Imperfect by Sudha Balagopal

Stout Sister Flavian is at her desk as I enter the classroom. She shoots a glance at my shirt, wrinkles up her nose and barks, “Monica, come here!” My ears heat up; trouble’s brewing. Every head in the classroom turns. My toes curl inside shoes that are one size too large—for growing into, my mother said.

I’m sure Sister doesn’t wrinkle up her nose because of the smell from my shirt; I took it off the clothesline this morning. The nuns at my school are particular about uniforms—white shirts, navy skirts, white socks and black shoes. They are particular about our nails, and our hair. They are particular that notebooks should be covered in brown paper, labels stuck on the top right hand corner with our first names, last names, subject and grade level inscribed in all capitals.

My mother bought my uniforms a year in advance in a larger sizefive shirts, five skirts. She knows the rules and sends me here for education and discipline.

“Was this shirt washed?” Sister asks. I stare at the mole on her round chin. The white hair in the center of it wiggles when she talks. “I said yesterday that shirt is more yellow than white.”

When I tell my mother Sister Flavian says my shirts are more yellow than white, I don’t think she hears me. Mother’s always busy with the babies, or in the kitchen. Everyday, I take the public bus with friends from my neighborhood.

Sister lifts my arms. Sweat stains make semi-circles. I pray someone flings a paper rocket across the room.

“Early hormones,” she says.

I don’t know what she means.

“Yes, it was washed,” I mumble.

I want to tell Sister I don’t wash clothes. I’m nine.

The nun’s thick finger lifts my collar. “Tsk, tsk. Your collar has a ring. Needs scrubbing.”

She turns to one of my classmates.

“Pia, when you go home for lunch, take Monica with you. Get her a clean shirt.”

I want to learn how how to faint.

Perfect Pia is not my friend. This girl wears shiny, polished, black shoes. Blue ribbons thread through her tight braids. Her navy skirt has pleats ironed into sharp creases. She gets the highest grades. Perfect Pia, teacher’s pet, sits behind me in class.

I study the once-white, now gray, socks on my feet. Will Sister ask Pia to give me a pair of socks as well?

Pia doesn’t say a word as we walk to her home. The place is as perfect as she is. The apartment has clean, tiled floors. I’m afraid my shoes will leave dirty marks. Six red cushions sit in a row on a beige couch. A red table cloth drapes the dining table.

Pia asks the maid for a white shirt and one appears, crisp, bright, and ironed. I change in a bathroom with shiny faucets. I abandon my yellow-white shirt by the sink.

The maid places cheese sandwiches, sliced apples and glasses of milk on the table. We eat lunch and walk back to school. I thank Pia but she won’t answer.

The next day, Pia’s shirt goes into the pile of washing and I wear one of my other yellow-white shirts. Sister clenches her teeth.

“Pia, can you take her home again? I will send your mother a note.”

I’ve heard Pia is the only child of busy lawyers. Again, we only see the maid. Again, I thank Pia and she won’t look at me. I change into her white shirt, and leave mine behind. I eat a cheese sandwich, gobble up the sliced apple and drink strawberry-flavored milk.

Sister nods in approval when we get back. Anything less than a brilliant white is imperfect.

Three days later, the nun wrinkles up her nose again. “Why can’t your mother get you new shirts?” she asks.

By now, I’ve learned not to feel bad when Pia whispers to her friends. I imagine row upon row of white shirts and navy skirts hanging in her cupboard. Her mother won’t mind giving me a few. They are rich.

When I take off my tired shirt, I see someone has pinned paper on the back of my shirt. It reads, “Monica is stupid.” I dump my shirt on the floor.

I have three white shirts now. But then, we get a couple of rainy days. Two of Pia’s shirts hang damp on the line and one waits to be washed. I know what to expect from Sister.

We go through the same routine. Sister wrinkles up her nose, shakes her head. Pia makes a face but takes me home.

I try hard to stick to the four white shirts I now possess; Sister leaves me alone.

Until my mother gets the flu. Four days of clothes remain unwashed.

I tell my mother I don’t want to go to school. She tells me if I stay home, I’ll get sick too.

I wear the fifth and last of my old yellow shirts. Will someone stick another note on my back?
Sister gets that glint in her eye. Pia makes a face, again.

After I change, I drop my last yellow shirt in the bathroom sink. In a way, I am relieved. I have five white shirts now, one for each school day.

My mother gets better, washes the mountain of clothes. White shirts shine in the sun. She irons them too, not a crumple in sight.

I come to school, confident. Hoping to receive a smile, I grin at plump Sister. She ignores me,

Instead, she wrinkles her nose at imperfect Pia who wears a yellowing, white shirt.




Sudha Balagopal’s short fiction has appeared in Peacock Journal, Foliate Oak, Superstition Review, and The Tishman Review, among other journals. She is the author of the novel A New Dawn and the two short story collections There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at

Truth and Rules by Jac Jemc

After Anthony’s comedy show, they waited for the second of two buses they’d take home.

“I didn’t like it when you yelled at that guy.” Becky was not an improviser herself, but she’d seen enough shows to know the rules.

Becky and Anthony had met in the Film, Video, & New Media Department in college, and so Anthony knew the rules for the work she made, too. Because of this, they encouraged each other to speak frankly, but each individually found the experience of stating their criticism of the other’s work uncomfortable. Secretly, they thought they’d prefer to provide each other unwavering support, looking past the inconsistencies and believing in the trajectory of the other’s creative career as a whole, allowing faith to fill in where evaluation currently resided.

Plenty of people have opinions, Becky said to herself, uncertain whether this qualified as an argument for or against.

Becky thought of how she forced herself to bite her tongue when she talked to her mother. Even if her mother contradicted herself, even if she criticized Becky for an action clearly parallel to something her mother herself had done, Becky practiced not reacting. Her mother was not asking for her opinion and she wouldn’t change even if Becky offered it, so she’d begun opting out. She provided a sympathetic ear and little more, and, since then, she and her mother had been getting along much better. Fewer phone calls ended with abrupt dial tones. Syrup-voiced terms of endearment replaced the cool greetings. The calls left her feeling empty, but not angry. She’d convinced herself this was an improvement.

She wanted her relationship with Anthony to be different, though. She wanted a partner with whom she could speak honestly about the things that mattered most. She wanted their ethics to align and so, she supposed, she also wanted the right to get upset when it seemed like they were pursuing different ideals. If his kindness fell prey to ambition, she wanted to call it out. If he noticed her valuing abstract notions of safety over real life economics, she was willing to discuss it. She had no interest in loving someone who was not willing to hash out such important and complex systems of value. And so, occasionally, quarrels ripened.

“I had to yell at him,” Anthony said. “He wouldn’t play the game. When someone pressed the imaginary button, we were supposed to spin around in our chairs.”

Becky nodded. “I got that, but you were supposed to be playing Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton wouldn’t yell at a talk show host for not spinning in his chair. It confused the boundaries of that character.”

“I started as Hillary Clinton,” Anthony said, “but then she got mad at the talk show host who wouldn’t spin in his chair, and I became a version of Hillary Clinton. That guy was being lazy and self-righteous. He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that.”

“But couldn’t your coach have scolded him after the show? You focused too much on the rules. You made the scene about improv rather than about entertaining people, or even about the truth of that character.” She knew how much Anthony valued truth onstage and she hoped this comment would hit home. But Anthony also loved rules. He carried the rulebooks for new board games on his commute. He insisted on walking on the right side of the sidewalk  and refused to move until people were forced back into their “lane”. Once Becky had asked Anthony if he’d pull the shower curtain closed after bathing to prevent the liner from growing mold. After that, on the rare occasions she herself forgot to do this, he reminded her of her failure by pulling the curtain shut slowly, his eyes trained on hers. They’d laugh about it, but still Becky could sense his genuine displeasure.

On the bus, Becky felt uneasy. Tomorrow, she would leave town for a three-week shoot, and she and Anthony always seemed to grow short with each other as these periods of separation approached.

Anthony asked Becky if she was all right. “You seem downtrodden,” he said, and she laughed at the word.

“I didn’t like fighting about that,” she said.

“Me neither,” Anthony said.

On the walk from the bus, they saw a man, in jeans and a wool coat, running along the parked cars glancing behind him. “What’s that guy’s deal?” Anthony said. “Why won’t he walk on the sidewalk?”

“He’s probably trying to cross. Maybe his meter ran out or something.” The man made it across the street, but continued running alongside the traffic, looking back.

“What’s he doing? What a creep,” Anthony said.

Becky was sure the man would stop at the double-parked car, hazards blinking, but just short of it, he crossed back to their side of the street and darted down an alley.

Becky’s best friend had recently regaled her with the tales of suspicious characters she’d read about on her neighborhood watch website, re-introducing a fear and skepticism to Becky that she’d denied herself for a long time. She was doing her best not to let this color her instincts. In moments where she might naturally assume the worst in people, she’d been trying to compel herself to say something hopeful instead. She saw the man running across the street, subverting unspoken social standards, and she assumed he’d broken many other more serious rules, but instead she said, “I hope he’s okay.”

“Should we follow him?” Anthony asked. “I want to know what all this is about.”

Becky couldn’t help but think of Anthony onstage, reprimanding the performer who didn’t follow the guidelines, the scolding itself a variety of broken rule. She flashed to the call she’d had earlier that day in which she’d refused herself the satisfaction of calling out her mother’s habit of saying one thing and then, immediately afterward, the exact opposite. The truth, she realized, was beside the point.

“No,” she said. “Let’s go home.”



Jac JemcJac Jemc is the author of The Grip of It, forthcoming from FSG Originals in 2017. Her first novel, My Only Wife (Dzanc Books) was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award, and her collection of stories, A Different Bed Every Time (Dzanc Books) was named one of Amazon’s best story collections of 2014. She edits nonfiction for Hobart.

Powerball for Drifters by Chris Milam

Ryan’s left pocket was all bulge and jingle as he walked through the doors. He was dressed in his best cargo pants and v-neck because he wanted to mimic the other shoppers, disappear in the swarm of normal people who were doing normal people things like buying groceries for their families. His savior was to the right, in front of the registers.

The sedentary, generous machine was hungry for metal. He eased out the plastic bag, fed the tray in small doses. He was a mixture of softness and speed, dying to get out of there but also aware that more coin sound meant more stares gouging his neck from the people on line behind him. The ones who used credit and debit cards. The ones who would not understand why a man might have a jingle in his step.

Ryan didn’t do any kind of pre-count, he knew by the heft of the bag it was a solid haul. He loved the jolt of surprise when the grand total was revealed on the screen. A quick fist-pump was his response when he saw the tally: $17.00 plus a few stray pennies; a lottery jackpot for the lost. When he took the ticket to the customer service desk, he debated whether to snatch the microphone or telephone or whatever they use and tell every responsible, organic-addicted person in the place to go fuck themselves. And their Toyotas. And homes guarded by trimmed shrubbery and red mulch. PTA conferences. Soccer tournaments. Ice cream waffle cones at the packed Arctic Swirl. All of it, all of them, from their boat shoes to their designer bifocals. Instead, he just cashed out and headed to his car without making eye contact with anyone.

The beater wobbled across the parking lot; the temporary donut on the front was now a permanent donut on the front. He landed at a red light.

Ryan had a choice, left or right. That time he stole ribeyes from this same grocery by shoving them down his pants, he chose wrong. He sold the meat to a drunk iron worker at The Alibi and went about doing what he always does.

Staring at the store in the rearview mirror, he knew what those normal people would do. He hated them because it was easier than becoming them. He hated them because they would make the proper turn. Part of him wanted to run back in there and beg them for guidance. He wished he could borrow one of their brains to help him pick the route home.

He could take the money and buy his daughter a gift, a random one, a belated birthday present out of the blue. He thought Olivia would love that. He knew he would love that. The dollar store sold toys, he could fill a bag with them, drop them off today, maybe even get to see her again and pretend they were close. They could have a water gun battle and laugh at his corny jokes and share a banana nut muffin and go for a stroll in a park bursting with sunshine and birdsong. Visions of her skyrocket smile carved up his insides. If self-pity was currency, he would be the wealthiest drifter in Jefferson County.

He always veered left. It was in his DNA, this impulse to steer into oncoming traffic. His entire life was a left turn. But it didn’t to have to be that way, people change. They learn and evolve and make amends and transform themselves into a respectable, semi-normal person like his brother Greg, who went from a halfway house to night school to paralegal to beloved son. Or maybe some can and he can’t for reasons that are unknown and invisible to the middle-class eye. His heart sought light but his mind thrived in the dark. Hell, he thought, this is my curse, my anchor with a rusted chain and busted winch.

The light turned green. Choose, it said, it’s
time to go. His foot hovered above the gas
pedal, hesitant and unsure.


Chris Milam

Chris Milam lives in the bucolic wasteland that is Hamilton, Ohio. His stories have appeared in (b)OINK, The Airgonaut, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, and elsewhere


The French Film of Your Life Is in Black and White by Cathy Ulrich

You’re the star of an obscure French indie flick. Arty even for arthouse. Lately, you’ve been seeing this girl who’s into that sort of thing. She’s not the sort of girl you usually date. She smokes e-cigs and drinks espressos, wears short skirts all the time, never flosses. She has the shiniest brown hair. She’s let you kiss her twice, her tongue fluttering up against your mouth, soft and surprised. She invites you to a film festival showing the works of a lesser-known French director.

He has a certain je ne sais quoi, she says.

The first film comes up. You’re nestled in close to your new girlfriend, not quite holding hands, fingers nearly brushing. The hair on the back of your knuckles rises at the lights go down.

A familiar face fills the screen, and your arthouse girl nudges your shoulder.

Is that you?

It is, you say. I think it is.

The film is just you doing a series of mundane things: putting on stockings, painting your toenails, brushing your teeth. Your favorite scene is a shot of you applying liquid eyeliner and, in the mirror’s reflection, the image of the man filming you with his phone is captured. He’s wearing a beret; he must be the French director.

Why didn’t you tell me, your girlfriend whispers.

There is no dialogue in your movie, only a series of intertitles written in French. You can’t read French, can’t speak it. Your girlfriend’s mouth moves as she whispers the words. You find them so beautiful: the words, her breath, her mouth.

On the screen, you are stepping out of the apartment into the sunshine. You squint and adjust the waistband of your skirt.

A French intertitle flashes across the screen. The font, you think, is very nice.

What does it say? you whisper to your girlfriend.

Shh, she says. She lifts your hand to her mouth and kisses it, her lips caressing each finger in its turn. You sigh and shift in your seat. On the screen, you do the same.

The final shot of the movie is you standing alone on the sidewalk, holding a balloon. There’s no color in the film, but you think the balloon is red. In films like this, the balloon is always red.

But you have never stood alone on the sidewalk and held a balloon.

You lean over to mention this to your girlfriend, but she shushes you again, hands you a red balloon.

A man gave this to me for you, she says. Take it, go on.

You take the balloon. On the screen, a light breeze rustles your skirt.

Now what? you say to your girlfriend, but she only arches her eyebrows in response.

All right, you say, all right, and slide out of your seat and leave the theater. You stand on the sidewalk outside and hold the red balloon in your hand. After a while, finally, you let it go.



cathy pic 2016 - 1 - edit

Cathy Ulrich is a writer from Montana. She likes silent movies. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, including Split Lip Magazine, The Airgonaut, and Booth.

First Date by J. Bradley


She doesn’t remember what it’s like to swim, the mermaid tells you after she finishes the first bottle of wine by herself. The mermaid says it’s the only way she can feel underwater as she uncorks the second bottle. You’re not sure if you should reach across the table to hold her hand. You want to caress where you think her gills used to be. You think it’s the neck but you didn’t pay attention during sex ed about the biology of merpeople.

You cough up something oily and you’ve gotten used to this. You have always coughed up something oily for as long as you remember. You ignore the burn in your throat, in your lungs. Your parents barely remember what it was like for them to breathe tolerable air, drink tolerable water. You barely remember what it was like to be human, your body a greenhouse of cancer, like all the other non-mutated humans.

It is 9:03 pm. You try and get the mermaid’s attention. You want to point out a star that you think you can see through the haze of still wheezing smoke stacks. You hope after she sees the star that she’ll offer you at least a glass of wine. You like this mermaid. You hush the impatience on your tongue and in your hands.


You told everyone in second grade that you were really a mermaid. They believed you once you rolled up your pants and showed them your fused legs, the scaly psoriasis all over them. When your classmates asked what happened to your gills, you tell them how your father took them away when you decided to live with your mother on land. When your classmates asked you what it was like to live underwater, you tell them how your father took those memories away so you wouldn’t need to miss him. Your best friend, the one with the melting face, huggedyou and then everyone in class agreed that yes, you were really a mermaid.

Boys started paying attention to you more than the other girls who had two legs, or even one leg, under the full moon of their hormones. You discovered they were more interested in the mythology you made from your body than who you were when their hands wandered during slow dances at school district sanctioned dating events. You slapped their hands away, warned them how her father would curse them. Boys stopped paying attention to you after that, except the boy who coughed up oil.

You agreed to hang out with this boy, the one who coughed up oil, when he said he wanted to just talk and get to know you, when he promised to sit on his hands to prevent his impatience from getting to them. You steal two bottles of your mother’s wine, tell the boy how the only way you can remember what it was like to feel underwater is by drinking the wine. The boy sits on his hands even after you polish off the first bottle and open the second. The boy starts blurring. He takes his right hand out from beneath him, points at the sky, says, “Look at the scar,” but you think that’s impossible, because there are no scars in the sky.

J. Bradley is the author of The Adventures of Jesus Christ, Boy Detective (Pelekinesis, 2016) and the Yelp review prose poem collection Pick How You Will Revise A Memory (Robocup Press, 2016). He lives at