Vex Version 2.0 by Serena Jayne

My doctor wouldn’t approve of my little excursion. I wasn’t supposed to leave the house or drive or desecrate graves. I wasn’t supposed to do anything, but wait to die.

The woman at the kill shelter doesn’t comment on the dirt underneath my ragged fingernails nor the crusts of dried mud on my jeans. She doesn’t lose her patience as I thoroughly inspect each of their eight black cats for tufts of white to find the best match. When I snap a battered blue collar around a female cat’s neck, the shelter worker doesn’t raise an eyebrow. The woman doesn’t say anything at all as I pay the adoption fee with coins and crumpled singles.

She is blissfully ignorant of the whole sordid operation I’d recently undertaken. I’d dug with a small spade and then with my bare hands to retrieve the box my brother had buried. Fearing the corpse of my daughter’s cat was amass with maggots, I squeezed my eyes tight before burrowing inside the box, feeling the fur and the stiff little body. As I struggled to remove the collar, along with the jingling of the bell, I’d heard something snap.

Even though she’s barely eight, I’ve been teaching my daughter how I balance my bank account and pay my bills. Can’t have Charlie seeing a canceled check or a charge from the shelter. Can’t have her knowing I’d replaced her beloved pet with an imposter. Can’t leave her with no one to hold as I move into hospice.

I try to sneak the cat into my home, but a pitiful wail from the carrier gives me away.
My brother turns on the kitchen light. He takes the carrier from me, and I nearly stumble.

“I should’ve realized you were up to something stupid when you asked me to babysit.” He pokes his finger into the carrier and scratches the cat’s chin. “Charlie’s gonna know that ain’t Vex. Anyway, might be good for her to get a little lesson in loss before….”

“It’s just a fucking cat,” I say. “And it’s none of your fucking business.”

Exhaustion is a flame and my body a matchstick nub. I square my shoulders, using the dregs of my energy to keep myself upright.

He pulls me into a rough hug. “Amy’s gonna lose her shit when she finds out we’re adopting a cat along with your kid.”

I don’t remind him that he was responsible for Vex escaping and running into the street, because he wasn’t responsible for the speeding car that spelled the kitty’s doom. And he’d only come at Charlie’s request, after she found me unresponsive, lying in a heap on the floor of the shower.

Charlie loves on that cat as much as she did the original Vex, but she never challenges its decidedly unVex-like behavior. The way the feline has become my shadow. The way it sleeps on my pillow instead of at her feet. The way it ignores its predecessor’s toys and turns its nose up at tuna.

As Amy hugs Charlie and sprinkles catnip on the carpet, I try not to bristle. She insists on taking the cat to the vet, and I make her and my brother promise to use a new doctor, one who has never seen our original Vex. I hate that he’s clued his wife into the secret, then hate myself for being angry. They’ve always be there for us, and they’d be there to keep Charlie from burying herself in sorrow. She belongs in the light with her replacement pet and her replacement family while I slowly slip into the darkness of death.

The cat was supposed to be my daughter’s pet—not my comfort animal. As the days go by, I start slipping the cat scraps, and let its gravely purrs lull me to sleep. I stop raging at the unfairness of not being able to see my daughter grow up and make mistakes of her own.
Morphine makes my eyes heavy and my head foggy. The bell on Vex Version 2.0’s grave-robbed collar seems to beckon me to the afterworld. Sometimes, I have double vision, and I’m certain the original Vex is with me too.


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Serena Jayne has worked as a research scientist, a fish stick slinger, a chat wrangler, and a race horse narc. When she isn’t trolling art museums for works that move her, she enjoys writing in multiple fiction genres. Her short fiction has appeared in the Arcanist, Shotgun Honey, Space and Time Magazine, Unnerving Magazine, and other publications

The Better to See by D.E. Hardy

In my memory, your body is teal and olive and chartreuse, the afterimage of that day. You and I, inside the wolf’s glowing gut, covered in mucus, limbs distending our host’s gastric folds, our bodies slipping over each other while bile licked our heels.

It was disgusting; it was perfect.

I nuzzled your throat under your chin the way you said you’d done for your grandmother. It’s not goodbye. Just a pause. I agreed, imagining how it would be when it was my time. You and me, swirling in eternal red, our ancestral grandmothers holding us close, all of us waiting for our future granddaughters, possessing and longing, contracting and expanding, a universe. I should have asked if wolves were necessary, or could we get there on our own. I was so focused on you, on the ritual, on getting your instructions right: wait until your body was still, until the wolf had suffocated under our weight; take the embroidery scissors from your apron and snip my way out; sew you inside the wolf as a shroud; bury you both under the pedunculate oak. The way a granddaughter should.

We shared the wrong words—I can see that now—but I couldn’t yet imagine a wolf-less world.

And then, the ax. We oozed toward the light that beamed through sliced flesh and slid onto the floorboards of your bedroom, your grizzled hair matted with gore and wet as if newborn, as if you and I were now sisters, daughters of the wolf. Ersatz twins. A pebbled-eyed woodchopper loomed above us, saying, I got here in the nick of time. I wanted to scream—You ruined my grandmother’s death, you fucking idiot—but your hand on my knuckles halted my words. We were taught to thank men who decided to act on our behalf, so I said nothing, believing silence was a protest.

That was before. When the woods still stood. When your lungs still burned red.

Armed with assumption, the woodchopper started cutting, saying: Wolves hide in bushes, in brambles, in grasses. Everything has to go.

Inevitable townsmen arrived, two, then ten, then dozens, wielding hacksaws and hatchets, chainsaws and shears, files and razors. Didn’t we know it wasn’t safe in the woods? Didn’t we know about wolves? I tried to explain—the wolf was an old woman too—but my words bounced off unconcerned ears. Words were the wrong way to use my mouth. I should have shown them what great teeth I had, bitten their heels, gnawed on their shins until my maw glistened red.

Fallen trunks lay everywhere, the land shaved clean to its skin. The sight cleaved you, made you yowl: There is neither good nor bad. Wolves just are. Tears down your cheek, down your breast, your hand to your heart, clutched as if you might pluck it out and throw it to make them stop, always your eyes upon the heaped trees, jumbled like a child’s game—five, six, pick up sticks—your heart imploding, your cheek already upon the earth, its pink vanishing.
You were gone, and I was alone, an only child again.

They drooled as they altered our story, their eager mouths changing our lives, our tradition, into some kind of bullshit morality play for budding girls. Beware the woods. Beware the wolf. We don’t even have names in their version. I’m called by my outfit, and somehow that’s not the part that’s the cautionary tale.

You’d hate what they did to the land even more, how fast they planted fences, a patchwork of symmetrical acres. Neat and buildable. The fate of houses popping up, each with a different strategy for keeping its women from harm. This one, made of furniture catalogs, taupe and tan, able to withstand a hurricane of wolf-breath, brown like the dirt that would never be allowed inside. That one, made of candy, pale blue and lilac, its gingerbread trim painted silver with arsenic, perfect for luring any remaining wolf kids inside where double ovens waited. Nothing is red. An endless neighborhood of beige and egg pastels, everything see-through and plastic-coated for safety. Nothing to rip or pierce or make anyone bleed. A wolf-less place.

It’s their perfect; it’s disgusting.

Sometimes I pretend the wolf really was our mother, that I have wolf ears, wolf paws, a wolf’s snout. At night, I tramp about the streets on all fours, down the alleyways, between garages, hoping to attract my lupine kin. Surely, there is one left. My way to you. I sniff among the trash cans as if they were berry bushes, and wait, let my wolf-eyes show me the old forest: thick stands of oaks and beeches and ash that force light to dapple upon the underbrush, the earthen floor alive with ferns, their spores filling the air with mirky rot, the smell of life cycling, the promise of a path half-sketched among the brambles—how it was before—when I was just a flash of red against the green, walking and skipping and running to you.


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D.E. Hardy’s work has appeared in New World Writing, FlashFlood, Clockhouse Magazine (Pushcart Nomination), and Sixfoldamong others. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be followed on twitter @dehardywriter.

Budapest by Matt Leibel

I circle the globe, searching for you. I find you pretty quickly, since the globe is sitting in the middle of our living room, and you’re not even trying to hide. You’ve always wanted to go to Budapest, but you can’t, because no one can go anywhere, so you just stare at the dot on the globe where Budapest would be and imagine that you are already there. You speak to me in a language you pretend is Hungarian. You bite into a sandwich that’s a stand-in for some grand Hungarian delicacy. The way you describe your meal, even in the fake Hungarian I can’t quite decipher, allows me to smell the meaty, juicy, aggressively carnivorous tang of it. I feel like I’m there with you, in Budapest, a place I’ve never been to in actual life. But what even is “actual life”, you ask me. “Being here with you,” I reply. “Who’s the hell is Lou?” You wonder. (My imaginary language skills are still pretty rudimentary.) “We should go there,” I say switching back to English, “when such things become possible again.” You agree, and stick a pin in Budapest—but the globe, the centerpiece of our shared, shabby space, is inflatable, and it pops. “Quelle catastrophe!” You exclaim, in your real language, and I’m beginning to think that we may never make it to Budapest, except that we’re already here, you and I, in this room we rarely leave, a place that could be anywhere, really, and is, in different moments, in different moods, on different days. And tomorrow, we will replace the globe with a map, and we will replace Budapest with Tokyo or Texarkana or Tangier—or hell, with Atlantis, what does it matter? We will invent more secret languages, we will find new modes of being. We will replace our wanderlust with real lust, or—if you’re no longer amenable to that—with whimsy, or with whiskey. We will play our roles until we have mapped every scale inch of our daydreams, and then we will sleep the sweetest sleep we’ve slept since the before times. And then we will wake up, stare blankly at the same room, the same walls, the same random, lake-y shapes of peeled-off paint, the same failed geographies, the same us, with our same stupid faces and stupid dead eyes, our same stupid noses that long to smell the world beyond our reach, our same stupid mouths that long to taste it.


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Matt Leibel lives in San Francisco. His short fiction has appeared in Electric Literature, Portland Review, Gone Lawn, Tiny Molecules, Cheap Pop, DIAGRAM, Wigleaf, and Best Small Fictions 2020.

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.


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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 austinrossauthor.com 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.


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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.

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.


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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.

A Man on the Street Offers Me a Cooked Shrimp by Andrea Frazier

And I take it, lift the slick comma of flesh right off the flimsy paper plate he juts gently but determinedly into my path. The man’s smile is a jumbled graveyard, each jaundiced tooth a mossy tombstone half-toppled by vandals or forced into a haphazard angle by tree roots heaving and flexing underneath the earth, threatening to burst through. Fueled by a winter melancholy twining my perennial nostalgia, I walk one hundred miles every weeknight over quiet sidewalks sometimes illuminated by wavering halos of lamplight, sometimes not. Now the man wiggles some fingers at me, not the goodbye I’d like but an invitation. With the shrimp tail pinched between my right thumb and index finger, I use my other hand to yank out one of the earbuds that reliably blanket my grey matter with dull noise and chatter. Even as I try to divert it, my mind thunders to the little black canister of pepper spray nestled like an heirloom bullet in the soft fleece of my coat pocket. A fleeting glow disappears into the dark crosshatch of towering pine branches as they welcome the sinking sun; the desolation of this short, tucked away road, creaky little homes buttoned up tight, breathes around me. Still, I smile. Smile at this man whose wiry gray hair poking from under a brown fedora rustles a bit as he bounces on the balls of his feet like he can hardly contain some good, delicious secret. Where did he come from? “Better with a smidge of cocktail sauce,” he tells me, his voice the strained chirp of a red-bellied robin caught, improbably, beneath a sudden cascade of dense snow. The plate, loaded with tiny carcasses, hovers between us. Glitter polish chipping on my nails, framed by tattered cuticles, glints faintly in the dying light when I step forward, swipe my shrimp through the pool of red. “Thank you,” I say. The pepper spray in my pocket: My mom halved a thirty-minute drive down sparse late-night highway to deliver it to my apartment, frantic after, in a moment of stupidity, I admitted that another man — on another of these hundred-mile walks — a stocky cannonball of a man in a blue windbreaker — had grabbed me from behind then barreled away. It’s been eight years since I’ve had a bite of meat, since I suffered through that one slaughterhouse documentary in college. But I chomp down immediately on the shrimp’s tough flesh as I walk away from the man with the graveyard smile, gnash the muscle, the ghosts of nerves rendered unfeeling between my molars. Heading toward home now through the dark chill, I flick the hollow shrimp tail onto some unknown neighbor’s front lawn.


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Andrea Frazier is a writer who lives in Pittsburgh. Her music essay “Let’s Get Fucked Up and Die!” is published in Drunk Monkeys.

Moses in the Chevy by Jim Kourlas

There’s only one car in the lot when we come out of the Kum & Go, this black Chevy SUV with tinted windows, engine idling and two pit bulls in the back seat howling as loud as the baby in front. Trey says car seats aren’t supposed to be hitched up to the front seat. Jodine says you can’t leave a baby in a car, but when she goes to open the door the pits go psycho and that’s the end of us playing heroes. It’s like 2:30 on a Tuesday, muggy as hell. The sky’s too bright to be this buzzed.

We were swiping nickels across scratch-offs in the shop when Trey went out for a cig and the doors ding-dinged open and all that barking-crying swallowed up Whitney Houston. Mellie only looked up from behind the counter, shrugged, went back to her Sudoku. So me and Jodine follow Trey outside. The driver could be in the bathroom, we suppose, but Jodine says when she peed away her Colt the john was empty. Nobody came in the shop. So who knows who pulled up in that Chevy, got out and left a baby and two pit bulls screaming for rescue or whatever.

Jodine gets her phone out, starts dialing the cops. I don’t know anything about babies, so I’m trying to figure out if these dogs are all pit or have a little mixed in. Some boxer maybe or something with a thicker coat, shepherd, you know? They’re boy dogs, big balls knocking between those ripped hind legs. I’m tapping the window, trying to shush them, but it only riles them up more. Trey says stop it.

Jodine goes back in for some Combos and another Colt and some more scratch-offs and we have a little picnic there on the hood of the Chevy. Swipe swipe swipe. Trey slices his path through little fake slot machines, but Jodine says take your time because who knows how long the cops are going to be. I say maybe the Chevy owner is coming back. Then Trey says, searching his card for a win, that maybe there is no owner of the Chevy, maybe it just appeared here. Jodine nods, says none of this is really happening, none of it, but I’m leaning against the hood, feel the heat, the pulse of the engine, and I like this idea—that maybe the baby is a special baby, like Noah or something, dropped in the river.

Moses, Jodine says, shaking her head. She still goes to church sometimes. We pass the Colt back and forth and I can feel things slipping more, our thoughts and stuff. And so I go off, telling them how maybe the pit bulls are like angels guarding Moses-baby there. And how the baby came out of nowhere, out of a god named Chevy. This gets us feeling better about the pits, better about drinking, better that we’re just standing around having a picnic and not risking our lives to save this baby. Baby’s already got its angels, Trey says, nodding.

Then this other car pulls up, a clean white SUV with a hood too high to picnic on, shaking to some fat Latin beat. Nearly runs Trey over. He skitters out of the way and we all slide our stuff over to the front of the Chevy, making sure not to mix the couple winner cards with the stack of losers. This tall swarthy dude in a sky blue suit steps out with a set of keys in hand, flips through them, finds the right one, then opens that Chevy door. Like we’re not even there. Unhitches that baby from the car seat, pulls it up to his chest like a mother, a goddam mother I swear it, kisses it on the head and bounces it up and down until the clouds part, waters part, I dunno, this baby stops crying. Then he climbs back into his SUV, turns his beat down to nothing. Jodine hurries over and slaps that hood but the SUV backs away, just slips through her hands-like, and heads down the highway.

What about your dogs! Trey shouts, and the dogs, it’s crazy, go quiet now, like their barks were Lassie-barks calling for that rich white man like us morons called the cops. Only the cops were never coming, and that swarthy man was, so the pit bulls knew more about what was what than we ever could. I’m thinking we could use some pits like that, some angels, and say maybe we can take them home with us, but Trey says our landlord will kick us out. And Jodine says better not fuck with angels, that you can’t own one, you just got to be good and wait around like you’re at the DMV until your name gets called.

We head home after that. We still have a few more scratch-offs to blow through before the game starts at three, so at least we have some stuff to look forward to. I’m thinking about the pits though, how we left them curled on top of one another in the back seat of that Chevy, work done, dozing until they’d fly off to guard the next Moses-baby or whatever. I think I hear sirens, but I don’t know if they’re cop or ambulance or dogcatcher. If they’re coming for the baby or the pits. Then I look at Trey and Jodine ahead of me on the weedy shoulder, arms outstretched like kids on a make-believe balance beam, and I know the sirens are coming for us.

What the hell, I think. I turn around and head back to the Kum & Go. I don’t want the cops to take the dogs away. Maybe I’ll get arrested or caged with the pits. Or who knows—maybe we’ll all get saved.


Jim Kourlas earned an MFA in creative writing from Roosevelt University in Chicago and has stories in Hunger Mountain and The Blue Mountain Review. He lives in Omaha with his wife and son.

It Takes 25 Minutes to Walk to the Laundromat by Andrea Lynn Koohi

I love the smell of gasoline.
*
When my stepfather comes home, his hands are blackened with grease. He washes them for four minutes under the tap.
*
The cat brings songbirds home in his teeth, hides them behind the sofa. My mother scolds him with tears in her eyes. Says he understands and he will learn.
*
My stepfather says don’t be anti-social. Says get out of the house, go make some friends. I pass a hooded stranger on my way out the door, sit under the walnut tree in the yard.
*
I can’t leave the table until I finish my milk. I stare at the back of a dirty fork, rub its sting from my knuckles. When the glass is empty, I vomit all over the floor.
*
My stepfather works beneath a car in the garage. I dance around tools, puddles of oil. When he asks for the wrench, I find it right away. His teeth flash praise, my breath releases. He rolls back under the car.
*
I see the stranger leave, sense a stillness in the house. I know to wait outside, make bracelets with dandelions, listen to the plunk of walnuts on the ground.
*
I peer over the sink to watch the day’s work float like an oil slick, then slip down the drain. I pop the dirty bubbles on the bar of soap.
*
In the car my mother rides seatbelt-free, window open, jewelled hand to the wind. My stepfather blares Bon Jovi on the speakers, drives 20 over the speed limit. I dig my hand into a box of French fries, feel the slip of oil on my fingers. I love this little nook in the backseat of their happiness. I never ask if we are there yet.
*
When my stepfather comes home, his hands are clean. He’s carrying papers and rage. I hide in my room with a pillow to quell the flapping in my stomach.
*
The more beautiful the bird, the more tears my mother cries.
*
It takes 25 minutes to walk to the laundromat. My mother pushes the metal cart while I steady the garbage bags that threaten to spill. My stepfather stays home, feet crossed on the sofa, eyes like the cat’s when they spot a yellow bird from behind a window. One foot shakes rapidly back and forth, going nowhere. There is no pedal to stop it.


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Andrea Lynn Koohi is a writer and editor from Toronto, Canada. Her recent work appears in Pithead Chapel, Reservoir Road, Idle Ink, The Maine Review, Streetlight Magazine, and others.