Grafton Hill by Michele Finn Johnson

Geoff says he’s sorry, but he’s not going to touch me tonight. My feet are on his lap and his arm weighs them down. He’s doing that thing he does when he sprints—curling his lower lip above his upper, exhaling hair away from his eyes. Those eyes. They’re half the reason I’m here, the way Geoff slants them toward me at running club; the angle of seduction, I call it. Geoff’s been my sure thing for over a year. No strings. I rub my toes around in his crotch just to see if he’s serious, but he folds my legs into a V, sets them down on the couch between us.

I’m surprised you called, he says. He stares at my hand. It’s a pear-shaped diamond. Almost a full carat, but it’s flawed. The colors from Geoff’s TV reflect off its facets like a kaleidoscope.

I always call ahead. I smirk at him. You hate spur-of-the-moment sex.

Geoff leans away from me. This is stupid, Mercy. You have to talk to me. For real.

The thing is, I want to talk to Geoff. I want to tell him why I said yes—it was an honest-to-God reflex, a reaction to the knee-bend and the jewelry box and restaurant cheers and then, BAM! The holy-shit reality. I want to tell him why I’m sitting here, with him, the most focused and logical person I know, instead of with my oopsy-daisy-fiancé, but it feels wrong, all this sitting when Geoff and I are so much about motion—running, sprinting, even our sex is about forward progress.

Want to go for a run? I ask.

Geoff’s street is steeper than any we’ve attempted on our Saturday morning club runs—it’s a nightmare triangle—and so I fall behind. I watch him as he jogs out up Grafton Hill, his shoes barely striking asphalt. He’s a natural runner, not a forced one. Running’s always been a grind for me. Just go. Move. No technique no matter how many tips I get from pros like Geoff who study this stuff. Now I see the flaw in this, my general lack of a life plan. Who would’ve thought spontaneity could lay such a trap?

At the top of Grafton Hill, Geoff bends and grabs his knees. He pants with an open mouth and waits for me to catch up. I’m glad to see this is hard for him, too.

You trying to kill me with your neighborhood trek? I ask.

Geoff reaches for me. I offer the hand without the ring. Let’s sprint the downhill together. He squeezes my hand. But at the bottom, you’re talking to me.

The night air is cool but today’s sun is still radiating up from the street. We fly. I’m all legs. I force my brain to focus on pace and core position, and when we bottom out, I’m spinning in an endorphin high. Geoff stretches his calves on the curb. For a minute we stand on the curb together, pulsing our heels up and down, silent.

I said yes.

Geoff is breathing like a metronome, even and controlled. I didn’t even know there was the possibility of a question. 

There’s a waver in his voice that could be hurt or anger, a 50/50 shot. Except I want to know, I want to be sure which way he is leaning before I decide if I’m going to tell him the truth or a lie.

Why didn’t we ever date? I ask.

Geoff hops off the curb. You’ve got to be kidding me. 

He pulls me so close, I can feel his sweat through my tee-shirt and on my legs. It’s almost like being in bed with him, how his heat moves around on my skin, except in bed it’s impossible to keep track of both his breath and tongue. Here, at the bottom of Grafton Hill, Geoff is both possible and impossible at the same time; if it’s anger or hurt or fear or confusion that he’s feeling, it is all of these things, all at once, inside me now. Wasn’t it me who’d said, Nothing serious? Can’t be tied down? Wasn’t it Geoff who’d said, If that’s what you really want?

It’s something, the way Geoff’s steady pulse has calmed me down. How my breath’s returned to me. I reach around Geoff’s waist and feel for that pear-shaped diamond. The point of it digs into the tip of my index finger as I turn it around to face the palm of my hand. I break away from Geoff and start to run, slowly, back up Grafton Hill. I count my footfalls, focus on smoothing out my stroke. My hair falls in front of my eyes and I exhale upwards, watch it fly.


 

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Michele Finn Johnson’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, The Adroit Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated several times for The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Michele lives in Tucson and serves as assistant fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine. Find her online @m_finn_johnson and michelefinnjohnson.com.

Northern Lights by Hillary Leftwich

I was left under a rock in the woods when I was a baby. An older man, his wife, and his son were hiking when they heard me crying. My dad lifted the rock and there I was, cocooned in a cavity of earth. They took pity and brought me home.

When I was five orange lava flowed across our floor. I jumped from pillow cushion to pillow cushion, hoping my feet wouldn’t melt. My brother told me if even one tiny toe touched the lava I would explode. He scrunched his eyebrows in a very serious look. I knew he had to be telling me the truth. It took me an hour to get to my bedroom.

When I was seven my brother broke my favorite Ronald McDonald record album. He told me if I played the album backwards Ronald commands in a deep, demonic voice to kill your mom and dad. He said he would not tell Mom that my Ronald McDonald album is satanic and I was possessed. He broke it in half for my own good.

When I was eight I told my brother I wanted to float like Alice in the scene from Alice in Wonderland. He told me to put on my poofiest skirt. He said if I jumped off the top of the stairs I would fly into forever. He tied a rope around my waist just to be safe. Hurry and jump before Mom finds us. Mom came into the kitchen just as I readied myself to leap. She told my brother to go to his room while she untied the rope from my waist, shaking her head. You always believe the sun rises and sets on your brother.

When I was twelve I stood on the grass in our yard watching my brother fight another boy from school. My brother was big, but this boy was bigger. Their faces signaled red and white and red again. My brother was losing his breath. I ran inside and grabbed the cordless phone. I came outside as the crowd from school formed a ring around the lawn. I shouted Mom called and was on her way home. Everyone scattered and my brother was left alone on the grass. I had that kid pinned, he told me. We both knew better.

When I was twenty-one I returned home on Christmas day. My brother was staying in the basement. The garage door was pulled down and billowing smoke. It was different than smoke from a fire. It smelled like fumes. I opened the side door into the garage and found my brother inside his car, a bottle of whiskey in his lap and eyes closed. I couldn’t breathe. The exhaust puffed out of the tailpipe like an industrial waste cloud, squeezing my lungs. I opened the car door and dragged my brother out, thinking hurry as the whiskey bottle fell and broke in half, thinking hot lava, thinking hurry and jump before Mom comes home.

When I am thirty-five my brother takes a plane to Alaska and never returns. After three months I follow his trail, searching the national park for signs he is alive. I search for his favorite orange tent, for his hiking backpack with the Maui patch sewn on the back flap, for the abandoned campfire piled with American Spirit Mellow Yellow cigarette butts. The park rangers tell me people go missing every year and are never found. My mom begs me to return home. Losing both her children will kill her. I tell her I am going to stay and wait for the Northern Lights.

One day, the sky glows Christmas green. The park rangers find me on a trail heading south and tell me to return home. I tell them I met a woman in the forest last week with her two young children. She told me to watch the sky, that it would soon be changing colors. She said people call the colors the Northern Lights but they are not lights at all. They are the reflections of a fire from the dead letting us know they are thinking of us. They are trying to tell us they are safe, even though we are very far apart.

 


 

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Hillary Leftwich currently lives in Denver with her son. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review, host for At the Inkwell Denver, and a victim advocate for survivors of sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, and sex trafficking. Her writing can be found in print and online in The Missouri Review, The Review Review, Hobart, Smokelong Quarterly, Matter Press, Literary Orphans, Sundog Lit, Occulum, NANO Fiction, Jellyfish Review, and others. Her first book, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms in spring of 2019. Find her online at hillaryleftwich.com and on Twitter @hillaryleftwich.

The Hand by Todd Dillard

After my mother died a green hand started following me around. It galloped after me as I walked down the hall, the pads of its fingers making a sound like drumming on a desk, a trample of impatience. Scratching noises when I went to the bathroom, knocks on my front door in the middle of the night that, when answered, were the hand, thirsting like an outdoor cat for the warmth of my living room.

I took it to the pound but they refused to accept it. Who would adopt it? How do you euthanize something that doesn’t have a heart?

I called the exterminators and they suggested I use a bracelet for a collar and, since it was winter, buy it a glove.

I called my brother, and he said the same thing had happened to him, only he gave his hand a long bolt and a wingnut. Now his hand sits in his lap all day, screwing and unscrewing the nut from the bolt’s threads. Maybe, my brother suggested, you could try something similar?

I looked through my mother’s things, plucked a dented pack of Turkish Silvers out of a box, and tossed it to the hand. It caught them and placed them on the floor, its fingers tapping the lid.

“Those were my mom’s,” I said.

Tobacco leaves scattered as the hand crumpled the package and dragged it to the trash can.

I gave it my mother’s hairbrush next; for hours the hand tweezed white hairs from bristles, eventually offering me a steel scouring pad of strands when it was done.

Soon the hand was tunneling through the sleeves of my mother’s coats, frolicking among her hats like a frog in a throng of lily pads. Within a few hours it had formed two piles—piles that didn’t make any sense, stacked with my mother’s books, boots, pictures, half-used bottles of nail polish, chipped Cutco knives, unfinished quilts, a diary, a gun.

The hand pointed to one pile, then the other, then turned up its palm. One pile, the other—it wanted me to choose. I picked one at random and went to bed. In the morning the pile I didn’t pick was gone.

Weeks now, and so little of my mother’s belongings remain. Every night I fall asleep listening to the hand work, listening to the crunch and shuffle of things being dragged out of boxes, hauled to one of the two new piles rising from the living room floor.

Now when I dream it’s of the hand and not her. It drags me to the living room, places me on top of one of the mounds. I have to choose. But something gets miscommunicated, the hand thinks I want to keep the other pile, the one I’m not in. I wake gasping to a light knock on my bedroom door.

I call my brother, but when he picks up he won’t speak, won’t say anything at all.

“I don’t know what to do,” I say. “What should I do? What are we going to do?”

In front of me two piles wait. The hand points at one, points at the other, then turns up its palm. Points, points, palm.

On the phone the squeak of a screw turning, turning.


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Todd Dillard’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Barrelhouse, Nimrod, Electric Literature, Superstition Review, and Split Lip Magazine. His flash fiction was selected as a finalist for the Best Small Fictions 2018 anthology, and his work was recently nominated for the Best of the Net.

When Viv Wanted to Walk to Crescent Street by Kim Magowan

Before her life cracked, Maggie had a theory about youngest children: they were either precocious, always trying to catch up to the older sibs, or—and this was the more likely scenario—a little immature. Maggie herself had been the former, smoking pot for the first time when she was twelve with her two older brothers in the garage, Sean demonstrating how to hold the smoke in her lungs. But Viv was very much the latter. Even though she was one of the tallest girls in fifth grade, all legs, a colt, she had that baby face. She had that baby voice. A voice so high and squeaky that a drunk on the bus had once said to Maggie, “That kid sounds like a character in a cartoon.”

So when Viv wanted to walk to Crescent Street alone, the neighborhood commercial strip, Maggie thought this grasp for independence was a good thing. When Maggie was ten, she’d ridden her bike all over town by herself. Of course that was Tulsa, barely a city, but still.

Viv was so young for her age. Just a year before, they’d finally broken the news about Santa Claus, and only because Viv had asked directly, and Maggie had promised John that under such circumstances she would tell. (After a certain early point John was no fan of the Santa Claus charade. Maggie had to leave the Santa trail of evidence all by herself, taking bites out of the cookies left for Santa and sips from his cup of milk and nibbles from the baby carrots Viv plated for the reindeer). Despite asking, Viv had cried, been truly heartbroken by the news, at least in that feeble, faint way Maggie used to think of hearts breaking.

So when Viv wanted to walk to Crescent Street by herself, naturally Maggie said yes: it was all of seven blocks, and safe, and daylight. The danger she considered was cars. “Make sure you look both ways when you cross the street,” she said, and Viv nodded, pocketing the $5 Maggie had given her—she was going to buy a popsicle at the grocery store. Really it was just an excuse to take a walk by herself.

The truth is, Maggie felt a kind of lurch, a squeeze in her chest. But she imagined she was being over-protective. Kids needed to take risks, to test themselves; so John always said. Maggie thought of being ten in Oklahoma, zipping around everywhere in her bike, the basket decorated with yellow plastic daisies.

She fastened her Swatch watch on Viv’s wrist. “Be home by five thirty.” John would not approve of a popsicle so close to dinner, she thought that too.

“Be home by five thirty”: those are the last words Maggie spoke to her daughter. When Viv was at the door, Maggie almost called her back and sent Sophie with her, but Sophie was finishing her Spanish homework.

Their neighborhood had once been seedy but was now gentrified, like everything in San Francisco. When people talked about dangers, it was the coyote on the hill killing cats. Allegedly there was a crack house, though Maggie could never remember where it was supposed to be.

Braising Brussels sprouts, Maggie kept looking at her bare wrist.

When they talked to the police later, all Maggie could remember about what Viv was wearing was that borrowed blue Swatch watch. Everything else was blank, irradiated. It was Sophie who recalled dark leggings and a long-sleeved shirt with a unicorn.

The police took notes. There were two of them; the female cop was kind. She had brown freckles, like someone had sprinkled cocoa powder on her cheeks. “We’ll find her,” she said, though she must have known better than to make promises.

In those earlier days when tragedy was a thing observed from a distance, to take sips of—the kid in Sophie’s gymnastics class who had spinal meningitis and never woke up, the young, pregnant art teacher who was mugged and lost her baby—somewhere in those days, Maggie had read that most lost children were never found. She remembered this when she read it again, during sleepless Googling nights.

That cop should have known better, but she may have been a mother too, and she may have, despite her better judgement, wanted to offer Maggie something. Maggie must have scraped her, like a shard of glass.

Because it is that police officer, Louise Hennessy, who calls Maggie three years later to tell her the news. It’s just Maggie and Sophie living in the house now: John moved out over a year ago, their marriage collateral damage in the wake of Viv vanishing, along with Maggie’s drinking and Sophie’s eating problems, everything blighted and burnt.

Holding the phone, Maggie reminds herself that she said to John, and Sophie, and others too, plenty of witnesses, that not knowing is the worst. That anything is better than not knowing. But as Louise Hennessy tells her, so gently, “Yes, I’m afraid, we are sure,” and something about dental records, Maggie wails, learning that there is still more pain to bear here. People talk about “hitting bottom,” especially in AA. But Maggie feels not as if she is falling but flying, a runaway kite shredding in the sky.

 


 

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Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and was published in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She is Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.