True Love by Jennifer Wortman

Richard comes over after my sister’s bedtime, and the first thing he says when he walks into our apartment is “What a lovely home.” I snort, because we’re slobs. What does he like more, the dirty plates on the floor or the toast crumbs all over the counter? I didn’t clean because when my mom got home from work she’d know I’d been up to something. If she thought I had a boy over, she’d kill me.

“Sit down,” I say. I mean to sound like a gracious host, but it comes out like a demand.

Richard sits on the couch and I join him. He looks like his mom combed his hair in a side part for picture day. I follow the advice I read on a stupid website about being a good date and say, “So, tell me about you.”

“I live on Maple Avenue.”


“My dad owns the carpet store.”

“I don’t care about that stuff!” I say. I can’t help myself. He’s wearing a blazer. I’m wearing the same sweater I had on all day.

“I’m sorry,” he says, so nice it cracks my heart. “You like books, right? What’s your favorite?”

“A Feast of Snakes,” I tell him. After my dad moved out, I snatched it from the shelf so my mom couldn’t give it away. I knew how much my dad loved Harry Crews and figured he was trying to tell me something by leaving the book behind. My mom would never let me read it. So far, I’ve read it twice.

“I don’t know it,” says Richard. I sneak past my sleeping sister and grab the book, with Crews’ perfect messed-up face on the front, from its hiding place in our room.

“Here,” I say to Richard. “Read it to me.”

After a big Adam’s-apple-bobbing gulp, he says, “She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike.” He’s blushing but the words lull him and soon the blushing fades. When he gets to the part where Hard Candy arches her back and thrusts her pelvis while winking at Joe Lon, he slows down, his head nodding like each word’s a drug. Then he stops reading. His eyes are the lightest blue: I can see them so much better when he’s not smiling them thin. Their beauty makes me shy and I turn away, until a wind blasts my face.

“What was that?”

“I was blowing in your ear.”

“You missed. Want to try again?” I tilt my neck and pull back my hair. He bends close and blows, his breath now soft and arrowed just right.

“Should I do it to you?” I ask.

He jams his mouth against mine. His lips are chompy stones. I push him away.

“You kiss wrong,” I say. I mean, how would I know? Except, I know. I’ve read about it and thought about it and seen it on TV. I imagined a deep, sweet ache, but not upper gum pain.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’ll do better next time.”

He comes in for me gently. Our mouths move slow and fast at the same time, and I feel the sweet ache.

Then I feel an unsweet ache of Richard’s hand tangled in my bra strap.

“What are you doing?”

He turns redder than his hair. “I was just admiring your sweater,” he says. “It’s very nice.”

“That’s not what you were doing!” If he says what he’s doing, I’ll take off my sweater. I’ll take off my bra and let him lick me.

“You like chess?” he says.

I used to play chess with my dad, even though I don’t like it: too many rules. But I liked the careful way he spoke when he taught me, like he wasn’t just talking about chess but about life.

He left without saying. He’d put on his coat that morning like it was just another day.

“I love chess,” I say. I find our crappy plastic chess set tucked high in our closet and we spend the rest of the night with a table between us.


The next day, when school gets out, my friend Sharla grabs my arm. “Did you have sex with Richard Carrigan?” she asks. “Everyone’s saying shit.”

I start to say “No,” but something stops me, a feeling wiggling through my chest. I hold the feeling there. I shrug and make my eyes look like they hold a sexy secret.

“Really?” she says. “No way!” She’s smiling like I gave her the best gift, exactly what she wanted but not what she expected.

I nod, matching her grin to the millimeter. I let her think what she wants. And I let myself think what I want and what I think is that sometimes lying’s the truest thing you can do.

I wonder if I’ll ever find true love, which Harry Crews defines in A Feast of Snakes as “putting it in your ass then putting it in your mouth.” Could I love the worst parts of Richard, swallow them? If my mom had loved the worst parts of my dad, maybe he wouldn’t have left.

I head for the bus. Along comes Richard, panting to catch up. “I’m so sorry,”
he says. “The guys, they made assumptions, and I let them. I’ll make it right.” I don’t know how a tall blue-eyed redhead can look like a puppy, but that’s what he looks like now.

“Don’t bother. What do I care what people think?” I feel it then, how I might live without caring. Maybe my dad left because he knew I could take it; he was training me to be fierce, like Big Joe trained his dogs in Feast of Snakes.

I press my lips to Richard’s, plunge my tongue in, make it slither. “See you later,” I say. And just like my daddy, I walk away.

Image by Amanda Tipton Photography
Image by Amanda Tipton Photography

Jennifer Wortman is a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love (Split/Lip Press, 2019). She lives with her family in Colorado, where she serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review and teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Find more at

That Which We Call a Rose by Samantha Costanzo Carleton


My mom thought Samantha meant strong: The female Samson, destroyer of limits and all variations of “no.” But it means listener instead, and I listened to her lest I take half a step outside of the route she mapped. I strained so hard to hear that when I finally did become strong, it surprised her. I tore up the tracks with my own bare hands and told her no—no, thank you. Now I listen for signs in the sound of autumn leaves, for something that falls in my fingers and melts like a snowflake.


In Paris, I thought of Marie, but we’d never been that close. She belonged to nearly every girl in school—the ones who didn’t get diamonds, at least. My sister was given Francesca. So unique! said the other Something-Maries. I didn’t expect to love Paris, the city that slumbered in every heart like Marie stuck in so many names. But something in me understood the gardens right away, the river and the islands and the stone. I have only ever lived near water, after all.


The confirmation teacher told us all to pick new names, and I don’t think he ever said why. We took classes but lacked understanding, said prayers because we should. I looked it up. A new name stood for change and maturation, like an oak. It meant we were standing on roots. I knew who I wanted to be right away. For me, it had always been Lucy: a name that meant light in the darkness of winter, a flicker of faith buried deep and begging for air. There is no Santa Esperanza, but one day, I’ll name a daughter after hope.


Once upon a time there were five Costanzo brothers, all rascals who snuck into golf courses at night and slid down sloping greens on blocks of ice they stole from their jobs at Foster’s Freeze. Then one of them said the wrong thing, and one of them threatened a war, and that was the end of them all for so long, I forgot I was also Italian. I was cien por ciento Cubana instead, no hyphen-American there—just Cuban like Granmamá Lily, who always dropped the S’s at the end of Spanish words. Well, maybe 95 percent. I have always been my father’s daughter, after all. We feel too much and think too much and yet, we still believe the world is mostly good.


I worried, at first, if I was committing treason, and then, I didn’t care. I chose the season and colors and cake. I wrote a check for the photographer with money I made myself, and handing it to her felt like taking one last look at where I’d been. I chose the man and the life and three names, performed the surgical procedure to remove and rearrange them and then stitch them in a line. I wanted to mark the transition with more than a dress and a party. I wanted it to show like tattooed ink. I’m sorry, Marie (just a little). But love is a decision.


Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a writer from Boston. Her work has been published in The Cabinet of Heed and Full House Literary Magazine. She really wants to know your middle name.

Clutched by Caroljean Gavin

There are two bald eagles, sitting on a log. One is looking over his shoulder; the other has completely lost his head. I’m eight months pregnant. I want to stick my fingers through the chain-link, soothe down the feathers of the headless bird, “it’s ok sweetheart,” I’ll sing, “Do you remember where you last saw your head?” Tony is clicking behind me, “Is that how they sleep?” he asks out loud to himself, snapping photo after photo of all the raptors in the center. He’s not talking to me, he’s pondering, and he’s practicing with his new camera, practicing taking pictures of wildlife because there’s no telling what kind of creature I’m carrying. Tony’s thinking she’ll be hairy and bouncing, just like him. “Fly birds. Fly!” he calls out, because he needs to be versed in capturing motion. What can I say? There was a limited choice in mates that season. Of course I hope she’ll be more like me. I turn around. I want to see the vultures. I step down hard on a branch crack, crack, cracking it. The headless eagle’s neck feathers ruffle, “It’s ok sweetheart,” I say, “Just the sound of the house settling.”

Two year later a red-tailed hawk hops around the clinic parking lot. Cocks its head in my direction. It’s a beautiful bird. I’m safe. I’m in a car. I’m ok right now. I’m ok enough right now to be handling heavy machinery. But the bird, the hawk, is so big, is so heavy. It should be in the sky. I can’t handle it hopping on the top of a bench, and eyeing the opening of a trash can, like how can it get inside? The doctor said…and later, after dinner, when I’m giving Dani a bath, piling bubbles on her head, she farts into the water and cries. “It’s ok sweetheart,” I say, “Better out than in.” She’ll talk when she’s ready, when she has something to say. “Hey baby, I want to show you something,” but as I’m taking off my sweater, a rubber ducky unicorn catches me in the jaw. Dani laughs, loses her grip, hits her head on the back of the tub and slips into the water. I pick her up, towel her off tuck her in, tuck in her father on the couch again, snoring, remote in his hand, and I pick up all the half naked dolls, all the ground up Cheerios, fix the toilet that keeps running, and then in the kitchen, scrubbing off the dishes, night air swirls over my hands. In between mice, the barred owl asks, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” so loud I have to slam the window shut, my wings itching and itching beneath my bra strap.


Caroljean Gavin’s work is forthcoming in Best Small Fictions 2021 and Milk Candy Review, and has appeared in places such as Barrelhouse, Bending Genres, and Pithead Chapel. She’s the editor of What I Thought of Ain’t Funny, an anthology of short fiction based on the jokes of Mitch Hedberg, published by Malarkey Books. She’s on Twitter @caroljeangavin.

A Song About Dogs by Hugh Behm-Steinberg

We’re in a meeting, a long, tedious, thorough meeting, the sort with breakout groups that never break out, and whoever isn’t paying attention gets the look. You text me a note, “We should be in a band,” and while making it look like I’m paying so much attention I’m actually taking notes, what I’m really doing is typing furiously, over and over, “Oh yeah oh hell yeah!”

I tell you about this guy I know who was terrified of success. Every time one of his bands started to click, he’d panic. The practices would get longer, and then he’d bring in more musicians, singers, dancers, light show dudes, etc. We eventually broke up when he tried to add this fifteen-year-old he met at some rave to play tambourine. “I’m not like that guy,” I say. “What sort of instrument do you play and please let it be drums.”

We practice and practice, recording everything and jamming until we’re able to do the same thing at the same time and then repeat that over and over. We take turns singing. We don’t give our band a name, we’re not ready for that part yet, and our songs aren’t really songs, just repeatable jams, half-spoken ideas, the musical equivalent of first dates that happen to go really well but nobody is saying love just yet.

You say, “There’s something I want to show you, I think you’re going to really like this,” and you take me to the arroyo. The riverbed is still damp, with a solid wet clay smell, and we fill several buckets full of earth, lugging them back to your truck one at a time. In your garage you turn on the heat lamps, but it’s still freezing.

“You still want to do this?” you ask.

When we’re done, after we’re both covered in mud and done shivering by the heat lamps just to dry, and we’re no longer ourselves, we come up with a song, about some dogs jumping through the fog, and how beautiful it is to watch the fog dancing around the dogs, and how the dogs can smell all of this, and their owners can’t, the dogs yipping in the fog, which is so much more than fog, that’s the bridge of our song, we’re still figuring it out. It might take a long time to figure it out, but we’re figuring it out.

The dirt smell underneath us, all around us; it’s durational, it’s so incredibly real, it’s a single note I’m hoping never stops, that it will keep going for days, slowly getting quieter, feeling that way. But when you make the song turn I’m there with you, I have ideas of my own, and somehow it brightens, forming chords. We disappear, our owners left wondering where we are.

This is a song about happiness.


headshotsmallHugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in Tiny Molecules, X-R-A-Y, Joyland, Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review, and PANK. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast, and his story “Goodwill” was picked as one of the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2018. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in January, 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts.