Skeletons in the Closet by Rina Olsen

I found some skeletons in the closet the other day, when I was moving back into my childhood home. There weren’t many, just a few, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to find them. But that’s the thing about skeletons, they come out when you least expect it.

So, of course, I sat down to sort them out.

The one on the very top was gilded with gold, pennies in its eye sockets, nickels for teeth, dimes lined up in a spinal cord. Its fingers were curled around a restaurant receipt. I tugged on it but the skeleton wouldn’t let go. I could see the tip: $100.00.

It was from the summer of freshman year, when I was working as a waitress. The tip was actually for Janice—Janice Quarl, my best friend since the days of nap time and sippy cups.

Cynthia, can you take over my tables? The customers are just about leaving, I promise.

What could I say? She’d wanted to go to the movies so badly. With her other friends, not me. Too bad it was during work hours—but of course, there was always Cynthia to fall back on!

Afterwards, she found me in the bookstore. “That’s a lot of books, Cynthia.”

I shrugged, lugging a plastic basket that swung with the weight of more than ten paperbacks. “Guess so.”

“Did you get a big tip or something?”

I clutched the basket tighter. “It’s my money. I get to use it however I like.”

There hadn’t been much she could say to that. But when she left, neither of us was very satisfied with the other.

I pushed the skeleton away to find another beneath it grinning. It shone with the metallic sheen of candy wrappers: Almond Joys for a rib cage, Twix bars for a pelvis, pumpkin seeds for toes, skull grotesquely round like a jack-o’-lantern. In its jaw was lodged a McIntosh apple, its green flesh sporting a gradual blush.  It looked like the apple Janice had stuffed into the mouth of the seventh grader dressed as Snow White, on the Halloween of our sophomore year. Snow White had stumbled back, her mouth an O around the fruit, and I’d snatched her bulging trick-or-treating basket. Her tear tracks glistened on chubby cheeks in the lamplight. We cackled as we ran off. Happy Halloween, Snow White!

Later, as we were strolling home, I wondered if we’d really had to use the apple on her. “Maybe we were meaner than we should’ve been.”

Janice jostled me, hard. I stumbled. “What’re you talking about? The apple was for her costume—no Snow White is complete without an apple. Besides, I don’t know why you’re feeling so bad. You’re the one who has better experience stealing.”

She took her share of the candy home, while I took mine. It wasn’t like the old days anymore, when we’d dump all of the candy on her bedroom floor, when we’d shared secrets and basked in guilt and glory together.

I pushed the skeleton off. That was Janice’s skeleton, not mine. I’d only done what she’d told me to do. I didn’t know what this skeleton was doing in my closet.

The third skeleton wore a glittery black prom dress. My breath caught in my throat. Janice, again! This was hers. I was about to take it off the skeleton when I was hit with the stench of rotten eggs. I scrambled back, pulling my shirt collar up to my nose.

That smell.

After Janice had turned him down to go to prom with someone else, her boyfriend had recruited several of us: she needed a reality check. She couldn’t do that without consequences.

That night, her dress sparkled in the shade of her porch as she peered out to see if our approaching van was her date’s car. The headlights cast her in a ghastly yellow, set her dress ablaze, forced her eyes into slits. I don’t think she even saw the eggs sailing out the windows until it was too late. But she must have seen me, my face bobbing in the van’s dim interior.

The last skeleton lay on the carpet. Words crawled along its pristine polished bones, like tattoos running up its legs, hips, arms, shoulders. On its rib cage, over where the heart should go, was stamped: THESIS STATEMENT. On its sternum was typed the name: JANICE QUARL.

In our last year of high school, Janice and I both interned at the community women’s clinic. We both planned to study to be OBGYNs. Even so, she rarely looked at me when we arrived, when she passed in the hallways, when we crossed paths in the bathroom. But I was struggling with my college application essays—I simply didn’t know what to write. I’d done what Janice had done all my life. So why could she write an essay about herself with ease while I struggled to form the first sentence?

At last I worked up the courage to ask her for help. Janice studied me. “Help?”

I took a deep breath. “All I need is some insight. I’m not asking for much—just tell me how I should write it, or what you wrote about, or….”

“So you want me to help you,” she said slowly.

“Yeah.” I proffered a small, hopeful smile. “Is that okay?”

She sent me a folder of her essays. One look told me I would never be able to write like that. She was good. So good that I highlighted her name with the cursor and typed in my own.

What else could I have done? What the admissions officers didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. What my parents, who were counting on me to get into a good school, didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. And what Janice didn’t know definitely wouldn’t hurt her. But after we’d graduated Janice called and asked to see the essays that hers had helped me with. I said I’d lost them. I didn’t expect her to go to my mother, who’d saved copies.

Janice didn’t need to rat, to get me kicked out of school. I hoped that she, at least, was happy with the mess I was in.

I pressed my lips together and shoved the skeletons back into the closet. I’d visit Janice later, just as my parents had been telling me to. I needed to apologize, to mend our relationship. I wanted to ask, What relationship? When had I ever had a choice in the decisions I’d made?

I closed the closet door. I’d go and pay her a visit. She’d have skeletons in her closet too. All I would have to do is go and pull them out.

 

Rina Olsen is a Korean-American teen writer living on Guam. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 101 Words, Dreams & Nightmares, Emerge Literary Journal, The Hopper, Jellyfish Review, Nanoism, and Write the World Review. She is a general editor for Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine. Her debut novel, Third Moon Passing, is forthcoming from Atmosphere Press in late 2023.

Like Real Women Do by K.B. Carle

Mama says real women bleed. Between their legs just as much as the blood being pushed through their veins. She says real women wear tampons. Pads for emergencies. Both when their allergies get bad and they gotta sneeze. Mama says real women get caught foolin’ but doesn’t say what “foolin’” means. Only that Aunt Tessa got caught and got the belt and, when she bends over, folks can still see grandad’s buckle stamped on her legs. Mama says real women work, like her and Aunt Tessa, before any foolin’ happens. That real women know how to treat a man so he’ll cover up, though she doesn’t say what that means either. Real women aren’t afraid of the pain and, mama says, there’ll be pain at first but I’ll get used to it. Some women like the pain while some, like Aunt Tessa, never learn to. I ask mama if that’s what foolin’ means and she says no. Says that foolin’ is what got me my cousins, Rochelle and Azriel. What she means is Aunt Tessa likes to love real women. Not like loving mama and me and her babies. But the women she takes to the back of our trailer, letting them trace grandad’s belt buckle brandings with their tongues. Mama says that, now I’m a real woman, I can ask them to do that to me too. I ask who “them” are. She says whoever I want. As long as, if they’re men, they cover up so no foolin’ happens. I ask if I have to see “them” like she does and she says no. Then she says yes. Just not as often. Real women make sacrifices and she tells me sacrifices are food and clothes and this trailer and these babies and, since I’m a real woman now, I have to help with all of that. Real women know how to keep quiet like Aunt Tessa leading another real woman to her room. Like mama holding hands with two men and leading them to her room. A man comes up behind me, rests his hand on my shoulder. He says something I guess real women like, but I can’t figure out what his words mean. He offers me money, like I’m a real woman. I listen for my mama, my Aunt Tessa, try to hear what real women sound like, then remember real women get real quiet behind closed doors. I unzip my pants, but I don’t pull them down. Peek inside my underwear, make sure the man can’t see. Check if I’m still bleeding, like real women do.

K.B. Carle lives and writes outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her flash has been published in a variety of places, including Good River Review, HAD, Waxwing, Bending Genres, and No Contact and have been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. Her story, “Soba,” was included in the 2020 Best of the Net anthology and her story, “A Lethal Woman,” will be included in the 2022 Best Small Fictions anthology. She can be found online at kbcarle.com or on Twitter @kbcarle.

City People by Benjamin Warner

Then there was the time my father ended up with only four fingers on his right hand. Four and a half, really, and we probably could have saved the part above the knuckle if we weren’t so deep into the woods. That was when my parents began to notice something strange about me. Most likely, it was why they noticed it.

We were camping, of all things.

We never camped. We weren’t that kind of family. But something had gotten into my father’s head. He’d watched a special about the Smoky Mountains, and off we went—all that gear, “a real adventure,” he called it. The seams on our packs were straining, and while we hiked toward our campsite, my father was all of a sudden a wildlife fanatic. 

“Stop,” he’d say. “Freeze.” And my mother and I would stand where we were on the trail. “Do you hear that?” We’d listened to hours of bird calls on cassette tapes driving down. “A warbler . . . no . . . a chickadee.”

My mother cocked her head, an ear angled toward that avian domain. But her eyes darted down at me. They seemed to say, It’s good for him to be out, don’t you think, Christine? For him to have an interest we can all take part in?

“Christine!” he said. “Are you listening? A chickadee?”

And my mother nodded to me, and I said, “Chickadee. Yes. I hear it.”

Then we’d walk some more, and he’d say, “Freeze!” again, and we’d wait while he inspected a pattern in the sticks. “Snake tracks,” he said, bending so that his pack almost tipped him over. “No…deer more likely, white-tailed deer.”

My mother lifted a handful of sticks to her face then lowered them to mine. “Yes,” she said. “White-tailed deer! I see it. Christine, do you see it? Christine?”

* * * 

At the site, my mother and I unfolded the tent poles, while my father unwrapped cellophane from a roast and started up the white-gas stove. We sat on rocks and held plastic plates on our laps. My father’s back was toward us as he fiddled with the flame. The stove roared and quieted, roared and quieted. He scraped a cast iron skillet atop the burner. My mother hugged me toward her.

“We’ll be okay,” she said softly. “This is what he wanted.”

The roast began to hiss.

“Ultimately that’s all people really want, Christine, is choices.”

I could still remember how his sobs had traveled through my bedroom walls. Back then, there’d been frequent sobbing. “I want you to take an interest in something,” my mother had pleaded. She’d just suggested an open relationship. “No,” he cried. “But you can try it. I’ll stay home with the cat.”

Now he stood with a knife in his hand, the other holding slabs of meat. “Eat, eat,” he proffered, gesturing toward our plates. 

So much had changed.

We ate, but we couldn’t eat it all. “Stuff it in,” my father said. “Christine, try burping. Your problem is that you’re full of air.” The leftover roast rested on the table, in a puddle of juices like a wounded animal. We would leave it there, unfinished. That was our mistake. But what did we know about camping? We were city people.

By 8 o’clock, we’d retired to the tent. The hike had wiped us out. My mother and father played cards by lantern light, sitting cross-legged in the tent. My father was letting her win at Bartok. She touched his ankle and smiled in a distant, knowing way.

I was glad they were getting along.

I was in my sleeping bag, watching the nylon of the tent start to fade from blue to gray to black. I thought of the night my mother had shouted, “It’s only been two dates, Frank!” She’d been pleading with him to try a bar, any bar, even if it was just to meet another Mets fan. I thought, Mets fan? From my room, I cried out, “I’m scared!” They’d both rushed in. They took me to their bed and said, “You can sleep here, if you’re scared.” I’d burrowed into the spot between them, smelling my father’s sour shirt, the heat from my mother’s back warming my own. “OK,” I whispered, “ I am.”

In the tent, my father was flipping cards. “Your turn,” he said in an agreeable way. In my half-dream I was tucked between them again. In his confidence, the future of our family could still rearrange itself, unformed.

Then, outside, we heard a baby shrieking.

“You hear that?” my father said. “Sounds like a baby shrieking.” He tilted his head. “Interesting. Northern poke weasel, I’d say. Don’t see many in these parts.”

My mother had laid her cards down on the nylon floor. “That’s no weasel,” she finally said. She did not reach for me, but I could feel how much she wanted to.

The shrieking outside grew louder.

“Oh dear lord,” she said. “They’re killing it.”

“Killing what?” my father asked, panicking. “Killing who?”

“Does it really matter, Frank? Can we do something?”

He placed a hand atop her shoulder and got to his feet.

“Frank,” my mother started. He turned to regard her. They looked at each other deeply for a moment.

Before those wilderness shows, he’d always been afraid of noises. Tree limbs scraping the house could make him curl up with a baseball bat. But now he strode into the dusk, carrying a lantern by its wire handle. He lifted it to inspect the trees. He shined it on the white-gas stove facedown in the dirt. He swung it across his body, a sphere of light bobbing all around him, and there, at the edge of the campsite, a bobcat was tensed above our roast.

He had never been a strong man, or a brave man, but my father did not run. He said, “Ohgodohgodohgod,” but stood there, turning into a wall between that wild thing and us.

“Frank!” my mother shouted.

He kept his eyes on the bobcat and reached back to the table where he’d done the dinner prep. Blindly, his hand fumbled among the utensils. The bobcat hissed and exposed its teeth in the way of a venomous snake. My father’s hand found the carving knife and he brandished it—but he’d grabbed it by the blade. He pointed the wooden handle at the cat. It hissed again, and my father cried out, “This is not your domain!” Then he squeezed the knife so tightly it severed his middle finger above the knuckle.

It cut so cleanly that it took several seconds before the blood and pain arrived—before he started screaming.

I remembered him in that darkened living room, while my mother was out. How he’d laughed at the wilderness host in a khaki vest. “Look at this guy,” he said. “All alone. He’s gonna get himself mauled!”

Suddenly, I was marching past my father’s naked legs. I was banging on a pot with a metal spoon, marching toward the beast. It smelled like cat food, I thought. The way my father had smelled, the first night my mother hadn’t come home from the bar. Christine! This cat’s breath smells like cat food! I’d been watching wilderness programs with him, but he’d been kissing the cat. It was 9 o’clock. Even back then, I understood what was possible.

I got closer to the bobcat and it made that sound of a wailing infant again. It arched its back. Its hair stood in a ridge. I thought, Maybe I’ll be mauled. I got closer, making my terrible racket. I thought, Look at you. Smelling like cat food. Then I smacked the spoon into the pot as hard as I could and the bobcat popped away and disappeared. 

Only when it was good and gone, deep in the woods, did my father wail, “Christine!”

If I close my eyes, I can still see the look on his face, regarding me, his daughter, as though I were someone he didn’t know. How unsettling that must have been, to no longer see me as his little child.

That was the last time we’d go camping, the last time he’d notice the sound of a chickadee, or the color variations of a woodland squirrel. Never again did he eat a wild blackberry, or grip a knife in his hand. From then on, it would be me who carved our meat. He would stand off in a corner of our kitchen, his arms crossed so that his missing digit was tucked in his armpit, watching me slice the flesh of some headless bird. He would nod at me, hiding what he’d lost.

At the back of the tent, my mother was cradling my sleeping bag against her chest, as though she imagined I was still within it. And while I stood in that chittering nightscape, among the invisible nocturnal creatures, my father retreated into the tent, finally, to be with her.

 

Benjamin Warner is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University’s MFA program. A lecturer at Towson University, he teaches courses in composition, environmental writing, and fiction writing. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in American Short Fiction, Guernica, Lithub, Salon.com, and The Washington Post Magazine. He’s also the author of the novels Thirst (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016) and Fearless (Malarkey Books, 2022).

Offering by Laura S. Marshall

My patron saint only visits when he needs something from me, his head bowed to bestow grace but watching for someone who might blow his cover. I first saw him in a dream, the kind that wakes you gasping, catching yourself as you fall back into your bed, but after that he started coming around every afternoon with some little request or other. He shuffles down the hallway to my room to ask for some little thing. I never know what he needs it for because he’s not really much of a talker.

Today it’s socks. “Do you have a fresh pair of socks?” he asks. His robes rustle around his feet.

“Fresh as in clean, or fresh as in new?” I mutter. His nimbus makes my dorm room look dingy. “What do you need the socks for?”

He doesn’t answer. He never answers my questions. Not about the things he needs and not about anything else.

I could give him an older pair, thin worn grey with holes burgeoning on the bottoms, but who gives garbage to a holy figure? 

I place a clean pair of socks in his patient hand. They’re among my favorites, thick and warm and navy-flecked with orange toes and heels; they make my new boots bite less sharply at my feet.

“What did you do with the safety goggles yesterday?” I ask. 

He just holds out his hand and waits for my offering. He makes that blessing sign with the other, his thumb and first two fingers up, gentle, like rays of light could shoot out from his heart and warm the air around me if I would just shut up for a minute.

I never know when it will be my turn to ask for something, or what I should ask for when my turn comes. For now, he’s the one who does all the asking. I watch him walk to the stairwell and wonder what he does with my stuff, why he chose me, when I’ll finally see some kind of blessing in return for all this gifting.

When he shambles over for a roll of film, the day after, I choose to be the silent one. Holy and beatific, my head ringed with light. A chorus of seraphim, rapturous, as I open the door. My patron saint tips his head back in saintly surprise, then rummages in his pocket and hands me a single crinkly butterscotch candy.

 

Laura S. Marshall (she/they) is a queer, nonbinary disabled poet, educator, and former linguist who lives outside of Albany, NY. Their work appears in South Dakota Review, Bennington Review, Juked, Lunch Ticket, 8 Poems, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in poetry from UMass Amherst, and has served as guest editor at Trestle Ties and special features editor for jubilat.

Funland by Rebekah Morgan

We were bout run ragged, sittin’ in the brick building on the side of 72 right before Cooter Creek but past the McDonalds. Getting a call, jumping up, hauling bodies mostly dead, runnin’ back and then sittin’ in the garage smoking pall malls talking shit bout so and so’s niece being strung out again while we was sittin’ next to the big engine or sittin’ outside on the lawn with burnt up grass till another call come in. Mikey’s brother failed outta scuba diving certification on account of claustrophobia. Mike’s daddy had paid for him to go all the way down to Florida for it. Mikey asked me what I thought his daddy bout done to his brother and I said to this man he oughta whooped him two tits from Tuesday and everyone nodded in agreement. Bobby Lee said they found a cop in an old outhouse yesterday or day before with a plastic bag filled bout yay high with gasoline and part of the bag over his head and he was damn near dead from huffing by the time they got to them. Bobby says it was the same damn cop they took out from the Funland not too far awhile back after the cop drank him a bunch of latex paint and it turned his whole mouth black. Bobby says that cop be selling cocaine around here too and knows them boys up in the hills who are runnin’ the gambling ring one county over. Ol’ Coolie chimes in about the paint and why people can’t just stick to sniffing glue like they used to cause now everyone drinking paint or runnin’ rubbing alcohol through a slice of white bread to drink and it’s making a whole lot of extra work for us and don’t they know we’re too tired for this mess. Jason come in even though it’s his day off cause he don’t wanna be at home with his wife cause he hates that fucking bitch and he remembers when him and Bobby were in high school. Jason says him and Bobby were damn near side ways one night at the Red Iguana cause they never carded anyone back then and started calling the escort services from the yellow pages and Jason says after they called bout five different ones the operator asked them if they realized it was the same lady they’d been talking to the whole time and Bobby asked if he’d worn her down yet.

 

Rebekah Morgan is a writer living in good ole Eastern Tennessee. Previous work can be found with Bull Magazine, Fence, Joyland Magazine, Maudlin House, and New York Tyrant, among others places.

Sparkle Time by Audrey Lee

The night air sits still like the church girls in their pew at Sunday service. The night air is languid and sour, so thick that you could take it in your mouth and chew it. The church is on Pine Street. I watch them, the church girls, in smart dresses and small, flat shoes. I watch them from across the pews in the church on Pine Street. They have long hair to their asses and skin marked by sunspots and acne scars. They sit up straight. They sing. They pray.

I have sweat running under my arms, melting into ugly, damp pools in the fabric of my wrinkled blouse. I have scuffs on my black Oxfords, the same pair from my all-girls Christian high school. I haven’t gotten a haircut in a year and it clumps in a frazzled halo around my sad face. I don’t believe in God, but I keep going to Sunday service to watch the church girls from across the pews in the church on Pine Street. I slouch and pout at the dull scuffs on my shoes when we are told let us pray.

We are old enough that we don’t go to Sunday school, but we are the straggling members of the church’s young adult social group: the church girls, with their smart dresses and sunspots and bright faces, clicking tongues, hushed voices—and me. We all walk down the linoleum stairs to the church basement, the staircase lined with framed photos of mission trips to Africa. The church girls are in the photos and smile grins of glee at me, their bobbing faces pale and ghostly among the large groups of black and brown African children. They are always in a jungle, or on a beach, among dilapidated tin-roofed shacks, and the sky is always blue, and I imagine that the air in these jungles and beaches is as still and languid and sour and thick as the air on this Saturday night in the city.

I will see the church girls tomorrow morning. They will pray. I will pout.

I imagine things about the church girls. It started with crude thoughts: kissing them hard on their sweet mouths, shoving my tongue down their throat to shut up their clicking. Their tight asses, hair floating down their bare backs. Now, it is situational: I liked to think about wandering through a grocery aisle with the church girls and imagine what they picked off the shelves, like store brand over name brand, or organic strawberries over the normal ones. Maybe, what they prayed about. Sometimes, fucking them.

On this Saturday night in the city, I walk past the grocery store on Fifth Street, closed because it is late. I turn onto Pine Street and see that someone has changed the church marquee from a bible verse to a C.S. Lewis quote, followed by: Service At 10AM Sunday. I’ve got an empty beer can in my right hand, and the last heat of a cigarette in the left. I’m thinking about the church girls, imagining what smart dresses they will wear tomorrow morning, when I hear a loud shriek from across the busy street, echoing over the heads of partygoers, drunks like me, dog-walkers, lovers, and bicycle messengers. I do not pay attention until there is another shriek.

The church girls are pursuing me, running in high heels through honking traffic to cross Pine Street.

Oh my God! they shriek, a chorus of the lord’s name in vain. I am still as they surround me. What are you doing out? Where are you going? Anything fun?

I shake my head and they all sigh smugly. I am still and I am shocked. Gone are the smart dresses and small, flat shoes; each church girl is glittering. Their short, frilly dresses are sequined, their hair is done up, and their high heels, closer to God, chatter on the concrete sidewalk. Their bright faces are darkened by sooty black makeup, acne scars erased and airbrushed away. They smell like soapy flowers and sugar and sex, letting off a cloud of cheap perfume as they sigh and sway on their long, bare legs.

I look at one of the church girls. She is the tallest of them, giving her an assumed command over the rest. Her pink mouth frames lipstick stains on her teeth. Her eyes are alight in the glow of the street lamps. She looks soft, and my mind wanders to reaching at the low-cut chest of her gilded dress, ripping it open with one yank, and leaving her bare.

Well? she smirks.

My breath is caught in my throat.

Don’t tell anyone we’re out, okay?

I hear my voice speak up, feel my mouth move around palpable words. I don’t know what I’m saying, but I hear myself ask, why are you dressed like that?

The tall girl crosses her arms over her chest and lets out a laugh that sounds like a siren. Then she looks me in the eyes, staring right through me. She knows I watch them across the pews, she knows I think about tearing her clothes off, she knows. She clicks her tongue and says something back, but I can’t hear her.

What? I ask.

The tall girl leans in and I smell soapy flowers and pineapple-scented lube. What do you mean? It’s sparkle time.

The church girls are gone in an instant of cheap perfume and chattering footsteps, the tall girl’s soft, bare arm brushing past the sleeve of my shirt as she leaves me behind. My cigarette is dead and the empty beer can crinkles in my hand. I am alone again and before I can think, I kneel on the concrete sidewalk, as throngs of people swerve around me, staring up at the cross that adorns the church on Pine Street. It is illuminated by spotlights between the stained glass windows.

My arm burns where the tall girl touched it. Before I can think, I pray: Amen. Amen. Amen.

 

Audrey Lee is the author of the poetry collections Disjecta Membra (Bottlecap Press, 2022) and Probably, Angels (Maverick Duck Press, 2020). She holds a B.A. in creative writing and American studies from Franklin and Marshall College. She’s the winner of the 2020 Jerome Irving Bank Short Story Prize, and her writing has been recognized by Columbia College of Chicago, the University of Virginia, and the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from DIALOGIST, Glass: a Journal of Poetry, The Indiana Review, Teen Vogue, and Wax Nine. Audrey is a former resident at the Sundress Academy for the Arts and lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

When Astronauts Landed in Our Neighborhood by James R. Gapinski

They touched down near the 7-Eleven, just off MLK and Sumner. Four of them, decked out in full spacesuits, large boots heavy in this new gravity, labored breathing moving through their suits like Darth Vader with asthma. They emerged from their spaceship to the tree-lined streets of Portland in an early December downpour. Rain hissed and evaporated as it pelted the hot spaceship exterior. Had they come six months earlier, they would’ve experienced that moment in June, just after the cold snaps, but long before wildfire smoke tinged the sky. A magical time when gentle Spring sun gave way to street fairs, buskers, food trucks, and rosebuds brimming with promise.

The astronauts pushed past gathering crowds. Some neighbors tried to offer umbrellas, but the astronauts couldn’t be bothered that first day. They needed to build shelters before nightfall. They established basecamp in the O’Riley Auto Parts parking lot. They set up portable habitats and sensors on tripods and a recharging station for their rover.

On the second day, the astronauts left basecamp as more rainclouds darkened the sky. They moved slowly around a four-block perimeter. They peered at dormant plant life and captured a pigeon. They inspected mailboxes and fenceposts, staring from behind their mirrored face shields, rain-streaked and beginning to fog. They were faceless and formless under these helmets, so alien-like, even though CNN reported that they had launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida several months earlier.

The neighborhood yet again took interest in this development. This time, the astronauts were more willing to engage. They asked lots of questions. For example: What do you call this place? In response: This is America. The astronauts looked around, seemingly unsure, as if they had already visited America and knew this wasn’t it. For another example: How long have your people lived here?

Eventually, the astronauts’ daily explorations expanded into the 7-Eleven. They inspected the shelves, picking up packages of Fritos and holding them beside some Funions for comparison. Having little money to purchase Fritos, Funions, or lotto tickets, the astronauts began asking for trades. They wanted to barter their freeze-dried rations and anti-gravity self-inking pens and spare bundles of wire and bolts and duct tape. In return, they wanted Krispy Kreme and hotdogs. They wanted glossy fashion magazines. They wanted Red Bull and cans of Starbucks Cold Brew.

Soon, the astronauts tired of the 7-Eleven, and they traded for more expensive items. They wanted to-go orders from some hip Alberta Street eateries. They wanted local art. They wanted televisions and stereo equipment. They cited all sorts of scientific reasons for these requests. For example: We’d like to study the effects of sonic distortions of Lizzo’s new album on your neighborhood’s atmospheric properties. For another example: The chemical properties of a small batch craft IPA could lead to breakthroughs in understanding human metabolic functional variance.

The astronauts got what they wanted because they were astronauts, and the neighborhood people knew that astronauts were admired and respected. The neighbors said emphatic things about the importance of this mission. For example: I’m glad I can do my part! Astronauts are the last true heroes. For another example: Sure! Anything you need. Did you know that Buzz Aldrin spoke at my high school graduation back in the day?

Though if anyone asked the neighbors in private, they’d admit they were thinking about more than civic duty. They were happy to get a souvenir from a bona fide NASA mission. They suspected that all these trades would be profitable. They went on eBay and OfferUp to see how much each collectable object might fetch them. In time, they learned that nobody cared about NASA trinkets unless it was something from the Apollo missions.

Trade relations soured. The astronauts went back to freeze-dried rations until they all began to complain. For example: Fuck this shit. Three of the astronauts took their little rechargeable rover into the rainy wastelands beyond their usual four-block perimeter. They sought other neighborhood frontiers, scouting for new sources of food and drink and culture and luxury and wealth—all for the sake of scientific cataloging, of course.

They left just one crew member to guard the skeletal remains of basecamp, already low on supplies, tarps fraying in the cold breeze, power generator flickering more often than not. The lone astronaut deterred gawkers. For example: Keep moving, shithead. She chewed on her freeze-dried rations with contempt. She collected rainwater in buckets. She dug up a pile of weeds and burned them for heat. She dissected a raccoon and smeared its blood on her helmet. She threw bricks through the 7-Eleven’s windows. For science.

The astronaut waited nearly a week for her team to return, but they never did. She feared her fellow astronauts had been lost to the wilds just beyond Lombard Street. She informed ground control that the mission had been a failure. She told them that this planet was harsh and ruthless. For example: It’s a shithole. Needs terraforming. The next crew needs drills. Big ones.

The astronaut initiated the launch sequence. She began her long, solitary journey into the cosmos, arcing deep into the cold void for months on-end. Finally, she reached an apex, reversed thrusters, and plummeted down, down, down to a sunny Florida landing site where she was hailed a hero. She did a press circuit. She wrote a memoir. She visited our neighborhood again to give a guest lecture at PCC’s Cascade campus—this time, she came during the summertime. Her Delta Airlines flight touched down at the PDX airport with enough time for a quick in-and-out on her way to a more important stop in Los Angeles. She congratulated a scholarship recipient and said inspirational things. For example: The children are our future. She shook hands with the college president.

In her guest lecture, the astronaut told us all about her mission to Portland and everything that she learned about our neighborhood. For example:

 

James R. Gapinski is the author of The Last Dinosaurs of Portland (Bottlecap Press, 2021), Fruit Rot (Etchings Press, 2020), Edge of the Known Bus Line (Etchings Press, 2018), and Messiah Tortoise (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2018). James teaches for Southern New Hampshire University’s MFA program, and they edit for Conium Press.

Ghouls by Gordon Brown

Nobody dares say it aloud but there’s a sense of appreciation surrounding Clyde’s death. Which is a horrible thing to say, but nobody says it. We think it. Feel it. Tell ourselves, walking home from school on long, thin October days, that these are the same trees he used to walk past, the same dark-eyed houses, the same sightless stone cherubs, balancing bird baths on their hideous heads. We make pilgrimages to his parents’ house, pretending to have been his friends. We make up stories. Paint him as the reluctant hero, the well-meaning villain, the inciting incident in tales of junior-year bravado. His parents never notice the plot holes in the homespun mythology. It must make them happy to imagine their son was so loved – that the secret sadness inside him wasn’t so gigantic that it eclipsed everything else that he was.

Sometimes we’re taken up to his room, preserved exactly how it was the day-of. Bed unmade. Heartbreaking participation trophies with cheap-plastic divers dangling forever. Family portrait, Clyde-age-twelve, looking out at the camera with a sullen expression, like he somehow suspected that this picture, the zit on his chin, would last forever. For some reason, we always let ourselves think that this time the mysterious glow around Clyde’s death will be bright enough to blot out the truth of his life, which seemed normal and boring and sad and a little too much exactly like ours. Clyde’s parents will cross the room, hovering lovingly over the framed photo, leaning into each other, oblivious to our quick fingers sliding a GOOD EFFORT ribbon off a nail in the wall or an ossified fortune cookie off the dresser. Fresh produce for the Clyde-economy, which is still thriving, still flooded with counterfeits.

The only way to tell what baby tooth or pencil-mauled-by-bitemarks is the authentic article and which was a cheap imitation is by the stories they come wrapped in. The Zippo lighter Clyde won in a bet.  The cathedral in a snow globe, from some trip to Europe his family took, which Clyde confessed, high at a party he probably never went to, was the first and last time he ever felt he belonged somewhere. 

The best way to make a Clyde story sound real is to simply insert his name when you’re telling a story about yourself. The time you shot a bird with a BB gun and felt so wretched afterward that you spent all day and most of the evening trying to find her nest and eggs, never once questioning if she had either or if she was even a she. The time you hid in the clothes rack at a thrift store to see if they’d lock you in at closing, and the terror you felt when they actually did. The real way you got fired from your first summer job, not the story you told your parents to save face. You got to see which sins were forgivable. You could finally feel free after puking it out of you. It didn’t matter what you’d say, how humiliating or inexcusable it was, because it wasn’t you, it was Clyde, and Clyde’s fucking dead. 

His final moments were bad and slow, if the stories were to be believed. Bad and slow and lonely. It’s common knowledge, even among some adults, that if you manage to sneak into the indoor pool after-hours you can see Clyde, pale and transparent, caught in an endless swan dive towards the bone-dry bottom. Or that his face lingers in certain bathroom mirrors. Or that if you pick the right booth in a certain Chinese restaurant after sunset, you can feel cold fingers brush yours as you reach for your fortune cookie. We don’t tell his parents those stories. Those are for us. We need them – especially these days. When knock-offs and relics of the one-true Clyde have accumulated in our own houses for so long that we can no longer tell which had once been his and which had been ours all along. Or when it’s late at night, when we’re stuck awake with the sound of Clyde’s bare feet springing up and down on the diving board, those stories really help. Which is a horrible thing to say and the reason nobody says it. We just think it. Feel it. That, if this is what happens when you die badly enough, then maybe there’s hope for us all.

 

Gordon Brown grew up in the deserts of Syria and now lives in the deserts of Nevada. Since arriving in the New World, his work has previously appeared in Hunger Mountain Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Nightscript, and elsewhere. He spends his time writing feverishly and looking after his cats, of which he has none.

Ka, Ba, and Akh by Becky Robison

I don’t think Mom meant to be a pain, but mummification’s hard to come by. The closest Egyptologist—apparently a real job—is in Chicago, 400 miles away. Am I supposed to lug her body in my trunk? Manson Funeral Parlor offers burial or cremation only. I didn’t bother to ask. Godly people, the Mansons.

Leroy says the ancient Egyptians were godly, too. Godlier—all kinds of gods. Leroy says he can do it. I say taxidermy’s not the same thing, and he assures me he’s not going to treat her like a prize buck, she deserves better than that. She does deserve better. She knew it, too.

Mom only got into Egypt after her diagnosis, had to squeeze one last passion in there, but Leroy’s a real buff. Used to read me bedtime stories from the Book of the Dead whenever Mom dropped me at his house next door, short notice, so she could take ballet lessons in the county over, or harvest shiny glass corn on her friend’s cousin’s sustainable farm, or try out for some movie filming in the city, leaving me with Leroy and his deer and pheasants and squirrels until I was old enough to look after myself. Now Leroy tells me the Book of the Dead is more like books—etchings and scrolls cobbled together over time. But those scraps are enough to manage. He’s tried it before, he says, on his aunt’s pet cat. The ancient Egyptians mummified cats sometimes.

I ask if he wants any money, not that I have much. Leroy says it’s an honor, he loved Mom, everybody did, life of the party, but if I could pick up supplies, that would be great. I don’t ask if it’s legal. We both know the answer to that, and so did Mom.

First, he’ll remove Mom’s organs, place them in jars. He says Hobby Lobby has some nice jars. Later he’ll dry her with salt—like jerky, I think. Then he’ll wrap her in linen. There are prayers and rituals throughout the process. He’ll let me know so I can come for those parts, if I want. The whole thing will take more or less 70 days—that’s how long the priests took. He makes me a list.

I was trying to say goodbye, and she wouldn’t stop talking my ear off about her akh. There’s the ka, which hangs out inside the mummy, and the ba, which she said was like a soul but sounded more like a ghost, floating between town and the tomb. Then there’s the akh, which is the part that actually travels to the afterlife, and she was worried about her akh getting lost, she’d always felt so lost. I was surprised she admitted it, but I guess that’s what people do on their deathbeds. I kissed her temple, promised I’d do everything right, make sure she got there safe.

Best to scratch off the easiest items first. Book of the Dead Spell 105: make sure the dead don’t go hungry. At the corner store, I grab one of those honey-cinnamon granola bars she liked and a can of tangerine LaCroix. Incense—still have some nag champa in my bedroom. She hated me burning it when she was around to smell it, but I think it’s supposed to be symbolic. Natron? Internet says it’s some kind of ashy compound from the bottom of dry lakes, people used it as soap. I raid the bathroom drawer with all the mini-soaps she stole from hotels.

Mom’s going to need more salt than Leroy’s aunt’s pet cat, so I go to the one other person who saw her the way I did, more pilgrim than adventurer. Saw her long before I did, chose to see her, though they never married. We don’t talk much—he was never Dad—but I know he’s coming up on retirement at the Public Works. When I break the news, he gives me all the road salt my car can take, sacks of it in my backseat, the weight of it so heavy you can see it in the wheels.

Spell 26 protects the heart. Leroy wrote out the passage: My heart is mine, and is content with me. At Hobby Lobby, I wonder what kind of jar Mom’s heart belongs in. Not this tacky heart-shaped mason jar. The vases are prettier, but they don’t have lids. There’s a teal and gold glass jar for twenty dollars. It’s a little out of my budget, but what’s a budget to eternity? I’d never begrudge her that.

My haul barely fits inside Leroy’s garage, between the bins of foam animal forms and plastic tubs of glass eyes, shears and scalpels and needles and scrapers hanging from the walls. He’s already got Mom’s body on the table, still wrapped in the sheets where she died, the last bit of warmth she’ll ever feel unless we can get this akh thing going.

Leroy asks if I thought about a tomb yet. I admit that I have not. I ask if he knows a good pyramid nearby.

Our house next door is the closest thing she had to a home, and she only slept there as much as she did because of me. On the pullout couch–she knew I’d make better use of the big bedroom. The little bedroom is hardly more than a closet, which is how she used it, clothes and shoes and bags, a few cardboard boxes of mementos that I never touched, though she never asked me not to. I’d still rather not go through them. I’d rather bury her in the little bedroom with the tokens of what might have been homes. But the house, sturdy as it is, wasn’t built for that kind of lasting.

Leroy says not to think on it too hard. Spell 188: She begs that she may come and go, that she may have power in her legs…a true akh, equipped and divine. That’s what all this is for, so she can get there on her own.

 

Becky Robison is a karaoke enthusiast, trivia nerd, and fiction writer living in Louisville, Kentucky. A graduate of UNLV’s Creative Writing MFA program, her stories have appeared in [PANK], Paper Darts, Juked, and elsewhere. When she’s not working her corporate job or walking her dog, she serves as the Social Media and Marketing Coordinator for Split Lip Magazine.

The Stress on Modern Women by Alyssa Asquith

Maryanne had an ache in her stomach. It was a hard ache, like a rock settled there, down where her guts should be.

“Drink more water,” the Doctor advised her.

So Maryanne drank more water. Every morning, she stood at the kitchen sink and drank four tall glasses, one after another.

But the hardness did not go away. Instead, Maryanne could feel it moving upwards, from her stomach to her chest. Breathing grew difficult; she developed a cough. The Doctor prescribed her pills, for anxiety.

“The stress on modern women is enormous,” he explained.

Maryanne took the pills every morning, with her water. She worried less about the hardness, which seemed to continue its progression upwards, from her chest to her neck. When she swallowed, she could feel it resting there, at the very back of her throat.

* * *

One night, Maryanne woke suddenly, tasting blood, gasping for air.

“Take deep breaths,” the Doctor told Maryanne, kindly, when she called. “Have some water—you’re alright—you’ll be fine.”

Maryanne followed the Doctor’s advice. Back in bed, she propped her neck up, using three pillows, and closed her eyes, and tried not to worry.

* * *

The next night, Maryanne woke again, and tried to breathe, and couldn’t.

Something was lodged there, trapped in her airway—not hard, she realized, when she reached back and felt it, but soft, and warm, and wet. Maryanne pressed against the thing with her fingers, trying to force it back down her throat, but it was too big and too stuck and wouldn’t budge. When she ran to the sink, to drink from the faucet, the water came out her nose, burning.

She retched, once, then—without meaning to—and felt the thing move up, very slightly, to sit against the back of her tongue.

It moved again, with a second retch; and then again, with a third; and then again; and again and again; and up and up, and up; and then finally out—tasting of mucus, and blood—and into the sink, where it landed, softly, with a low, heavy slap.

Maryanne took a great, shuddering breath and clutched the counter for support. Her chest felt light, and strangely empty; the feeling of hardness had gone.

After a moment, she reached past the sink and switched on the light.

The thing was about the size of a tennis ball: perfectly round, and quite pink. When Maryanne leaned closer—blinking, squinting through beads of sweat—she could just make out the shape of a mouth, and two tiny nostrils, like poppy seeds.

Maryanne prodded it, gently, with her pinky, waiting for a twitch, or a cry. She prodded it again, and again and again, and then scooped it up, with both hands, and held it to the light. Its eyes were squeezed tight, in a kind of grimace. Its skin was bright with blood.

* * *

The Doctor was very apologetic.

“It’s just that this is not the usual progression of a pregnancy,” he explained to her. “It’s a highly unusual case.”

The baby lay in Maryanne’s lap, wrapped snugly in a woolen sock. It hadn’t stirred yet, or opened its eyes, but something about it felt real, and heavy—like a lump of coal, or a paperweight.

“Of course,” the Doctor said, “There was nothing to be done.” He paused, then said, “You mustn’t blame yourself.”

Maryanne, who had not been blaming herself, looked up from the baby at the Doctor. She had the distinct, inexplicable feeling that he was afraid of her.

“Do you want to be a mother?” the Doctor asked.

Maryanne looked down again at her lap. She shifted the baby, pulling it close, feeling its weight in the crook of her arm.

“But I am one,” she said.

The Doctor forced a smile, then reached over and took Maryanne’s hand.

“Of course you are,” the Doctor said, after a moment. “Of course you are, Maryanne.”

* * *

At home, Maryanne propped the baby up on a cushion and sat there for some time, watching it.

It was, she thought, a remarkably good baby: it did not cry or squirm; it did not cough or fuss; it seemed as happy to be lifted and held as it was to be set down again. But Maryanne held it anyway, and rocked it and bounced it, and put her nose to its head.

She thought again, with some resentment, of the Doctor: his apology; his strange fear.

Was she not a mother? The child had grown in her; the child was still growing. Even as she held it, she could feel it growing—if not larger, then denser—thickening, hardening.

Maryanne spent the rest of the day with her baby. When night fell, she tucked it into a shoebox and slid it beneath the bed, for safekeeping. She checked on it eight times, throughout the night, and each time found it sleeping soundly.

Alyssa Asquith’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y, NEON, Adroit Journal, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She has her MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.