The Dunking Pool by Darlene Eliot

There are two people in the dunking pool. One doing the dunking and one doing the pretending. I’m the tallest one in line. And I’d rather think of pizza. Pizza with all the toppings. Toppings Mom doesn’t like. Onions, bell peppers, sun-dried tomatoes. A dusting of black pepper. Olives. Parmesan. One slice with melted chocolate. I like surprises when I’m alone.

I’ll think of that slice when my head goes underwater and the preacher pulls me up like a marionette and water comes out my ears. The crowd will stand. Probably sing. Then I’ll crawl up the submerged steps like a salamander and press my face into a snow-white towel, the kind you only see when you’re visiting. I’ll keep the cursing to myself because you can’t make a sound in here unless you’re singing. Then I’ll head to the front for inspection. Mom will fix my hair and hug me tighter than she ever has before because the shame’s been flushed out and she can hold her head up high. Well, not yet.

The water is at my waist. And the preacher rallies the crowd, one hand in the air, the other on my back. I think about chocolate and sun-dried tomatoes, the time my first boyfriend showed up with a Chocolate Jesus and wine and told me my prayers had been answered.

The water covers my face. And it’s over in an instant. I wipe my eyes and Mom’s face lights up like a jack-o-lantern. She’s in the front row—her face as bright and polished as a candy corn—smiling for the first time since I was a baby. Making me wish I had done this when I was red-lipped and red-eyed and wanting to run but too scared to try. It would have been easier then, like falling onto a bed of cotton. Or cottontails. Lined up straight and docile. Face down. One dunking could have stopped the lamentations, her fear of unwashed solitude. Destruction of family legacy. A future with no pretty babies. Or a future with unwashed, pretty babies. But now everything’s changed. I’m a vision everyone can see.

I follow the other visions to the front. The crowd walks by, single file, shaking our hands, hugging us, saying it’s never too late. Not even for me. I glance at the short ones, their eyes bright, shoulders straight, nodding at everything the crowd says. I wonder if they believe it. Or just want to go home in peace, grab food, retreat to their rooms and their music, bide their time before they start to disappoint. Or maybe they’re ahead of me, listening to transgressions in the quiet of their rooms, listening to songs about chocolate deities, knowing nothing soothes the soul like a bite of blasphemy without reprisal or remorse. If they don’t already know it, they’ll find out very soon.


-_deliot

Darlene Eliot was born in Canada and grew up in Southern California. When not writing short fiction, she enjoys time with her sweetheart, watching Marx Brothers movies, hiking the Bay area coast, and watching the weather change hourly. You can find her on Twitter @deliotwriter

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.


IMG_9845

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.


9EA84228-80B3-4821-8ACE-3A5E1F1C635A_1_201_a

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.

A Perfect Day by Michael Akuchie

Today there is not a lot that the sun is saying—the thick layer of clouds keep back the sun’s venomous beam. The windows of sky are ajar. The wind is what leaps from the fine decor of heaven. I am camped by the slender frame of a tree, wind sways toward the shoot of leaves. I love a weather without the charge of heat.


mia_1

Michael Akuchie is a poet and essayist residing in Nigeria. Wreck, Michael’s debut chapbook of poems was selected by José Olivarez to receive the 2019-2020 Hellebore Poetry Scholarship Award. He is continually inspired by mundane things.

One Good Thing by Claire Taylor

One good thing is a pile of steamed crabs on butcher paper. Last night I dreamed I knew how to put out fires. My arms were sprinklers. We ran through the spray laughing. Nobody said the apocalypse is coming. Nobody said we’re running out of time. It was already over and we couldn’t remember how it ended so we ate popsicles and danced to Queen, our lips and tongues as red as a blaze. To eat a crab, you hold a knife to its shell and bash it with a mallet. You dig your fingers into every crevice, pull out the meat. Someone on Twitter says it’s the worst first date food. Someone on Twitter says you can make your own currency. So I pick the petals off all the flowers and pile them up like coins. I roll them into a ball and we kick it around the yard. When our son scores a goal he falls to his knees in mock celebration. I let it in on purpose. I let it all in: the shadows and the street lamps, the sound of the highway thundering like a waterfall at the edge of the world.


CTaylor_PhotoClaire Taylor is a writer in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of two microchapbooks: A History of Rats (Ghost City Press, 2021) and, As Long As We Got Each Other (ELJ Editions, Ltd., 2022), as well as a children’s literature collection, Little Thoughts. Claire is the founder and editor in chief of Little Thoughts Press, a quarterly print magazine of writing for and by kids. You can find Claire online at clairemtaylor.com or Twitter @ClaireM_Taylor.

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.


matt_leibel_photo

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.

Urban Geography by Wendy BooydeGraaff

Our small-town high school urban geography class rode the yellow bus on the QEW to
Toronto to observe the gridded mecca of skyrises and underground malls. There on Queen
Street near Church, a man—a jovial man with three shirts and two jackets, a Santa beard and
a warm palm—said I was beautiful, the mirror image of Princess Di, she with the perpetually
bowed head, pearls and memorable black dress, now part of a wardrobe curated by art
museums. I tossed my long kinky hair and blushed—me, with the tight light jeans and slouch
socks, a baby pink t-shirt tucked in exposing empty belt loops, and my red school jacket with a near-invisible gold chain around my neck. You! my friend said, the one with pixie blonde hair, and upturned nose, disgust dripping in her eyes. He just wanted your money. Of
course, I said, and dug in my purse to find another loonie.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Wendy BooydeGraaff’s fiction, poems, and essays have been included in Nymphs, MORIA, Splonk, NOON, and elsewhere. Originally from Ontario, Canada, she now
lives in Michigan, United States.

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.


9AgdXqz1_400x400

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.


Tom_Walsh

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.