Opossum by Michael Czyzniejewski

The day my dad moved in, he befriended the opossum that lived in our back yard. After he unpacked, he sat on the back deck while Marla and I watched TV, one fuck too many for his sensitive ears. Bedtime, I found Dad in a patio chair, an opossum the size of a lunchbox cradled in his lap. He said the opossum’s name was Benjamin. He asked if he could keep him.

Mom had just died.

Dad said he would feed his opossum, play with it, pay for inoculations. There was a kiosk at Walmart where he could get a tag made. He showed us five links on Google proving opossums couldn’t carry rabies, three videos on YouTube, families with opossums as pets. He said please. He sounded like me when I was in high school and I wanted a Gila monster. He told me no Gila monster. I told him no opossum.

* * *

Dad kept on us. He spent his nights in the yard, petting Benjamin, feeding him table scraps, talking baby talk. He said Benjamin lived under the bricks we had piled behind the shed. Benjamin ate a lot of ticks, Dad claimed. It was going to get cold soon, he hinted. We wouldn’t budge.

One day, Marla called me at work. She’d come home early, a gas leak at her office. She found Dad sleeping on the couch, the opossum twirled on his chest like soft-serve ice cream. I told her I’d deal with it when I got home. She replied, firmly, Now. I told my boss I was taking a half day. When she asked why, I said my house was on fire.

Dad and I had a talk. Benjamin had been living inside his room, he admitted. He showed me the bed he’d built in his closet from egg cartons and yarn. A stench smacked me in the face as he slid open the door. Dad put Benjamin outside, promised to leave him there.

Later, we heard Dad through the wall, bawling, all night long.

My mom had just died, Marla reminded me.

* * *

Dad’d had to move in after he burnt out his kitchen. It was the night of Mom’s funeral. He was heating a can of soup, the can, with the label, right on the burner. He’d never lived alone, never fended for himself. He’d blow himself up within a week.

* * *

Dad died three days after Marla found him and Benjamin sleeping on the couch.

He’d driven his car through a guardrail, off an overpass, into the river. No body, the police explained. Dad was heading downstream, downstate. He’d be found, sooner or later, maybe post-thaw. We held a funeral. A picture of Dad and Mom, sitting on their front stoop, rested on an easel in the place of a coffin. The mortician donated the time, no body to prepare, just use of the parlor for the wake. He considered it a two-for-one deal after we’d spent so much on Mom. He expressed genuine sorrow.

* * *

The night of Dad’s funeral, I sat on the back deck. I waited two hours for the opossum to waddle up. I offered chicken bones and a dish of rigatoni as bait. The opossum didn’t show.

The next night, the same, using better scraps, bacon and eggs. Nothing.

The third night, when the opossum didn’t come, Marla suggested Benjamin had been in the car with Dad. Wherever Dad’d been heading, he took his friend with him. It was a plausible explanation.

Still, I checked behind the shed. I used my phone flashlight to scan the bricks. I moved one brick, then another, then another, tossing them behind me. Twenty bricks in, I saw my father’s face, squinting in the light. There was a hole in the ground, a big one, sleeping bags lining the bottom. I moved more bricks and helped my father out of the burrow. Benjamin followed, curling at Dad’s feet. Inside the hole I saw protein bars, water bottles, and dad’s prescriptions. A black-and-white photo of Mom in her wedding dress leaned against an unlit lantern.

Dad looked well, considering, but smelled like his closet.

“You were dead,” I said. “That was upsetting.”

Dad said, “Sorry.”

“Mom’s not in there, too, is she?”

He shook his head. He began to cry. I joined in.

I ushered Dad back toward the house. He carried Benjamin in his arms. When Marla protested, I’d explain that my mom had just died. It was true: She had.

 

Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of three collections of stories, Elephants in Our Bedroom (Dzanc Books, 2009), Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions (Curbside Splendor, 2012), and I Will Love You For the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories (Curbside Splendor, 2015). He is an associate professor at Missouri State University, where he serves as Editor for Moon City Review and Moon City Press. In 2010, he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

To the Western Fox Snake I Watched Unhinge Its Jaw and Swallow a Mouse Whole by Kate Wright

I’m sorry I watched—jaws spread, gentle
pink interior visible, contrasted against black
rodent fur—stared as you walked your lower jaw
closer to tail, curved teeth gripping, pulling
body back. I couldn’t help it, wondered how
it feels to unhinge, swallow something
so large, the strain and squeeze of muscle
visible beneath gold and brown scale
spotted exterior. I know you’re nervous,
in a vulnerable state—hidden behind paper
half-curtain taped to glass tank for privacy,
the illusion of safety. So, I avoided eye contact
until just the tail hung from your mouth—slurped
down throat, the lump muscled, squashed,
and moving through the body.

 

Kate Wright received her BA and MA in English from Penn State and her MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. This poem was inspired by her time volunteering at the Iowa Wildlife Center, where she particularly enjoyed working with the reptiles. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from in Digging Through the Fat, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Rogue Agent, Ghost City Review, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @KateWrightPoet.

Eating Dandelions by Luz Rosales

The new girl can take her eyeball out.

The first time she does it, everyone is sitting on the carpet while Ms. Perry reads aloud from a book. The first one to notice is Benji, who never pays attention in class, but notices everything else, including her, in the back with her head down. He exclaims, “Look at Sharon!” even though her name is Shannon.

Her eye dangles out of its socket, attached to the nerve. She plays with it, batting it like a cat with string, twirling the nerve around her finger. When Benji shouts, she looks up, confused, and when she sees everyone staring back at her, she realizes what’s wrong.

“Oh,” she says as everyone jumps up and moves away from her. “I’m sorry.”

Even Ms. Perry looks sick. “You need to go to the nurse—”

“No, I don’t,” Shannon replies. “I’m fine.”

And just like that, she pulls her eyelid up and shoves the eye back into place. It pops into her socket perfectly.

To describe her classmates as bewildered would be an understatement. They are disgusted. Only Jake, who has pet roaches and once brought one to class, only for it to escape and end up in Ms. Perry’s coat, has anything positive to say: “That’s pretty cool.”

Bianca says nothing, but she keeps thinking about Shannon’s eye, wondering what it would feel like.

* * *

Shannon still takes her eye out. She says she has to do it. She can’t help it. No one wants to sit next to her, and even Ms. Perry doesn’t want to get too close, so Shannon sits alone, at a small desk in the corner, and keeps entirely to herself. Bianca watches her and draws her in the margins of her notebook.

The eye-popping is just one of Shannon’s many eccentricities.

Once, during lunch, Shannon reaches down her throat and pulls out a small, black slug, alive and squirming. She leaves it on the ground, and after everyone else has left, Bianca cradles it in her palm. She thinks it’s beautiful. She kisses the slug and pretends it’s Shannon’s forehead.

About lunch: Shannon never eats. Not a bite of her mac and cheese, not a sip of her milk. Martha says she once saw Shannon hiding behind a shrub, shoveling leaves and grass and flowers into her mouth.

But the really weird thing is how nonchalant Shannon is about everything. She doesn’t seem to notice the distaste everyone has for her. When she’s left on her own during group projects or field trips, she has no reaction. She never speaks unless spoken to, which in itself is rare, and never approaches anyone. Bianca isn’t sure if Shannon is naturally withdrawn, or if she’s just accepted that no one wants to be around her.

Bianca is the exception. She wants to be around her.

***

During recess, Bianca finds Shannon in the narrow space between one of the portable classrooms and the surrounding gate. There are four more slugs crawling on her legs.

“Hi,” Bianca says, the first word she’s spoken to her.

Shannon doesn’t respond. She plucks a dandelion growing from the cracks in the concrete and eats it.

Bianca squeezes in and sits next to her. Shannon doesn’t object, so she assumes it’s okay.

Neither of them talk. Shannon keeps eating dandelions. Bianca’s fingers itch with the urge to draw her. She’s pretty, Bianca thinks. Her eyes are a deep brown. Her black hair is always styled in two long pigtails and looks soft.

“Don’t you have any friends?” Bianca asks.

“I can make my own friends.” Shannon gestures to the slugs. These are thicker than the one from before. She pets one: a light touch, the kind of touch you give someone you truly love.

“What about people friends?”

Shannon looks at Bianca like this is the most preposterous idea she’s ever heard.

“I mean,” Bianca says, “slugs don’t talk. You can’t have sleepovers with them and stay up all night talking.”

Shannon shakes her head. Her pigtails sway. “That doesn’t matter. I like it that way.”

That’s when she does it: her left eye bulges far out. Even Bianca, who has seen Shannon do this many times, is surprised when she sees it up close, shocked by how suddenly it happens. Bianca leans back a little.

Shannon grasps her eyeball and eases it further out of the socket, until once again it’s dangling against her cheek.

“Doesn’t it hurt?” Bianca asks.

“Not at all.”

Bianca lifts her hand. “Can I…?”

A nod.

Shannon’s eyeball is firmer than Bianca expected. It’s moist and rubbery. The cornea squishes when she pokes it. Shannon doesn’t flinch or voice any complaints. Bianca is honored that she’s letting her do this. That has to be a sign of trust, right?

The bell rings.

Before Shannon can get up, Bianca says, “Wait,” and kisses her eyeball.

***

A few days later, Shannon moves away. The rest of the class is relieved. Bianca doesn’t mention what happened between them to anyone. She never sees Shannon again, and never finds out where she is, or how she’s doing. But Bianca treasures that memory, long after she’s grown up, and remembers Shannon whenever she sees a slug or a dandelion.

 

Luz Rosales is a nonbinary Mexican-American fiction writer fascinated by the dark and morbid. They are a Los Angeles native and are currently attending Mount Saint Mary’s University, where they are pursuing a degree in History. They can be found on Twitter @TERRORCORES.

What I Found Underneath Love’s Fingernails by Michael Grant Smith

I was conceived during a nominally romantic tête-à-tête in a public lavatory alongside the information superhighway. My two recollections of the occasion are a sound as of wind approaching and a chain of my ancestors receding into the dusk. A relevant detective story: when push comes to shove, stay away from cliffs. I’ve grown this big since you last saw me. Famished cats scratch at my guts and a slant of sunbeams divides my reasoning, stacks my moods, mangles my composure. Confidence-seeking missiles, aimed with creepy radar, intercept my heart — the small bullseye it is. My daily existence lacks dietetic gravity, the foundation of caloric justice. I eat food served only in pounds and ounces because I find the metric system indigestible. Sweaty walls scatter the chatter of rattling footsteps. My state of mind is aligned precisely with the room’s stainless steel fixtures, defined entirely by landscaped pictures, and maligned subsequently in briefcased scriptures. Narcissists rely on the secret handshake, “Hello, how am I?” Medication across the nation floats my boat on the shiny briny sea of glass as I cast myself into the shadow of the sail, the shade, the cool cunning hideaway whose décor must shutter the bright unkind mouse-eyed light that slices my life’s cake like paper cuts from the envelope containing the winning ticket to ride instead of driving my point home on the range of the target we attack at dawn.

 

Michael Grant Smith wears sleeveless T-shirts, weather permitting. His writing has appeared in elimae, The Airgonaut, The Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Bending Genres, MoonPark Review, trampset, and elsewhere. Michael resides in Ohio. He has traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Cincinnati. To learn too much about Michael, please visit him at www.michaelgrantsmith.com and @MGSatMGScom.

Tradition by Benjamin Woodard

The hopeful boyfriend watches in confusion as his partner, the puzzle master’s daughter, excuses herself and walks down the hallway, leaving him alone, on one knee, holding the engagement ring aloft. When she returns to their living room, she carries a lidded wooden box, nine inches in length, which she offers in lieu of a yes or no.

She tells him that he must pass a test in order to earn her hand. The hopeful boyfriend rises; his knees crack as he straightens. He stuffs the ring into his hip pocket, takes the box from her, and asks if she is serious. After all, they have lived together for three years. They purchased furniture and a television together. Earlier this evening, they shared a romantic dinner of chicken marsala, the final notes of which still cling to the air. Surely she must know whether or not she wants to be his companion in marriage. But she says the box is a family tradition dating back generations, and that her grandparents would roll over in their graves if she did not follow through with the task.

She explains the rules: the box contains a rebus puzzle. When the boyfriend figures out the correct solution, she will gladly be his bride. She assures him the whole affair is merely a formality, and to stave off a potential argument in the near distance, the boyfriend acquiesces. What does it mean that it is a rebus puzzle? The hopeful boyfriend isn’t sure, though he refrains from asking.

She leads him to the couch. They sit and he places the box on their scratched coffee table. He removes the lid, and inside, the hopeful boyfriend finds four objects: one white square of paper, one ceramic bumble bee, one marble eye, and a black and white photograph of a pair of boat oars. They are all old, weathered by time, the piece of paper more ivory than white, the photograph bent at the corners, and the boyfriend questions if he has seen any of the items before. If these are the original pieces created by her ancestors. But none look familiar. He examines the piece of paper. In faded ink, he reads the words, I hereby leave the following items to my living heirs.

“You know I’m a rookie at puzzles,” he says. “Puzzles are your specialty. That’s why we’re a good couple.”

The hopeful boyfriend stares at the array. He feels around inside the box to see if there’s a hidden compartment. But it’s empty. He returns to the items. Shuffles the arrangement. Tries to stack them atop each other. He clears his throat. Swallows. Hums. After five minutes of contemplation, he can sense an impatience growing in his partner. She sighs when he places the marble to the right of the bee, and she groans when he holds the piece of paper up to the light to inspect it closely.

The hopeful boyfriend wonders if his partner called the puzzle a formality because she assumed he could solve it with ease. Maybe to some the puzzle is simple. Maybe the word “rebus” makes sense to these people. If only he could take out his phone for help, but he’s sure his partner would consider this cheating. The truth is, the hopeful boyfriend hates puzzles. He loves his partner, yet he cannot stand her family’s forte. Moreover, he has lied to her on numerous occasions when asked about word games. After she gifted him one of her father’s books, he leafed through it once before tossing it on the shelf. Whenever she mentions acrostics or cryptics, he nods or lets out a small laugh. He pretends to understand, feigns curiosity, much like his partner responds when he talks about fly-fishing. They love each other despite their different interests. But nodding will not aid him now. He cannot laugh this puzzle into a solution. He reorders the items once more and adds a pensive look to his face. What might her family think if he cannot complete this seemingly simple task? What kind of family forces people to pass tests in order to earn trust? He can understand adapting to traditions, sure. Splitting holidays. Tolerating birthday parties and other events. But a test? The hopeful boyfriend imagines placing his partner in front of his workbench in the basement. “Here, tie a minnow fly,” he’d say. “Tie a minnow fly and then we can get married.”

No, he wouldn’t do such a thing. He wouldn’t make her sweat the way he’s sweating now, the beads forming along his brow. But why is he getting angry at his partner? She is merely following through with tradition. Perhaps she thinks this is pointless, too, despite her being the daughter of a puzzle master. Still, her parents will ask about this moment after they see the ring on her finger, and the hopeful boyfriend knows that his partner is a terrible liar when directly confronted. Her ears heat up and she can’t look you in the eye. He has witnessed this several times: when he asked her if she liked hiking, when she told him about her sexual history, when she tried to compliment him on a new pair of waders.

Another ten minutes pass. The hopeful boyfriend holds each piece in his hand, hoping for osmosis to lead the way. The ceramic bee is smooth. It feels nice in his palm, but he gains no insight while rubbing it along his fingers. The hopeful boyfriend remembers the saying “If you give a thousand monkeys a thousand typewriters, they will eventually write Shakespeare.” There is a finite number of possibilities in front of him, and if he keeps track of his attempts, he will solve the puzzle in due time. But it is now past their usual bedtime, and he can tell by his partner’s audible yawns that she is tired. She stands to stretch and quietly paces the room. Then, at the twenty-five minute mark, she finally tells him he doesn’t have to solve the puzzle. It’s just a silly tradition, anyway. It really is nothing compared to their love, which is all that should matter at this moment. She sits next to the hopeful boyfriend and arranges the four objects in the correct order: marble eye, paper, ceramic bee, photograph. Pointing at each, she says, “I. Will. Be. Yours.” The answer is so obvious that the hopeful boyfriend feels immediate shame in his lack of imagination and logic.

His partner scoops the pieces and drops them in the box. She leaves the room, most likely to return the box to its secret chamber, and the hopeful boyfriend stares at the now bare coffee table. The pressure over, he looks up the word “rebus” on his phone. He sees an alternative term, “pictogram,” which to him makes much more sense. Why use “rebus,” which sounds like a name, when you could use “pictogram,” which essentially describes the puzzle’s objective? He remains in this position, staring at the screen in his hand, until he hears the sound of his partner brushing her teeth in the bathroom. He joins her, and when they finish, they change into pajamas, lock the front door, kill the lights, and retire to bed. His partner kisses him. “I love you,” she says.

“I love you, too,” the hopeful boyfriend answers, forever in the dark.

 

Benjamin Woodard is Editor in Chief at Atlas and Alice. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Joyland, SmokeLong Quarterly, F(r)iction, and others. Find him online at benjaminjwoodard.com or @woodardwriter.

Goat of My Heart by Courtney LeBlanc

Goats will eat anything, their teeth and stomachs able
to chew through whatever they consume. In DC, the city
employs goats to eat through the wild poison ivy that grows
uncontrolled in Congressional Cemetery, the goats wandering
among the headstones, caring for them in an efficient way
that must be some sort of love. My heart is a goat, gnawing
through everything – him: a tin can that cuts my mouth
and throat as I swallow, the sharp taste of blood filling
my mouth, my belly full but with nothing to nourish me.
And then the other him: the dew-licked grass, tender and filling.
My heart always eats this last, unable to understand
the one who is good for me.

 

Courtney LeBlanc is the author of Beautiful & Full of Monsters (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press), and the chapbooks All in the Family (Bottlecap Press) and The Violence Within (Flutter Press). She has her MBA from University of Baltimore and her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. She loves nail polish, tattoos, and her dog. Read her publications on her blog: www.wordperv.com. Follow her on twitter: @wordperv, and IG: @wordperv79.

The Reality Star Gets Her Start on a Dating Show by Kyra Kondis

Season 34, Episode 1

The Reality Star gets out of a limo at a mansion where the ground is so polished it looks wet. All she’s eaten is a banana, but still the producers make her suck in her stomach and her sides. Her suitors introduce themselves like marching ants, and three of them are named Matt: Matt F., Matt C., Matt R.

When the Reality Star was in second grade, a boy named Matt wrote the word “crap” on her arm and threw her homework in the trash. Her teacher said, “He just likes you.” Or actually, had his name been something else? David, Trent, Greg?

 

Season 34, Episode 2

The Reality Star sends Jared home because Paul tells her that he knows Jared from before—before this show, this place, this life—and that he’s a womanizer. In her talking head, the Reality Star quips, “I need a man like that as much as I need a house fire!” which makes some tabloids call her sassy sweetheart and others call her bitch.

At the end of the episode, she sends Paul home too, because she doesn’t really like him either.

 

Season 34, Episode 5

The Reality Star was halfway through a master’s degree in archaeology before trying out for the dating show. She liked uncovering things, hidden truths buried underneath transformed earth. She accompanied her professors on digs in the Southwest, where she brushed dust away from parts of past lives, cookware and jewelry and animal bones, fragile like butterfly wings.

She tells this to her suitors on a group date to Las Vegas, but they forget it; instead, they ask her about the summer when she nannied after college. They say, “You must be so good with kids.”

 

Season 34, Episode 7

The Reality Star takes Cal on a one-on-one date skiing in the Swiss Alps. The view of the town from the mountain reminds her of the pictures of Christmas villages on the advent calendars her mother used to buy. There was a rush in the discovery of what was behind every door, even though it was always the same—one foil-wrapped milk chocolate, often stale.

When they’re done skiing, a producer hands Cal a mug of hot cocoa and Cal hands it to the Reality Star. “Be vulnerable,” the producer says. The Reality Star explains to Cal that she dropped out of grad school for this; what she means is that she feels lost.

“I like that you were brave enough to try something new,” says Cal; what he means is that he thinks archaeology is stupid.

 

Season 34, Episode 9

The Reality Star trends on Twitter when she eliminates Cal for saying he wants a stay-at-home wife and two kids before she’s thirty. Twitter says, get him, girl, and you’re so strong!

“This is why we picked you,” the producers tell her. “You’re no-nonsense. You’re not a career TV star. You’re different.”

The Reality Star thinks about all the women who have been on the dating show before her, mostly white and blond, like her, mostly thin, like her, and young and American and well-off, like her. The Reality Star looks out at the mountains—they are still in the Alps—and wonders what it would be like to disappear into them.

 

Season 34, Episode 11

The Reality Star, somehow, has narrowed her suitors down to Alan and Fitz. When she thinks about them, they sort of just blend together into one single, unidentifiable man. They both have strong arms and square jaws and they tell her they love how feisty she is.

Feisty is a word the Reality Star is familiar with; feisty is like no-nonsense and sassy sweetheart and bitch in that it’s what people call women who aren’t quiet. Feisty is what the Reality Star was when she yelled at Matt-David-Trent-or-Greg for getting trashcan peanut butter on her homework. Feisty is what she was when she told her professor that her classmate Wendell had grabbed her ass at a dig site when they went one evening to collect the professor’s toolkit. Feisty is what Wendell called her when no one did anything about the ass-grab so she told him to fuck off; then he texted her, it was an accident lol, and then, can’t lie tho, I think about it a lot.

I love this journey for us,” the Reality Star practices saying, in front of her mansion-room’s mirror, in a floor-length red gown.

 

Season 34, Episode 12 (finale)

The Reality Star chooses herself, but because she is contractually obligated to choose a man, she chooses Fitz. He presents her with a ring and she accepts it, already planning how she will give it back in three months when she’s allowed to.

The Internet celebrates. They have deemed Fitz the hottest. “You’re my forever,” says Fitz. Forever feels like such an artificial word, to the Reality Star. Do all forevers not become relics eventually?

“You’re my present,” the Reality Star says back, and when she says present she means now, now as in not always, as in temporary, like everything is. She means now as in until, as in pending, as in waiting. Waiting, like she is, for this all to one day be just a single piece of a far-off past.

 

Kyra Kondis is an MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University, where she is also the editor in chief of So to Speak Journal. More of her work can be found in Wigleaf, Pithead Chapel, and Necessary Fiction.

Anubis 1 by James Vu

I set myself a bath.

Yes, men sometimes bathe.

When I light my cigarette, Anubis appears on the toilet seat. The light in the room changes—my eyes water in insect mosaics as pitch-black paint whisks along the cracking walls.

The water jigsaw puddles in blue and white, like glass over a cotton candy sky.

Put your face under, he says.

If it was the sea, then we’ve lost so much time and have seen so little.

His laugh isn’t exactly pleasant (it somehow darkens the room and makes my blood warm), but he tells me his favorite jokes, and shows me his collection of favorite ancient and post-industrial weapons.

The best ones are the guns we’ll never get to use. Just some prototypes, he says.

Then, all the pictures of his favorite demonic women, modest and nude. Mostly platonic, he says.

Those are the women we want most.

He smiles coyly, his teeth sharper and whiter than anything you’ve ever seen.

Anubis loves cigarettes, but he only smokes with me because he’s trying to quit. He has a confession:

“I’ve built every single crypt, blinding my vision of every face. It was my end of the bargain. I just want letters from the people I have known:

What the weather is like, how quiet the whispers are when they lay in the grass, or how the wind treats their faces when they’re up in the mountains…

the smell of smoked meat in the summer, and how the sun looks and feels day-to-day. I never got a letter, but I think it’s because they don’t know what to write.

It doesn’t have to be a tome or a tomb.”

In this sea of blue and white bath water, Anubis washes away in the still-dark, a Nile of every star surrounding the scarred, sacred moon.

The moon before all the buildings, streetlights and people. The one that cared for the animals.

With my shadow further from me than before

I rinse off,  I’ll only feel clean momentarily.

 

James Vu is a languid Californian keeping Portland weird. He is a comic book author and (currently not) paying the bills with a McJob. James Vu loves you and the Lakers. He used to love opiates. James Vu is taller than you and can cook. He just had a poem published in The Pointed Circle and will have a poem published in The Bookends Review in October.

One Fist Holding by Dustin M. Hoffman

Matthew presented his fist to us. His small fingers curled into a promise. Here, each knuckle teased, right here, inside, awaits a witnessing. So, we huddled around Matthew in the back of Mrs. Lowe’s fourth-grade classroom, back by the duct-taped beanbag chair and the class guinea pig who dozed so as not to break our covenant.

I’ll show you, Matthew said, but you can’t ever tell no one.

It felt like church, the waiting, the forthcoming ritual, like communion, like prayer, as we bowed our heads around his fist. Our selfish prayers remained just as secret, just as fist clenched: new bike, G.I. Joe USS Flagg Aircraft Carrier, just one page from one nudie mag, just one kiss from any girl, a house we didn’t have to leave every twelve months.

Unlike church, his ceremony would not lead to letdown. Dry breadcrumb cube, bitter grape juice, parting gifts to compensate for God’s silence. For when Matthew unlocked his fist, gold shimmered. There, gleaming wreath branches arced over a multi-colored shield, a code written in reds and whites and blues and chrome. A hood ornament, Matthew explained, but we already knew how our parents foolishly flaunted their most precious treasures.

Who could be so stupid, to bait our hands, Matthew’s hands, to bend back the golden crest and expose the delicate rubber binding that could be so easily snipped with Father’s knife? In a micro-second slice, we could dismember our parents’ pride. But, of course, we couldn’t. Only Matthew could, and he stowed the hood ornament in the front pocket of his denim cutoffs and lined up for recess, like it was so easy, nothing, like miracles happened every day.

 

Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. His second collection No Good for Digging and chapbook Secrets of the Wild were published by Word West Press. He painted houses for ten years in Michigan and now is an associate professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His stories have recently appeared in The Masters Review, Wigleaf, Bull: Men’s Fiction, Redivider, and Juked. You can visit his site here: dustinmhoffman.com

First Day of Spring by Jeanna Paden

Tennessee rains sunbeams for the first time all year
a worm crawls under my skin
inching along, stretching
beside me a level
I use to keep my head on straight
even when the sun is out
my body makes clouds
sewage is gurgling up in the backyard
we pretend we don’t smell it because the money isn’t
there
I am a playground for worms, wonder too much about death
wonder about every person I know who was always bound to die
I spoil everything, never thought I’d live
through the midnights of February
but today, Tennessee is lighting up
green and yellow, wind in the treetops
worms working the dead earth

 

Jeanna Paden (she/her) is a freelance health and wellness writer and poet. Her poetry has been published by Foothill: A Journal of Poetry, Pulp Poets Press, and The Bookends Review. Her creative work has received nominations for The Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets anthologies. Connect with her on Twitter at @halfwaytoitblog.