Stingrays in Captivity by Diane D. Gillette

4:34 A.M. Feinberg Hospital. Room 2524. The room is too hot to sleep. The ice has melted in the cup the nurse brought in a few hours before. I unwrap one of the sponge lollipops they gave me and dip it in the lukewarm cup. I pick up the TV remote with my free hand and flip through channels while I swab the inside of my mouth. I search for something to distract me, so I don’t just down the cup of water, disregarding the doctor’s orders and losing even the small relief the sponge lollipop brings me.

I land on Animal Planet. There’s a show about an aquarium. I’ve been there once. Years ago. I remember standing in a glass cave and watching whale sharks swim above me. I felt so small. My best friend stood next to me. Pregnant with her first. Glowing. Two more babies and some years later, I haven’t been back.

I watch the aquarium staff herd two female stingrays into an elevator tank so they can be taken up for their monthly exam. Wild stingrays mate constantly, holding their eggs inside their mermaid’s purse until the young hatch and burst out into the world to try out the tricky business of survival. As soon as they are gone, mother stingray begins again. Captive stingrays develop ovarian cysts without their constant stream of progeny.

I press my hand to my abdomen, oh so gently. Feel the staples beneath my fingers. Underneath the staples and the skin and the fat rolls is a distinct absence, pulsing, reminding me that my last ovary is gone. There will be no more eggs for me. Nothing to hatch in my mermaid’s purse. I’ll never stand under a whale shark and glow with a new life blooming within me. My cyst was the size of a mango. If it had been a baby, it would have been about 16 weeks along. But it wasn’t.

My mango cyst didn’t want to go. My body, so desperate to keep my reproductive tools, allowed it to reach out with long seaweed fronds, reaching and wrapping, grabbing whatever it could reach. My uterus. My intestines. My abdominal wall. It spent a year tying and knotting itself firmly inside of me. They cut it out of me and then cut me open again to take more. “Whoo, boy, that was a tricky one,” the surgeon told me when the anesthesia faded and the pain crescendoed.

A bloodsucker comes in to stick me for my morning draw. Her name tag says Tisa. I ask her if she knew about the stingrays, about how the lack of babies causes them a life of pain. Tisa says she didn’t. I close my eyes, wait for the pinch. I imagine myself gliding free and cool through the ocean.

 


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Diane D. Gillette’s work has appeared in many literary venues including the Saturday Evening Post, Blackbird, and Middle House Review. Her work is a Best Small Fictions nominee. She lives in Chicago and is a founding member of the Chicago Literary Writers. You can find more of her work at http://www.digillette.com.

Body of Water by S. S. Mandani

The psychic across from the dollar pizza joint on East 6th Street told Rohan he’d die at the age
of eighty-five.

His cousin Navya smiled terrifically in the corner of the room, having just been told she would be unfazed by the negative energy from the men in her life and have a hallmark year. Rohan had known Navya her whole life, since they were babies, and had met her boyfriend. Layla the psychic was, so far, one for one.

An oversized ruffled curtain hid the back of the room, which was clearly Layla’s residence. The smell of cheese puffs and jasmine incense hung in the air.

Layla said Rohan’s chakra was the color yellow outlined in purple. According to the universe, it meant he had lied more than usual that week and felt good about it. She opened the session up for questions. Rohan asked, “How will I die?”

“You will not have a single worry your whole life. Then, at the end, you will be in serious pain, and die as quickly as you existed.”

“But eighty-five years is a pretty long time to exist.”

“For whom?”

“For anyone.”

“Not for a tardigrade or a Greenland shark. Have you ever heard of an Aldabra giant tortoise? The honey mushroom is 8,650 years old. Gran Abuelo. Methuselah. Baobab and sequoia trees. I could go on, but you’re entering twenty-five dollar territory. Eighty-five years is a micro existence. A peanut, kid.”

“I’m not a peanut, and I’m not a tree.”

She sucked on her cigarette. The tar end glowed orange like an ancient Sun, “Tree, you are not. More like tree food.”

Rohan paid Layla twenty dollars before she milked more cosmic currency (the only accepted form of payment the purple pyramid sign listed) out of him, and left the shop. His cousin went to get a late-night seven-dollar burrito.

It was a thirty-two degree winter night. Rohan got a slice of pizza from across the street. He didn’t believe in clairvoyants. He hardly trusted the news to get today right. He called his dad to tell him the age of his predicted death.

“Rohan, why did you do that?”

“What?”

“Psychic. There is no such thing.”

“It’s just for fun, dad.”

“Now you will die at eighty-five. Maybe sooner.” Rohan’s mother yelled in Hinglish in the background.

He took a bite of crust.

“You will be consumed with thoughts of death. Beta, you will not be able to live.”

“Dad.”

“No, I am telling you. They say your great-great-grandfather, dada’s dada, went to a psychic in Mumbai. She said the same thing. He would die at age eighty-five.”

“That was a long life back then. So what?” Chewing, “It’s a long life now.”

“No, no. But then he could not stop thinking about it. He became aimless. The very same day he tripped on a rock and tumbled down the side of a hill into the Mithi River flooded by the monsoons. He couldn’t swim and drowned. It is not the psychic. It is your mind, raja.”

“I think I’ll be fine. You can’t really trip into the Hudson.”

“Do not go swimming anywhere.”

“Where am I going to swim?”

“I am just saying. Do not go to a pool.”

“Okay dad,” hanging up.

Navya appeared with a burrito in hand, wrapped in aluminum foil. They walked home. It snowed.

<>

It rained. The sun shone and the seasons changed. A year passed and Rohan walked back to the psychic on the corner of East 6th Street, but Layla was gone. The storefront had been turned into another pizza shop. He called his dad, recounting the story of the psychic. Again, his dad told him about his great-great-grandfather and how he had drowned, warning him to stay away from pools, rivers, lakes, streams, the ocean. His dad even cautioned him about New York City puddles. But Rohan knew he could not avoid the ocean forever. Someday, he would have to go for a swim. Someday, he would feed the trees, but today a dollar slice of pizza on his walk home would have to do.


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S.S. Mandani is a writer, runner, and coffee person from New York City. His work is featured or forthcoming in New World Writing, X-R-A-Y, No Contact, and others. Equal parts Murakami and Calvino, his novel in progress explores Sufi mysticism to tell the story of how a climate world war brings together a dysfunctional family of jinns spanning a hundred years. It envisions a murky, yet hopeful future. He radios @SuhailMandani.

If Tonight We Sit For Dinner by Abbie Barker

If tonight I stop working early enough to cook dinner, and I pull out the placemats and fill my glass with sparkling water instead of opening another bottle of chardonnay, and we sit together and pray, thanking God for all we have and don’t have, even if it’s hard to thank God for anything since your daddy died, and if tonight we spin noodles around our forks and talk, really talk, maybe I’ll ask about your day and maybe you’ll tell me about that boy Liam you’ve been hanging around with and how he goes through his mother’s drawers and shows you how to flick a lighter and strike a match, how he gave you one of his cousin’s pocket knives and made you swear never to tell your mom about the BB gun he sometimes sneaks from the basement and aims at squirrels, how once he even aimed it at you and said it wouldn’t hurt and you’d be a wuss if it did, how he led you into the garage toward a tall, locked safe and bragged that one day he’d know the combination.

And if tonight you told me about the safe, maybe I wouldn’t scream that I never want to see a knife in your hand—a lighter, a match­—because those things lead to worse things and boys your age shouldn’t touch anything that can slice/scorch/combust. Maybe I’d look at you, really look at you, and see your daddy in those eyes, in that smirk, in every alarming impulse I’ve failed to suppress, and maybe I wouldn’t turn away in fear/shame/grief, and instead I could tell you everything I know about friendship and loss, even if most of what I know is loss—even if it would be easier on you, better, if your daddy were here to guide you through boyhood instead of me.

And if tonight I tuck you in, whisper a bedtime story, even after you shrug me away, even after you say you’re too old, and if I linger until you fall asleep, and say more prayers, even if I don’t know what to pray for anymore, even if all my pleading can’t bring your daddy back or make it so he never turned down that icy road after a too-long day, after a too-long stop at the bar, and if tonight I don’t pour a third glass of wine or fall asleep on the couch, if tonight I don’t leave you to brush your teeth and find your way into bed alone because even your clammy hand on my cheek won’t wake me, and if tonight, I tell you that I love you and I love you and I love you no matter what…

Then tomorrow will you walk straight home after school instead of following Liam up his driveway and into his garage toward the tall safe, the one that this time will unlock, even if his father swears, really swears, he’s the only one that can open it? Or tomorrow will I listen to Liam’s father say that someone else must have opened it, that the lock must be defective, that there must be somebody he can sue? Will I listen and listen and listen until it’s no one’s fault, and I’m the only one left to blame?


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Abbie Barker lives with her husband and two kids in New Hampshire. Her flash fiction has appeared in Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Atticus Review, Gone Lawn, Cease, Cows, and others. She teaches creative writing and is a reader for Fractured Lit. You can find her on Twitter @AbbieMBarker.

A Predictable Nature by Tommy Dean

Rotting crab apples stuck sickly to her feet as she danced under the umbrella of the clustering leaves. Her parents’ voices crashed like waves on the beach followed by the low sizzle of water raking across the sand. She went to the ocean once. Santa Monica Pier, where they stood on the edge of a crowd, trapeze performers twisting into tight body rolls, her own tongue corkscrewing to keep herself from gasping as they appeared to fall only to be caught by a strong arm.

From this spot on the farm, the chickens clucking over the spilled feed along the gravel drive, the ocean, the sun, the waves were as lost as her mother’s ring. The diamond smaller than a corn kernel, bobbed on the girl’s thumb, sunlight stratifying across the upturned leaves. She quite enjoyed being the cause of their mystery, their shouted responses. At least they were talking. So many dinners her father ate over the sink; her mother waiting for a mumbled thanks as she made another endless grocery list.

The smell of sun, a mixture of water-soaked wood and excitement. The thrill of crowding voices rushed away by the wind scooping through the valley of unplanted fields carrying along the uninvited smell of manure. She promised herself she would return the ring soon, but she hated to confess. She didn’t know the word ransom, but she thought maybe she could get them to agree to a trade.

Anything to stand in the gap between sky and sea again.

She braced her feet against the base of the petite tree, her hands clutching the rough branch. She arched her neck, oak brown hair fanning down like foliage.

She’ll hold on until her father comes, his shadow a promise, daring him to catch her.


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Tommy Dean lives in Indiana with his wife and two children. He is the author of the forthcoming flash fiction chapbook entitled Covenants from ELJ Editions. He is the Editor at Fractured Lit. He has been previously published in the BULL Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Lascaux Review, New World Writing, Pithead Chapel, and New Flash Fiction Review. His story “You’ve Stopped” was included in Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020 and the Best Small Fiction 2019. He won the 2019 Lascaux Prize in Short Fiction. Find him @TommyDeanWriter.

Zombies in the Bosque by Becca Yenser

You don’t want to park at the end of the trail where glass is smashed upon the pavement
twinkling like the presents you wish you could afford, but there is no point in parking in the
islands between the lanes where the New Mexican drivers try to stay within the lines. Up here
the air sparkles a bit too much, gets into your lungs but puffs out like glitter.

You don’t want to walk to the second duck pond, or even the first one, but the woman
you might love said she’d be waiting in the blind. You picture her now, her hair blending in with
the dying grasses while the oily black ducks dive beneath the surface of the water. They make
other-earthly noises as they fly overhead.

You walk by the tree where a man was nailed to the trunk through the backs of his hands.
He had just gotten off work and was still carrying his briefcase when he decided to walk between
the tall white cottonwoods. Rio Grande cottonwoods have been growing in the Bosque for more
than a million years. The path was between the main gravel trail and the river. You saw his
hands in the newspapers, and yeah, there were two black holes the size of pupils in the hearts of
his palms. They called themselves ‘Bosque Zombies,’ he was quoted as saying.

You walk up a short hill to where the water almost meets your shoe. The black diving
ducks are pochards, sea ducks that made their way South in the fall. ‘Pochard’ sounds like a bad
word, she’d said, the bruises on her thighs yellow in the middle like split peaches.

In the blind is the shadow of a woman. A group of young men come around the pond
from behind. Their hoods are up. They are silent. A pale middle-aged woman walks among
them, in the middle, and she looks scared. She gives you a Wal-Mart smile. The woman you
thought you loved might or might not be in the blind. Give me everything you have, she might
say, and you will lift your palms to the sky.


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Becca Yenser has an MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University. They are the author of the chapbook Too High and Too Blue In New Mexico (Dancing Girl Press, 2018). Their writing appears in Hobart, The Nervous Breakdown, Heavy Feather Review, Madcap Review, and elsewhere. Grief Lottery, their creative nonfiction flash collection, is forthcoming from ELJ Editions in December 2021. Find them on Twitter @beccayenser.

Beginnings by Anu Kandikuppa

She watches the weathered hands of the proprietor pour the ghee into the bottle and slap a label on it: Gowardhan Desi Cow Ghee, Since 1947. An inch of golden liquid over grainy goodness in the heat of Hyderabad, it would turn into a yellow cake in Chicago, yield to the pressure of her spoon. A spoonful a day in hot dal for her daughter Meena, through her to the baby.

The bottle grows in her mother-hands: trussed in pages of the Indian Express plastered with pictures of body bags and hospitals—bleak world for new life—then bubble-wrapped, tied with twine, bundled in a sari, and tucked in a suitcase. Joined there by papery methi-stuffed parathas, and packets of pomegranate seeds and dry red chillies, the heat and goodness of the country sealed into their powdery bodies. A bottle of hing snuggles in a brassiere cup, a baggie of ginger frolics in the blouses, plastic-sheathed parathas glint between saris, a serene green-flecked sea.

The baby is a girl, third in a line of women, starting with the mother. As blood thinned, so would ill-luck—that was the hope. The mother’s: a bad heart laced up with metal, early widowhood. And Meena, a sickly Lactogen baby—grief and stress had seen to it. Beginnings matter. She pushed away mother-made food, stood stock-still in pillowy mother-embraces, fled at eighteen to America, where she ate fries and burgers and pizza and ruined the lining of her stomach. Can’t eat wheat or rice or onions, she said on distant, infrequent calls. Can’t feed myself, couldn’t feed a baby, can’t have one. There went the mother’s second chance.

Anyone would think she was traveling. In truth, suitcase, mother, chillies, all were in service of the ghee—they were henchmen to the ghee—the ghee rich in butyric acid, a short-chain fatty acid that stimulates the secretion of gastric juices and aids in better digestion and smooth bowel movements, which is very important in new mothers, and, in addition, increases vitamin absorbency thereby strengthening the immune system. Her keen mother-eyes had read the words in a doctor’s office, her mother-mind memorized them. Three lemons, skin cratered like the moon, and several sprigs of curry leaves, flawless in their geometry, lurk in her hand baggage as do twists of turmeric root, to be ruthlessly boiled in water and honey for Meena. At the last minute, she thrusts in her suitcase small packs of basmati rice, yellow lentils, and dried chickpeas, her shoulders heaving with relief at having remembered.

Pokerfaced, she tells the uniformed man at O’Hare that she carried nothing, nothing at all. Masked, shielded, camouflaged, Mother and ghee roll through the green channel and into Chicago. The ground shakes, the city quakes beneath her mother-step. Then she’s with the American Meena married—enabler of the surprise baby—who twangs away at her. What is in her bag, why is it so heavy? “Gee? There’s gee in Chicago,” he says. “G-h-e-e. G-H,” she sighs. The cows were not the same, the hump made all the difference, research had shown. He starts talking about the flavored gees in Stop & Shop. She stops listening and stares at the traffic.

Then Meena, after fifteen years, sallow and rotund. “I don’t know why you came,” she says, clueless about mother-might. One sweep of her arm and out go the ketchup, the peanut butter, the mayonnaise. By evening they are sitting down to a meal, Meena, the baby, and the ghee.


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Anu Kandikuppa’s flash fiction has appeared in Gone Lawn, Jellyfish Review, and The Cincinnati Review, and her short stories and essays appear in Colorado Review, Epiphany, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and other journals. Her work has received Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction nominations. Among other degrees, Anu holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She worked as an economics consultant in a former life and lives in Boston.

Pocketed by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Polly is as small as your fingernail, but shiny and clean, not like your ragged half moons, the ones you use to dig in the sandbox as though you are trying to escape, drag across your thighs to leave pale tracks, skin turned dust as if to confirm how easily you can be reduced to nothing. 

Polly wears a red headband around her blonde curls, and you try one on in the bathroom mirror, balancing on the sink to see yourself as if for the first time, gangly gap tooth girl playing dress up behind the toothpaste spray. When you lean forward to magnify your desperation, smell old food and sharp sting of Listerine. 

Polly keeps a dog and a cat at her country cottage, a basket of kittens and a koi pond at her parade village. She looks after animals in her veterinary hospital. They smile even though you know this isn’t possible. Dogs like yours jump the metal fence to run away, choke themselves hoarse trying to escape the chain. Your haunchy cat slinks the yard like a premonition. 

You find disemboweled mice on the porch—blue and yellow gut sacks, heads held on by strings. You feel that way sometimes, like you would drift away if not for the tether of your spine. Severed hands and feet—tiny as your plastic Polly Pocket, a dollhouse that fits in you palm—try to scurry off the cement. 

The cat loves Mommy best, brings her baby bunnies, wild-eyed and frozen. Mommy pries them from the cat’s jaws, walks into the field across the street—dead with weed and dust, broken bottles and cigarette butts—to set them free. 

Polly hosts sleepovers in her pastel living room, volleyball parties on her private beach. Polly has a secret garden, a magic jungle. 

No one comes to your sleepovers because last week a bar fight left a man dead on Main Street. Because the house by the riverbed pulses meth smoke like rotten eggs. Because the rusted-out cars look like piles of bones. Because your parents fight so big and loud that you hide beneath your bed. Because you said out loud that your swollen eyes make your lashes look like spiders when you look to sky. 

Make a fake beach in your sandbox, pretend to be stranded and cry please help. Struggle for air like drowning so good that sometimes you for real can’t breathe. Make a garden of dirt clods. Hang ribbon from the doorway, pretend to be Polly walking through jungle vines. Pretend so good you imagine them snakes like in your nightmares, all that thrash and gnash in the sheets trying to escape. 

Polly’s houses are plastic compacts shaped like a star, like a flower, soapsuds, a seashell. Polly fits inside anything beautiful. Polly makes any place a home. She even fits in your hand-me-down pocket, the one sagging at the corner where you bury your hand, your head. Where you try to climb inside. 

Your house is getting bigger, like the shouting is pushing out the walls. Or maybe it’s you getting smaller. Your clothes don’t fit right, your bed’s too wide. You must be imagining it, you think, even the thought too big for your skull, floating out and above your head. Your plastic bank, the empty girl you drop pennies into, is nearly your height now, and even the ballerina in your music box twirls large in front of your face. 

Your feelings don’t fit, like how a feel slips out your mouth and you say stop or no, your heart struggling inside your small, aorta pumping at your throat. 

Polly’s smile has worn off under your frantic fingers, but you draw one in red pen to match your own wavering line. 

There are rattlesnakes in the yard, black widows in the eves, sex predators down the street. Your principal ran away with your classmate. He was nice, covered your small hand with his largeness. 

Your neighbor spies from his second-story window, whispers through the knothole in the fence that he watches you undress. Your other neighbor never sleeps, mutters on the porch about ghosts, pops his head over the fence when you take out the garbage to say it’s the end of the world. 

You crouch when you undress, try to hide from the man peering inside your pastel room. You hold plastic still. 

You crouch smaller when you take out the garbage, bones splitting the bag, revealing the gnaw where someone sucked out the sweet marrow. Whiskey bottles bang your shins, leave them mottled purple and blue like Mommy’s arms, the place around her eye. 

You crouch smallest to escape the neighbor’s arms reaching over the fence towards you, pleading, “Let me save you, girl.” 

Daddy watches boxing on tv while you play Polly in her tiny jewel house. The sound of fist on flesh is familiar, and does anyone notice how you shrink? Now you fit in the suitcase Mommy is rolling to the front door, the bruise across her back, the box of Band-Aids she keeps beneath the sink. 

Polly grows and grows or you shrink and shrink and now she is bigger than your nail, your finger, your whole clenched hand, tendons tight against the cage of your skin. 

One man punches another, teeth down the throat. Blood spatters across the screen like stars, the twinkle lights in Polly’s enchanted garden. 

You climb inside Polly’s house when Mommy closes the door. The tiny dog and cat meet you. The koi fish leap from the pond in greeting. You smell the sterile safe of plastic. You walk the path, sit quiet on the bench. Everywhere is green. There are no neighbors. You can’t even find Polly. 

Inside the house, the bed is big enough for one. The couch too. There is no fighting on tv. There is no toothpaste on the bathroom mirror when you check your Polly hair, Polly smile. 

Grab the lid, snap the compact closed. Now you are hidden, safe in this brittle plastic heart. 


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Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines including Bellingham Review, Brevity, Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Split Lip Magazine, and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

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.


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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.


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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.