours and tapes up a sign that says By Appointment Only in boxy uppercase. The sun quickly fades the black marker, but the sign stays.

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There is one window in the back of the shop, next to the employee entry. The wood trim outside is rotted and when it rains, the paint sloughs off in thick flakes. The glass looks in on the small storage room, the shelves of untagged finds and unsold pieces of one man’s trash. Jim’s desk sits just under the window. The hands sit in the sill and in mid-afternoon, he can feel their shadows cast across his shoulders and face. He knows it’s unlikely that Cheryl will ever come back, but he leaves them there, reaching, waiting, just in case.


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Brandy Wilkinson lives in Indiana. Her flash fiction has appeared in Ellipsis ZineThe Nottingham Review, and Halo Lit Mag. She reads and writes at brandywilkinson.com and tweets @brandy_wilk.

By a Mountain Stream in Northern Spain by Jacqueline Doyle

You couldn’t stop singing. You sat on a boulder by a rushing stream and sang and sang, all the songs you could remember. Folk songs, pop songs, ballads of love gone wrong. Maybe it was some primal comfort for yourself, facing a future alone, or a desperate way to revive his attraction, though he wasn’t even there. The air was damp, the pebbles under your bare feet were cold and wet, the sun was warm on your bare shoulders. The trees surrounding the mountain gorge were lush and green. The other four were back at the campsite and you wished never to see them again, or at least never to see her again— the girl your boyfriend had secretly been sleeping with, the girl’s ex-boyfriend, your college friend, your boyfriend. Five sleeping bags, three BMW motorcycles, a campfire that had gone out. You were half way between Germany and Morocco, somewhere in the Pyrenees, when you discovered the affair. You remember being startled by her baleful looks when the two of you zipped your sleeping bags together. His apologetic glances. Maybe you asked him outright. You’d never been betrayed before and couldn’t fathom what he told you. You were twenty-one. All was tragedy, nothing was farce. It must have been early the next morning that you left them all asleep to wend your way down the narrow rocky path to the swimming hole. It’s hard to remember. You only remember that moment when you sat on the boulder alone in your red and white bikini and sang and sang, your eyes swollen and dry after a night of tears, your heart shocked into stone. You hugged yourself, and rocked and rocked as you sang, barely aware of the beauty surrounding you. Everything was green. The water was so clear that you could see each pebble in the bed of the stream. A yellow butterfly hovered just above you, fluttering, then alighted on your wet hair like a light kiss from the universe.

 


 

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Jacqueline Doyle has flash in Sweet, The Pinch, Quarter After Eight, PANK, Monkeybicycle, matchbook, and Wigleaf, and a chapbook, The Missing Girl, just out with Black Lawrence Press. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be found online here and on twitter @doylejacq.

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A Matter of Propriety (Paint Rock, Texas) by Jad Josey

The shop doorbell rang, and a thin man with a wiry, unkempt beard dragged the outside heat and dust with him to the counter. I was organizing the cash in the till, rotating and smoothing the bills into neat stacks. His gaze traveled the length of my body, and then he dug into his lower lip with thumb and forefinger and fished out a small lightbulb shiny with saliva.

“I need one like this,” he said. He set the bulb on the wooden counter. It left a mark like a ripe blackberry.

“I don’t think we have any wet ones,” I said.

The man laid his hands on the counter, veins thick and ropy down to his thin wrists. His fingernails were dirty crescent moons. I wanted to flick the bulb off the counter straight at his lower lip. Instead, I banged the register drawer closed with my hip.

I leaned forward and scanned the plastic signs hanging on either side of the main walkway. “Try looking on aisle two,” I said. “You know, where the sign says lightbulbs.”

The man plucked up the bulb and slid it back into his mouth, running his tongue along his teeth to seat it just right. He turned and ambled down the walkway, stopping just before the first aisle to look back at me. “Go on,” I said, nodding toward the back of the store. “I’ve got things to do up here.”

“You got a mouth on you, girl,” the man said.

“Don’t call me girl.”

 As he turned back toward the aisle, Vee stepped out and hit him square in the face with the small wooden bat. It made a hard, wet sound. He staggered back into a metal rack of beef jerky, his jaw hanging loose at the bottom of his face.

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

Vee snorted and pushed a clutch of dark hair off her forehead.

“Your hands are choked up too high, baby,” I said.

She moved her small hands down the bat and stepped into her next swing. The man folded to the linoleum and a corona of blood grew around him. The shop bell dinged, and we both turned toward the sound. An orange tabby stood on its hind legs, front paws pushing against the door. The bell rang again, and the cat squeezed through the thin gap and hopped onto the counter. I opened the till and started emptying the organized bills into my purse.

“Check the bathroom to see if there’s a mop bucket,” I said. “Please.” The cat licked one paw and dragged it over his ear and down his face.

“There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t do for you,” Vee said.

“I aim to find out what that almost nothing is,” I said. Vee smiled and sashayed her hips as she disappeared down the aisle. After she’d gone, I let myself smile back. There are so few people with manners in this world. When you find one, you do whatever it takes to hold on.

 


 

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Jad Josey lives on the central coast of California with his wife and three children (and one massive cat). He loved quinoa before it was trendy. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer TrainPalooka(b)OINKAtticus ReviewJellyfish Review, and elsewhere. Find him lurking on Twitter at @jadjosey or online at www.jadjosey.com.