Hollows by Monique Quintana

California reads like an old school map with monsters on the periphery. Teeth turn to tiny white crosses as grave markers, spitting out holy water from basins lodged in a wall of adobe and stone. Those monsters are my cousins a thousand times removed, telling burnished hands to work, searing their heads out of the soil to bark orders, moist soil, dry soil, beach sand as dark as my sister’s hair. My sister sleeps in her bed again, and her hair is growing. I send her apps with whale sounds to drown our mother’s scolding, even though it’s good for us. I’ve heckled mornings running and swallowing the bugs and the dry heat of my town. My rental was built in 1927 and the closet only has room for two party dresses. Down the road, fruit grows, plucking my father’s fingers as a boy. The mist burrows in the scales of fish swam from Michoacán, making them whistle tales about fake clouds and giants sleeping under grass to make mountains to protect us from fault lines. My sister sleeps in her bed again, and her hair is growing.


Quintana_Headshot_SP21Monique Quintana is a Xicana from Fresno, CA, and the author of the novella Cenote City (Clash Books, 2019). Her work has appeared in Pank, Wildness, The Acentos Review, and Winter Tangerine, among other publications. She has been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize, and has been awarded artist residencies to Yaddo, The Mineral School, and Sundress Academy of the Arts. She has received support from the Community of Writers, the Open Mouth Poetry Retreat, and she was the inaugural winner of Amplify’s Megaphone Fellowship for a Writer of Color. You can find her @quintanagothic and moniquequintana.com.

Beer Breath and Hauntings by Ashley Sapp

My dad has called again, and this time there is a voicemail. This time, he says I haven’t heard from you in a while and I love you. He says, I want to know whether you’re okay, but it has been over a year and I am not sure that I am. The last communication between he and one of us was when he drunkenly told my sister that she was dead to him, so if that is the case, why does he think it is okay, now, to call me as though I am not her ally, as though it has ever not been the two of us against everyone else? As though the fight between them didn’t start when he said I was a disappointment. As though I have not heard all the things he has called me and accused me of. If that is the kind of love he has to offer, and I know full well by now that every kernel of love comes with a rope, then I do not want it. It is not safe here where there is no accountability,
and it has taken me thirty-three years to validate my pain. And yet, he also instilled guilt within me, so every time I hear his slurred voice, I am made a child again, haunted by ghosts of what could have been. Haunted, you see, first by his words and then by his absence. Haunted by everything I had yet to lose. So when he says I love you, he means, I need to hurt you. When he says, I want to know whether you are okay, he means, how dare you live outside of my reach? And I have dared to live, long ago deciding that I want to survive his love, not die from it. I will be his ghost. I will be his haunt, a forever reminder that his blurry breath no longer determines my fear.


xqN64w_T_400x400Ashley Sapp (she/her) resides in Columbia, South Carolina, with her dog Barkley. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of South Carolina in 2010, and her work has previously appeared in Indie Chick, Variant Lit, Emerge Literary Journal, Common Ground Review, and elsewhere. Ashley has written two poetry collections: Wild Becomes You and Silence Is A Ballad. She can be found on Twitter @ashthesapp, Instagram @ashsappley. Website: https://linktr.ee/ashsappley

At Times, You Get Under His Skin by Melissa Bowers

7:17 a.m.
You stiffen when his hand slides up your thigh. He tries it the way you prefer: gentle at first, like an accident, but his clammy fingertips give him away. “I think I hear crying,” you say, and slip out of bed.

9:52 a.m.
There have been two arguments already—about what, neither of you remembers, probably something to do with your job or his parents or the thermostat—in hushed tones, just in case infants can be traumatized. You want the twins to see what real marriage looks like, all adoring gazes and suggestive gestures. Lingering glances as you cross paths in the kitchen. Someone touching someone always. Or, surely, at least some laughter?

1:40 p.m.
One puckering mouth is affixed to each nipple and a tiny fist tangles in your hair. “My body doesn’t belong to me anymore,” you say again—words he’s heard for months—and you wonder if he notices the way despair sometimes sucks air from your vowels. But he has always claimed you are the one who controls the atmosphere, the one who says yes or no, and now he often acts as though you are the puppet master of everyone’s bodies: your children’s growth. Your collective degree of emptiness.

2:24 p.m.
When his father calls, you don’t push back your chair and leave the room this time because today the terrible news is slicing up his face. Shifting it completely, puzzling all its features into an arrangement even he won’t recognize tomorrow. You come up behind him with your arms, your hands, you press your face into his neck and say I’m sorry.

5:33 p.m.
At dinner, all you can hear are the forks. You sip from your wine glass and he swallows his meat whole. He reaches for you across the table. There is no hesitation: just your fingers curling around his, squeezing. You clear the plates and drop three forehead kisses in succession. Them, and then him.

10:09 p.m.
No matter what is happening anywhere else in the world, no matter what is happening anywhere else in your head, the babies always need to eat and they always need to play and they always need to bathe. He helps you rinse the bubbles from their skin so no one has to be alone. After they are bundled into their cribs, you unzip him from the chest and peel away the layers until you can crawl inside, maybe not because you are still in love, but because you have forgotten where else to go.


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Melissa Bowers is a writer from the Midwest. Her fiction was selected for the 2021 WigleafTop 50 and she is the recent winner of the SmokeLong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest. Read more of her work at www.melissabowers.com.

After the Salon, Before the Plane by Annina Claesson

Only a few nights before I lose you, I decide that I like you best around 5AM, bundled up on the first train of the morning. On the cusp of sobriety after the night’s gig, I stop trying to measure how much of your head on my shoulder is drunkenness, how much is comfort, how much is care. The dawn’s syrupy tendrils trail over the tracks of the Keio Line as we run up the stairs, over the bridge, down again. Your guitar bounces on your back. We crash into the fence of the fire station and curl our fingers around the diamond mesh.

Down on the pitch, twelve rows of men move up and down in synchronized pushups while their captain chants numbers. We count along, quiet and giggling at first, then mimicking their imperial booms. Our laughter spills through snorts, a soprano counterpoint to their drumming.

We try to find a bench but collapse on the concrete next to hydrangea bushes that will bloom when the rains come. Your voice slides into a hum as you rest the guitar between your crossed legs. Bum bum bums buzzing on your lips. You wanted to be a jazz musician, but you ended up with a wispy voice and open chords and a girlfriend whose father used to play keys for Mott the Hoople. I have never been able to give you what you want, but I can at least clap along in uncommon time.


The audible sweat from the firemen makes me thirsty. At first, I assume you will fall silent as soon as I leave you alone, but your fingers keep picking at the strings, rummaging for voiceless melodies. I find the nearest vending machine and let the little plasticky 100-yen coins roll into the slot. Some twelve feet away, you look homeless on the concrete. I drink and drink again, my insides arid where they were sticky only a few hours ago.

A lone dog walker becomes your first audience member just as the sky shifts to indigo. She stares, debating whether to shush you. Alcohol bubbles inside me once more and I want to start a fight with this bomber vest and her Pomeranian, but then the dog bites its own collar and yanks the lady forward, wagging its tail in triumph, and she lets herself be led away, sighing into such blissful fatigue that I relax my arm and let the tea spill out of the bottle without even noticing. Your head bobbles along to a rhythm of its own.

A few weeks after I have lost you, I walk to work early one morning with my scarf draped over my head to keep my hair dry, and I find the firemen again. This time, none so symmetrical. Assorted lumps of oversized overalls twirl translucent umbrellas, limbs lollygagging, coffee cans and tea bottles spread all around the fence. I cannot tell if they are laughing, but the wires send electric memories up my arms all the way to the dimples in my cheeks. I indulge a fantasy that you might come back to play for the Kanagawa base, but you would never make such sacrifices for me.


The bell rings and the captain strikes his tuba-timbred opening chord. All humanity runs out of the firemen like liquid. Their boyishness stiffens into mechanical jumping jacks, uniforms tightening in the rain.
Over their chanting, I start humming. Discipline is not enough to recall the melody just as you played it, but the beat tastes the same.

 


 

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Annina Claesson is a geographically confused writer and researcher currently based in Paris, France. Her short fiction has recently appeared in New Reader Magazine and won awards at the Charroux Litfest.

Opening Chapter by Carolee Bennett

The part of the story where we decide to believe in the protagonist. The part where she falls out of the boat. The part where she barely makes a splash. The part where we can’t distinguish her cries from laughter, where she photographs moths and storm clouds, insists we guess which is which. Thumbing that fat stack of pictures animates them, showing us how she bobs in the sky over Cleveland. Her smile, a sign of trouble, wins us over.

She takes us to a few parties where her engine clears its throat. This is the part where we learn a belt can mess with timing. The part where she censors thoughts that make her mother look bad, fears anything spotted on an x-ray, shows barely enough faith to see snow as temporary. When she’s clumsy, her father calls her Gertrude. That’s back in a time when carpets creeps halfway up walls in some houses. A time with too much eyeliner and Mercury in retrograde. A time with blind trust in strange dogs. It’s the part with open curtains. Putting on a show for the whole neighborhood, Gert?

We grow protective. When she goes home with the one who applauds her lily padding washer lids at the laundromat, we want her to love him, but she sneaks out as soon as he’s asleep. This is the part where she prepares to leave the riverbank. The part where she moves up into the hills, hot on the trail of a spell to unscorch the earth. The part where grief gets in her way. But since we also wear our pain like big toes poking out of socks, we keep reading. When it comes to hell or high water, none of us wants to be alone.


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Carolee is a writer and artist living in Upstate New York, where – after a local, annual poetry competition – she has fun saying she has been the “almost” poet laureate of Smitty’s Tavern. She has an MFA in poetry and works full-time as a writer in social media marketing.

Sadness is Made of Nothing by Damyanti Biswas

 If someone asked you what you’re sad about, you couldn’t tell them, not exactly. All you know is it is like a battery. It fuels you to run, get things done, till one day, you stop, left only with the toxic residue.

When you water the lilies, they die. You don’t tell anyone your mother died a while ago, and no one asks you. You feed your cat, only to never see her again. You bake a cake, following the recipe to the last teaspoon, but it collapses at the center. You have a date, but he stands you up. Trains leave before time, without you. The bus driver does not wait even when he sees you in his mirror, running full tilt, your bag and scarf and hair flying. Your sadness grows, and in a strange way it makes you feel good. This is what you deserve, you tell yourself, you deserve to be alone with your collapsed cake.

Some of your mother’s books sit beside your bed. The ones she’s written, flanked by others she gifted you that you never opened. You pick one up at random, open a page, but the words dance and you shut the book to prevent the text flying off. You check yourself out in the mirror, but you reel back from the woman staring at you. Your short red dress and your swimsuit will never fit you again. Grief has bloated you up. A washed-up, orphaned divorcee.

You’re young. Barely fifty, even. You can’t give up yet. Your mother was seventy-nine. She used to paint her nails red, walked on the treadmill, got her hair done each Saturday. You stare at her photo on the back jacket of her book, smiling, her long red hair gathered on one shoulder, blush on her cheeks, every inch the writer of romance novels.

You pick up a book at random from her library of self-help tomes, and in its blurb you find the words she used to toss at you over the phone: you manifest your destiny.

Make decisions, she used to say. So you sign up at the gym. Take baking classes. You spot a red car you like while on the way to the furniture store. Secondhand, but who cares. You buy it right away, but you need driving lessons. At therapy, you talk about your dead mother, your cheating ex-husband, the absent father. You wonder about taking up the clarinet, set up an account on a dating site. You will manifest your destiny, dammit.

Months later you’re staring at the ceiling, a snoring man beside you, his arm heavy over your bare breasts. It was very good, you told him before he mumbled off to sleep. You still don’t fit into your red dress, but you’re on your way to it. A ginger tabby sleeps at your hearth. Your car hasn’t broken down in weeks, and this man beside you chowed down your red velvet cake. You haven’t thought about your mother in months. None of that battery residue shit. You’ve reinvented your life.

Beside you, the snoring grows louder, the hand on your chest heavier. You’re lying inside of a coffin, lined with white silk like your mother’s. You’re wearing your red dress, with a red jacket on top to hide your cleavage. You’re buried in bouquets of white lilies, the air heavy with their oily fragrance. You’re alone. Your red hair is tied up in a bun, your eyes are closed, your hands crossed over your heart, with red-painted nails.


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Damyanti is an Indian author currently based in Singapore. Her short fiction has been published at Smokelong, Ambit, Litro, and Puerto del Sol, among others. Her work appears in various anthologies, and she serves as one of the editors of The Forge literary magazine. Her debut literary crime novel, You Beneath Your Skin, was published by Simon & Schuster India, and optioned for screen by Endemol Shine.

Termination Point by Nathan Willis

If you ask someone who works there, someone who knows the machines, they’ll say the steam turbines sound like a storm on the ocean. If you ask any of the sixth graders who take the field trip through the power plant each February, they’ll say it sounds like the static when the cable goes out, only louder. Like the cable is going to be out forever. But none of these kids have been to the ocean. This is a town that people sneak out of or escape. They don’t take vacations.

After the turbine room, the kids are shown an illustration detailing how the electricity, once created, is sent to the power stations, and from the power stations it shoots out in every direction over deteriorating powerlines. The lines split at every street, then again for each side of the street. And every time they split they get weaker.

They split one more time to terminate at their destination.

At our house, the line terminates outside of Hanson’s room.

Hanson isn’t here now. He’s at one of his appointments talking about why he gets so upset. The doctor says he’s too young to understand his own disappointment and anger. They are developing a coping strategy for him. Jenn and I have strategies of our own. They fail us but we won’t let them go. We would rather blame each other. We stand in Hanson’s room talking about what to do next.

I look at the line draping over our front yard. If I were outside, I could jump up and grab it. I imagine a lightning strike. Sparks shooting out of the outlets. I imagine finding the words to explain that love doesn’t matter anymore. The lights would get bright and then go dark. Every bulb would need to be replaced.

I open my mouth and what comes out sounds like a storm on the ocean. At one time that would have been enough. Hanson is in fifth grade. We can still figure this out.


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Nathan Willis lives in Ohio. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of journals including Passages North, Outlook Springs, Cotton Xenomorph, and Jellyfish Review. He can be found online at nathan-willis.com and on Twitter @Nathan1280.

Cetacea by Erin Calabria

When a riptide comes, mother says to swim crosswise against it. But I am already thinking of the whales. Of all the heavy millennia before they went back to the sea—a dwindle of limb, a lengthening of spine and fingerbone steering them out, deeper and deeper, into such softness and hush, it would carry their voices for miles.

(I never heard your voice, only heartbeat, twinned with mine. The sound of you lost now, save for the lullaby mother sang beside the crib, how she tucked my name against yours, certain I would forget).

I cannot sing like a whale, but I spout like one now, salt and spume whooshing from my lungs as mother lifts me up, up, up. She knows what any whale mother knows, to nudge her young towards air. But whales breathe twice the oxygen any land mammal ever could, store it deep down in the muscle, like growing a third lung.

(I want to know which world would you have chosen, if you could. Which one would have let you breathe).

Mother puts me on her back and arcs above the waves, breaching. Once, I thought the same word meant three things: to rise, to rupture, to be born the way a whale is born in water, tail first so as not to drown. But on land, the opposite. The way some words change the moment they touch water:

Pod.

Sounding.

Stranding.

Fluke.

(If the world were only liquid, would you feel any weight at all? Or would the sea carry what you couldn’t, would it swell to fill any lack?)

My first home was water, long before I can remember, the way whales must forget what it once felt like to walk. Still, mother knows the feel of my floating. She rocks us in the surf, limbs slick and glittered with sand, shaking from the water’s pull. Heart to heart on the tideline, we breathe, till within and without there is only the sound of currents, of rush and break, rush and break. Till neither of us knows which parts of us are earth, and which ocean. Till all of it becomes a kind of singing.


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Erin Calabria grew up on the edge of a field in rural Western Massachusetts and currently lives in Magdeburg, Germany. She is a co-founding editor at Empty House Press, which publishes writing about home, place, and memory. You can read more of her work in Little Fiction, Milk Candy Review, Longleaf Review, Pithead Chapel, and other places.

Thief by Meg Max

It’s not a crime to be boring, Stephanie reminds herself. Underneath the van, the house, the job, the three kids, the two dogs, the cat, the hamster, the goldfish, the golf, and the penchant for buying rare Star Wars Lego kits off of eBay, Joe must be a vibrant and interesting man. She wouldn’t have married him otherwise.

But Stephanie is so bored and irritated she’s considering opening the door of the van and just leaping onto the highway. Shoving Joe out would work, too.

The anniversary trip out east is supposed to be a pilgrimage back to where they met. Stephanie had wanted to spend a night or two in a hotel, just the two of them. “But the kids!” Joe had protested. They can’t afford plane tickets for all five of them, so they are driving and camping and miserable.

It’s supposed to rain for the whole ten days of the trip. Stephanie follows a fat drop of water down the van window with her fingertip. “I need to pee,” she says.

The kids are asking for snacks and candy before they’ve pulled off the highway.

“We have a cooler full of food,” Stephanie tells them, but of course they respond with “We want good food.”

Stephanie runs towards the rest stop so she won’t end up stuffing the snacks she’d carefully prepared at 4am down the throats of her ungrateful children.

In the bathroom, she remembers (as she often does in the moments when she resents her children most) how it felt to want a baby. Once, her eyes had snagged on a tiny pair of socks in the infant section at Walmart, and she’d stood with them in her hand, tears streaming down her face. When she got home, she found them in her pocket, with no memory of how they got there.

Stephanie washes her hands. She’d straightened her hair that morning, but it is frizzing from the rain.

Why does she bother straightening her hair? Why had she gotten up so early to pack snacks no one wanted to eat? Why had she insisted the kids would not have tablets in the car, so she is now forced to entertain them constantly or listen to them bicker and moan? Why is she on a vacation that is not going to be a vacation at all, it is just going to be her regular life without her Vitamix or Posturepedic mattress or the internet? Why had she had a third baby she wasn’t even sure she wanted?

The worst part of aching to be a mother is missing someone you haven’t even met yet. It’s knowing that you’re going to have to suck them from the marrow of your bones. She’d been so sick her first pregnancy, had hated every second of it, but forgot how awful it had been the instant she held her baby in her arms. Each subsequent pregnancy had been easier, but she’d wanted each baby less. Questioning why she does the things she does feels like fiddling with a loose thread. Pull too hard and her whole life will unravel. Best just to leave things alone.

In the store she finds her children with arms full of chips, Joe arguing with the youngest over a package of black licorice she’s insisting she wants but they both know she won’t eat.

He looks up at her. “Are you ok?”

She can see her wavy, distorted reflection in the mirrored wall of the shop behind him. Her hair is huge and puffy. Her mascara has run.

“This is my real hair, Joe. This is my actual face.”

She asks him for the keys, but he’s taken off across the store, repelled by her sudden outburst.

“No gum in the car,” he calls to the children.

Stephanie’s family doesn’t notice when she leaves. Outside, she puts her hand in her pocket and pulls out the key fob she’d slid from Joe’s cargo shorts while he put packages of gum back on the shelf. It felt good to wrap her hands around the keys and take what she wanted.

She climbs behind the wheel of the van and turns the heat on.

She slides the seat forward. Puts her feet on the pedals.

She intends to pull up and wait for her family at the rest stop exit so they don’t have to get wet in the rain, but instead she drives out of the parking lot and onto the highway.

In the hotel room she books with the credit card she and Joe have for emergencies, she takes a long, hot shower. She uses all of the tiny, fancy toiletries. When she gets out, she stares at herself in the mirror. The lines beside her mouth. The crow’s feet. The chin starting to double. Her eye lashes are almost invisible without mascara. Her hair is enormous. She smiles, but it makes her look unhinged so she stops.

Stephanie orders room service. Steak. A salad. A molten chocolate cake. A half liter of wine. It gets wheeled into the room on a trolley covered with a white table cloth, a red rose in a bud vase on top. She stands in the white hotel robe, barefoot and big haired, and tips the bellhop too much money for not flinching at the sight of her.

Her steak is rare, just how she likes it and can never have it, because it makes her middle child gag to see the blood on the plate.

She knows she should miss them. Soon, she’ll feel the same horror about this that she did when she first found those tiny socks, that same feeling of being uncertain about the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants. At some point, Stephanie will pull this memory out of her pocket and will barely recognize herself at all.


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Meg Max is a writer and mother living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She is the founder of Writers in Bloom. Her work has been published in The Feathertale. You can read more of her first draft work at www.megmaxwriter.com.

1987 by Eileen Tomarchio

A year in and we were still feeling our way, marriage a loose string around our fingers, the tugs no harder than making the bed first thing and wiping toast crumbs off the sticky Orange Blossom jar and not going on too much about our day at work. We’d end the week roaming a mall with bad heating and reclusive clerks, touching the power drills at Sears and valances at Ames, the broken coin-op horses and C-battery puppies, the closeout pianos by the dry fountain. You’d laugh at shoppes on the directory, the ye olde spelling, pronouncing it shoppies the way you called lollipops taffies and tomato sauce gravy and said I’m wishing for instead of I want, a South Jersey thing you said you never minded me teasing you for, though I was doubtful.

It was a Friday night in December when I said it to you, not long after Black Monday, after Baby Jessica trapped in a well for fifty-six hours, after little Lisa Steinberg lay battered on the bathroom floor of a Greenwich Village apartment while her fake adoptive father took off to smoke crack with other lawyers, after a local bank teller my age was snatched during her lunch break and found stabbed to death near the water treatment plant we could see from our duplex. We ordered limp pretzels and egg drop soup from the only food court shingle still hanging, racing nobody to the one table not covered with upturned chairs, and it slid out of me—So I’ve been thinking I might not want to have kids—while you bent deeper, meeting your plastic spoon like how a boy eats cereal or how I pictured you in fifty years, little grip left to steady the teeter of cutlery, the heavy lifting of everything. It’s not so much the money, I said when you reminded me that you’d moved expired cans of Manwich with you so many times they had pet names, that for two years I’d eaten ToastChee packages and green peppers for dinner, no problem, so we could be frugal, right? We were simple people, agreed, so then what was it? Why? I looked around the field of chair legs for an answer, the soup gone cold, the pretzels hard, my heart squeezing like Baby Jessica’s in the well, Baby Jessica with her cheek against the weeping walls, singing “Winnie-the-Pooh” to make eternity go faster, that silly Pooh Bear with his head in the hunny pot. Stuck like little Lisa, waiting for someone to lift her from the cracked honeycomb tiles. Blinded like the teller bleeding out alone in the plant’s shadow, her last awareness of taste the diamond of baklava she’d had with lunch. Confused like I was by what I’d said, trying to forget the tumble and the hand strike and the knife, but knowing I never would, and so I said what I always did near closing, but this time in your way: I’m wishing for treats. And you nodded like always but without looking at me.

We got to the bulk barrel place with fifteen minutes left, following our 1:1 healthy-to-junk rule, me filling baggies with yogurt-covered raisins and animal crackers, you with sesame snacks and Bit-o-Honeys, and damn, was the register lady pissed at you for putting the scoopers back in the wrong cradles, making a mess of the cords. We left at the third Please make your final choices, as the gate was half-drawn, and when they turned off the overheads I thought of your way of saying the same thing, passed down and for passing down still—Shut the lights—like the sound of a world that’s safe, a darkening and a quieting both, a child’s last want and wish before sleep, all echo, taffy still on her breath.


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Eileen Frankel Tomarchio works as a librarian in a small NJ suburb. Her writing appears in Longleaf Review, Pigeon Pages, Barrelhouse Online, X-R-A-Y, and Pithead Chapel. She holds an MFA from NYU Film. She’s on Twitter at @eileentomarchio.