things you’ve shared with the ghost in your dorm room (in no particular order) by shelby rice

xii.
you’re lonely and the only thing you’ve felt the touch of is the gutter-water splashing off a car’s michelin tires. one star. you wonder if the mona lisa would be as beautiful if she had a double chin. you’re empty and not displeased about it, but you know you’re going to put the frozen strawberry jam you made with your aunt last summer over cold rice instead of eating a real meal. you’ll feel bad about it later.

xi.
your roommate is doing n+60 jumping jacks a day for lent, and you wonder if she knows by the end that she’ll have to do more than 2000. it takes fifteen days before she folds. you’re not surprised, but something that burns suspiciously of envy crawls up your esophagus. you wonder how long you would have made it. the bass guitar you haven’t played in a month sprouts a mouth and tells you the wicked truth. you can’t sleep that night.

x.
you start to wonder if you were a changeling. somewhere between infancy and now, you stopped thinking about what you wanted to do tomorrow and started to wish it never comes.

ix.
you think the perfect place to work is probably in an aquarium. it’s probably not as glamorous as you make it out to be (if that’s even the proper word) but the darkness and the gurgle of the tanks and the flying floating swilling creatures which drift lackadaisical twilling in the currents. the funny way toddlers walk, little penguins tottering back and forth would be the cherry on top. but maybe that’s just the withdrawal speaking.

viii.
you have a boyfriend who lives off high street. he roosts with two other boys, both faceless entities who come and go as they please. you’re not sure you’ve ever fully met. they seem to exist in a transient state, sort of ever-unpresent, at the grocery or the bar or kicking back at a friend’s house, but never at work. you’re more interested in these boys than your demure, kind-faced boyfriend, but more out of curiosity than libido; you want to know how they live such fluid, ever varying but still listless lives. you wonder if you ever meet if they’ll sweep you up in their unending on-the-go living until you rush on autopilot for as long as they’ll keep you.

vii.
you wonder if you should pierce your own septum. it would do you good to see if you still bleed red like everyone else.

vi.
your godmother is a nun. she doesn’t wear a habit anymore and has licorice gumdrops at her house year-round. they used to burn your mouth but now you find the taste of them keeps you up at night. you buy them at the drugstore but they don’t quite hit the same. the sugar dusting isn’t grainy enough, the taste doesn’t quite clog your mouth the way it used to. maybe it’s because your cousins aren’t egging you on, your brother isn’t trying to outdo you with three more stuffed in his mouth. maybe it’s that he isn’t rushing to the green-tiled bathroom to throw up afterwards. after a fetid few, you let the bag go fallow; it takes root in your pantry and refuses to be disposed of.

v.
the scar on your arm reminds you of a fat leech, if the leech were purplish-pink and created by a miserable idiot and not billions of years of evolution. you tattoo over it, which bolsters you an embarrassing amount, but it hacks away at the quickly dwindling list of things in common you have with your mother. never mind the fact that folks have been tattooing for thousands of years, that it’s not a rash decision, that you’ve been thinking about it almost as long as you could breathe—you think she might have cried when you told her. you schedule a second appointment as soon as possible and wonder if you’re welcome at home anymore.

iv.
your mother and aunt don’t talk anymore, and your grandmother and her sister didn’t either. you wonder if you’re doomed to the same fate.

iii.
you receive a save-the-date and spiral something awful. buried for your own well-being under stacks of junk mail, you send your congratulations and regrets in one run-on message, unable to explain why the thought of a marriage guts you this way. just two people deciding they’re interested in living together for the rest of forever* or whatever it is folks tell themselves. she elbows her way to the back of your mind and you staunchly refuse to acknowledge it. the message you receive back is kind but you can tell there’s a pursed-lip edge to it. you’re glad you won’t have to defrost the summer romper in the back of your closet and try to look happy for six hours. you drink alone the night of the ceremony and shudder to think of what the you in an alternate universe is going through. you wonder if there’s an alternate universe you whose wedding this belongs to.

ii.
you take better care of your plants than you do yourself. you have a meticulously planned spreadsheet which tells you when to water, fertilize, repot; each leaf is examined daily to check for discoloration or spotting. the plethora of pill bottles scattered over your room go unorganized.

i.
you’ve developed a pavlovian response to playing pokemon go. you can’t smoke without it anymore.

 

shelby rice is trying to reach you regarding your car’s extended warranty. they won the Montaine Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2020 and have been published in Rejection Letters, Existere Literary Magazine, Thirty West, and more. originally from Dayton, Ohio, they recently acquired a cane with a sword inside and will tell anyone who will listen. follow them on twitter @orcmischief (if you dare).

How to Read Poetry While Drinking Monster Alone in a Dimly Lit Cubicle by Angela Qian

If you are lonely, read poetry.
If the poem is a love poem, break a bottle into two asymmetrical halves.
If the bottle has mead inside, lick the ferment from the ground up from your toes to your shins.
Become once more a stranger to your body.
If the bottle is empty, proceed to the next poem.
If the poem is not a love poem, identify the ways in which it is a love poem.
Name it love for a sentimental sadness, love for summer grapes, love for the child who clutches your hand,
love for a good steak and a crisp, translucent onion, love for the sweet purple comforter which covers your face when you sleep—
Or identify it as a cut poem.
If it is a cut poem, identify the ways in which the speaker is cut.
Identify if the cut was healed from a blood wound or honey.
If it is a blood wound it will howl on all fours and shriek under the moon.
If you are angry, get on your knees and shriek too.
But if you find a honey poem, think of all the bees.
The bees work industriously somewhere out there, all yellow pollen and sticky haze.
If you are a bee-lover, read poetry.
If you are a lonely insect, like all of us who crawl and never fly far enough
off this wretched Earth—
Read a love poem. Suck honey. Cut a poem open, and the pain will last one second, then a lifetime.
Let the sharp blade of the feeling slice you. One moment. Sweet open.

 

Angela Qian’s writing has been published in or is forthcoming from Pleiades, Shenandoah, Witness, The Common, The Guardian, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and several other outlets. She received her MFA from NYU and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Find more of her work at angelaqian.com.

Choices by Anna Hundert

1.    In the beginning, there is the sea. There are no choices in the beginning, because I always begin in the sea. I breathe the tides and the tides breathe me. And who would choose the dry, tasteless air over this sun-soaked dwelling of saltwater breath? I wish to stay here always, to never trade my shimmering fins for grasping fingers and toes. But something out there is calling out to me with a fierce and joyful song. What is calling to me?
        –> The rivers that run through the land like so many veins (go to part 2)
        –> The mountains that rise out of the land like so much adolescent acne (go to part 3) (If you are reading this aloud, omit the following sentence. The third choice is a secret: if you wish to abide by her wishes and allow her to remain in the sea, stop reading here.)

2.    The rivers ask me to become one of them, and I enthusiastically consent. River-spirits can undertake many wonders with our freshwater flow, with our roiling river run of cosmic commotion in our high-fabled rapids and such peace in our quieter bends. Over on the land, I see a young woman running from a pursuer and she calls out to me for help. I —
        –> Pull the pursuer into my currents and drown him inside of me (go to part 4)
        –> Transform her into a tree so that she cannot be violated (go to part 5)

3.    In the mountains, I befriend a great clan of ravens who bestow upon me the secret knowledge of flight. My wings emerge from my shoulder blades and they remind me of my days in the sea. When I begin to lay eggs, I —
        –> Find a sexual partner who might make the eggs into something more (go to part 4)
        –> Scramble them with chopped onions (if you are reading this aloud, bring along the necessary supplies to chop some onions, and then allow yourself to cry in front of your audience; when everyone is sufficiently uncomfortable, you may proceed to part 5)

4.    For a time I think that maybe he can stay inside of me forever, moving with my rhythms, touching each groove and turn and the rim bones of my earthly skeleton. I think I might love him, somehow. But I tell him too soon, speak the love into its own undoing, and he says he must go. I grieve this loss for —
        –> Exactly one hundred years, and my tears create new river tributaries (go to part 6)
        –> The amount of time it takes to press the tip of a thread though the eye of a needle (if you are reading this aloud, you must bring along a needle and thread to demonstrate, and then go to part 7)

5.    I deeply regret that I have done this, and —
        –> My body twists itself into a weeping willow upon the riverbank (go to part 8)
        –> I vow that I shall someday have a daughter and make it so that she can be always wild and free (go to part 9)

6.    A man comes along and sees the rivers of my tears and tells me that I am being melodramatic. I say to him, Nobody asked you. And then I say to him, Let me tell you a story about a young woman who only ever wanted to —
        –> Learn the secret language of trees (go to part 10)
        –> Be able to touch her toes without bending her knees (if you are reading this aloud, demonstrate according to your own abilities, without judgment or fear of judgment, and then proceed to part 11)

7.    I say to myself: If I ever have a daughter, I will make sure that she will —
        –> Respect all rivers as holy places of movement and change (go to part 10)
        –> Always cover her mouth when she sneezes and never dare to grow wings from her shoulder blades (go to part 11)

8.    Life as a weeping willow is not terribly exciting, but one day an oracle comes along the path. In exchange for the shelter that I offer her from the rain, she tells me a story from the future about a young woman who will —
        –> Carve her own self-portrait into the face on the moon (go to part 12)
        –> Conduct a research study in pursuit of a more precise identity for Mitochondrial Eve (if you are reading this aloud, ask your audience if they are familiar with the theory of Mitochondrial Eve; if necessary, attempt to explain mitochondrial genetics and matrilineal descent, dispelling common misconceptions as you are able, and then go to part 13)

9.    She will not cry often, but she will never hold back tears when she feels that they are coming. She will —
        –> Learn how to swim at a young age (go to part 12)
        –> Study to become an engineer and someday design bridges to connect all those castles in the air (go to part 13)

10.    She will study the secret language of trees and will find a way to transcribe that poetry which, over the ages, all of the women who have ever been changed into trees have been composing in their photosynthetic minds, with no way to write it all down, making it difficult for them to keep all the line breaks straight, with their style relatively spare yet overusing commas, and never employing the liberating device of multiple choice; after all, they did not choose to become trees (go to part 14)

11.    She will compose melodies so beautiful that her listeners fall in love with their own breath and never think about dying again (go to part 15)

12.    She will paint another self-portrait using her own menstrual blood and critics will call it a little too on the nose and she will point to the nose in the portrait and say, Yes, blood on the nose, blood everywhere. She will insist that her true home is a place where it is always Christmas and never winter. Meanwhile, the hurt changes from day to day but some essential quality of it remains the same. She will continue to feel this mysterious hurt and wonder about its shape, its size, its texture (go to part 14)

13.    She will wear golden eyeliner and carry a flaming sword. She will enjoy speaking with split infinitives and always find opportunities to use phrases like put that in your pipe and smoke it and how do you like them apples (go to part 15)

14.    She will wash her hands frequently and will always say bless you when she hears somebody sneeze. And she will return to the sea someday; I am sure of it. When the light hits the horizon just right, she will watch the glints on the hairs on her legs as they become the scales of a mermaid’s tail. She may still take human lovers if she chooses to, but she will always make sure that they do not drown.

15.    (If you are reading this out loud, softly hum a song that makes you feel safe. If not everyone in your audience can hear it, that’s okay. And if you sneezed while reading this, bless you.)

 

Anna Hundert is a fiction and nonfiction writer currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and elsewhere both online and in print. She is also a regular contributor to the Ploughshares blog. You can find her on Twitter @anna_hundert.

Gen Z is Made of Wood by Coleman Bomar

A Silicon Valley millionaire
pays me nine dollars an hour
to be his coffee table.

He doesn’t use a coaster.

At night
the vape pen softens an image: trees
burning from the inside.

I can’t dream, but God
has enough content for
a new video.

It’ll be an apology, and he’ll
cry like a crocodile
on camera.

 

Coleman Bomar (he/him) is a writer who currently resides in Middle Tennessee. His written works have been featured by and/or are forthcoming in Blink Ink, Drunk Monkeys, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House, X-R-A-Y, and many more. He enjoys 90’s grunge music, and dogs who are too friendly.

So Much an Outlaw I Belong on a Wanted Poster by Holly Pelesky

My first bull ride was like my first orgasm: mechanical. It was one of those nights when headlights reflect off the wet streets and everything is slick and shiny. Us girls found ourselves where 1st Avenue meets King Street, at Cowgirls Inc. A bar with bras strewn over clothesline, where the bartenders wore shirts cut high enough to show off their belly button rings and the air hanged hot and thick like breath. We had grown up in split-levels, on cul-de-sacs, but that night we wore cowboy boots, bought earlier that day from Renton Western Wear, price tags still affixed to the soles.

I wasn’t going to climb onto that bucking machine so the boys could watch my tits bounce. I was still a virgin barely, but nonetheless. I mean the shyness of me was still intact. I wasn’t going to, but my new boots with the fringe, the music beating in my ears, the beer, that bootstrap, that saddle. The buzz of the crowd electric as I swung my leg over the automatic beast, squeezed it between my thighs. On my revolving perch I learned what the other girls already knew, what I was after: forty-five seconds of being watched like that.

 

Holly Pelesky writes essays, fiction and poetry. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska. Her prose can be found in Roanoke Review, The Nasiona, and Jellyfish Review. She recently released her first collection of poems, Quiver. She works, coaches slam poetry, and raises boys in Omaha.

Ode to the Empanadas on Pacific & Elm, with Apologies to William Carlos Williams by Carla Sofia Ferreira

Please forgive me, I did not ask the internet for permission
to call it a bodega, the small corner market less than
a two minute walk from the third floor apartment on Pacific,
no less than I was allowed to let my cheeto fuzzed fingers fold
over the pleats of my crisp maroon and gray skirt. In those days,
I confessed my sins to a priest I was not sure would ever see heaven.
How could he? Had he tried the empanadas from the corner market
on Pacific and Elm — fried crispy corners enveloping ground beef
and yet the juices running? Was this not absolution? I believe
in small and human graces: the pleasure of lunchtime
in the crowded cafeteria, the salve of antibiotic on a skinned knee,
water from the rusty faucet after the kickball game on the asphalt
parking lot. Miraculous, those empanadas, and oh they tasted good
to me, they tasted good to me.
Sorry I—
am not sorry.

 

Carla Sofia Ferreira is a Portuguese-American poet who grew up in Newark, New Jersey and who teaches high school English in Newark today. A recipient of fellowships from the Sundress Academy for the Arts and DreamYard Radical Poetry Consortium, her microchap Ironbound Fados was published in 2019 by Ghost City Press. She believes in community gardens, semicolons, and that ICE must be permanently abolished. For a copy of her free poetry prompt chapbook, Eat a Persimmon, created for high schoolers and their teachers, please go here: https://www.carlasofiaferreira.com/post/eat-a-persimmon.

Soft Bundles by Meghan Lousie Wagner

At night, mother feeds me hair. I slurp it down like spaghetti. She rolls me into bed and locks the door. Only after I begin to dream, a mountain girl comes to unspool it from my throat. In the moonlight, I watch her twist it into tight spindles around her knuckles. Golden flecks sparkle off her skin. Her head is bald and smooth and when I to reach up and touch her—to feel if she is real the same way I am real—she swipes a sharp hand across my neck.

Each morning, I find glitter on the floor. It pricks my bare feet as I walk to the mirror to check my throat.

In the kitchen, mother makes bread. I show her my scars. She punches dough against the counter.

“Did they get it all this time?” she asks.

* * * *

Our town is small and we are not the only ones in debt to the mountain girls. Every telephone pole has a yellow sign, CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE MOUNTAIN GIRLS. I pass them on the way to school but never stop to read the fine print. It’s bad luck to know about the deals your mothers make. Everyone has heard stories about curious kids who sneak letters out of mailboxes and then, the next day, are found drowned in their bathtubs. Or impaled by tree branches in their sleep. Or, worse, they wake up toothless, without tonsils—no good to anyone.

* * * *

Some mothers tell stories to help their children swallow hair. They say it’s made from magic sugar cane. That it’s been spun into caramel. They promise if you eat it all, then you’ll grow into the prettiest woman in town (no matter how you look now), you’ll be the richest man (no matter how poor you are now), you’ll have the happiest life (no matter how miserable you are now).

If, if, if…

My mother never lies. Not like that. After dinner, she takes hair from the fridge and combs it across the counter. Some nights it’s brown, some nights black, some nights it’s as soft and silver as the snow on the mountain tops. Her forearms are tight from pounding bread all day, but her fingers are delicate. She twirls it into soft bundles of noodles.

“If you don’t eat it all,” she says, “they’ll only bring more tomorrow.”

“And what if I don’t eat that?”

“They’ll bring more,” she says, shrugging.

“They bring more anyway.”

“Exactly,” Mother says, pushing a bowl toward me.

* * * *

The mountain girls come to my school’s graduation. Their golden heads cast a glare in the stadium. None of us will admit we know them. On our way to pick up diplomas, they wave their yellow signs. They cheer the loudest.

* * * *

Years later, when I am grown, I am neither beautiful nor rich nor happy. My throat is too old for swallowing hair and now my mother wanders town, tacking the yellow signs to telephone poles. At night, we eat melon dipped in salt. She tells me I should get married and have children of my own.

“Then,” she says, spitting out a seed, “we can get back in with the mountain girls.”

The next day, I take a train headed to the coast, far from the mountains. There’s another town on the shore that smells of sand and seaweed. I walk past telephone poles with blue signs, CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE GROTTO GIRLS. The clouds hang low. I stop inside a salt water taffy shop and buy a box to bring home for mother. The girl who sells it to me has crosshatches on her neck. She pretends not to notice mine.

I take another train going north, further from the mountains. When I arrive in the city, I have eaten most of the taffy. The sky is dark, but the lights are bright. Electronic billboards line the streets. Images flicker on their screens. CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE CONCRETE GIRLS.

I stay up all night, drifting past neon lit bars and storefronts until I am back at the train station. I have no more money for a ticket back to the mountains. Inside the terminal, I see a booth. CASH FOR DREAMS.

“Tell us about your dreams,” says a bald, golden headed girl.

Since I don’t dream, I tell her about the mountain girls. She offers me a clipboard and pen. I sit on a cushioned chair.

“Can you help me get home?” I ask.

“We can arrange a deal,” she says, showing me the fine print. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it myself. My instinct is to look away. But I want to know. To finally know what it is they take.

“Oh,” I say, disappointed by the obviousness of it. “I’ll have to give you children.”

“Only their dreams.”

“But I have to have children?”

“We offer alternative plans.”

“How can I get back to the mountains?”

She flips a page in the clipboard. “We have plans for that, too.”

* * * *

In the morning, as promised, I awake in my bed. I look out the window and see mountains. There is no glitter on the floor.

In the kitchen, I find Mother at the table. I take out a blade and shear her head. She stands still, but winces when I move too close to her ear. Her crinkled, silver hairs fall onto the floor. I sweep them up and carefully twirl them into bundles. Once I wrap them in plastic, I pack them into my basket, crooked beneath my arm.

“It’d be easier if you had children,” she says, shaking her bald head.

I leave the kitchen and go to feed the town.

 

Meghan Louise Wagner is a writer from Cleveland, OH. Her work has appeared in places such as AGNI, Shirley Magazine, matchbook, Hobart, and X-R-A-Y.