Falling Leaves, a Sycamore by Clio Velentza

Jake’s body swung from the Gunnarsen’s sycamore until well into the evening. The oxygen mask hung from his neck stained with spit, its loose tip dangling into the sweltering breeze. Nobody was comforted by the solidity of his shadow, falling shimmering across the arid afternoon. We stood around it, blinking the sweat off our eyelids. A toddler shuffled into it for some relief from the heat and stood swaying, gazing upwards. Someone snatched the child back into the folds of the small crowd. Its wail made us wince.

The particular detail of the oxygen mask alarmed us most. We had ever seen him use one. The kids were already on an expedition to find the lost tank, surely having rolled off into a rain gutter, when they were promptly ordered back home. A couple of people resumed the search, but came back shaking their heads.

Becca’s hand paused on my shoulder, then pointed to the house behind the tree. The older Gunnarsen girl, Sylvia, was standing by the upstairs window, watching. I’d never seen her with her hair drawn up before. She reminded me of a plucked bird of prey. Even from this distance she was all angles and hollows.

“Look at her waiting,” Becca said, her warm, sticky hand on my shoulder again.
Jake was cut down, clumsily lowered onto the ground through the stifled curses of men wobbling on garden ladders. We took a step back as one. In the amber light his hair was the same shade of ginger as when we were small. The stubble around his swollen mouth shone golden. I was always jealous of his smooth, nondescript features, so soft and feminine despite his sturdy athletic build.

The ambulance sat quiet underneath the massive sycamore, as if embarrassed for its lateness. Medics were bent over the body, their latex-clad hands each pressing a different spot on Jake. One hand was over his eyes, covering them as if the sky was something indecent. I liked the contrast of the white car and the bright blue gloves against the undulating pale greens of the scenery. I would paint this as soon as my new oils arrived, I decided. Jake’s shape would be dim, dissolving into the parched grass. You wouldn’t even be sure he was really there without the thin white gleam, made with the finest brush, indicating the oxygen mask.

The door to the Gunnarsen house was left open. On the front step sat the middle sister, Erika, sobbing in the arms of her mother. Erika was in that paint-spattered Rocky Horror t-shirt she always wore in art class. Months in and still not showing. Girls whispered that they would kill for her flat tummy. We saw her clutch her stomach and retch on the flower bed.

“Pity about the baby,” said Becca. “Growing up without a daddy.”

Sylvia was still watching from the upstairs window. Perhaps she had never moved. Only her head was slightly tilted, following the body’s descent.

“Jake would be a crap father,” Becca went on, low enough for only me to hear. I wiped the sweat from my lip. She leaned in. “Remember the day he beat Cole black and blue?”
I shook my head although I did remember, I just wanted to keep Becca’s words out.

Through the corner of my eye I saw some of the kids inching back to the forbidden scene. They seemed unimpressed with the sight. One was already yawning and rubbing its eyes.
“Though Cole did say Sylvia had a stick up her ass.” Becca sucked her teeth, shrugging.

Erika kept vomiting and was carried off indoors. Our eyes turned to the gaunt figure in the window. Sylvia’s paleness shone through the gloom like the evening star. Even now in late summer, with school nothing more than a quiescent threat, her illness kept her cooped up inside on a strict regime of lung-strengthening exercises.

Any other girl in her place and we might have pitied her. But it was impossible to pity Sylvia: she radiated the unrelenting, destructive power of lava. At her birthday party someone had made drunken fun of her fit of laborious coughing, and she’d thrown a full can of Coke at him without batting an eye. The boy had needed stitches. I recalled staggering into the hallway afterwards and finding her sitting on the floor, working her oxygen tank. Her face was blurry, almost smiling under the plastic, eyes closed, dark eyebrows arched and chin up.

And then I realized.

“Oh,” I said, took a sharp breath and shivered.

“What?”

Becca was glancing around, listing Jake’s friends and enemies. A jumbled string of names of no consequence. The small crowd was now full of holes as everyone began to wander back home, absentmindedly considering dinner.

I contemplated the tree. It rose and rose and expanded, a disheveled giant of twisted, peeling limbs, making our gated community seem puny: little model houses, little model lives. The bark was mottled in a pleasant scale of greys and greens. The climbing rope was still hanging limp from Jake’s expert knot. The pale-edged leaves that had been dislodged by the commotion were falling softly on the body, and a medic was brushing them off.

The stretcher was rolled into the ambulance, its doors grated shut and it drove off. No joy in the sound or touch of metal, I thought. Unattractive in this hot, earthy evening, when dust and remnants of poplar fluff clung to our lips and lashes.

Again the urge to paint overcame me. No, oils wouldn’t do. It would have to be watercolors. Vague and mute, diluted into near nonexistence, brushed broadly until the paper warped and our figures distorted.

The upstairs window was empty and the door to the house was shut. The voices trailed off. I caught snippets of funeral talk. Inwardly I agreed; a sycamore wood casket would be lovely. A good, solid way to travel. Maybe Jake’s parents would order one on their way back.


2NjE3ewT

Clio Velentza lives in Athens, Greece. She’s a winner of Queen’s Ferry Press The Best Small Fictions 2016, and her work has appeared in several literary journals including (b)OINK, Corium, WhiskeyPaper, The Letters Page, Atticus Review, and Wigleaf.

 

 


 

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Birthright by Ron Gibson, Jr.

The fathers made off with the night. The dark, the stars, the galaxies. The moon even had chain marks from where the fathers had tried to pull it down with a 4×4 truck like an ornery stump. It hadn’t given. The moon was a node of bone still sticking out of the fractured morning.

Walking to the north end of the island, smoke trailed out of the green mountains to the south. Other children hadn’t noticed. Eyes ahead, coastal winds pushing their footsteps toward school, they too must have noticed the signs of their father’s departures at home.

“Fuckers,” I thought.

“Little bastards! All of you! I would’ve left all of you, too, if I was younger!” yelled Old Man Morgan from his front porch, shoulders shaking with laughter.

Some children looked, then kept walking. I stopped. I glared at him until his shoulders stopped shaking and he glared back, stony-eyed.

He knew what I was thinking. He recognized the ghosts in my eyes.

“It’s a shame Ricky Bowen’s father won’t be around… What’s an island without a sheriff?”

Without giving an answer, Old Man Morgan looked to the smoke out of the south, jaw tight, eyes watery with worry.

“Good luck sleeping with no night, you old fuck!” I shouted, mimicking the old man’s gross laugh from earlier.

<>

When I was small, my father took me hunting on the mainland. We didn’t have a dog, because my father hated dogs, so he sent me sprinting into the brush to scare up game.

Blurs of white, brown and tawny feathers would explode from underfoot, rocketing past my waving arms into the marble skies above, before my father pulled the trigger. I would watch the birds tumble back to earth, feathered confetti, mangled clockwork, bags of blood. Sometimes the wind blew them back toward me and I would catch them against my chest like a football. They would flap in my arms, eyes wide, bloody newborns.

<>

Moving my right wrist in a circle, cracking the joint, the way my father wrung the necks of wounded birds, I said to Jim, “Let’s kill him.”

“Who?!”

“Old man Morgan.”

“But, why?!”

“You heard him. He called us bastards. Every single one of us—bastards.”

“He was just being stupid.”

“So are you. If you end up on the wrong side of this thing, I’m not going to help you. I may have to kill you too.”

“What are you talking about?!”

“You’ll see. You don’t smell that? Smoke. Fire. Something new is coming.”

Eyes wide, Jim looked as if he had something to say, but said nothing.

<>

When my father shot me, I lay still in tall grass, bleeding, eyes full of marble skies, the right side of my body on fire. He said it was an accident. Said something about the pheasant zigging instead of zagging. Said the wind must’ve carried the buckshot off course.

When he turned his back to take a swig of bourbon to steel himself, I couldn’t tell if his shoulders were shaking from crying or laughter.

<>

“Shhhh…” I hissed at the others, our shoulders silently wrestling with laughter.

The sky was still bone-white at midnight. No sign of night anywhere, except the trail of smoke out of the south. Every so often a match head of flame burst from the treetops, then hid again beneath the thick, green canopy.

All throughout dinner, our mothers acted as if the smoke that made us wheeze and cough must be hay fever. When I told my mother that the mountains were on fire, she said, “The whole world is on fire at any given moment. Don’t worry about it.” When I asked where was father, she said, “Working late.”

“Now,” I said, and threw the first handful of gravel like buckshot at Old Man Morgan’s front window. It scattered loudly and a curtain moved.

Another handful of gravel thrown by Jim slammed against the side of his house.

Another handful of gravel shot down out of the Sutton’s tree next door on Old Man Morgan’s rooftop.

Another against his back door.

Another against his front door.

Everywhere. Gravel flurried like hailstones. Kids laughing on all sides.

I yelled, “Who’s the bastard now, old man?!”

Old Man Morgan crashed through the screen door on the front door, shaking with fury, tears in his voice, “You sons of bitchin’ bastards! You sons of bitchin’ bastards!”

I stepped forward, handful of sin, and threw a fastball. My fist-sized rock nailed Old Man Morgan straight in the chest. The wind shot out of him, bringing him to his knees, gasping, unable to regain his breath.

<>

My father carried me a mile back to the car, holding me like a bloody newborn against his chest. Eyes closed, I breathed in his body odor, his bourbon-sweet breath. I wanted to live in that moment, to be part of his body, to never touch the ground again, to never feel the burden of gravity.

But then he unceremoniously dumped me, face-first, on the hood of the car.

<>

When Old Man Morgan came to, we had strapped him to his kitchen table like a dead deer to the hood of a car. One by one, everyone got their shots in. Punches to the face, the stomach, the testicles. At first his eyes were full of tears and pain, groaning with each new impact, but then something deadened, turned steel, became an abandoned tenement.

Surrounded by ghosts of himself as a boy, Old Man Morgan tunneled further down within, alone, a planet hiding life.

<>

Even though I felt the cold car hood against my bare chest, felt the sting of tweezers digging into my skin, plucking out lead BBs, heard my father’s grunting, swearing and labored breathing, I pretended I was dead.

I was not there. I was a planet, a comet, a galaxy holding its breath whenever the telescopes turned its way.

“Knock it off, dammit!”

<>

I slapped Old Man Morgan back to earth. He groaned when the burden of gravity weighed on his chest and dared him to breathe.

Everyone was gone. I sent them home. Even Jim, who was now crying about his part in all of this.

Before Jim left, I told him that he was good, that I was proud of him, that he’d done all that I asked of him and I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.

Jim quietly accepted it as if spoken by his own father, and walked home a hunched figure, alone in a bloodless night.

Old Man Morgan blinked repeatedly, before staring into my eyes and I into his. We didn’t say anything for a long time. He looked like hell. Bruised, bloody. He looked like I felt, and I think he knew it.

“Why do you hate us?” I asked, unexpectedly bursting into tears.

“You know why.”

My face contorting with pain and rage, I choked out, throat tight, knotted, chest spasming, “Yeah. I guess I do.”

I bent over his strapped-down body, laid my wet cheek against his badly bruised chest and listened to his old heart, a telegraph message from his father to mine to my future son, calming my emotions.

I let out long, deep breaths, matching his, before asking, “You think they’ll ever come back?”

Old Man Morgan said, “I don’t think so.”

I kissed his cheek, then his forehead. The room felt hot, as if the fire had finally crawled out of the mountains, taken over the entire town, taken every piece of our lives, everything we had ever known, ever hated and destroyed it in order to start over, in order to find a new way of being.

“What do we do now?”

<>

When we got to town, my father bought gauze and other first aid supplies from a country store. In the backseat of his car, his hands were hot and gentle. He took time cutting surgical pads to size, rolling gauze and securing it all with medical tape.

When he was done, he asked me to move around a little. The right side of my body was still pain and fire. I was half of a mummy, because I was half-dead, now, I thought. Like the earth’s poles: one half six months of day, the other half six months of night. While one half of my life had fallen into shade, the other half would be spent waiting for my father to finish what he had started.


Ron6
Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in Moonsick Magazine, Real Story UK, Easy Street Magazine, Rabble Lit, (b)oink, Mannequin HausStockholm Review of Literature, Cheap Pop, New South Journal, Jellyfish Review, Whiskeypaper, Unbroken Journal, Crack the Spine, Gone Lawn, etc… forthcoming at L’Ephemere Review & Midwestern Gothic. Find him @sirabsurd.

Nail Polish by Emma Faesi Hudelson

At first, it wasn’t about changing. It wasn’t about coping. It was about not drinking. Another hungover suicide attempt landed me in the psych ward, and I realized I couldn’t kick alcohol alone. So I went to meetings. I listened. I heard sober drunks say things like, “I try to do the next right thing. It’s nothing noble. It means making the bed. It means brushing my teeth. It means feeding the dog.” They told me to write gratitude lists. To forgive myself. To question my motives. To pray. They told me to get a sponsor. They told, and I did.

I found Charlotte.

Charlotte is old enough to be my mom. She has shoulder-length dreadlocks and straight, white teeth. She laughs a lot. She says “mmhmm,” with emphasis on the second syllable. She can pray like a preacher’s daughter and call your ex a motherfucker in the next breath. She’s heard my inventory of resentments, fears, debts, and sexual mistakes and hugged me afterwards.

In the beginning, her mantra was, “Honey, you’re okay.” I’d call her after fighting with my boyfriend and she’d say, “You’re okay.” I’d be pissed at my boss, ready to quit, and she’d say, “You’re okay.” I’d wake up anxious and she’d say, “You’re okay.” When that boyfriend left for good, I dialed her number and watched my face crumple in the mirror while I waited for her to say, “You’re okay.”

When depression left me gasping, fingers twitching toward knives, Charlotte would tell me to do my nails. I’d glare at her then—I want to die, and you’re giving me beauty tips?—but now, I get it.  A D.I.Y. manicure is like hitting “reset” on a camera. It pulls me out of my head, refocuses my lens. As usual, Charlotte was right.

So tonight, as my brain rages, telling me I’m hopeless, broken, not worth it, I won’t binge on whiskey or reach for a razor. Instead, I will paint my nails.

I will sit on the bathroom floor and choose a shade of blue from a dozen different colors, from black to pink to brown.

I will push my cuticles back and sever them with a tiny, U-shaped blade.

I will draw the brush across my left index fingernail first and feel the coolness of wet polish. I will paint three coats of color then a topcoat, just like Glamour says.

I will hold my hands in front of my lips and blow.

I will sit in stillness until they dry, careful and silent. For fifteen minutes, I’ll be okay, just like Charlotte said.

And when I stand up again, fingers tipped sapphire, ocean, stormy sky, I will be changed. Not brand-new, but better than broken.


 

EFH

Emma Faesi Hudelson teaches writing at Butler University in Indianapolis. She lives in a house by the woods with three dogs, two cats, and one husband. Her work has found homes in Booth, BUST, Linden Avenue, The Manifest-Station, and others.

 

 

 

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Us, Anywhere by Jules Archer

You made me cry on the school bus. Row two, window seat. I never truly knew what made the tears come fast and heavy. Maybe it was your awful motorcycle jacket, the one with the silly Mickey Mouse patched on the back, or maybe it was when you put your hand on my knee and squeezed. While I burned like gasoline, you made me promise to meet you beneath the bleachers that afternoon. I never did tell. What I did do was take lovers like you. Rest of my life. Lean, quiet men with gentle hands and sad, kind eyes. The snap of them made my heart break. Like yours broke, shot down in the rushing faraway jungle. Our last kiss, you held me like I was going out of  style. The homecoming crowd thundered above us. Popcorn, peanuts rained down through the slatted seats. I listened as you said we already had our home. We could be us anywhere. But young, we were young. Too young. And promises beneath bleachers never amount to anything. Only the weight of bodies atop empty beds. Stretching an arm out for a memory that won’t shut up.


 

julesa

Jules Archer likes to smell old books and drink red wine. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, >kill author, Pank, The Butter, Foundling Review, and elsewhere. She writes to annoy you at julesjustwrite.com.

The Unwelcome Guest by E.M. Hubscher

The other woman showed up at our house, braless, on Mother’s day. Her t-shirt looked like a wax-paper envelope with messages to my mother visibly enclosed. We’re younger, perkier, winning, they said. Babies haven’t suckled us. Your husband’s a different story. I was just a girl. Still, I understood.

I tried to slam the door in her face. My furious father let her inside anyway—just as he had the first time, every time, since they’d met at hiking club. My mother served charcuterie while the woman talked about how to shit in the woods. Creamy slices of dill Havarti. Camembert. Crackers on a wooden board. Salami. The woman squatted in the corner. I wondered if she would actually defecate near the philodendron I’d bought Mom as a gift. She was here to mark her territory, after all.

Now I nurse my newborn daughter while my husband frosts a cake meant for me, downstairs. Belly full, my baby fills her diaper, and the smell reminds me of that woman’s body odor, like stinky cheese and pheromones—pungent—even though the memory is stale. Not this Mother’s day. I close my eyes and watch this Mom club the unwelcome guest with the cheese board; there’s splintered wood, and a patch of skin opens like a present.


 

emhubscherauthor

E.M. Hubscher is a writer and toxicologist from North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Eunoia Review, as well as several scientific journals and a textbook. You can find her online at http://emhubscherauthor.weebly.com or @emhubscher on Twitter.