To Repel Ghosts by Ran Walker

My mother used to tell me about a ghost that haunted the house across the street from where she grew up. The ghost was a little boy, who, according to legend, was shot by his stepfather. It was the kind of story that was difficult to determine the truth of, but the kind of story that would sneak into my consciousness, just as I was preparing for bed.

The story felt like one of those tales spun to scare kids around campfires or during sleepovers. It probably wasn’t real at all, but that didn’t stop me from imagining a kid of no more than ten, standing face-to-face with his stepfather, a twelve gauge pressed against his forehead.

I had no explanation for why my mother would tell me a story like that, except that maybe it had something to do with my father choosing to leave us after his girlfriend became pregnant. My mother never talked about him, and because I didn’t want to upset her, I never brought him up either.

Maybe the ghost was supposed to represent my father, although I couldn’t see how. Or maybe this bit of the macabre was my mother’s way of exorcizing some other demon. Then again, knowing my mother, she could very well have been talking about an actual ghost.

When she grew particularly melancholy, I would ask her to tell me about the ghost. For some strange reason, she enjoyed recounting the story, as if it provided some relief to her keeping the darkness bottled up inside.

One day, I built up the courage to press her more about the ghost, wondering if there was any greater specificity to her usual anecdote.

“Did you ever see it with your own eyes?”

“Yes. Twice.”

“What did it look like?”

“Everything above his chin had been blown completely apart. His entire head kind of folded in on itself. It was the kind of thing you kept looking at just to see if you could make sense of it.”

I hadn’t expected that level of detail from her, and my stomach tightened. My mother was carrying this around in her head like loose change in her pocketbook. She had told the story so nonchalantly that I wondered if she even knew what she was saying to her sixteen-year-old son. My imagination had never constructed so graphic an image of the ghost and now I found myself unable to think of anything else.

After that revelation, whenever I prepared for bed, I found myself unable to lie down without the aid of a nightlight. I was afraid the ghost might appear in my bedroom, the nearly headless figure creeping closer to me with each child-like step.

One night my fear-induced insomnia led me to seek protection in my mother’s bedroom. I found her asleep, upright against several pillows in her bed, a cocked twelve gauge resting in the corner, not even a full arms length away.

I backed away slowly, careful not to make a sound. Until that moment, I was not aware my mother even owned a shotgun, especially one identical to the gun in her story.

As I tiptoed back into my bedroom, I locked the door behind myself. I didn’t know who or what my mother feared, but I immediately feared it, too.

With darkness encroaching on my nightlight, I buried my head beneath the covers. It was all I could think to do to repel the ghosts.

 

Ran Walker is the author of sixteen books. He currently serves on the creative writing faculty for Hampton University in Virginia. He can be reached via his website, http://www.ranwalker.com.

Little Offerings by Laurel Paige

Love happens             too easily, like my bones
came hollow. Anything
can fill them. Like my being grounded
relies on someone else             pressing

palms into my shoulders
relies on me pressing
back, thumb to hip
bone, thumb to thigh.

My nightmares used to be water-
logged. Crocodile teeth pulling
me under. Now

every night my own             teeth fall
out, little white offerings
my body makes,

so light
they’d be weightless in someone
else’s hand. And my bones beg
to be waterlogged

or stuffed with pearls, something
to make my body balanced or             brighter,
easier for someone to             love and to
weigh me down.

 

Laurel Paige is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. She lives in Madison, WI where she works at a software company and gives readings at Meaderys. Her work has appeared in Firefly and is forthcoming in The Conglomerate and Semicolon Lit.

Natural Resources by Anita Goveas

The shelves are half-empty, an improvement. Too many options cut down on foraging time, and time is finite. We know this now.

Mongooses are too soft, dormice don’t cover enough, hedgehogs fight back. Trial and error, word of mouth indicate armadillos are the most effective.

Rocks, sharp flints, wood shaved into spears. These are among the products we still have. In the After, protecting the head is essential during hunting and/or gathering. What we don’t eat isn’t wasted. Unlike Before.

 

Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Spelk, Lost Balloon, and Terse. She is part of the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, is a reader for Bare Fiction, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer.

Chernobyl Fox by David Brennan

News crew. He struts up with a fearless limp, askew, his coat deranged in delicate splotches, an unfoxlike version of fox, this Emperor of Goof.

Why a limp? Let’s see a limp: a soaking rain of cesium-137. The mushrooms revel in the wet, distill the radiation in their caps. Voles, voracious mushroom consumers, make of their bodies vole-sized radiation pills the foxes love to pop. So His Majesty of Calamity recipes marrow-mush of his own bone.

The crew dispenses sandwich makings. A zone of exclusion invites concentration

Ham atop six fat white slices, gathered and fit along the long row of yellowing molars, no condiments but hey

The King of Leakage doesn’t chew nor wolf his food. He’s no longhair, no shaggy loper.

Camera zooms on his mouth: a loaf.

Horse and badger, ungulate and bird, beaver and moose, none have managed to procure such morsels

Dead power lines sag with vine, decorate. Monarch of Mutation

he turns and trots a return, sporting trophy for the reclamation of his realm.

 

David Brennan’s include If Beauty Has to Hide (Spuyten Duyvil), a collection of cross-genre work, and Murder Ballads: Exhuming the Body Buried Beneath Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (Punctum Books), a work of creative literary criticism. Poems and essays have appeared and are forthcoming in BOAAT, Timber, Always Crashing, Heavy Feather Review and elsewhere. He teaches at James Madison University in Virginia.

When It’s Time to Go by Neil Clark

This time, you just wanted a simple life. Go to work. Watch kitten videos and food vlogs before bed. Over-order Chinese food at weekends when the hangovers bite.

But wherever you go, there’s always something.

Your first ever room had rising damp. The next had moths that ate your clothes.

Your last place had a switch in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, with “NOT IN USE” written above it in red pen. Your head would constantly be in that cupboard, oblivious to your phone pinging in your pocket with concerned texts from family, stern voicemails from work. You’d stroke the switch for days on end, applying tiny and tinier amounts of pressure. You’d trace the letters with your fingernails and wonder if you’d discovered the reset button for the universe.

When it was time to go from there, you flicked the switch, put the keys on the table and left the flat for the first time since the day you moved in. As your plane took off, you saw an earthquake below, just how you’d imagined.

The new house smelt of fresh carpet and just-dried paint. It felt efficiently put together, like it wasn’t passive aggressively wired to the fault lines of the universe.

But you couldn’t figure out how to turn the power to the shower on. Your first morning, you had to wash yourself over the sink. It was cold, and the floor got sudsy and wet. Your shivering made you late for your new job.

Then later.

Later still.

Too late.

Absent.

You put a towel over the puddle and spent the next year sat in the bathroom, watching rings of mold circle the loops of fabric, witnessing ecosystems turn from green to light brown, dark brown to black.

You wondered if this was what God was doing. Sitting naked on His bathroom floor instead of turning up to His day job. Shivering. Watching the hues of the globe shift a little each time we loop round the sun.

You found out about your nickname at work. “Jesus.” You thought it might be because everyone was waiting for you to turn up. That wasn’t it. It was because the suit you bought for your first day was getting holier and holier.

You’d never seen a single moth in the flat. You asked the internet if moths can lay eggs underneath human skin. Took the year off to read all 365,000 results.

After you finished reading each article, you inspected your skin so closely, looked so deeply into every pore that every pore became a black hole. Your body became a network of rifts in the space-time continuum, through which the moths were travelling via the ice age and the space age and the stone age, only emerging into the present day to feast on your suit when you were asleep.

Today, you got a letter from the bosses, asking if you owned any other suits. “The holes are getting ridiculous,” they said. “They leave you exposed in places that shouldn’t be exposed. We see red marks all over your body, like a toddler went mad with a permanent marker.”

“We can see right through you,” they said.

You knew it was time to go when the earthquake caught up. Shook your flat so hard the towel crinkled on the floor, sent ecosystem crashing into ecosystem. Shook the moths out your pores. Shook open the cupboard doors. Revealed a switch under the bathroom sink that said “SHOWER.”

You flicked it and left the keys on the table.

Outside, low black clouds touched the tops of derelict buildings. People ran naked in tight circles, bumping into one another.

As you fled on a stolen scooter, the heavens opened behind you. Flooded the town. Swept your towel into the sea like a magic carpet in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

Your next place will be at the summit of the highest mountain on Earth. The locals will worship the roar and smell of your battered scooter. Feed you. Paint red patterns on your chest and forehead.

You’ll be above the clouds, where you can watch the rains wash away the world underneath until you feel your sense of scale float out of your skull. Until you’re standing over a sink, tap running.

You’ll see a plane on the horizon, with red writing on the side that says, “NOT IN USE.” There’ll be a glint in the window of the cockpit.

Raise a finger, see if you can beckon it over. The locals will love it if you can.

 

Neil Clark is a writer from Edinburgh. Where he lives, there is a strange switch. He thinks about it. All the time. His work has been published by 404Ink, The Open Pen, formercactus, Memoir Mixtapes, and other cool places. Find him on Twitter @NeilRClark or at neilclarkwrites.wordpress.com.

whole foods rotisserie chicken by Chelsea Balzer

in the car in the parking lot of the brighton whole foods I dig my unpurelled hands into the flesh of a roast chicken. the legs are tied together. I lift the thing to my face and press its burnt skin into my teeth. I am not starving. I ate four hours ago. people walk by and look away. they are nosy but not brave enough to say so. their faces do the denial dance. they are muffled under dusty shields. nothing wild can reach them and this makes them old.

I’m wearing a new watch. we say that this way we can keep time. years ago I was vegan. being loud is not always a sign of courage. I remember those friends and wonder if any have bled onto rocks since I left. I have. I don’t think it’s silly to choose that life. we are all responsible for taking stock of our harm. but what use is pacifism when loving someone well can wreak havoc on their whole life? how can we choose which things are good when showing someone their magic strips years of safety away? and isn’t this good?

we cannot not hurt. even the mercy of the world is a danger to someone. brutal is a framework. a moral made way by resistance. the worst wrong we enact is not really the pain or even the killing but the taunt that gets lodged in the body. the threat we don’t know we lived through. we lose track of the pain then the pleasure and at some point each other. if we still dance we need to know why. we hunt when we’re not even hungry. we start to believe we have time.

 

Chelsea Balzer is a writer, musician, and therapist. A current fellow with the American Psychological Association, she can be found offering therapy at YOGA NOW in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, performing as one-half of synthpop duo Vital Organs, and leading The Big Feels Lab: a series of workshops on mental health and liberation. Her debut chapbook Fruit Diaries is forthcoming.

Tea Kettles by Michelle Ross

I was at the mall to replace a broken tea kettle when I saw one of the dads from my kid’s school, the one who’s a cop. He looks exactly like what he is. Honest, I call that. The way a good tea kettle looks like a tea kettle, whereas some are designed these days to masquerade as other things—flamingos, giraffes, UFOs. For no good reason at all, other than that people in the world collect such shit. This department store, in fact, sells a tea kettle that resembles a toilet. It doesn’t even make sense.

This cop, his name is Donny, keeps his head shaved. His irises look like discs of ice, like if you were to put your finger to his eyeballs, your finger would freeze to them. At a school spaghetti dinner he showed everyone at our table the raised bump on his bicep where he’d been bitten by a police dog. The word “bump” does not do the scar justice unless you think on the scale of the protuberance and hardness of a baby bump. Or like how a tree oozes out its own liquid bandage when you prune it, only the liquid bandage hardens into an impenetrable barrier. Not that I touched his scar. I mean I’d wanted to, because I’m a curious person. But how would that have looked? Me reaching out to place my hand on Donny’s bicep?

Anyway, I spot Donny in the women’s lingerie department, staring absent-mindedly at a rack of animal-print bras. Again with the animals.

I think he must be purchasing a gift for his wife, Kate. That woman is on the board of a charity for dogs and is always asking people to attend this or that fundraiser or purchase this or that expensive raffle ticket for makeovers and computer repair certificates and what have you, but then when the middle school kids are having their bake sales, she’s all oh-I-can’t-buy-any-of-that-or-I’ll-end-up-eating-it-all.

Or maybe since he doesn’t seem to be so much considering the animal-print bras as to be resting his focus on them, he’s just waiting on Kate while she tries on lingerie. Kate runs with that dog of hers, I know, because I’ve seen her, and even if I hadn’t seen her, I’d know because of those calf muscles. Only runners have calves like that, calves so meaty they make you think of drumsticks, like the way predators in cartoons picture their prey as cuts of meat. What I mean is Kate is probably the type of woman who actually enjoys trying on lingerie.

But the person who comes out of the dressing room isn’t Kate but Allison, the mom of that girl in my son’s class who he says lives in a shelter. My son, barely seven, told me the girl, Reilly, isn’t allowed to see her father or rather he isn’t allowed to see her and her mother. Because he threw something at Reilly’s mother. Because glass shattered all over the kitchen floor. Because Reilly’s mother’s cheek turned purple. My son tells me this, and I’m thinking he’s too young to know about stuff like this, but then I think about Reilly and all the other kids who know-know stuff like this, and then I just shake my head. My son told me that Reilly both misses her father and doesn’t. He said, “I understand that, Mom,” and I said, “You do?” “Not about Dad,” he said. “Oh,” I said. “I mean,” he said, “feeling two ways at once. I feel that way a lot, like when I want to go swimming but also I don’t because then I have to have a bath after to get the chlorine out, plus the chlorine always makes my penis sting.”

I realize I’m not so surprised to see Allison. This Donny guy looks like the kind of guy who would cheat on his wife. Like I said, he looks like what he is.

So Allison walks out of the dressing room in this summery white dress. It’s an eyelet fabric, falls to just below her knees. I think of photographs of Woodstock, only she’s a clean, bleached version of that time. And she doesn’t have flowers in her hair, though she looks like she could pull that off, like she should be running barefoot through a meadow in that dress. What is it that bear used to say in that laundry detergent (or was it softener?) commercial? Fresh like a summer’s breeze? Something like that. Scratch and sniff Allison, and she’d smell like daisies and fresh-cut grass and pot.

What I’ve wanted to know ever since my son told me about Reilly and Allison in that shelter is what is her ex like out in the world? Like if he were sitting across from me at a school spaghetti dinner, would he give off a creep vibe? Would I think there’s something not right about that guy? Like Donny over there. Not the most charming man I’ve ever met. Doesn’t smile much. Has that steely stare you expect from a cop, particularly if one is pulling you over for speeding. Or was he more like my Carver? Smiling across the table at Donny at that spaghetti dinner. Offering to refill my lemonade. But then later that night, after our son was asleep, he was all everyone-saw-you-staring-at-his-bicep and don’t-you-fucking-embarrass-me-like-that-again. Carver is like a tea kettle disguised as a sheep.

 

Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, CRAFT Literary, New World Writing, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Tahoma Literary Review, TriQuarterly, and other venues.

Our love will stretch to cover this in time by Jeni De La O

There are
tests, after I
have gone. This morning it
was a last minute invite to
breakfast.

Dang. Her
pancakes are my
blueberry dreams. When I
bring in groceries I make just
one trip.

Twenty-
six bags and a
cantaloupe hang from my
forearm, digging a needless farm
of red

hot welts
I hide under
an old black cardigan.
There are essay questions on how
I can

reduce
the hard echo
built of my empty room.
I wish I could freeze us before
we strain

against
the framework of—
when I made pancakes I
always flipped the cake before time
and made

a mess;
and here I have,
again—something tender.
We ate them anyway, back then
pancakes

were still
butter-girlfriend
sweet; but now my hunger
is a sticky syrup on her
fingers.

 

Jeni De La O is an Afro-Cuban poet and storyteller living in Detroit. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Obsidian, Rigorous Magazine, Fifth Wednesday, Gigantic Sequins and others. Jeni founded Relato:Detroit, the nation’s first bilingual community storytelling event, which seeks to bridge linguistics divides through story. She is a Poetry Editor for Rockvale Review and organizes Poems in the Park, an acoustic reading series based in Detroit.

The Circus Comes to Town When You Die by Liz Wride

The last drops were squeezed from my childhood on a sun-drenched afternoon, when my Mother decided to tell me the honest truth about death. I was at that odd sort of age, where adults were constantly pulling at the corners of the world, unsure of how much to reveal to me. With her face and apron creased, she crouched down to my level.

The previous Summer, I had taken the Santa revelation well. I had just been glad that the Naughty List wasn’t real. Now, as my Mother’s brown eyes met mine, I got the feeling that she was about to tell me something she believed in wasn’t real.

“Your Uncle Joe will come stay with us for a while. He should get here tomorrow, but he’ll look a little different.”

“Will he have his beard?”

I remembered my Uncle Joe, a bear of a man all checked-shirts and bushy beard. He taught me how to juggle with oranges in the grocery store and watched the Super Bowl with me, shouting “Touchdown!” He’d share his nachos and dip with me during half-time.

My Mother hesitated. “You know how when people die, they are in the cemetery… the way Grandpa is?” She screwed her face up, like she’d been sucking on a lemon. “That’s not true. When people die… they become animals.”

My brain was citrus-sharp with questions: Did Uncle Joe get to pick what animal he’d be? What animal would I be when I died?

“Who did Bucky used to be?” I asked.

“Nobody – Bucky’s just a dog.”

“Your Uncle will be with us tomorrow, I’m told…” There were tears in her eyes.

* * *

With tomorrow, came animal control and a huge truck. For a moment, I thought the circus had come to town when I saw a crane haul the huge cage, covered in a huge sheet, out of the back of the truck. There was a deep, low growl.

“Who gets to decide what we’ll be once we’re dead?” I asked my Mother. She looked to my Father for answers, but he had none.

“I think it’s decided already.” She said, quietly. “I think we are that animal, deep down inside, even when we are alive.”

The crane dumped the cage in the backyard. What was surprising, was that folks never came out to look.

Men in high-vis vests and animal control officers with darts did a strange sort of dance. They moved their arms and stopped, they circled the cage…

There was another low growl.

“Please don’t dart him, officer. He’s had enough needles stuck in him when he was alive…,” my Mother said.

Eventually, they ripped the covering off the cage, and there, on it’s hind legs, stood a huge, brown grizzly bear. It’s jaws were open and it looked like it wanted to eat me.

I hid behind my Mother, even though I thought I was too old to hide behind anyone.

“Uncle Joe?” I asked, to nobody in particular. My Mother was already encircling my head with her arms. I didn’t see, as our neighbors twitched their curtains and peeked out from behind their blinds.

There was talk of diet. My Mother mentioned grasses, honey. My Father mentioned baby deer. The Animal Control guy mentioned the salmon in the National Parks. He had a jovial sort of sadness about him. I didn’t realize as a kid, but it’s the same sort of day-in-day out stoicism that people in the Emergency Room have.

My Mother said something along the lines of “We’ll think about it,” and the circus of animal control, with their high-vis and their trucks left with no fanfare.

Now, it was just us and the bear.

* * *

Once, when I was quite young, my Uncle Joe had been watching the Super Bowl with me. He’d lifted me up and then dumped me on the sofa, shouting “Touchdown!” along with the game. I laughed – but my Mother got angry and said he was being too rough.

They had their argument behind the closed door, and all I heard was the odd word, about blame and who was wrong.

I wondered now if Uncle Joe and I could still play our touchdown game, but I saw his big bear claws, and I knew we couldn’t. I was too scared.

That night, when I heard the sounds through my open window: critters going through bins, or owls hooting, I wondered whose Mom or Grampa or Dad they used to be. Mainly I thought about Bucky, at the foot of my bed, and what would happen to him when he died, being just a dog.

* * *

I woke up in the middle of the night, to the sound of a sudden scream and Bucky barking. My father’s frantic footsteps on the stairs. The sound of something scraping against metal.

He had mauled her.

In the darkness, I couldn’t see, but I knew Uncle Joe had killed my Mother. There was that odd sort of stillness that happened when I was in the house with my Father, and she was at the grocery store. The bated breath where we all just sat and waited for her to return.

In the dead of night, my Father called animal control. They had their argument behind the closed door, and all I heard was the odd word, about blame and who was wrong.

* * *

The next day the truck turned up again. The neighbors lined the street this time in a quiet sort of reverence. The only words I remember hearing were “Yellowstone.”

* * *

My Father told me that when people die, we want to keep them with us. But really, we have to let them go. He said all this, while preparing straw bedding for my Mother’s cage, trying to make the grey rabbit she’d become comfortable. As he spoke, he passed me handfuls and handfuls of straw. He didn’t want to put his hand back into the cage, because he’d tried to pet her but she’d bitten him.

 

Liz Wride writes short fiction and plays. Her work has appeared in The Ginger Collect, Empwr, and Mantle Arts Anthology’s Beneath the Waves. Her work has been shortlisted for the ELLE U.K. Talent Awards and Liar’s League. She is an administrator by day and a writer by night.

This is our dog by Emma Cairns Watson

This is our dog. We do not love him any more.
Not after all the things he has done.
I am sorry to have to relate that his ears are the color a brass doorbell turns
at the home of a family with many friends. Their texture
is reminiscent of the bristle-back stroke
of a Eurasian boar. This is not to mention his talent
for walking long distances saucer-eyed on his back legs,
which look like drumsticks of a kind you would not want
to find in your bag coming home from the store.
There is not much we can do about these because they are attached
to our dog, whose nose tapers to a fine matte point like
the very furriest and most hopeful of doorstops, and whom
because of persisting difficulties such as these, in addition
to the importunate amber of his eyes and the peculiar tufts of black whisker
that he has sent out mutinously from the underbelly of his very long chin
like tusks, and the snack-sweet scent of his white-tipped paws
on winter mornings when he otter-undulates his
hairy and cunning way into our bed, we do not love any more.

 

Emma Cairns Watson coordinates university conferences on Egyptology and Armenian art by day and inhales other people’s poetry by night. Her work has appeared in Barrelhouse Online and Menacing Hedge and is forthcoming in RHINO, Half Mystic, and Ninth Letter. You can find her on twitter @EmmaValjean and (more importantly) her dog on instagram @the_durg.