Nine Fictions by Scott Garson

1. MALL

First strange thing: leaving the Food Court, I notice a hand towel on one of the tables, a Portuguese hand towel, or featuring large red words in that language, anyway, and I say to my husband, That’s weird, and he says, What, and I start to describe the hand towel, but my husband—second strange thing—has led us right to the edge of a spectacle: a woman and man are having sex on the floor by the Eddie Bauer, and I say, Okay—I guess ironically—and turn to relate to my husband, but my husband—third and worst strange thing—is gone, and I turn around looking for him before making the choice to move on, past GAP, past Claire’s, towards JCPenney, our original aim, except by the Hot Topic everyone’s dancing, young and old, dancing in circles, in silence, counter-clockwise, and that’s when I understand what I probably have to do if I want to see my husband again: I probably have to make my way back to the Food Court and read the towel.

 

2. LOOSE

She was trying to read a poem and apparently failing. She didn’t know why there had to be fault, but if there did, she guessed that fault could be split down the middle, like a turkey sandwich: half for the poet, because he had tried to make language without her, and half for her, for the usual reason: her brain and its terrible wildness.

 

3. KINDERGARTEN

About loss, they were never wrong, the old masters. It can be marked—as a shape, in the distance. It can be feared. But you can’t know it until you’re inside, and trying, maybe—he can’t say—to drink your coffee again. Or put on clothes for work. He can’t imagine. He buys a bullet-resistant backpack into which he threads his child’s hands and arms. He kneels to do this. It is, he understands, a gesture, light as prayer.

 

4. HIGH

Hunger must have looked good on me. I was hired, at a very decent rate, by a man whose apparent shtick was to be outrageous and hire skinny young guys off the street. They measured me, had me in clothes, at a table, with all sorts of food and drink that no one could actually touch. We were supposed to be laughing. Me and this white guy and two women, one black, one Latinx. We were supposed to be charmed, like nightclub royalty, having the time of our lives. When they had enough pictures, they took back the clothes. They gave me a voucher. They opened a door. I didn’t know if I should say anything, I just left. I kind of stumbled moving into the afternoon glare.

 

5. STORY

I found a telephone number written in dark blue ink on the back of a claim stub tucked in the pages of a crime novel I’d purchased second-hand. I thought about taking the claim stub out but figured I’d probably lose it if it wasn’t any longer in the place where it had been lost. Plus, the telephone number sang to me from that place, page seventy-three. I’d open the book and turn the stub in my fingers. Ocean View Cleaners. I’d think about what I would say to the person whose number was written in ink, how I would start, what kind of lies I might shape. But I never called. I think I felt that a call would empty the situation.

 

6. BUREAUCRACY

They said, How old you want to be on earth? I said, What? They said, Age. I pointed out to them the fact that I seemed to be dead. They controlled their impatience. Listen, they said, there’s a whole lot of stations after this one, yeah? You might want to pick up your pace. I said, Right, sure, but I don’t understand. On earth, they explained, the minute you die, you get to be generally remembered at some one age, which makes sense—was I following them?—because once you die you have no age: it’s a wide-open situation. I said, Ah! Which was stalling. I saw my own face, back in life, as if in a set of still pictures. Nine. Forty. Eighteen. Thirty-two. I said, I can’t answer. They said, You weren’t old enough. If you’d been ninety or something like that, you’d pick. Sure you would. You’re ninety, you’re old, probably frail, and you die, then ka-boom, you’re twenty-eight again. Just look at you. Yeah? Just look.

 

7. SPELL

Toads no bigger than houseflies, hopping around. Is this even possible? Could be people have magicked these toads, using some ancient equation. She could be biking. Take a hard bend and get hit in the face with giant flies.

 

8. NIGHTSWIMMING

Instead of doing a search for the lyrics, I thought I would write them all over again, for myself, because—and I don’t mean to brag—I’ve probably nightswum more than the crooner in question. I’ve nightswum all of my life, often naked, which is, at least in my view, the best way, because when you nightswim it’s like being born. You shoot from water, everything dripping. You work to secure a few breaths. You start to acquire a feel for yourself, your size in the star-messed darkness.

 

9. HISTORY

He remembers once when they were about to fight, a maybe vicious fight, cause they’d been drinking wine, her more than him, and she was smaller, too, actually borderline tiny, so she was just trashed, and no way could he win a fight like that, cause she was always willing to take the meanness higher, though she wasn’t mean, was just unable to quit, which was actually something he loved about her, as part of her general fucked-up-ness, which he loved, too, and so, to ward off the fight, he made some random, stupid remark—he can’t remember what—and she was distracted, kept asking, What did you say? And she laughed. And she couldn’t quit laughing.

 

Scott Garson is the author of IS THAT YOU, JOHN WAYNE?, a collection of stories. He has work in or coming from The Best Small Fictions annual, The Three Penny Review, Conjunctions, The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, and others.

Underwater by Bojana Stojcic

When did I last eat? I know I masturbated. I don’t recall eating, though. I threw up. I remember that. But I didn’t eat. No, no, I didn’t eat. I think I went to bed yesterday morning. It’s getting dark. I got up once to pee. Then I felt sick. The winter sky swallows the colors of the visible spectrum fast, and reflects none to my itchy eyes. I don’t need the light to see. I refuse to accept black is not a color.

I used to think of myself as a black-maned horse running wild or a rabbit with large hind legs running away. They can survive on land. I am a whale, raising her young, living and dying at sea.

I force myself to open my eyelids heavy with day and night dreaming of the oceans in his eyes (how deep is their deepest part, I wonder) and his strong back against the levee before it breaks, leaving a big opening for my salty waters to flood his badly protected shore. We take turns opening and closing our mouths until pregnant colorlessness passes us down its throat and we start breathing air through a hole at the top of our heads.

 

Bojana Stojcic writes and bites, like a lot, so try not to piss her off. Her poems and flash pieces are published or forthcoming in Rust + Moth, Anti-Heroin Chic, Barren Magazine, The Opiate, Burning House Press, Down in the Dirt, Mojave Heart Review, Dodging the Rain, The Blue Nib, Foxglove Journal, Spillwords, The Stray Branch, Tuck magazine, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Nightingale & Sparrow and Visual Verse. She blogs at Coffee and Confessions to go.

Modern Ghosts by Chelsea Stickle

I’m sorry to report that if you can hear me, you’re dead. Such a shame. But don’t worry, we’ll help you adjust. Being a modern ghost is tricky. We’re so used to a never-ending stream of information that being deprived of it one day is like running into a wall you didn’t even know existed. It’s a bigger shock than dying. Dying is inevitable. No one knows there’s no shit-posting in the afterlife.

Sometimes, you’re stuck in the place you died. The side of the road can be boring as fuck. But the more you separate from the life you once knew, the more you can move around. Overhearing conversations about pointless shit becomes fascinating. You’ll still reach for your smartphone, but soon adapt to reading over other people’s shoulders. You’ll start to learn who watches what, so you can keep up with the news and even binge whole shows if you’re lucky. It’s the ghosts who stop thinking and growing that become poltergeists. The poor bastards are just trying to prove they still exist by scaring the shit out of the living.

The rest of us know the rules: keep active and avoid the living you know. Staying active is pretty easy. Some ghosts form sports leagues and that keeps them occupied. Former meatheads discover that their physical strength doesn’t translate to the ghostly form. It’s all brainpower. You should see Steve Jobs knocking it out of the park. Literally.

The second rule is the hardest to follow. Sure you still care about them, but when you die, something is severed. The people you love become stories you left unfinished. The desire to know their middles and endings can be all-consuming. It’s the simplest way to become a poltergeist. Watching people talk about you like you’re not there, like you can’t see or hear them is maddening. So you begin following around complete strangers and watch them repeat your mistakes and realize there’s nothing you can do. Your past is chiseled into the earth; your future is written in the air. Your time alive was precious because it was limited. Now you have a meaningless eternity. And then you have to find someone else to haunt. Maybe a therapist.

 

Chelsea Stickle writes flash fiction that appears or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Cleaver, Pithead Chapel, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. She’s a reader for Pidgeonholes and lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Read more stories at www.chelseastickle.com or find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.

Things People Have Written in Letters to Ghosts by Chloe N. Clark

Remember the time we woke up too late to watch the sun rise and the sky was already bright [space/page changes/something is not connected] and you said you thought you saw the color drain from your eyes when you looked in that mirror [space] once I meant to tell you that the windows were beginning to crack [page changes] under the weight of the water, that’s a phrase you used to describe how stones must feel after they stop skipping, why would [something is not connected] you say something like that? [space] The doctor told me to hold my breath when I felt the first twinge of pain and if it lasted longer than I could keep the breath in than I should get help. What kind of [page changes] dreams do you have at night? Or is there just an emptying out? Like when you sleep after a fever has broken and in the morning you can’t remember anything except that you feel new? [something is not connected] I kept all of the pebbles you collected and I spread them over the bottom of the bathtub and filled it with ice water and when I climbed in it felt like I was in a lake and I thought that I could hear the wind through trees but it was only the house settling down with no one moving about and [space] often I imagine that you are still here only you no longer live in this city and you no longer have the same phone number and maybe your name has changed and that is why I never hear from you anymore. Does that seem [page changes] like something I should have told you sooner? I meant to, you know. But I thought you knew. I just [something is not connected] keep thinking about how we ran outside anyway and kept going until we reached the top of the hill and you said that if we just ran fast enough than the sun would rise again.

 

Chloe N. Clark is the author of The Science of Unvanishing Objects and Your Strange Fortune. Her poetry and fiction appears in Booth, Little Fiction, Pithead Chapel, Uncanny, and more. She is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph, writes for Nerds of a Feather, and can be found on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.

Girls in the Woods by Madeline Anthes

Years later, children will tell your story around campfires. They’ll sit shoulder-to-shoulder, clutching their elbows, whispering about you.

Of course, you can’t know that now.

You just know he’s late.

You’ve worn a white silk dress that grazes your knees. You want him to see you as a bride. You’re wearing soft flat shoes and your feet are sinking into the wet earth. The trees are dense here, and it’s dusk dark though it’s only noon.

You always meet him here, but today is different. Today is a beginning. Finally.

You’re so used to sharing him that you’ve gotten used to the stings. The sickly smell of her in his clothes, her name appearing on his phone. But last week he took your hands in his and kissed your palms. He said he was ready.

So you’ve let yourself wonder what it could be like. No time limits. No hiding behind closed shades and locked doors.

You’ve never loved him in the daylight. You’ve never felt the freedom of a long glance, a hand on your arm when anyone might see. Now is your chance. He promised you. It feels like exhaling after holding your breath for too long. It feels like inhaling after drowning.

* * * *

Time is passing and you sit on a fallen log. Your dress will stain, but your legs are aching. You are trying to ignore the way your heart skips at every twig snap in the distance, every shrill of birdsong.

There is a breeze that rustles the high branches, but it doesn’t reach you below. You wonder what he’s doing. Maybe she wanted to talk. Maybe she put up a fight. A thrill of victory courses through you. It feels good to win.

But as evening sets in, you let yourself doubt him. Only a little. Evening softens the green around you, blurring the drooping limbs in a smoky haze. You should feel scared, but you tell yourself you know these trees. You’ve waited for him before.

You have faith in him. Isn’t faith what held this together all these months? Isn’t faith all you had on the days he went back to her and you were left in a tangle of sheets and an empty apartment? Didn’t he tell you over and over to believe in him, to trust him? And you did, because you had to.

Then true darkness sets in, and the night insects and frogs start their rhythmic chanting. It’s too dark to find your way out, and he told you he was coming for you. You want to believe in him, so you do. You stay and wait.

You pat the ground and find a soft patch of forest floor, curl your body in a tight ball, and try to sleep. You close your eyes against the pressing night, ignoring the scuttling of aphids and beetles. The night will pass, and morning will come.

You don’t know that you’ll wait for days. Your body will start to fail you, so you’ll sit on the forest floor and fuel yourself with hope. With each inhale you tell yourself he’s coming, each exhale you tell yourself to believe.

Soon your skin will grow soft with moss, and your scalp will sprout ropy vines. Your bones will dry into porous wood, and you’ll softly, softly dissolve into the soil. You’ll become the nurse logs stretched across the forest floor, new tree roots straddling your disintegrating body. You’ll become the underbrush and thickets, rustling with whispers. You’ll become the stillness in the ferns, the warm summer wind that bends the canopy.

You will become the earth itself.

You don’t know that one day the campfire boys will hold flashlights under their faces to scare the girls. They’ll say you’re still roaming the woods, looking for revenge.

You don’t know that the campfire girls won’t believe them. They will shiver and cry for you, hear your voice in the crackling fire. They will grip the logs below them and wonder if you are watching them. They will hope you are.

You’re one of them: a lost girl in the woods, raised to believe, to keep faith in broken boys. They would have waited too.

 

Madeline Anthes is the Acquisitions Editor for Hypertrophic Literary and the Assistant Editor of Lost Balloon. Her writing can be found in journals like Whiskey Paper, Cease, Cows, and Jellyfish Review. You can find her on Twitter at @maddieanthes and find more of her work at www.madelineanthes.com.

While Walking in Forest Park by Georgia Bellas

The deer crashes through the trees toward the paved road. Toward me. Wildly beautiful, thunderous, scared. Galloping legs, one wounded. A flame of white for its tail, like clouds, like static electricity, like cotton balls pasted on a construction paper bunny. It crosses the road. It climbs. With difficulty, with bewilderment, but it climbs. Almost to the top of the hill it looks back. I keep my eyes binoculared on it, wondering if it knows that up there is only a mausoleum, a view, a bench, the highway down below.

 

Georgia Bellas is a writer, artist, and filmmaker whose current obsession is reading plant monographs. She and Dan Nielsen are the Wisconsin-based duo Sugar Whiskey (www.sugarwhiskey.com), an electronica art band. You can follow her teddy bear, host of the award-winning weekly Internet radio show “Mr. Bear’s Violet Hour Saloon,” on Twitter @MrBearStumpy.

You Don’t Have a Place Here by Anna Vangala Jones

I have a scheduled meeting with Caroline, our team’s HR rep, today and I’m glad you’ll be coming with me, so I don’t have to be alone with her. There’s something cold about her I don’t like. She’s nice, sure. Just feels like the air conditioning is cranked up too high when she’s around.

Caroline isn’t the small talk type so I’m not worried by her brusque “Let’s get started, shall we?” as soon as I’m seated across from her. Not too sure what this could be about, but I’m a decent employee, so can’t be anything serious.

“Starting sounds good to me.” I smile but she’s not looking at me.

I’m surprised when she tells me that it’s you she wants to talk about, not me. The issue is you’re not supposed to be here, it sounds like.

She says you make people around the office feel uneasy.

“How so?” I want to know, but ask polite as can be. I’m offended of course but best not to get defensive.

The first time I sensed you were still nearby and not as gone as we’d all assumed was on the Wednesday after the funeral. One of the cherry tomatoes I was about to mix into my salad rolled itself right off the counter and I didn’t realize in time to miss stepping on it and splattering emerald green juice and seeds everywhere. You were forever dropping grapes and cherry tomatoes, you remember. Your grip on everything was tenuous, your touch too light and gentle. It made me wonder. I was relieved the more I felt you around, the more sure I became. Our apartment would be too big and much messier without you in it. I never wanted to live in the city without my roommate.

So many people whispered into my hair and left my neck damp and gritty with the salt of their tears in the chaotic hours after you were first found. A body, the police officer called you.

“She didn’t even like you that much,” I said to one of your acquaintances who cried the loudest, but it’s probably for the best she didn’t hear me. She will only miss you until she doesn’t anymore anyway.

I’m pretty sure you stay because I want you to. What I mean is you don’t hang around to punish me or anything. Best friends since I asked to borrow your neon pink glitter pen in fourth grade. I don’t feel afraid or even sad that you’re still here. I’d be both those things if you left. I think you know that, too. I feel bad I was your burden before and you’re still not free of carrying me around on your shoulders now.

Caroline is answering me, so I try to pay better attention. “I mean, you walk around here making it uncomfortably clear to all of us that the specter is there beside you. Following you around. For everything. Everywhere you go.” She stares like my face will change to indicate that I agree with what she’s telling me, but she’s going to be waiting a long time if she thinks that will happen. Since I don’t pipe up with what’s expected of me, she shuffles the stack of pages in her lap, expertly like a dealer with a deck of cards. “It’s strange,” she says. “To put it mildly.”

“The mild version is hot enough.” I follow this up with a too loud awkward laugh that I can still hear even after my mouth is closed again.

She doesn’t smile. “The specter cannot join us here at work anymore, I’m afraid.” Her voice is smooth and kind enough. Word choice delicate. But she is firm. “You’ll just have to leave that kind of personal baggage at home. It doesn’t have a place here.”

“Specter, is that a word people even use anymore?” I say, my cheerful tone not doing enough to mask the hurt straining to burst free and roam wild around the office. Peeking into people’s cubicles, demanding to know who has complained about you to HR, about us. Because you’re such a part of me, that you and I know it’s both of us they must have a problem with, not one or the other. We’re too intertwined now for that to even work.

She looks up and nods. “That’s the word they use here in the paperwork. Would you like to see?”

“No. I trust you.”

When I get back to my desk, one of my coworkers whose name is Joy with a personality to match is there, sitting on it. I try to pretend she isn’t and drop into my chair and swivel it away from her to face my computer.

“Caroline told you, huh?”

“About your formal complaint?” I say, willing the bright screen of my computer to shatter and rain glass shards all over Joy and everyone else, too. I picture it wedge and burrow its way deep into their skin—eyes electrified by the shock of pain—and for a second, I’m happy again, like before the meeting.

“Well, it wasn’t just me,” Joy says, hopping off my desk. She doesn’t leave though. “I’m sorry it hurts your feelings,” she adds and I can tell she means it. I am grateful for her checking in with me, but I’d much rather be alone with you right now. “That’s why it’s taken so long for anyone to even say anything to Caroline. We understand how hard this has been for you. No one’s wanted to rush your—you know—process. However long you need to move on.”

Now I’m okay with letting her know I’m a little annoyed. “Move on. That’s rude. You don’t get it. She didn’t leave. So I don’t have to move on.” My air quotes are a bit exaggerated and my words vibrate with too much sarcasm and irritation for her to ignore.

“I shouldn’t have said that then. Unfair for me to presume. You’re right. Sorry.”

Joy doesn’t seem to bother you as much as she does me. But you are the mellow, generous one out of us two. The roommate who does all the dishes if I’ve left mine to soak and throws my laundry in with yours without so much as a passive aggressive grunt or eye roll. You haven’t changed much since the fourth grade in that way. I’ve grown a little. Stopped taking advantage of your kindness as much by our late teens. The leaning on you though, letting your love prop me up—I still haven’t shaken those habits yet.

Joy’s been talking but I’m pretty confident I haven’t missed anything important. I catch the end. “I’ve talked to my therapist about your situation—how you bring her to work with you every day—and he says it’s probably you trying to cope with your surv—”

“No. It’s not that.” I cut her off. She doesn’t need to finish. We don’t need to hear the rest. You and I have both heard of survivor’s guilt before. We’re not idiots.

Sometimes we reenact that night together. We go through the steps, you and me, like parts we’ve memorized in a too familiar play that stars only us two. It always starts the same way. At the bar. I want to get going. You’re having fun.

“When you want to stay out longer and I want to go home, I don’t leave you,” you tell me. Your fingers on my arm are too timid. Perhaps you should grip me harder so I won’t leave you. What you say is true, but it doesn’t matter. I’m tired and anxious and I don’t want to be here anymore. In my mind I’ve already left. We both order rides home two hours apart on the same app. But mine drops me off at our apartment. Yours never does.

“What was she like?” Joy asks now.

“What’s she like?” I shake my head and gesture at you.

Joy doesn’t say anything. Just waits. Patient, quiet, unruffled. She reminds me of you but only for a moment.

“She’s really nice.” I stare at you instead of her and that’s how I can say it without dissolving right there in the middle of this stupid office. This lonely place full of people who don’t want you here. Who don’t understand it means they don’t want me here either. Not sure why it bothers me when I don’t even want to be here.

“I bet. Want to go down the street to the deli? Eat lunch there today maybe?” Joy half smiles. “I won’t talk. If you’d prefer.”

“Yeah okay.” My purse is already in my hands even though I can’t tell you how it got there. Maybe you should tell me. I motion for you to come with us and I dare Joy to report me to HR. Wish she would, I tell you. You don’t seem to be listening though. I’m not sure you hear me.

 

Anna Vangala Jones serves as Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket and is an Editorial Assistant on the Fiction Team at Split Lip Magazine. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of The Net Anthology, and selected for inclusion in Longform Fiction’s Best of 2018 list. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Berkeley Fiction Review, Little Fiction, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and Jellyfish Review, among others. Find her on Twitter at @anniejo_17 and online at www.annavangalajones.wordpress.com.

Final Girl’s Love Song by Jessie Lynn McMains

…the heroine survives; but the heroine is not free
—Vera Dika

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead
—Sylvia Plath, “Mad Girl’s Love Song”

 

She shuts her eyes and all her friends drop dead. Goodbye they wave again falling into pools of blood. Their blood so velvet-red. She shuts her eyes his face inside her head. Vacant-eyed a rubber mask. My what a big knife he has. (All the better to kill you with my dear.) She shuts her eyes and sees a night. The pitch-black room the creak in the settling dark. The drip slow drip of what she knew not. The morning the dead girl the throat slit clean across. A gaping maw a rictus grin. A mirror-scrawled message left in girlblood. (Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?) She recalls the nights the mares. The ways he felled her friends. The party the slaughterhouse. She shuts her eyes and each death plays. Inside her head a picture show a midnight horror. (The slut the slash of silver knife. The boys dead drunk the drunk boys dead.) The run and closet-hide and breath-hold. The trying not to move not to exist until she’s sure he’s gone for good. (Until we meet again.) And again. End scene. And cut and cut and cut. She can’t be free until he’s dead or she. She lies awake in the near-pitch room clutches a cleaver to her chest. The door left off its latch an invitation. She dreams a knife-plunge simultaneous. Her death her bridal-day. Ghosts of all the other girls he’s killed will be her honor-maids. In scarlet gowns they scream as she staggers down the aisle. (I do I do.) She shuts her eyes and both of them are dead. She dreams. The bloody gurgle of their mingled final breath. The sheets stained red the bridal bed. The rusted bloom their honeymoon will make. He was her first. She is his final girl.

 

Jessie Lynn McMains (they/them) is a multi-genre writer. Their writing has appeared in many publications, including Tiny Essays, Moonchild Magazine, Vamp Cat Magazine, and Corvid Queen. They are the author of several chapbooks, most recently The Girl With the Most Cake and forget the fuck away from me. They were the recipient of the 2019 Hal Prize for poetry, and were the 2015-2017 Poet Laureate of Racine, WI. You can find their website at www.recklesschants.net, or find them on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram @rustbeltjessie

Being the Murdered Girlfriend by Cathy Ulrich

The thing about being the murdered girlfriend is you set the plot in motion.

Your boyfriend will say: I was just playing around.

He’ll say: I didn’t mean to.

He’ll say: The gun just went off.

His mother will wait outside when the police arrive. His mother will smoke a cigarette on the back step, look up at the sky, try not to think of your body on the floor of the family room, try not to think of the stain on the carpet. She’ll say to her husband later let’s just pull it all up, God, let’s burn it, I don’t care, I just want it gone. She’ll smoke one cigarette, two, three. Her hands will shake.

She’ll say to her son when the police say he has to come with them: It will be all right. Everything will be all right.

After you are buried, she’ll tell her friends: I never cared for that girl. I knew she was trouble.

Her friends will nod. Her friends will all have sons too. Her friends will think of their sons as precious boys, tucked them in as children with forehead kisses and blanket-smoothing hands: Sleep well, my precious boy.

They will know, like mothers of sons before them, about girls like you, girls who bring good boys to ruin.

They’ll see your photo in the newspaper — it will run once, the day after, clipped from the school yearbook — whisper over your heavy eye makeup, your twitch of a smile, the black shirt you wore, low-cut, they’ll say to each other, too low-cut.

Watch out for girls like this, they’ll tell their sons. Girls like this are trouble.

Your boyfriend’s mother will hire a lawyer. The lawyer will wear nice suits, cheap ties, speak over the top of people, carry a briefcase with a combination lock.

It was an accident, the lawyer will say. A tragic accident.

He’ll get your boyfriend sent home. Your boyfriend’s mother will pick him up at the courthouse, take him out for hamburgers, buy him a chocolate milkshake. She’ll think of how she did the same thing when he was young, after baseball games, do you remember, and your boyfriend will say I do, kind of.

He will sleep in his own bed, he will ignore the torn-up carpet, the reek of bleach. He will grow used to the scent, the way his mother and father will too, something that never quite goes, that scent, something like a ghost. When his friends come by, they’ll say what’s that smell?

Your boyfriend will say: I don’t smell anything.

He’ll say, when they ask, when anybody asks: It was an accident.

He’ll say: I never wanted to hurt her.

His mother will nod, lips pressed firm. Of course not. My son isn’t that kind of boy.

His mother will stand behind him at the sentencing, hand clutched firm on his shoulder. Later, he will show her she has left marks. In time they will fade, little fingerprint bruises disappearing and disappearing away.

She will only release her grip when the judge pronounces negligent homicide, community service.

She’ll say: Oh, thank you. Oh, God, thank you.

She’ll wait outside the courthouse for her son and the lawyer, smoke a cigarette while she waits, loose one in the bottom of her purse. She’ll think, idly, of quitting. She’ll hear the courthouse doors come open, turn to see her son come out, her precious boy, drop the half-smoked cigarette to the ground, grind it out with her heel, my precious boy, and your boyfriend will smile: Mom, let’s go home.

And she won’t know, and no one will, how you rode beside him in his pickup one night, how he took you backroading the dirt trails behind his house, said to you, when you hit this rise just right, sometimes it feels like you’re flying.

And you rode in the cab beside him, flew beside him, looked out the window and thought how far away and small everything seemed, how it didn’t seem like there was a city anymore at all, how it was you and him, alone in all the world. All you could hear was engine roar, low hum of the country station fade in and out. You looked forward and there was something there, something small, cat, maybe, or rabbit, prairie dog. And you said oh, felt the truck go over the top of it, didn’t cry, weren’t the kind of girl who would cry over a small thing like that, over a small thing that had been alive and wasn’t alive anymore, but you said oh again, looked over at your boyfriend and saw, in the moonlight, the brilliance of his smile.

 

Cathy Ulrich once stopped her car for a caterpillar that was crossing the road. Her eyesight was better then. Her work has been published in various journals, including Sundog Lit, Heavy Feather Review, and Passages North. She is the author of the story collection Ghosts of You, published by Okay Donkey Press (2019).

Dialectical Argument with Boyfriend and Bird Killer by Jennifer Metsker

See the braided bowl of bird intestines
on the bed pillow and the twig of leg on the stairwell?
Let’s talk about my death as a pardonable offense.
Do you really wish you didn’t have a head?             If       then
the cat won’t go outside       bird murder
haunts his haunches.
I pretend to have a hurt wing as I’m channel surfing.
Oh, you’re watching too much Animal Planet.             But
the hatchet in the trunk,       there’s nothing worse
than a chopped up version of yourself.             What if I
plummet?       What if I       in the wide-eyed chasm
party without panties on             or worse?
Every day,       you say,       every day I recommend,
try a little of this blue hair.       We can grow old.
We can drive the car to Walmart.       Even parking lots
are somewhere.       But
sometimes I can’t follow what’s happening on Friends.
I worry too much about their rents increasing.
Do they die in the end?       No spoilers!

 

Jennifer Metsker teaches at the Stamps School of Art and Design in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her poetry has appeared in Beloit, Rhino, Birdfeast, Gulf Coast, The Seattle Review, and other journals. Her audio poetry using found forms won The Third Coast Short Docs Audio Prize and has been featured on the BBC Radio’s Short Cuts.