After Victor Died by Austin Ross

Our freshmen year of college, Victor and I broke into the abandoned tuberculosis ward formerly known as the Athens Lunatic Asylum. It was a rite of passage. We crossed the Richland Avenue bridge with the same adventurous spirit I imagined Washington felt crossing the Delaware. On the other side, at the top of the steep hill, we found unmarked graves, each small headstone having only the processing number of deceased patients. Names and histories and faces, long forgotten. We crawled beneath chainlink fence to enter the compound.


The last time I heard Victor’s voice was a few weeks before he died. He left me a surprise voicemail where, confused, he told me about a minor league baseball game. We were going to go see the Akron RubberDucks next week, he said. Victor was excited. Seemed to have no idea the game had happened two years prior. I never returned the call. Didn’t know what I’d say, and assumed I’d have another chance.


Victor possessed a gregarious spirit. We told each other everything. Our sophomore year, he confided in me that he had been born with an abnormally long ballsack. When we were in a public restroom, he laughed and said the water level of the toilet was particularly high. My balls touch the water, he said, and laughed endlessly, full of joy at this unexpected revelation. Later that year, his girlfriend Julie left for Brazil on a study abroad program. In response, Victor had me shave his head in tonsure to approximate the appearance of a medieval friar, the hair removed from the crown in a large circle, leaving only a surrounding fringe. It was a joke, he explained, and laughed. Julie would hate it. As I cut, I noticed a single gray patch of hair on the top of his head. I got struck by lightning as a kid, he told me.


We kept in touch occasionally after college. Would send each other texts, and each year would write some sort of brief update to let the other know the vague shape our lives had taken. He was given the diagnosis a few years post-graduation, after he and Julie had broken up. The tumor had lain dormant all these years, forming gradually in Victor’s meninges, the cranial nerves, the pituitary, the pineal. This was, I learned later, due to errors in his DNA. Cells grew and divided at multiplied rates. Took over everything like a parasite. Victor gained weight after the first round of chemo. Most of his hair fell out until he decided to shave the rest off and grow a patchy beard. He was almost unrecognizable. Then some good news: he had beaten the cancer. Remission. The word had a sting in the tail, but I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know these sorts of things came back.


That night in the tuberculosis ward, we found in the basement what looked like some kind of small prison for the most difficult of patients—rusty white bars and individual gray cells. The imagination needs only a few scant details to become carried away. Take a picture, Victor said, and went inside one of the cages, the door closing behind him with a rusty creak. There was something in his smile that I would notice much later—a lightness of existence, as though his soul were just barely moored to his body, wanted to pull free before its time. I was unaware then of death’s insidious form, its surprising turns. When my flash went off, we heard something outside. The cops, Victor said, still in the cage, still alive, crouched down low. We turned our flashlights off and waited there in the dark and the quiet to see what might come next—but they passed us by, oblivious.


Austin Ross’s fiction and non-fiction has been published in various journals, magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, including Hobart, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He lives near Washington, D.C. with his wife and son. You can follow him on Twitter @AustinTRoss, or go to for more.

Baby is the Big Man, Now by Exodus Oktavia Brownlow

Baby is the Big Man, now. Big Man of the newer, bigger house. Real big man by how hard he throws the baseball back and forth to his daddy.

Easy, daddy huffs, catching.

Big Man grunts. Pulls-Back. Fired-Up Flings.

Play nice.


Big Man wants to break, break, break his daddy down until all he becomes is a bunch of pieces he can take with him. Stuck-fuzzy-stick’ed to a knitted sweater’s innards like forgotten flu-season cough drops, the kind that mommy never finds until it’s too late.

What would be better was if he could break his daddy down well enough, to shift him into a fine little dust.

Big Man knew all the moves, already. It went fists to flesh to tenderize the meat. Then, nails to skin to shred it down. Sometimes you say things to it to make it behave even more. Sometimes the sayings worked better than all of the others.

If daddy would shift into a fine little dust, Big Man could put him in a pile, and sweep him into a dustpan. ‘Pour him in a curvy-lady time-glass to be flipped over and over again.

We are all are made from the earth, daddy once said, and it’s only a matter of moments before we’ll return to it. On the ground, mommy would lay showing how, and she would look so soft it was almost like she was sand. In the sand, twinkling edges of the black and blue void pooled, stars splayed around the edges of the skin for daddy’s impossible wishes to come true.

If sand was the most submissive type of earth because it could be shaped to become whatever you wanted it to be, because when it’s held in the hands, it slips below you and looks above like it’s supposed to, what, then, was dust?


In his hand, the baseball was like Genie’s lamp from the stories mommy read to him at night. Stories of better things to come, the only kind that held a place on their bookshelves.

The baseball was like Genie’s lamp not by how it looked, but by how it felt, as if there was something special inside that was supposed to be let out, and only he could do it.

His palm cradled against the stitches, rubbed them until they dissolved.

Big Man knew all the moves, already.

IMG_0203Exodus Oktavia Brownlow is a Blackhawk, Mississippi native. She is a graduate of Mississippi Valley State University with a BA in English, and Mississippi University for Women with an MFA in Creative Writing. Exodus has been published or has forthcoming work with Electric Lit, Hobart, Booth, Barren Magazine, Jellyfish Review, Chicken Soup for The Soul, Louisiana Literature, F(r)iction, and more. She has been nominated for Best of The Net, Best MicroFiction and a Pushcart Prize. Her piece “It’s 5am-ish, And My Father Tells Me A Story From His Time in Singapore” will be included in the anthology Best MicroFiction 2021.

When Your Twin Brother Takes the One You Wanted by Tom Walsh

My brother called dibs on anorexia, even though it’s meant for girls. Since pyromania’s for boys, I took it; cherishing the asymmetry. I love the way fire hides, then jumps out to say BOO! like our father did when we were little. We dance with the flames. In the backyard. The woods. Along the railroad tracks. Late at night, in my room, fire devours lists with the names and hashtags of kids who taunt us on the bus and at school.

When my brother starts eating again, I put away my lighter. We have a pact. But I miss the heat, am terrified it won’t slake my hunger again. The dry grass beckons. An abandoned barn begs me to end its loneliness. The list of names on my desk has grown long, so long.

As a child, I loved the rain. The dark clouds crossing the prairie, the smell of sweet earth in the backyard, the chance to see a rainbow. Now, the fields are dry, the air smells of decay, no pot of gold awaits us. I seek glowing embers, hot blue flame. I tell my brother it’s time to purge.


Tom Walsh is a writer and editor living in northern California. He has been a newspaper reporter, editor, wildland firefighter, and more. His stories are in or forthcoming in Litro USA, Hobart Pulp, The Cabinet of Heed, The Dead Mule School, Janus Literary, and elsewhere. His cat, born in the UK on the 4th of July, is, of course, named Independence. Follow him @tom1walsh.

She Should See This by Nadia Staikos

The cousins have been taking turns in the backseats of different cars as we zig our way across the States; the parents switch us up so siblings won’t fight and drive them up the wall. There are gummy bears in this uncle’s car. My cousin eats them by first biting off every tiny appendage, one at a time; ear, ear, arm, arm, leg, leg. Body. Chew. She’s the eldest, and she doles them out at the same pace in which she eats them, and I sit with the aftertaste of each one for a while before I get another, watching the scenery whip by.

It’s 1990. When someone has to pee or gets hungry, a message is written in big letters on a piece of paper and gets held up in a window. The driver pulls up beside each car long enough for the passengers to read the message, then takes the lead, everyone following behind them to the next gas station or to pull off on the shoulder. We’re in a constant state of picnic; trunks are popped open and out come blankets, coolers full of food. The moms take the kids to pee in the trees while the dads have a beer and look at maps.

“M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.” Another aunt is in the front seat of this car, and so now we all know how to spell Mississippi. My little brother repeats it over and over again, and he’s only five years old, so everyone thinks it’s so great, but enough already, we get it. There was an oversight, and we’ve ended up in the same vehicle. There’s a cousin buffer between us, listening to a Walkman.

“Holy cow,” my aunt says, every time we pass fields of cattle. I feel like my giggles are expected, and I pray for no more cows.

“How do you get from Canada to Las Vegas?” Everyone keeps asking my brother, every day.

“You just follow the yellow line on the road,” he explains, earnest.


My dad’s brother is driving this car. Things get tense in the front seat.

“Look at him,” my uncle says, angry. “What is he doing?” He has a voice that sits comfortably in anger, but I can tell something is really wrong. I crane my neck around the headrest, trying to see through the windshield. My family’s car is ahead of us, my dad at the wheel. I’m not sure about the rules of driving, but I see my dad has pulled into the next lane. He’s driving so fast, right towards the oncoming traffic. “That son-of-a-bitch is going to get everyone killed!” I feel heat prickle through me. Grown-ups can’t get mad like that, not at other grown-ups. My dad swings the car back into the right lane and my uncle swears with relief. My aunt is fiddling with the radar detector. I stare out the window, turned to hide my face, hot with shame. I refuse to speak.

When we make the next stop I run to my parents, and now I couldn’t speak even if I wanted to. My tears won’t stop. He almost got them all killed, and words were yelled, like yelled about him, and he was a son-of-a-bitch, and what did that make me?


Everyone is getting out of the car, but I keep my eyes closed.

“She’s going to miss it. She should see this.”

“Let her sleep,” my mother’s voice decides over the sounds of belt buckles clicking, chunking door handles, excited children stretching legs. I can feel eyes on me, expectant, but I’m good at pretending. I’m thrilled by how good I am at pretending. My cousins slide out, bouncing the seat, but I don’t move an inch. I’m a daughter-of-a-son-of-a-bitch, doing what I want. The doors close and the voices are muted by glass and steel. Our fleet has pulled over to see something beautiful; they’re gathering for a family photo that I’ll be missing from, smiles stretching like the Nevada desert. I stay still, listen to myself breathe.




Nadia Staikos (she/her) lives in Toronto with her two children. Her work has previously appeared in perhappened, (mac)ro(mic), Fudoki, and elsewhere. She is prose editor at Chestnut Review, and is currently working on her first novel. Find her on Twitter @NadiaStaikos.


Chainsaws Don’t Mend Broken Hearts by Rick White

We nurtured spruce saplings into fields of Christmas trees. Kissed them to sleep beneath a tapestry of starlight. We woke on silvery mornings; each new day an elegy to limbs outstretched and bending. We fork-pruned bows and sponged the tops, forcing the sap to flow back down, hardening trunks from within. The smell of it when I set it free — prehistoric! How the forest screamed. The heat of teeth on mangled splinters. Every one an ode to joy, lost forever. A fairy without its wings. I will make my home amongst the slithering worms, the chattering, gnawing bugs. A blanket of needles for the Earth to sleep in. Let us feast on stumps and soil, so that from this resinous slurry, this sainted wreckage, things may grow back — mightier than before.


Rick White is a fiction writer from Manchester, UK whose work has been published in Milk Candy Review, Trampset, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, and many other fine lit journals. Rick’s debut story collection Talking to Ghosts at Parties will be published later this year by Storgy Books. You can find Rick on Twitter @ricketywhite.