1000 by Rob Roensch

I have been as tall as I will ever be for one whole year. I will never be as tall as my father.

This spring is no surprise and, for the first time, barely a relief. Our flooded, muddy bank of the Far River and the new green leaves mean the return of life; they prove the strength of the circle that cages us.

In our first summer, touching the skin of the mother of my son was like seeing lightning through closed eyes. Now she is in the earth, with my son, who never saw a storm, or a morning. The stories say I will see them after I die; I will never see them again.

The night before my father died, he talked in his sleep, which he did not do. The words he spoke were nonsense.

Or they were in an older language, from the other world.

The stories say that on the far slopes of the mountains beyond the Far River are black forests and lakes of ice. There live men with lines burned into their faces and long-staffed axes, and women beautiful as snakes, all banished from this fertile valley by God.

The mountains are real. From anywhere in our valley, I can see them. The rest of the stories is only as real as the monsters that haunted my dreams as a child.

Prayer, the acknowledgment of the presence of God, used to be my mother’s voice singing in the dark. But there is only one world: smoke, torn grass, a handful of cold water. Fog, first dawn-light. The only path is to work and, later, try to sleep.

And yet, this one blank morning, I do not follow the men to the fields.

I stand on our bank of the Far River and watch the mountains carve themselves visible against the day. I cannot find the prayer.

I had been told by my father, with the threat of a fist to the temple, never to attempt to cross the Far River until I was as tall as he was. He knew I would never be as tall as he was.

So I enter the Far River.

The hand of the current sweeps me up and for a moment I am lifted and carried, a child. But then I’m pulled down, wrong, hands squeezing my lungs, the river pressing against my mouth, and I’m smashed into stones, and I could let go.

I do not let go.

When I open my eyes I am lying in the mud of the far bank of the Far River. I hear the cry of my son’s mother wishing to die, and the cry of our son wishing to live; it is the same cry. It is my voice.

But I am in the other world.

I lift myself, part by heavy part, to my feet. My head rings, but I am whole. I am as close to the mountains as I have ever been. I know I will reach them. I will know if the stories are true.

Before I have taken the first step I see, in the near distance, massed like too many birds in a tree, men with lines burned into their faces and long-staffed axes, watching me, my death in their eyes.

But if monsters are real, then so is God.

 

Rob Roensch is the author of the story collection The Wildflowers of Baltimore (Salt) and the novella The World and the Zoo (Outpost19). He lives and teaches in Oklahoma City.

Summer shame by Jax Bulstrode

i think we should criminalize golf / i’m making a pros and cons list for buying the haunted house down the street / starting a petition for mangos to not have that seed / in the middle / i think we stop denying ourselves pleasure / especially the mango eating kind

i’m going to seed bomb the neighbor’s front lawn / join me / i’ll make burgers afterwards and drip sauce on my bare toes / you don’t mind do you? / a mess?

we are old enough now / to know how to swell into summer / into silver rings, drink stolen gin / meet me on the back porch / we can compare mosquito bites and cut our hair short

back to the mango thing / how would we do it? / remove the hard bits / the shame part?

 

Jax Bulstrode likes to write poems, cry, and preferably do both while taking a bath. Jax has had work published in Verandah Journal, Gems, Plumwood Mountain, and Blue Bottle Journal. She is from Naarm/Melbourne.

We Thought It Was Lost Forever by Eileen Frankel Tomarchio

The rewind button, remember? Popped off the remote when you threw it at the TV that time? I was rubbing the nubs where your toes had been while you watched a nature show. All those sea walruses crowded on stony cliffs, tumbling in slow motion into an Arctic sea, their writhing hulks like bodies in a bag. Bellows so loud that next-door pounded the wall. It was telling, the way you curled your hands into yourself after the throw. I know you wanted me to think it was a neighborly fuck off! that missed the wall, or a shot at me for not rubbing hard enough. (I never could rub hard enough to relieve the numbness one minute, choke the stabbing sensation the next). But it was those walruses, wasn’t it? Their odd cave noises in open air. They must have sounded to you as if your own pain were being fed through a landline a thousand miles long, across a continent, coming out on those cliffs a garbled, whiskered lament. 

I remember thinking this was a perfect chance for a big-picture talk. The kind you couldn’t stand and that I hated hearing myself say. Some facile link from the panicked beasts to melting sea ice to forest loss to palm plantations to the processed oil on the list of ingredients in the Fig Newtons and Tombstone Frozen Pizza you loved to high A1C levels to neuropathy to gangrene to amputation to stuck in a chair watching nature shows. Except I could imagine your side-eye too well, hear your You learn that stretch in yoga? Then something about how I’d rather dump the world’s problems on you than, say, get together with my sweet, funny cousin with MS, or make a donation to the local Catholic Charities, or bake you a tray of dream bars for the freezer, just to have on hand, the only pleasure left to you, so why would I deny you unless I were the cruelest sort of daughter?

It was easier to spare you the talk and go hunting for the remote behind the TV. I lingered in a crouch back there, feeling weak from the surround-sound of walruses and sad violins. For months afterwards, you controlled the rewind with blunted toothpicks until it got too hard to finesse. You resorted to the pause button a lot, just to absorb, catch up. You’d always been a mindful viewer, doubting everything you saw and heard that you couldn’t go back and watch again, see right, hear for sure. But in the end, you stopped bothering even with the pause and kept the TV running live, believing too easily the things you barely caught or filled in wrong or just wanted to believe.

I’ve got it in my hand now, the rewind button. I found it at the edgelands of the carpet with some mouse droppings and a cracked Metformin pill. It snaps right back into the remote. I press it a bunch of times. A reversed Lester Holt un-reports the wildfires out west, scrolled script pages in his downturned prayer hands, the straining flames sucked back into the ground. When I release my thumb, the rewind stays stuck at triple-speed, the backward programming a slapstick blur. But I don’t fix the jam with a toothpick, a ballpoint pen, my teeth. I leave it alone. I hang here in your chair and close my eyes and let rewind send me back to before you had to go into nursing care. Back further to before your amputations. Further still to the days I rubbed your toes with your favorite palm oil-laden Gold Bond. To you and the neighbor chatting over tea, trading door wreath tips. To you pushing your cart through the grocery aisles in sunny flip flops, before the mobility scooters. To you making me vow never to move back home, no matter how sick you ever got, and me lying when I said I promise. To my last summer before college and a Sunday afternoon we watched TV together, me breaking off half a still-warm dream bar to share, both of us making happy eating noises while walrus families lolled on plentiful ice floes in healthy seas, before they were forever lost.

 

Eileen Frankel Tomarchio works as a librarian in a small New Jersey suburb. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Forge Lit Mag, Longleaf Review, Pithead Chapel, X-R-A-Y, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from NYU Film. She’s on Twitter at @eileentomarchio.

The Lure by Gretchen Rockwell

The first lander on Venus lasted fifty-three minutes.
It survived long enough to send pictures back and verify
the world was waterless—that humans could not survive
there. The strange yellow images look like something
from a fever dream, cloudy and corrosive. Venus
flytraps are brightly colored, the better to attract prey.
Their sensitive tendrils stroke the air, know when
to clamp down and when to stay agape. They smell
sweet, surely—the better to draw smaller life in.
The flies don’t know any better, misstep, and then
it’s over. The snap of the trap moves too fast for us
to understand. We know the plant can remember
when it has been touched, that it holds the memory
of motion for more than a few seconds. They evolved
from sticky traps. Some theorize life on our planet
came from Venus ages ago, carried on an asteroid,
contributing to the rapid rise and fall of so many species.
Some believe there may still be life in the Venusian atmosphere,
hidden high in the sulfurous clouds. We still don’t know
what the dark streaks mean, whether they could be
microorganisms or simply swirling greenhouse gases.
As I nudge a struggling bug towards my flytrap, I remember
Venus is the brightest thing in the sky besides the Moon,
it is our sister sphere. We won’t be able to resist going there,
to consider building cities in the clouds. Even if we know
it will kill us. We can never leave the unknown alone for long.

 

Gretchen Rockwell (xe/xer/xers) is a queer poet who can frequently be found writing about gender, science, space, and unusual connections. Xe is the author of the chapbooks body in motion (perhappened press) and Lexicon of Future Selves (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press) and two micro chapbooks; xer work has appeared in AGNI, Cotton Xenomorph, Whale Road Review, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere. Find xer at www.gretchenrockwell.com, or on Twitter at @daft_rockwell.

Starburst: A Dispatch of 100-Word Stories by Julia Halprin Jackson

Take care

After the cicadas stop humming, after the moon flushes the sky clean of stars, we hear it. A thrashing, a clanging, a hurtling, is whirling towards us from below the campground. You pace on the pulsing soil. “Don’t worry,” you call. “I’ll take care of it.” The earth is loud. Insects gather at my feet. Then I notice it: the ground has seams. Stick your finger in and up it rips, soil and roots and worms, concrete foundations, wooden beams, gravestones. “Don’t!” you say. But my fingers are hungry. I pull back the earth beneath your feet. I take care.

No vacancy

Night falls over Crater Lake, that blue gully with its mouth open to the heavens. The man and woman approach the summit as the rain drops like marbles. The campgrounds are full, as are the chalets; there aren’t any hotel rooms this close to the crater’s rim. What if we could make it to the island? she says. It’s probably vacant. When he doesn’t answer, she puts the car in reverse, aims for the rim’s biggest lip. Floor it, he says. Rain steers them down, down. The sky has never been more vacant. They push the stars aside. They land.

Ways to fall in love

One bought me glucose tablets. Another held my hand while we biked. Another took me to see the seals in the snow. One left a birthday gift outside my parents’ gate, close to midnight on a day I thought he’d forgotten. These are all the ways I’ve fallen in love. But this one unrolled the country and we hiked right through it. He vacuums. He lets me drive his ATV. This one woke me that night I’d fallen off the bed, wet and shaking, and didn’t mind that I’d broken his glasses. This one is afraid of the right things.

Transit

We park my bike next to yours in the shed overnight. The next morning, three small tricycles lurk under my back wheel. The tricycles have my curvy handlebars and your racer stripes. My bike looks tired, her tires deflated. Your bike’s pedals spin midair. You reach for a trike, but it rolls out of view. Someday these might come in handy, you say, patting my belly. You reach for the door but I stop you, saying, Let’s leave it open. We’re not gone long, but when we come back, the bikes are gone, a trail of grease staining the floor.

Bean counter

It’s a tireless game, all this imagining. You want a universe and so you must invent it. You want a popsicle and so you must make it drip down your chin. You want a man with a Frisbee for a head, so you draw him. Etcetera. Other people—PhDs, MBAs, MDs, JDs, CFOs, UFOs—other people perform real services, create real goods. Other people can weigh what they’ve created in two hands. Other people chat you up at cocktail parties, say, What you do sounds so fun. You smile, but inside you know. Your hands are dirty from counting words.

 

Julia Halprin Jackson’s work has appeared in Cutleaf, West Branch Wired, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Fourteen Hills, California Northern, and elsewhere. A graduate of U.C. Davis’s Master’s in Creative Writing program, Julia is the co-founder and publicity director of Play On Words, San Jose’s collaborative literary performance series, and a 2021-2023 Lighthouse Book Projecteer.

Pelt by Brittney Corrigan

The drape of your body-not-body
across my arm brings death so close
I don’t notice, feel only the rush
of my blood against soft-creature
skin. How the patterns in your fur
are so still, so un-fleeing, I can
marvel at the single white stripe
that divides your dark brow,
the way it rivers down your back,
disappears into gray-mottled sea.
In your face, I see only empties—
not sockets, not eyes—hook
my finger through absence, stroke
the clean, unburrowed slope
of your toothless snout. Where
once strong paws moved earth,
turned worms into the light,
now there is only the ghost
of your long-clawed digging:
tanned hide smooth against
my living skin. Entrail-less,
your death has charmed me
with its novelty. I press
my nose to yours, imagine
the animal stink that does not
rise as I turn your pelt over, offer
your not-heart to what draws near,
stalks at the edge of the knife.

 

Brittney Corrigan is the author of the poetry collections Daughters, Breaking, Navigation, and 40 Weeks. Solastalgia, a collection of poems about climate change, extinction, and the Anthropocene Age, is forthcoming from JackLeg Press in 2023. Brittney was raised in Colorado and has lived in Portland, Oregon for the past three decades, where she is an alumna and employee of Reed College. She is currently at work on her first short story collection. For more information, visit http://brittneycorrigan.com.

Superposition by Josh Denslow

Unobserved, the dog is able to exist in two places at once.

He lies at the foot of his owner’s bed, her hand idly stroking his fur as she struggles to find the inner resources needed to finish the book she began reading over a year ago. On nights like this, expectant and alone, the book is a morass of words. She can no longer remember the characters or the plot or anyone’s motivations, so she starts from wherever she had put the bookmark previously and mouths each word as she moves toward the inevitable, and frankly disquieting, end. The dog likes when she reads. There is more room for him, on nights like this, when she craves another presence. Someone to prove she’s alive.

The dog is also, at this precise moment, across town, running loose in the yard of the object of his owner’s affection. He’s a vibrant man who hasn’t read a book in years. Not since his ex-wife gave him a copy of Mending a Marriage: Who is the Needle and Who is the Thread, which he read with an earnest fervor he’d never felt in all their years together. He highlighted and underlined and copied his favorite passages, but they never once talked about the book. They signed the paperwork without ever attempting to mend anything. He thinks about that book more than he would care to admit.

The dog doesn’t give a shit about books, or even words for that matter. He can feel his age in his bones and his loosening skin and his drying hair. He wants two warm bodies in his bed, one on either side, like bookends. These two, the dog’s owner and the object of her affection, will do nicely. They are the needle and the thread.

So the dog puts his head on his owner’s thigh and sighs, tilting his deep brown eyes up at her; while at the same time, he rubs against the man’s leg, his tail whipping uncontrollably.

The woman mouths more words as the man says, “Whoa, buddy.” His fingers reach out, those magical digits with the power to move all the matter in the world, and he clasps the dog’s collar.

He sees the name there and the number, and the dog rolls onto his back on the bed next to his owner because he knows what happens next.

The phone rings and she puts her bookmark in the book and closes it. She has no idea when she will open it again.

“I found your dog,” the man says.

She looks at her dog and the man looks at her dog, and thus observed the dog chooses a location.

Alone in bed, the dog’s owner rubs the spot where her dog had been moments before. “I’ll pick him up,” she says, the book forgotten now. “I’ll come to you.”

 

Josh Denslow is the author of the story collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books) and the novel Super Normal (forthcoming Fall 2023, Stillhouse Press). He listens to a lot of music.

 

Working for an Oil Company Conglomerate Will Get You Perks Like This by Cheryl Pappas

On a world-class submarine headed to what was left of the Azores, I had just taken one delirious sip of a 1929 Beychevelle Bordeaux when a drop of water plopped on my left shoulder; I watched the crisp cream linen of my shirt morph to gray and looked up: a leak.

The ceiling was 30 feet high, impossible to spot the source. I glanced at the others, drinking their wine and sloe gin fizz. No one had noticed. Alice twirled her shiny black hair while chatting with Rich from finance, her eyes droopy with dopamine. I knew she was sleeping with him now. Days later, Rich’s silken black tie would wash up on a distant shore, but in that moment his teeth held a lively shine, like they were plastic, which in truth they might have been. Another plop. The fairy lights on the upper balconies twinkled like Christmas; violins swooned their way into sleepy hearts; red, white, and blue streamers snowed down from the sub ceiling; children flush with sugar ran up and down metallic stairs. The girls’ dresses fluttered amid giggles and stomping, amid Mozart and a wine glass shattering on the marble floor. It was all very Titanic. I was the only one with the knowledge of what was to come. My vision blurred. I was drunk. I looked long at Alice’s parched lips remembering how soft, how deliriously soft they were when I kissed them under a cherry tree in the dark as I felt two more drops on my shoulder, then three. All the while, as some would find out later, two great whites were a mile away, their noses pointed toward the source of a steady, mellifluous hum.

 

Cheryl Pappas is an American writer living outside Boston. Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Juked, The Chattahoochee Review, HAD, and elsewhere. She is the author of a flash fiction collection, The Clarity of Hunger, published by word west press (2021).

The Man I Killed… by Corey Miller

sputters and beats his wings like a stink bug, always returning to the ceiling of Wal-mart. He bashes his antennae and thorax into the metal rafters, looking for an escape as I sideswipe cereal boxes into my shopping cart: knockoff Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms, and Life.

Headstones name the dead to be remembered. I don’t know where the man I killed is buried — if he is buried — so I call him Coffee.

Coffee had a son in my Geometry class who wore shiny braces and a #44 football jersey. I always wanted a son, one who would grow explosively stronger than myself and play sports on the front page of the local paper. Enough ball to earn a free ride through life.

Being a teacher earns me food stamps to deliver passing grades.

This shopping cart bears a bum wheel pulling me left, veering across common grocery store traffic. I push harder with my left hand to correct this misguided vehicle.

Coffee’s forty eyes follow me whenever I stock up at Wal-mart, the only store for miles. I considered making the road trip elsewhere, but we need to history book each other.

Solve for X: If Coffee’s wife sucker punches me in the face with a velocity multiplied by doctors pronouncing her husband dead upon arrival, how long will my nose make a wheezing noise? My students couldn’t stop laughing behind my back those following two weeks as I contrived mathematical equations on the chalkboard. Different angles to get to the point.

My arm weakens and my cart rams into oncoming traffic. No apologies. The shoppers try to fear-swerve my aim. They mumble to themselves, I hear how their mandibles jabber.

The dairy aisle is freezing, solidifying the milk into blocks that could break a foot if dropped. I don’t notify the underpaid, underappreciated, overwhelmed staff. How will kids drown their cereal? Will the boxes displaying puzzle distractions remain on the shelves?

I’m the teacher. The one with the answers to the questions. Where is your father #44? He’s a bug man hovering above me. An exoskeleton scared to float down and be crushed under my foot.

Walmart is wonderful because it’s a one-stop-shop. I can buy everything I need in one place: batteries, wiper blades, tissues, prescription glasses, SPEED on BluRay. I run into former students of mine. Outside the Math Room we don’t acknowledge each other. I used to say Hi, but they’ve stopped responding.

I grab a newspaper. On the front page: Our high school Hornets win regional, #44 still front and center after my car missed him five years ago. I roll the paper into a tube and monocular Coffee. Each of his spurred tibias grab for the steering wheel to jerk away. The lifespan of bugs ranges from five minutes to fifty years. How long will Coffee consume me?

The coffee aisle is where I first saw him, when he was alive. His family a face full of grinning teeth. I always drink my coffee black, the heat scalding the roof of my mouth, awakening me to start my morning. I haven’t slept in days. Like a tree falling in the woods, I wonder if Coffee is always here, even while I’m away, waiting my return.

Solve for X: If a car is traveling 25 miles-per-hour in a grocery store parking lot and not watching for pedestrians, hitting and dragging the body beneath the car for 15 meters with the nearest hospital a forty-five minute drive, how fast does the ambulance need to move to keep him alive?

Growing up, I was terrified of bugs. It spawned from an overnight camping trip that my parents made me attend. Each rock I lifted revealed creatures scurrying every direction. Now I see how silly my fear was. In the cleaning aisle, I catch a tiny mufflehead by the wings and watch it flail. They can’t bite and only live the last week of May, right before kids graduate. Right before families celebrate a milestone. I squeeze its body between my thumb and index, feeling the smallest of pops. What’s left behind is nothing but a dark smudge. The considerate thing about bugs is that they have no names. I don’t want to call them anything. I can pretend they never had a life to forfeit.

“Did you see that, Coffee?” I yell to him, as he crawls around a condensate lamp.

A woman with a cart full of wasp spray and ant traps questions me, “What are you doing here?”

“I need to press on.”

I self-checkout, scanning the vitamins and fats, over packaged and shipped around the world. Will this be the day Coffee comes down? Sucks the life out of me? He springs towards the ground, but is drawn back up to the ceiling like reverse gravity. We’re becoming old pals who get together as often as I need to replenish my food supply. How’s the family? Job treating you well? Life okay?

I never married. Never found that special person. Not that I wasn’t searching. That special someone must have been in the one place I didn’t look.

Wal-mart’s parking lot is overflowing, the heartbeat for a town in the middle of nowhere. I load my Nissan Pathfinder, drive through the striped lines webbed on the pavement. My rear view mirror reflects a man who’s aged twenty years in the past five. Pedestrians cross, and it’s him, the man I killed, walking with his family as if he’s alive again. As if he’s happy once more. A three corner fly circles my sweaty head, landing and biting me like it has a point. I steady the wheel and let them pass this time, not fumbling with the receipt and coupons to confirm I saved X amount of cents.

 

Corey Miller was a finalist for the F(r)iction Flash Fiction Contest (’20) and shortlisted for The Forge Flash Competition (’20). His writing has appeared in Booth, Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, Hobart, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. He reads for TriQuarterly, Longleaf Review, and Barren Magazine. When Corey isn’t brewing beer for a living in Cleveland, OH, he likes to take the dogs for adventures. Follow him on Twitter @IronBrewer or at CoreyMillerWrites.com.