Peninsula by Marissa Higgins

Claire’s grandmother greets her from the doorway, and from Claire’s vantage point on the asphalt, she fills in Little Debbie Swiss Cake rolls and two glasses of raspberry Crystal Light on the dusty side table, just out of view. Claire’s mom reminded her to check the glasses under the kitchen light before she drank from any, referring, Claire guessed, to the way her grandmother sometimes stopped cleaning dishes mid-way through.

For all the time she spends in that place, you’d think it would be spotless, her mom added on days she was annoyed with running her errands, picking up the single-ply toilet paper, canned fruit, prescription refills at the only pharmacy in town. The errands embarrassed Claire sometimes, too; the cart looked meager, all store brand, only what her grandmother’s social security checks could cover. Claire craved consumption without limits, and for her third-generation family of lobster boaters and clam-diggers, the only excess available was inhaling salt air.

Grams, she says, climbing the cement stairs to the front door. You got your shoes on?

Just my house slippers, her grandmother says, smiling coy.

Claire leans against the railing, elbows jutted back like warnings. She says: Bottom stair?

Her grandmother does not look at the stairs but at Claire’s skinny middle. Let’s have a snack, she says, and Claire tastes sugar and hope in her throat despite her mission.

Come on, Claire says, tugging her grandmother not with her hands but with eyes and a smile that say really, now, please. Let’s bring it outside.

Claire’s grandmother does not come on. She firms her purple-slippered feet in place, and Claire is reminded of the wiener dog she walks for a neighbor: low to the ground, docile and triumphant in holding ground on heat-thick afternoons. Her grandmother’s eyes hold the same spirit as the dog, too; fear, sure, but Claire sees an autonomy, a refusal to be dragged at someone else’s speed into a world she’d rather assess from behind a smudged den window.

Grams, Claire says. You promised we’d get some of this bay air you’ve been missing. The air, Claire thinks, is what she will miss about coastal Massachusetts when she vanishes. Smart salt that stays steady even when people like her are born here and take off before they die here too. Claire considers her grandmother on those front steps, how long it’s been since she’s left her house—years, if she remembers right. Too long spent at a window, blaming fat horse flies. At twelve, Claire feels certain leaving any place is a matter of only feet on the ground.

Claire’s grandmother speaks above Claire’s head, eying the stretch of bay directly across the way. Not even houses obstruct it—just a one-way street and a low sea wall. She says, Will your mother be by tomorrow, with the car?

Yeah, Claire says, red. She’s coming. Claire thinks about fibbing, the internal what-if game she recycles; what would Grams do, anyway, she wonders, if her mom didn’t come by, and her mail piled up, and her fridge got down to mustard and the onions she quick-pickled herself. She’d leave the house, wouldn’t she? Claire imagines her grandmother in her slippers, foot after foot, triumphant in the check-out aisle.

Her grandmother mhmms, her face, to Claire, a settled story.

What if I fell back over the railing, Claire says. What would you do?

I’d call an ambulance, baby. Her grandmother shifts. Don’t do that.

Would you run down there, yelling?

Sometimes when I’m afraid, her grandmother says, I don’t make a noise but in this brain of mine.
Claire tries to think of her grandmother as she is, not as the questions everyone asks when she’s not in the room: Was it an armed intruder? A man in a mask? A threat in the mail? What in Heaven’s name goes on to make you decide, at eighty two, that you want to exist in a world only on your own terms. Claire envies and fears her consistency.

If my skull was open, Claire says. Neighbors screaming, and all.

Her grandmother sturdies herself. Girl, she says. Don’t push what you can’t hold.

She pulls the Little Debbies from the front pocket of her robe. The robe is all faded sunflowers with black buttons her grandmother replaced over the years, thick fingers working at the stitches. Claire wants to know what that robe smells like; she’s known it before, in all the times she’s hugged her grandmother, but she can’t summon it out of will; the wanting obscures it, and Claire feels a premonition of adulthood, an understanding of memory as intrinsic absence. When her grandmother passes her one Little Debbie, she unwraps it and takes a thick bite.

With her mouth full, Claire says, I love you.

Claire’s grandmother chucks the other Little Debbie clear over Claire’s head. Claire hears it land on the grass and runs down into the yard thinking of the neighbors, their gossip; she doesn’t want to offer more ammunition. Of all of her grandmother’s games to avoid coming outside, Claire thinks, this is new.

Claire picks up the Swiss roll—only dented beneath plastic. She looks up to tell her grandmother she’s coming back inside. She wants to lift a laugh in her own throat but she doesn’t understand; this August afternoon sits different. Looking back at the doorway, she says, Holy shit.

Her grandmother has the screen door pushed all the way open, both arms out, neck stretched forward, chest and belly and robe full-on in the sun. Hummingbird cosmic. Claire holds both hands to her forehead to block out the light; her Debbies sandwiched in her fingers, sugar scent breaking through the plastic, hitting her nose. Claire can’t see her grandmother’s feet; one leg is stretched out, bright white and veiny, she’s nearly sure, but has it touched the ground, has she stepped? Has it happened? Claire doesn’t know, can’t tell, unwilling, she is, to move her squint from the varicose veins, all intrepid blue.


Marissa Higgins is a lesbian journalist and recent D.C. Arts & Humanities Fellowship grant awardee. Her work has appeared in the Best American Food Writing 2018 (originally in Catapult), The Atlantic, NPR, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is working on a novel.

Learning to Swim by Jen Michalski

“Pedophile,” Amy says. She lowers her face into the water, covering her mouth, but I follow her eyes across the pool. He sits alone at the end of the bleachers on the concrete deck. Instead of watching the children, who move in fits and starts across the lanes, learning the breast stroke, the back stroke, free style, he’s bent over, hands clasped, staring at his feet.

“The new boyfriend of a parent, probably,” I say.

“He’s not here for Hailey, or Jessica, or Justin.” Her eyes move again around the aquatics center, matching kids in the pool with the parents who clump together in the bleachers. We know all the kids who come for lessons, all the parents, if not by name, then by face, by presence. “Ped.”

“Yeah, okay.” I roll my eyes. But Amy’s already gone. From the edge of the pool I watch her glide underneath the water, like a shark, toward the other end. I glance toward the locker room, waiting for Katie, my 5:30, to appear. But I don’t see her, so I sneak a look back at the man. He’s in his thirties, maybe, old enough to have a kid taking lessons. He’s not out of place in jeans, a zip pullover, and hiking boots. When our eyes meet, I look away.

When I was eleven, in a hotel pool, I was playing with my younger brother when I felt someone watching. A guy in the hot tub. The same age, thirties maybe, with a neatly clipped rust beard, wide green eyes. Handsome in a way not out of place. I turned away, feeling my cheeks warm. He had made a mistake, I thought—I was big for my age, with breasts the size of lemons already. I was thirteen, or fifteen, he thought. Still too young.

But I felt the strange pangs of desire, being desired. Not like a crush, something different, unknowable, like the deep end, where my brother and I were forbidden.

When I looked back, he continued to stare. I didn’t understand. I felt ashamed, as if I did something wrong. I was too big for my age. I was too curvy. In a way out of place. I grabbed our inflatable pool ball and crouched behind my brother in the shallow end, who splashed at the water, pretending he was Batman or some other superhero. The next summer, we took swimming lessons. I swam competitively through high school and now work as an instructor at the aquatics center between semesters at college. If there’s one thing you should teach your kids, I commend the parents at orientation, it’s how to swim.

“Katie!” I wave across the pool to my 5:30 and swim over.

She’s younger than I was then, maybe seven. We start with moving her arms, slicing the water, pulling back through the water, slicing the water again. All learning is through repetition, until it feels natural. As I tread water, watching her, under her goggles she stares off into the distance, syrupy unicorn fantasy eyes.

“Watch your stroke.” I lace my fingers around her forearms and we go through the motion again and again. They’re just little kids, and it’s hard for them to focus on the important things. I stand in water up to my chest, my hand under her stomach, the only thing between her and the bottom, as she slaps her arms against the water, her eyes closed, her lips parted. When I glance up again at the bleachers, the man’s gone.

In the parking lot that night, I look around, lock my car doors, text my parents. I don’t remember when exactly it all became natural: looking over my shoulder, texting my parents, gulping just enough air when turning my shoulders between strokes. I think about Katie tonight, her flailing arms, body straining away from my grasp, inching toward the deep end. Knowing, at some point, I have to let go.


Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, The Summer She Was Under Water (Black Lawrence Press, 2017) The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press 2013), and You’ll Be Fine (NineStar Press, forthcoming), a couplet of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books 2013), and three collections of fiction (The Company of Strangers, forthcoming; From Here, 2014; and Close Encounters, 2007). Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers, The Washington Post, and the Literary Hub, and she’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize six times. She is the editor in chief of the online lit weekly jmww.

Fairest by Star Su

The jungle gym in the strip mall was transformed into a tea party café overnight. Mushroom foam and plastic lily pads were plucked from the mud-rubber ground, rolled over by periwinkle marble and re-planted with three-legged chairs, aquamarine gems in the backing. She suggests fairy lights and smoothie names to the manager, tastes rare cheesecake and chocolate mousse, licks the cream clean from the acetate ring. They do a soft opening with his daughter’s fifth birthday, sending invitations sealed with rainbow wax, cardstock recycled from a time when she still wrote love letters. Her handwriting is beautiful when she presses the gel pens hard.

The parents sign permission waivers and receipts with pens from their own purses, pass her unwrapped gifts, ask her if the nail salon next door is any good. She tells them her stepmother swears by it. The manager squeezes her shoulder, promises to be back before cake. He thinks she can handle this alone. She is proud of this.

The seven little girls are hungry and carsick from the carpool, three of them were laid in the trunk they tell her. They forget their aches momentarily when they see the dress-up closet, running their fingers on the cherrywood knobs, rose-gold birds and willow branches embedded on the mirrors. She lets them pull out the vanity, spill creams and serums across the floor, the air flush with primrose and neroli. She watches from behind the counter, reminds herself that distance is the fulcrum of love. They will come to her soon.

Her father’s secret ingredient for a rainy day was maple syrup sweetening a milkshake when he was home long enough to use the refrigerator. She empties a bag of frozen organic strawberries into the blender, punctures a carton of cream with her keys, and wraps her hands around the maple syrup’s neck. The children twirl around as they drink, condensation slipping down their palms onto shirts with tags still on, each one more than her week’s paycheck. She unlocks the drawers at the top of the dress-up closet, taking down gowns that could be mistaken for the real thing, clouds of chiffon and organza sleeves. Only two of the seven girls fight. Scissors cut paper, rock cleans soft hands again. Loser wears the polyester Mulan dress, the only one without a petticoat. She braids their hair, a four-stranded waterfall, securing it first with clear elastics, then with sparkling pins or soft ribbons, their choice. They ask who taught her? and she answers, my stepmama. It is easier to invent a stepmother than to remember an absent mother.

She zips the seven girls into their outfits, making sure the thermostat sends a warm breeze through the changing room. The strip mall will charge them more for this, but she doesn’t care, doesn’t want any of them catching a cold. She fetches scepters, capes, slippers, clip-on earrings, until she calls the girls not by their name tags, but only, yes princess. When they are hungry again, she passes silver spoons around, unfurls crown-printed napkins on their laps, heats up quiche and spaghetti bread bowls, cookie-cuts vegetables into a bouquet of flowers. She promises them cake if they each eat three carrots, two cauliflower florets, one stalk of celery.

When the birthday girl makes her wish, the parking lot has emptied. The parents must have found the wine cellar in the complex across the street, or fallen asleep after macaroni grill, toenails still drying in their foam separator. She is afraid of going to the bathroom, a ten-minute walk down several sticky-floored corridors to Applebee’s. There are seven of them, but the girls are still young, young enough to think magic should anything strange happen. She forgets store policy and lets them unwrap the gifts. They have moved on from words to thanking her with lip-glossed kisses.

Birthday girl chooses the last wrapped gift. The tissue paper opens, closes like wings. In their wake, there is a basket of apples. A new variety. She has seen neat pyramids of them at the grocery store, from the same company that engineered cotton candy grapes and cake-batter pumpkins. Skeins of lollipop red, gold flecks. The stem is ordinary, brown and shriveled. She is as excited as the girls to try them. The seven argue, holding the apples to the buttered light, before choosing the largest, most perfect orb for her. They let her go first, lips cracking as she lodges teeth into tart skin.


Star Su grew up in Ann Arbor and currently an undergraduate at Brown. Her fiction is in or forthcoming in Waxwing, Passages North, SmokeLong Quarterly. She reads for Split Lip Magazine. Find her on Twitter: @stars_su.

the revivals we cleave, we endure by Vic Nogay

when she came to me at dawn / i was already spinning in the water up to my ankles with my long cotton cardigan pulling wet and winding up around my knees / body nude but glitter-sparking in the summer sun / there were mothers and sons and grandmas with their dogs and husbands walking by and looking without looking / and some even looked / like really looked / but i couldn’t be moved by any force but my own / my arms open wide while the world renamed me Beautiful because i was alive / and coming alive again.

when i came home near noon / light and heavy and sparkling new / i shed golden champagne skin of the morning around carelessly in the garden and on the sun-kissed heads of my children so they would grow roots and grow strong and grow real and irrefutable / i left some in our bed and painted it on my reflection in the mirror so i could see it when i didn’t believe / i sent some through the air vents and down drains so it would travel far and maybe come back to me too / someday / when i might need it.

when you woke at dusk some nights later / you thundered / unhinged the sky into your orbit / in the rain / you opened your mouth to let the water soothe the blackouts stuck to your teeth / cavities or carbon or the colossal crack of gunfire // you choked / forked a single speck of glitter from under your tongue / and spit it out at your feet.


Vic Nogay writes to explore her traumas, misremembrances, and Ohio, where she is from. She is an animal cruelty investigator and a mother. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Emerge Literary Journal, perhappened, Free Flash Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, and others. She tweets @vicnogay. Read more: