Something with a girl* by Pauli Dutton

                        and a mother.
                                                            Maybe they went shopping
                                      and the mother never came back.
Maybe she returned
                          for a while,
                                    but every time she reappeared,
            she burnt something.
                        Maybe a couch.                                     Maybe a bed.

Maybe it was the girl.
                                        Maybe the girl
                                                                      didn’t want to know.
            Maybe she needed
                                        to obliterate
                        the mother.
                                                      Maybe the girl
                    mutilated herself with

a       freezer of orange sherbet                         crashing windshields
                          and/or edging toward Karoshi.

Maybe she rummaged           rampaged
                                                                        and/or hemorrhaged
                                                                                                          for the mother.
Maybe the mother             didn’t care what the girl did.
                                        Maybe she howled
                            every night                                       until she immolated.

              Maybe the mother                           kissed the girl
                                                    in her dreams.

 

* First line of “Self-Portrait as Nostalgia” by Diannely Antigua

 

Pauli Dutton has been published in Verse Virtual, The Pangolin Review, Better Than Starbucks, Altadena Poetry Review, Skylark, and elsewhere. She was a librarian for 40 years, where she founded, coordinated, and led a public reading series from 2003 – 2014. She has served on the Selection Committees for The Altadena Literary Review in 2020 and The Altadena Poetry Review from 2015 – 2019. She has also co-edited the 2017 and 2018 editions. Pauli holds an MLIS from the University of Southern California.

Exposure Therapy by Jamie Logan

When her eighty-nine-year-old grandmother calls on Arlene’s twenty-first birthday, it is to celebrate another year spent exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. Few things give Arlene comfort these days, and neither her birthday nor this congratulatory call is among them. The passage of time reminds both women of Arlene’s mother. Lately, they speak of little else.

Arlene spends hours walking in suburban circles listening to podcasts on mountaineering disasters. She starts her day with YouTube content from a friendly neighborhood mortician and ends with exposes on wreck diving. These she finds reassuring. They remind her that there are other kinds of deaths. It’s not all cancer or car crashes, at least not all the time.

She is fascinated by death’s proximity. She places acorn circles around every car-flattened frog she finds. She worries about her cat and what will happen to him when she is gone. Shackleton is a fat boy, whose favorite activity is eating spiderwebs in hidden corners. She reads a book called Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? and is comforted to discover the answer is yes.

Arlene does not want to die, but more importantly, she does not want to die without reason. Her therapist Janet suggests cognitive behavioral therapy. “You are clinging to false beliefs,” Janet says. “You don’t need to quantify your contribution to the world, in death or in life, to justify existing.”

Arlene likes to quantify contributions.

For example, Shackleton is named after the Antarctic explorer. The cat squeezes himself into nooks and crooks in search of camouflaged bugs and forgotten hair ties. He has charted every room and continues to do so on the off chance the topography has changed.

Shackleton’s contributions are small, but so is his scale; Arlene’s scale is slightly larger. She creates memorials for her mother—worn clothes stacked on a cheap folding table, a hand-me-down necklace warmed by her own skin. She imagines these against her mother’s thin, sallow frame. Bodies hold memories and so does she. If Arlene can bear witness, she can continue.

Her grandmother suggests Squid Game, Game of Thrones, and other heavy fictions. “Stop dwelling,” she says. “Do something fun.”

“Like you’re not dwelling, too.”

Arlene’s comment goes unnoticed, as does its implication. Her grandmother admires a handsome actor who lost his hand in Season 3.

“That show aired years ago,” Arlene says. “I already know how it ends.”

She hangs up. She waits, but her grandmother doesn’t call back. If she did, Arlene might admit that she doesn’t know how the show ends.

At night, Shackleton finds her crying on the bathroom floor as her phone narrates the deaths of eleven climbers on the world’s second highest mountain thirteen years ago. Shackleton purrs and she rubs him until he starts crying too. She knows what he wants: to watch the bathwater run. She twists the knob and sits beside him. She starts to feel okay.

“Why do you do this to yourself?” Janet asks. “You listened to three separate podcasts about the deaths of the same eleven people, laid on the floor, and cried. It’s a twisted kind of punishment, substituting this new obsession for the old self-harm.”

It isn’t.

Arlene tells Janet that even though eleven people died, only eleven people died. Sixteen came back. It’s their stories she lives for, their grief she cannibalizes. She watches them scramble for purchase and breath. They reunite with husbands and wives and children, and most of them continue to climb. They pull the past into their bodies, refusing to relinquish it at the cost of frostbitten fingers and friends. Arlene envisions all those bodies on the mountain and all those people who returned.

Those on the mountain remain preserved, along with their memories. Already, though, Arlene feels her mother slipping away. She pictures her mother—burned to ashes, spread in her grandmother’s garden, lost in the wind. The stretch marks on her mother’s abdomen and the scar on her chin are gone and so are the stories of how they came to be. Arlene fingers her own, more recent, scars and fights the impulse to add to her collection. Eventually, she will clean the piles of clothes and jewelry, rid them of her mother’s lingering cells. For now, she stares at these remains. Shackleton joins her. He presses his cheek into hers, and together, they mourn.

The next time Arlene walks, she imagines herself as a stranger might. She sees a girl, barely more than a child, wandering in circles, looking for bodies.

 

Jamie Logan holds a BA from Tulane University in English & Classical Studies and an MFA from the University of Memphis in Creative Writing. She has served as Managing Editor at The Pinch and Product Magazine and now holds the same position with BreakBread. She is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she is an Associate Editor for the Mississippi Review. Her work can be found in the New Ohio Review, Rougarou, Palette Poetry, Variety Pack, and elsewhere.

WHAT CAN WE DO WITH A CAPTURED ASTEROID? by Dare Williams

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PDF Link: WHAT_CAN_WE_DO_WITH_A_CAPTURED_ASTEROID?

 

Dare Williams (he/they) is a Queer HIV-positive poet and artist rooted in Southern California. A 2019 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow, he has received support/fellowships for his work from John Ashbury Home School, The Frost Place, Brooklyn Poets, Breadloaf, and Tin House. He was the co-curator of the West Hollywood Literature Festival 2021. Dare’s poetry has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best American Poets. His work has been anthologized in Redshift 5 by Arroyo Secco Press and is featured in Foglifter, The Shore, Exposition Review, West Trade Review, and elsewhere. He is at work on his debut poetry collection. Follow him on Twitter @Dare_Williams13 and www.darewilliams.com.

Togetherland by Amy Stuber

With dark coats to our shoe-tops, we were glorious on sidewalks, heads floating, bobbing above concrete, walking, walking, 72nd, 71st, 70th. Stopped at the light, cigarettes going. Big sunglasses, big bags. We had zero interest in pleasantries. We carried Marlboro Lights in Marlboro Reds boxes. We weren’t total masochists.

We were 33, and we had been so many things: regular babies, child actors, regular actors, moguls.

A man stood behind window glass staring out at the morning. A boy yelled, “shit, shit, shit” at his mother. The light changed. We crossed, rounded the corner, and the smooth cake of a sidewalk square yawned open.

It was October 2019, and we had no idea what we were doing. Of course, we felt the fear and gloom of climate and Trump, but not even my sister, someone who might constantly think of the car flipping over ice, the foot catching on carpeting on the stairs, the plane slashing through air to tank on a highway, would have anticipated a sinkhole sighing in a sidewalk. 

We’d seen pictures of sinkholes, sure, but they were generally in fields or gaping in the middle of a street with cars right up to the edges. This one, small, on an untraveled block, seemed made for us, which was strange, though we’d had lives to that point where people did make things for us and send them with notes like, “I made this with the two of you in mind.”

We could do nothing but fall. Our coats ballooned around our mid-sections in ways that would, on film, look artful. Our narrow ankles in thick-soled shoes braced for who knew what. My sister, if she thought anything then, thought, what if there isn’t a bottom, what if we just keep falling. What shocked me most was that she didn’t scream.

The rats were as stunned as we were. While we reacted by standing still, they reacted with frenzy. They writhed, ran, screeched, scattered. They were aghast. Is this a dream, I knew my sister was thinking.

Firemen came as they do in emergencies. I want to say for the drama of it that when they pulled us out, rats the size of puppies clung to our coats as decoration, but that was not the case. Rather, the firemen lowered a rope ladder, and my sister steadied her thick shoes on each rung. “Wait,” I yelled up. Items pulsed around me. Chunks of asphalt. All manner of trash. Improbably, a paperback so old the cover image was only a smear of washed color. I grabbed from the hole before climbing a silvery pop-top from a soda can that I hoped some queen rat had secreted away for herself, for the lovely shininess of it. 

Back on the sidewalk, we didn’t wait to talk to anyone. We didn’t have that police moment like in crime shows where they ask you to tell them the story. Instead, we ran, our coats storm clouds behind us, for once not worrying about the spectacle of it. 

Bottom line, if she was doing it, I was doing it, too. Our coats took on air, not in the way of that Willy Wonka girl but like a coasting bird who knew it didn’t need to beat wings to keep flying.

We didn’t call the car service; we opted for an old-school taxi. The driver looked in the mirror, said, “Aren’t you…?” We didn’t need to look at each other to roll our eyes; it was enough to, in unison, think, eye roll.

In the morning, the hole was surrounded by cones and police tape. We were back, in big coats, big shoes, filled suddenly with purpose, aloft with it almost.

I held the silver tab so tight my index finger bled a thin line. We walked all the way down Madison and back up Park. We filled our pockets with bottle caps, downed leaves, shredded coffee cups and penned on each a time/date/place (charger cord, 10/11/2019, 68th & Park).

We filled our bags and then the cloth bags we carried folded in our regular bags. We hauled up to our apartment a stack of canvases painted with neon landscapes from where someone had left them on the sidewalk alongside an entire suite of oak office furniture.

We didn’t sleep. My sister turned on vintage metal that shook the window glass, and we worked as ants or rodents. By morning, our fingers were leathery with dried glue, and the canvases were splotched over with things and things and things. What the fuck are these, I knew my sister wanted to say. Still, her cheeks were pink, and she looked, for once, happy.

It was only a few weeks before they were hanging on the walls of a small gallery three blocks from our apartment. To the opening, we wore gauzy charcoal dresses to the floor and lined our eyes all the way around.

“I didn’t take you for artists,” someone said to us while we stood in front of the largest assemblage. Eye roll. Sigh.

“Tell us how this started,” someone else said while he squinted to read the time/date/place on a piece of paperboard that had held a hot dog. “The rats,” we said, “were mid-shin, that’s how tall they were.” The person said, “I doubt that,” and my sister said, eyes big, “Were you there?” 

The music wasn’t loud enough for us. The drinks weren’t the drinks we wanted. The people had too much to say. We rotated in our gauze dresses to look out the window where the dark city was everything. We walked outside and breathed and listened. We closed our eyes so we were one creature and tried not to think about the future because what was the future but a locked box that could contain either scorpions or crystals. Don’t open it, I almost said out loud, and my sister touched my hand. We loved it all. 

 

Amy Stuber’s fiction has appeared in Witness, West Branch, Ploughshares, New England Review, and elsewhere. She’s been writing since the 1990s, but she’s still very much emerging. She’s an editor for Split Lip Magazine. She’s on Twitter @amy_stuber_ and online at www.amystuber.com.

Whale Fall by Bex Hainsworth

Pale jawbones form an archway,
ribs reach into a vaulted ceiling.

No stained glass or frescoes,
only a shattered spinal mosaic:

this is a simple temple
for pilgrims to receive bounty.

Crabs creep from sandy cloisters
to share in the sacrament,

a communion with hammerheads
who tear fraying white flesh

from the chalice of a skull.
They are joined by anglerfish

who carry their candles in the dark:
a vigil for the whale-prophet.

She sank through the centuries
after the hour of her death

to become food-dust in the deep.
This is her afterlife.

Yellow moss clings to the crypt of tail
and squat pectoral fin bones, relics,

headstones, settle with fossil debris
in the sea’s vast graveyard.

No choir can be heard in the abyss,
only the silent echoes of humpback hymns.

Eels congregate in empty sockets
and all souls gather for the feast.

 

Bex Hainsworth is a poet and teacher based in Leicester, UK. She won the Collection HQ Prize as part of the East Riding Festival of Words, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Visual Verse, Neologism, Atrium, Paddler Press, Canary, and Brave Voices Magazine. Find her on Twitter @PoetBex.

Betty by Didi Wood

They probably didn’t say why they were hiring but the girl who was here before you died, she died here at work, right in the breakroom, but nobody talks about it. Don’t say I told you. Don’t say anything.

Here’s a uniform. I think it was Lexie’s. She’s not here anymore, either. Obviously. If it doesn’t fit, you can try this one—it was Molly’s. That’s just a stain, sometimes they don’t come out but it’s clean, I promise. You can pin a nametag over that.

Pick one of these—do you want Hailey? Ginny? Emily? It’ll be a while before yours comes. I guess there’s a problem with the supplier or something.

Oh, my god, you really thought my name was Betty? That’s so funny! It must be left over from the 1950s, it’s so retro, right? No, I’m not going to tell you my real name—you have to guess! Here are some more nametags for you—Tammy? Libby? Ashley? No?

You’ll need to pull back your hair super tight—see mine? Just like that. Nothing escaping or you’ll get written up. I did ballet for nine years, that’s why I’m so good at it. You can use gel or spray to keep the wispy pieces in place. Make sure you take it down when you get home, though, or you’ll get traction alopecia. This one girl I knew, Sophie, she lost all the hair in front, her hairline started way back here, at the top of her head, and she had all these sores and infections where it used to be. I think she died.

Not from that, probably. I don’t think so.

Don’t worry about the smell—it’s part of the process, off-gassing or emissions or something, it’s not toxic or anything. It says so in the handbook. You won’t even notice after a while. Which is good because it’s a lot stronger in there. You’ll see.

This is your timecard. When it’s time for your shift, just stick it in here, like this—hear the sound, that little punch?—and then put it back on the rack. Try to put it in the same place every time so you can find it fast, in case you’re running late or something. But don’t be late, okay? Don’t. Here, we’ll put it—wait, let me pull some of the old ones, these girls aren’t here anymore. Abby, Chloe, Lucy… Annie? Wow, she—I—

No, I’m fine, I’m fine. Really. I just get a little, like, Whoa sometimes. Everybody does, it’s all the time on your feet, the blood gets stuck down there and then your brain’s all, Um, help? When it happens, just punch out and take a break. There are chairs in the breakroom, you can sit and put your head between your knees until you feel better. Not more than five minutes, though.

Here’s the breakroom. You don’t punch in for ten minutes so maybe we’ll just hang here and then I’ll show you where the gloves are and we can get started for real. There should be more nametags in this drawer.

Wow, check it out—Trudy! Elsie! These must be ancient. Hey, look, you can be Laurie—like in Halloween? Better start practicing your scream. I’ll just sit for a bit while you decide. Seriously, I’m fine. Maybe I’ll be Laurie next week. No, I told you, you have to guess. Just call me Betty until you guess. Did you pick one yet? Well, keep looking. We’re almost out of time.

 

Didi Wood’s stories have appeared in WigleafSmokeLong QuarterlyJellyfish Review, and elsewhere. Her story “Rattle & Rue,” originally published in Cotton Xenomorph, was chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2019. You can find her on Twitter @DidiWood and online at www.didiwood.com

Three Digit Numbers by Ross McCleary

Dial:
          101 for Police (Non-emergency)
          111 for NHS (Non-emergency)
          112 for Emergency (EU-wide)
          113 for Emergency Biscuits (Sponsored by Richard Osman)
          123 for the Speaking Clock
          203 if dissatisfied with the status quo
          256 for the Speaking Clock’s disappointed mother
          277 to purchase a book on starting an MLM
          326 for feedback on your CV (Spoiler: it’s not good)
          333 to foment insurrection in the workplace
          360 for an accurate count of the number of breaths you’ve taken since midnight
          431 to speak with someone who can tell you why you dream of owls so often
          434 to overhear people in your office talking about you (Sponsored by Ginsters)
          496 to overthrow the system
          540 to learn what your manager really thinks about you
          559 for a count of the total number of steps you’ve taken since you were born
          599 for feedback on your Poetry (Spoiler: it’s not good)
          615 to be informed about where all the hidden microphones are in your house
          647 to become a departmental informant (Prizes to be won)
          668 to install an interim government
          701 for a new invasive thought to replace the one you’re currently having about how everyone you know is a spy and secretly hates you
          729 for when you regret overthrowing the system
          779 to learn how many hours you’ve spent looking at porn
          800 to electrocute yourself
          819 for when your regret metastases into a deeper malaise
          858 to erase that memory, you know the one
          965 to have someone explain why your feelings of guilt are both valid and selfish
          967 to flee the country
          998 for a therapy appointment to deal with the unplaceable guilt that manifests in its most insidious and unmatchable forms after the clocks go back and the nights draw in like a vampire with its teeth inches from your neck
          999 for Emergency Services
          000 to apologize, profusely, forever, for everything

 

Ross McCleary is from Edinburgh, Scotland. His work has appeared in Structo, Litro, and Extra Teeth. He believes in repetition and Carly Rae Jepsen.

Everything Works Differently in Darkness by Kaj Tanaka

Sometimes when I get sad, I think about how Raven created this world from a pebble for his convenience. He’d been flying through the eternal night carrying a pebble and he needed somewhere to land, so he dropped the pebble into the water and—boom—the world. It doesn’t need to make sense. Everything works differently in darkness.

It’s sort of like: there’s a jacket, okay, and pretty soon someone comes along and picks it up and now there are two people—the original space inside the jacket and the person who came along to notice it. I guess I’m saying even if you seem to be alone, you probably aren’t.

Most of my friends are parasocial friends. By that I mean my friends are social media people who I watch on my phone. I know all kinds of things about them, but they know nothing about me. Like this one woman—she smiles a lot and puts things into her backpack. Or this other couple—they clean up messy houses and talk about movies they have watched together. Or this other person—they go on long and aimless and mostly silent walks through a city on the other side of this planet, a city I will probably never visit.

Raven was hungry—that is Raven’s deal. Raven wanted something to eat, so he dropped a pebble and pretty soon boom he was chilling in a hot tub and the room was filled with casseroles and eclairs—AKA the world. Raven created the world out of necessity. Lots of people don’t get that creation isn’t about beauty or truth or whatever, it’s about an urgent need to exist.

Recently, my neighborhood experienced a major power outage because the wind has been unusually high this year. When the power goes out, my internet also goes out, my parasocial relationships disappear, and I am thrown into aloneness not unlike the dark Raven flew through before he created the world.

When I get very very sad, I remember the Raven thing is only a story. You can’t drop a pebble and make the world. You can’t call the disembodied space within a jacket a person. And a person you watch on the internet isn’t really your friend. These lies are cousins, which is why I grouped them together here.

I once had a real friend who tried to live only on packets of ramen noodles. She succeeded for a while, but then she ended up with a serious case of the shakes—her entire body, she said, seemed to be trying to vibrate itself into its constituent parts. This happened for seven days. During that time, she disappeared, and when she finally came back she told us she said, “shaking uncontrollably alone in my apartment,” which is what I think about when my power goes out because I have been going through a version of the same thing, maybe for years.

I think: I am shaking myself apart into my constituent parts.

For my friend, her case of the shakes was just the wake-up call she needed, and after that, she went back to eating other foods besides packets of ramen noodles.

During the power outage, there was a knock on my door. I waited in the darkness, listening, and when I pulled back the locks, outside in the night a disembodied space hovered in the hallway outside my apartment, looking at me expectantly.

The emptiness in my hallway resembled somehow the dark space you find inside a jacket. But now, lacking a form to contain it, it spread its wings as far as I could see, swallowing up everything. The disembodied space looked hungry and tired. I opened my mouth, and—boom—the world. I know it doesn’t make sense, but everything works differently in darkness.

It never occurred to me that in this version of the story I might not be Raven, I might be the pebble. Imagine my surprise.

 

Kaj Tanaka’s fiction has appeared in New South, Hobart, The New Ohio Review, and Tin House. His stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and Wigleaf’s Top 50. Kaj lives in New Mexico. Find him at kajtanaka.com.

A shortlist of cheeses and wines I would take home for free when I worked in the Specialty Department at Whole Foods by K. Degala-Paraíso

Sancerre: a French wine so light and crisp, it lands somewhere between spring water and God. Small chunks of bougie cheeses, sloppily wrapped in butcher paper: a sliver of Le Fromager, a double-cream brie so clever and smooth, it could seduce the sternest person you know; a corner of Rum Runner from Wisconsin, sticky and sweet and stuffed with crunchy salty bits; fresh, herb-coated capricho de cabra; stinky Camembert; a simple-yet-elegant goat gouda; garlicky Boursin. The parmigiano reggiano crumbles when you slice it, and I abruptly remember how the world crumbles beyond this ranch where we  temporarily live: a pandemic, a coup, videos of anti-Asian hate crimes every morning, a global death count so high it’s almost desensitizing. Almost. And sometimes — sometimes my grief gut-punches me so hard my ribs go numb. Sometimes, my broken hand is in such cheddar-sharp pain, it blinds me. But here, in the tall grass under the apple trees, in the split-second when that orange globe hangs right above the treeline, you’re gently placing a rosemary cracker slathered with brie on your tongue, and you close your eyes before you chew, and I remember how much I love you, and — for just this moment, I believe that everything will be alright.

 

K. Degala-Paraíso (she/they) is a Filipinx-American experimental writer with a B.A. in Creative Writing from Pitzer College. Her work has also appeared in miniskirt magazine and PANK Magazine. She teaches creative writing through GrubStreet. When she’s not writing, you can catch K. wreaking culinary havoc in the kitchen and follow her online at www.kdegalaparaiso.com.