Limbo Land by Claire Polders

My silent mother returns to our silent home with stitches in her brow, swollen cheeks, her warmth extinguished. I’ve barely slept since Power took her away and sleep even less now. Each morning, I dab her wounds and brush her skin with my lips, crushed to find her scent is gone.
We don’t talk about the boys. We don’t mention how they doubled our days, promised us purpose, helped us hope. We don’t dare to wonder where they are now. They were foreigners and strangers, yet also ours. Their absence rattles our bones.
Power must have used force from the start, cracking my mother on the third day. What happened to her afterward, I wonder, when Power came for the second time, went straight to the attic, busted the secret door, and didn’t find what it had been promised?
I tell myself, had I not told the boys to run, all her suffering would have been in vain.
At night, I relive the moment right before Power dragged my mother away, when my eyes told her to keep quiet: I would never forgive her if she sold out the boys.
I make new soaps and experiment with the recipe—more herbs, less sunflower oil—not knowing what I hope to accomplish.
Time passes and my mother’s wounds heal. Even her warmth flares up: she strokes my cheek and says, I would have survived the moment of my betrayal, not the memory. But her words cannot restore me. The world in which I am innocent and brave seems no more real than the world in which I can fly.
She used to smell so reassuring, woody and wondrous, like a poem in summer rain. I wish it were my nose, my guilt embodied, and she has returned unchanged.

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Claire Polders is a Dutch author. Her stories and essays are published wherever they are appreciated. Her first novel in English, A Whale in Paris (Atheneum/Simon&Schuster, May 2018), is a kid’s book for all ages, co-written by her husband. You can find links to her short prose at http://www.clairepolders.com.

Moose Lodge #1384 by Lisa Ferranti

The lodge sits in the middle of cornfields, the cornfields sit in the middle of the Midwest, the moose sits on top of the lodge, and Ray and I sit on top of the moose. Ray’s in front, my arms looped around him as if I’m a passenger on a motorcycle. On a motorcycle, the wind would be whipping through our hair, mouths clamped tight against bugs. But the moose is stone still, made of molded plastic, and my mouth is open, licking the back of Ray’s neck.

“See, over there.” Ray points to a small fire in a nearby field.

“Bonfire?” I ask, leaning back to adjust the straps on my lavender taffeta bridesmaid’s gown, third one this year, all of varying pastel colors and equal never-to-be-worn-again hideousness. Ray left his tux jacket in the pickup he drove us in from the reception to the Lodge. We waited long enough for Betsy, my college roommate, and his cousin Ben, to drive off, their car trailing aluminum cans, before making out in his truck.

When we came up for air, he said, “You gotta see the moose,” and with a few shots of tequila in me, I said, “Sure, show me the moose.” And now here we are.

“Not a bonfire,” Ray says as we survey the fields, the first fire burning in a perfect circle, another spot of flames appearing in a neighboring field.

He twists toward me, one hand holding onto the moose’s antler for balance. I lean forward to kiss him, but he grabs my chin with his free thumb and forefinger. “Aliens,” he says, and my tequila haze subsides for a moment as I consider that I’m sitting on a roof with someone I met the night before at a rehearsal dinner, who I know virtually nothing about other than he’s Ben’s cousin and he lives in this town where they grew up and works at the paper mill.

I laugh, but he says, “Really,” and turns my face to purview the fields as small fires sprout around us. “I think they’re aiming for the animals,” he says, “like a game.” I picture the computer game my mom plays obsessively that involves collecting livestock. In the field closest to us, I see what I think is the outline of a cow go up in flames.

“I’ve asked them about it,” Ray continues, “but there’s a language barrier.”

I kicked off my lavender-dyed heels at the bottom of the metal ladder we climbed to get to the roof. I think I could make it down myself if I had to, even though one of the rungs is split in half and Ray had grasped my forearm and pulled me up. I saw a pay phone inside the door of the Lodge, but who to call? Betsy and Ben on their way to the Bahamas?

I lean back, size Ray up. His black hair curls up slightly over his tux shirt collar, his blue eyes shiny from the reflection of the neon 1384 sign. He might be crazy, but I want to kiss his chiseled cheekbones.

“See?” I say. “My married friends can’t do this,” and I rip open the buttons of this almost perfect stranger’s shirt. “Tell me about the aliens,” I say, touching his chest. We rock atop the moose, and he recounts how they only come to him here, in this place. How their forms are pure light. I reach forward and grab an antler, crawl over Ray so that I’m in front, lean forward and hug the moose’s neck. Ray hikes up my dress, whispers in my ear, says that sometimes when they come he goes with them, and I let myself go, watch the burning circles and imagine they’re fireflies.

He drops me off at my hotel that night and I stand on the sidewalk, my heels dangling from my hand, and watch him drive away. There’s a faint scent of smoke in the air.

The next day I help Betsy’s mom with post-wedding activities, fold the wedding dress into a box, offer to drop it at the dry cleaners. Betsy’s mom touches my hand before I leave, says, “It’ll happen for you, too, dear, when you find the right man.” I swallow hard, hug her. I hear my own mom’s words before I left to come to the wedding, when I told her about my latest breakup: Men don’t buy the cow when the milk’s free. My dad: She’ll get married when pigs fly. They’ve never set foot on a farm, yet they throw around farm animal idioms like they’re the McDonald’s.

On my way to the airport that evening, I stop at the Lodge. I don’t see Ray’s truck, but I walk inside and the woman tending bar says, “He’s not here. Disappeared last night. Probably on a bender again.” I nod and walk back outside. I look up and wonder, but the only thing hovering above me in the dusk is the moose head.

It’s almost dark by the time my plane takes off. I’m alone in my row, in the window seat. I slouch, look toward the ground. Bright circles light up the fields, perfect circles of flames. I sit up straight, lean forward for a better view. Could it be? Off to the side of one of the circles, there’s a smaller fire, an organic shape. I press my face against the window, stare at the misshapen spot. A campfire? We inch higher into the sky. Streaks of color emanate from the smaller fire, liquid lavender fingers bleeding orange. I imagine starch-stiff taffeta melting into earth. From this height, a membrane-thin rim of pink lines the horizon, and I reach toward it, but my hand meets glass. On the other side, blackness. But further off, just beyond, white light beams.


Lisa_Ferranti_PhotoLisa Ferranti’s fiction has been a Top 25 finalist in a Glimmer Train Family Matters contest, twice short-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, a Reflex Fiction contest finalist, and highly commended in the 2018 Hemingway Shorts contest and National Flash Fiction Day 2018 micro competition. Recent stories have appeared in Literary Mama, FlashFlood Journal, Hemingway Shorts, the 2018 NFFD Ripenings Anthology, and Reflex Fiction. She lives with her husband, son and daughter near Akron, Ohio.

François by Didi Wood

You should have leapt the instant you heard the splash. But in that breathless, urgent moment, you hesitated, scanning the murky water, waiting for her to bob to the surface so you could get a better fix on her location. You didn’t see her fall, you weren’t looking – there was just that smack of something hitting the water, and you knew before you whirled around that it was she, that she was gone, her tiny pink parka a crumpled chrysalis on the weathered boards of the dock.

You waited–just a second or two–any reasonable man would have done the same. And then, the second splash, as someone else jumped in first.

You wish you hadn’t thought about how cold the water would be, how filthy, churning with grime and bacteria, even as you prepared to jump. No one knows what you were thinking. How could they? The papers reported you shedding your phone and wallet along the way, implying that you were concerned about losing them, damaging them, instead of focusing on your daughter–your baby girl!–drowning in the dark, frigid waters of Elliott Bay.

And whose fault was it she fell in the first place? You hadn’t planned to bring her along, but your wife wanted a break, and she thrust kid and coat at you and pushed you out the door. You’re not stupid: you should have been watching, not fiddling with your phone, checking your email. You know that. You know! But that’s how kids are–ask anyone–look away for half a second and off they go, palming the hot stove or tumbling headfirst down the stairs or dropping like a stone into the goddamned freezing filthy Elliott Bay, with everyone watching and judging and that Frenchman diving in and reaching her first, saving her first, then disappearing like Superman from the scene, humble and gracious and noble and strong.

Your daughter is fine, and you’re grateful. You are. You held her, your coat tugged around her tiny, shivering body, as she choked and sputtered and wailed, and then someone handed her a stuffed rabbit, and she stopped crying and clutched it and smiled, tears and filthy bay water sparkling in her eyelashes.

A miracle. You don’t need to be told; you know it could have been so much worse, the worst.

But when she wakes in the night, gasping, afraid the waters are closing over her head, you can’t console her, no, only the rabbit will do, named for the rescuer, her savior, that Frenchman. She clutches it, tiny fingers working the tip of an ear, eyelids fluttering as she murmurs his name, syllables soft and sibilant: François, François, François …

François. The Frenchman is there, in your daughter’s room, in her bed, in her arms. He’s there in the moment before the meat on the grill turns from done to burned; in the seconds before your wife has to ask you (again) to take out the trash, for god’s sake; in her sidelong glance while you’re fucking, just before you come and she does not; and you know what she’s thinking, she’s thinking about him, the Frenchman, that fucking François, everywhere and everything that you are not.


 

Didi Wood

Didi Wood’s stories appear in Smokelong Quarterly, Cotton Xenomorph, Vestal Review, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She’s fond of the serial comma, board games, and creepy dolls. Often she is festooned with cats. Find her on Twitter @DidiWood.

 

Planetary Disappointment by Kristen Seikaly

She couldn’t choose between one balloon planet or two. Saturn with its lush rings beckoned to her like a siren in the sea, but she pitied Uranus a bit because it wasn’t much to look at and had an unfortunate name. In the end she settled on Jupiter. The size almost made her capsize, but the eye of the storm hypnotized her. She held on tight. In some small way she imagined it would take her to the outer depths of space, although she did not know how it would do such a thing.

Skipping down the New York City sidewalk, she gripped her Jupiter balloon. It bashed into other people’s heads, a planet far too large to keep on a string. She failed to notice the disgruntled looks of those whose days had been disrupted by her round joy. Jupiter and her, a team uncaring and unbeatable.

Most thieves think to steal purses, but this city slicker with his callous lean and his sideways stare saw gold in the Jupiter balloon. He swiped at the string as she skipped on by, causing the girl to scream and scramble to reconnect with her planet. The thief’s satisfied sneer came a moment too soon, for they both lost in the end.

On that New York City corner, they each watched with regret as Jupiter flew back into the sky. They both felt the weight of having touched something of immense value release, though they would later disagree on what that value was. As they watched it float away, the girl wished she had selected the Uranus balloon after all. At least then it would have felt a little love for a little while. Plus the pain of loss would have been less acute, for Jupiter’s size meant she had to watch it disappear into the sky for that much longer.


Kristen Seikaly's Headshot - 2017

Kristen Seikaly is a Michigan native discovering the culture of city-living in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in Thrice Fiction. With two degrees in music, she now works as a freelance writer and voice teacher. Find her at www.KristenSeikaly.com or @KristenSeikaly.

Cry, Baby by M.J. Iuppa

Whenever I see her skunk-streaked hair and black eyes, I
feel broken eggshells under my feet. Oh fidget. I smile in
a pinch, that’s what my momma taught me, to be polite while
waiting in the line outside the old Flame movie theatre. She
yammers like we never left off, and I listen like I’m keeping
my lips just above rising water. I look up into the dull night
sky & see the red pulse of the weather satellite passing over. I
interrupt her spew. Sure feels like rain, I mutter, my clenched
fists shoved into my tight jean’s pockets.


 

M.J. Iuppa lives on a small farm near Lake Ontario’s shores. Check out her blog: mjiuppa.blogspot.com for her musings on writing, sustainability & life’s stew.

Attachment Theory by Lisa Mecham

E, my 15-year-old daughter, has invited me to her therapy session. We sit side-by-side on a couch across from her psychiatrist. Her doctor stands and billows a sun yellow yarn blanket overhead, letting it fall on E’s lap where it’s tucked securely around her legs. Their comfort ritual.

I am a guest here.

 E talks about her drive for perfection, how the gap between what-she-is and what-she-wants-to-be is vast. How her depression takes root there. Her eyes on her therapist, never on me. She reveals her fear of being abandoned and suddenly I am on guard, tallying up the ten thousand hours.

“Don’t you know I would never leave you?” I say. “I’ve always been right here.” I slap the couch cushion space between us. She looks at me now and where I expect fight I see despair.

The gap between what-she-thinks-I-am and what-I-think-I-am is vast.

I remember E when she was a few days old. We are back from the hospital: me, E, and her Dad. We have this bed called a co-sleeper, it’s a small crib attached to our bed so E can sleep close to us, and I can easily reach over to nurse in the night. We used it with her older sister M, and it worked very well. But E isn’t like M–she’s fussy. Doesn’t like to be out of my arms. Even being swaddled in the blanket won’t do. And of course it wouldn’t. After nine months of womb dark and warm, how could a blanket help? Her tiny body contains only one cup of blood.

Her Dad is different this time too. Easier to irritate. Tired, all the time. He’s deeper into his medical training than he was when M was born. Medical Board exams are coming up and we have to decide where he will pursue his fellowship. A big move away from our city with two young children. It’s daunting.

E cries a lot. She doesn’t like being separated from me. Our pediatrician is old school, been practicing for over forty years. “Let her cry it out,” he says. “Don’t breast feed her too much.”

So this time, the co-sleeper won’t work. E senses me so close and wants to be in my arms all night. It makes her Dad do this silent rage thing, an anger that needs no sound to go noticed. We move her to a big crib in a small room on the other side of our apartment. I can’t put anything in with her because she might suffocate so she’s just in pajamas. In the dark. So far away from me that we can’t even smell each other.

And she cries. Wails. Endlessly.

It turns my bones inside out. My breasts swell, dribbling milk.

I look forward to the nights her Dad is on call and has to stay over at the hospital. On those nights, E is in bed with me. She slips into my shell, our eyes lock, her lips purse against my nipple. We drift to sleep and stay that way for hours.

But most nights she is alone. Eyes wide to the dark, tiny balled up fists flailing. Her throat cried raw as breath becomes whimpers becomes silence which can mean anything but all of it is a kind of death.

Now, in her therapist’s office, I share this memory with E a few weeks shy of her Sweet Sixteenth birthday. The therapist—skilled, professional—even I can see her eyes widen a bit. “It’s no wonder.” We all agree. No wonder.

I ask E, “Can I hug you?” And she nods. I scoot across the cushions and cradle her in my arms. I pull back so she can look at me, I want her to see how deep this runs. “I am so sorry,” I say. She cries and I cry. In this moment, I’m not good mother, not bad mother. I’m witness. You did live these things and they are as you remember.

And there is time. Her face still fits in my hands.


 

Lisa Mecham

Lisa Mecham is a writer living in Los Angeles and she finds bios boring. Instead, please read the work of Jayy DoddJasmine SandersColette ArrandJoyce Chongb: william bearhart and María Isabel Álvarez.

 

Tom Vs May by Christopher James

May and Tom were an attractively odd-looking couple. May wore suits she bought in thrift stores and fedoras she decorated herself, and Tom liked stripes. Both of them thought Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl got a bad rap. May could whistle with her fingers and make sounds like an owl with her cupped palms, and Tom could burp the alphabet but didn’t. He did, though, make bubbles on his tongue that floated a foot toward the sky before bursting. She read the dialogue in books out loud, even on the train. He had done ballet until he was seventeen and could still stand on his tippy toes.

They met at the housewarming party of mutual friends. Both of them gravitated fast to the kitchen and spent the night talking there over under and around people coming in to get beer or dip or glasses or a dustpan and brush. Their conversation wasn’t deep but it flowed well. They spent ten minutes keeping track of how many people entered the kitchen wearing something green vs something red. Red won. Another ten minutes inviting everyone who opened the fridge to take a swig from the tabasco sauce. If they did, May would take a swig with them. If they didn’t, Tom would take a swig alone. They went to a coffeeshop for ice-cream, then to May’s place. They listened to Kid Koala’s version of Moon River and watched on YouTube the English National Ballet perform to Queen songs. Tom stayed the night and in the morning while she took a shower he made the bed neatly and brewed her a cup of tea. More dates followed, then space cleared in each other’s cupboards, then a move to an apartment all of their own and tomato plants and fresh herbs growing on the fire escape.

“What do you think about children?” May asked.

“Not a fan,” said Tom. “Smelly, expensive, and a fifty-fifty chance you get a monster.”

“I’m pregnant.”

“That’s great! I always wanted children!”

May knew Tom was lying, and knew too he was lying because he loved her, and she felt a surge of love for him on account of this that was so strong it demanded a physical manifestation. She squee-ed!

(At the same time, she wondered if his decision to lie about wanting children would one day be a spike between them, the root of resentment, and so after she squee-ed she searched his face for the future, and squee-ed again until he squee-ed too.)

In the hospital she was giving birth in one room and another family were giving birth in the room across the way. “Are you filming it?” asked the father of the other family to Tom as they both grabbed coffees from the vending machine. “You’ve got to film it.”

“I don’t have a camera,” said Tom.

“Not even on your phone?”

“I don’t have a phone.”

“I’m sure you can find a camera somewhere. That’ll be with you forever.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” agreed Tom, still no intention of filming it.

“I’d love to see your wife give birth,” said the man.

It took a thousand years between Tom putting the coin in the coffee machine and the coffee coming out.

“If I film it,” he said, “I’ll let you take a peek.”

Their daughter was gorgeous. Her eyes enormous and jet-black, like they belonged to a teddy bear instead of a baby girl. Tom thought he’d been in love with May, but holding his daughter he knew he could never love anyone as much as he loved this child, this girl he’d made all by himself. He told this to May, who said she felt the same way. But she couldn’t feel the same way – nobody could feel the same way Tom felt. Nobody ever had or ever would.

They called her Max.

She was deaf and they all learnt sign language. Sometimes Tom dreamt about him and Max making up their own sign language, that May wouldn’t know. If you combine our names, he said, you get Mom. Or Tax. She liked vegetables more than fruit. She’s a dancer, he said. She can be anything she wants to be, said May. She wants to be a dancer, said Tom. He held her with one arm and manipulated her feet into pointe with the other. You shouldn’t do that, said May. Tom didn’t say anything, but when May wasn’t around he didn’t stop.

May and Max were badly hurt in a car crash and Max’s legs would never be the same again. She’d never dance. Tom realized, belatedly, that the hospital had made a terrible mistake, mixing up his child with the daughter of that other family, the one who’d given birth across the room. He wrote to the hospital, email after email after email, and called them day and night, night and day. He refused a paternity test. He stopped going out. He saw families from the fire escape with daughters that could be his, daughters with two normal legs. It was some time before he realized May and Max had gone.

He got a fish he called Unconditional Love and forgot to feed it so it died.

He missed his dad so he called him, but the number was disconnected. It took him a week to find out he’d moved house a year ago and had a new number. He called the new number but when someone answered he remembered why he’d stopped talking to his dad, and he hung up without saying anything. When the phone rang back several times throughout the evening he ignored it. He’d never be able to answer the phone again.

He didn’t like his shoes anymore, so he threw them away, from the fire escape.

Then his pants.

His shirt, his tie, his socks, his glasses.

All he kept was the tomato plant, which had one sole cherry tomato, or one normal tomato that hadn’t yet grown the whole way.


 

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Christopher James lives, works, and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has previously been published online in many venues, including Tin House, Fanzine, McSweeney’s, SmokeLong, and Wigleaf. He is the editor of Jellyfish Review.