Beauty is Only… by Jessica June Rowe

Or, How to Get Over Your Shitty Ex: A 10 Step Skincare Routine.

Step 1: Cleanser. You’ve got to start with a clean slate. Apply to damp skin in slow, circular motions. This is your chance to wipe away the past. Wipe until the long-lasting makeup you applied this morning lasts no more. It all breaks down: dark circles around your eyes, a red smear around your lips. Rinse. Watch the colors bleed from your face to your fingers to the sink.

Step 2: Exfoliator. You missed a spot. Scour your skin with a sugar-based scrub. Like your ex, who called you sweet and said you liked it rough. Exfoliate every molecule, spare no tender place. Rub your eye sockets, bruise your jawline, wring your hands around your throat until your muscles give way. Rinse.

Step 3: Toner. Restore the acid in your skin. You’re getting older, losing your edge. You wanted to leave him for ages, but you didn’t until it was him leaving you. But you don’t miss him. You shouldn’t miss him. Balance yourself every night with an alcohol-based toner. Feel the light burn of chemical stability, feel your tolerance build, feel better about your choices.

Step 4: Essence. What exactly is an essence? It doesn’t matter. Your skin is as dull as single life. Slap a hydrating essence onto your skin. When fully absorbed, slap on some more. You always need more hydration. Didn’t work? Are you drinking enough water? Are your showers too hot? Too long? Stop crying in those showers. Stop letting the tears and steam drain your sinuses, letting the water run until your skin shrivels. You’re always falling short. Drink more, cry less, slap more until your skin is drowning. Think it’s enough? It’s not enough.

Step 5: Roller. Take your routine to the next level with a jade roller. Start at the center of your face and roll outwards until you reach your hairline. Use the roller’s edge to work under the top layers of your skin and peel them off in a single motion. Set your face-skin somewhere flat to dry. No wrinkles here.

Pro-tip: Use the roller on your exposed superficial fascia. Fascia massage is all the rage, after all, and you know how to deal with rage. Be sure to wash your roller with warm water and gentle soap afterward; leftover blood can lead to bacteria build-up. You know how to deal with blood.

Step 6: Sheet Mask. Without your skin, you’re so sensitive. A sheet mask is soothing, revitalizing, reinventing. For 15-20 minutes, you can pretend that you’re someone else entirely, that you’re applying their skin. You pretend you’re the girl your ex is now dating. You watch the makeup tutorials she cross-posts on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok. You analyze every new video, searching for bruises lurking under all those layers of foundation. All you find is flawless skin. You wonder if your ex is the one taking all her staged poolside photos. You hate her. You envy her skill with liquid eyeliner. You love her skincare tips, her gentle voice, her #glow.

Step 7: Serum. God, you’re pathetic. Didn’t we go through this already? You need a serum, a punch of perfection. Active ingredients will actively eradicate your shame, your spite, your ugliness, your inability to let go. Use a high concentration, enough to erase any skin-memory that makes you you. No one wants that. For the best results, tear away the fascia, the subcutaneous fat, the retaining ligaments. Make it all the way down to your thick skull. Smear the serum across your cranial bones; let it soak into your marrow. If you experience soreness, irritation, instability, despair—ignore it. Dig deeper with a pair of metal tweezers. Chip away at your forehead; twist the sharpened points until you trepane your way to your frontal lobe.

Step 8: Spot Treatment. Through your skull-hole, it’s so much easier to see those hard-to-reach spots. Tweeze away the tricky blood vessels, the wrinkles in your brain, the scar tissue that keeps forming from overthinking, not thinking, stupid thinking. Trauma isn’t cute. You don’t want him back. You don’t. You do. You don’t. Apply a strong spot cream to the places, spaces, memories, emotions you want stripped away; apply at night so you can let it penetrate your imperfections all night long.

Step 9: Moisturizer. Doesn’t that feel better? Time for more hydration. A moisturizer will create a nourishing barrier to prevent all your efforts from going in vain—and it’s a great adhesive. Slather generously to both sides of your skull-bones and face-skin and press gently to re-adhere.

Pro tip: Follow up with a facial oil for true resilience. Feel your pores, your sweat glands, your nerves seal shut. Trap in everything from before. Your face should be as smooth as a mirror: reflecting everything, absorbing nothing. You are bright, immaculate, beautiful. The pain you felt, you feel, is nothing.

Step 10: Rinse, Repeat. This is the rest of your life. You will care for your skin until it dies, and you with it. Probably alone, but who knows. New skin, new you, maybe even new love. You deserve love, even when you don’t. You do. You don’t. You do. If you ever forget, just add more steps. You always need more hydration. Try creams, peels, correctors, removers. Mask your face, your hands, your feet, your hurt. Remember: you can’t break out if you never break.

 

Jessica June Rowe is an author, playwright, editor, and perpetual daydreamer. She is on the Editorial Board of Exposition Review and has served as both the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor. A Best of the Net nominee, her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Atlas and Alice, Pidgeonholes, Timber Journal, and Noble/Gas Qtrly, while her short plays have been featured on multiple stages in Los Angeles. One of her poems is stamped into a sidewalk in Valencia, CA, where she currently lives. She also really loves chai lattes. Find her on Twitter @willwrite4chai.

A Universe Waiting to Be Born by Cathy Ulrich

In this universe, time is on a rewind, time is in reverse, and the girl detective gets unkidnapped, gets set back down on the sidewalk beside the gaping Thomas from chemistry class. He is thinking apples like smells hair her, and his smile goes and comes, white-toothed. The girl detective becomes unaware of the long black car turning round the corner, her head dips down and up as she listens to Thomas’s backward talk, as they go backward into the school, as they grow younger imperceptibly, as Thomas’s hand nearly brushes the girl detective’s, as it pulls away.

The sun falls back into its rise, birds migrate north for the summer, the spools unwind and unwind, and the girl detective sits at her bedroom window and thinks alone not am I. Universes and universes and universes are there.

The girl detective walks backward home, her mother plays Billie Holiday backwards, her father returns from a trip he hasn’t yet left for. They uneat their dinner at the long dining table, empty forks becoming full, tipping back down to their plates. There is a silence of unspoken words that surrounds them.

The girl detective heads backward to her birth, she will be unborn, she will be part of the fabric of everything, small and new in this reversing place, she looks out across a sea of universes and a sea of girl detectives going forward and away from her, and she wants to tell them, I know how it ends, I know how it all ends, but she is swallowed up in her beginning and carried with everything into a universe waiting to be born.

 

Cathy Ulrich always sets her clocks at least 10 minutes ahead, which is kind of the opposite of going backwards in time. Or something. Her work has been published in various journals, including Quarter After Eight, Ecotone, and Flash Frog.

Other Husbands by M.L. Krishnan

 We aspired to be like you, with your spouse and lover and child, with the way that you gathered and displayed men as though they were hand-hammered coins that you strung from your wedding girdle—your veshti-clad husband with a voice like the wind at sea and a throat filled with song, and your lover from Bareilly or Ludhiana or some other city from the North with an incomprehensible name, with his mongrel loyalty and film-star looks, and your beautiful child whose joy fell upon you like a meteor outburst, her laughter slopping cosmic debris around your toes sheathed in silver. It didn’t matter who the father of that child was. It didn’t matter that you deserved none of this, the love, the men and their fevered attention, the way that you held yourself so self-effacingly, as if to dare us, as if to say, look what I can do with this cratered skin, with my unplucked eyebrows and unshaved armpits, with my teeth, with this phlegm-colored nighty that hung on me like a military tent, vast and irregular and frowned with creases. As though your good fortune was a life-insurance agent with a steady name like Kannan or Manikandan who pressed his bearded face into your upper thighs, and you took him in with your homemaker dullness, just as you did everything else. You were never like us. We shone too much, we jumped too far, we stood tall and proud in our splendor, in our angles of nose and jaw and leg, in the way that we excelled at everything that we put our minds to: field hockey, polynomials, makeup, the devotional compositions of Saivite saints. Maybe that was our downfall. Your compliance, wielded like a razorblade that slid easily under men, under us, under the viscera of our anxieties, our love, slick and hot and foreboding to the touch.

 

M.L. Krishnan originally hails from the coastal shores of Tamil Nadu, India. She is a 2019 graduate of the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Trampset, Paper Darts, Quarterly West, Sonora Review, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @emelkrishnan.

The Painted Moth by Jennifer Fliss

My boyfriend Mark and I were painting the walls of our shitty little rental. The landlord gave us permission, though he refused to replace, or even spot-clean the haggard carpet – dotted with who knows what from who knows when.

We taped up the door frame and windows and the perfect place where the walls meet the ceilings. Blue tape like bodily outlines saying a death had been there.

“You idiot. You did it wrong. Let me,” Mark said, as he used his body like an insult and pushed me out of the way. As he grabbed the tape roll, he left a patch of scratches on my wrist, like a special plaid. He was not a man who bit his nails and he rarely trimmed them, preferring to go for monthly manicures. He liked them in points. His daggers often left marks, and I often ran my own fingers over the cuts and felt the burn again and again.

In the quiet of a cricket night, the screen door open, I stood on a ladder painting the upper reaches of the bedroom. Mark crouched at the floor, working near the baseboards. I closed one eye for precision. Ran the brush in a smooth line, impressed with my even lines.

About two inches from the ceiling, I discovered a moth on the wall. It was the size of a half dollar, beige, as moths are, mottled like it was diseased. I saw its whisper thin wings flutter. Well, it was really more of a tremor, so faint was the movement. But as I got near, the moth stilled its subtle beating. I blew at it and thought about flicking it with my finger, but imagined it immediately turning to dust and crumbling, and I don’t know where I got that idea. I decided to leave it, but when I bent to dip the brush in more paint, it had moved. Spectral. The ghost had departed.

I painted a few more lines, and dipped again and continued to search the walls for the creature. It only took a moment to realize that the moth had moved a couple feet back and I had accidentally painted it over. It’s wings, thorax, even the fine antennae, now a relief, but not quite a work of art. I dropped the brush. Horrified. I stared at the winged creature, wondering what to do. I tapped its body with a fingernail, came away with a smear of blue. The moth only twitched its antennae and then stopped moving altogether. It stayed on the wall, a tempest blue fresco of a moth; it could’ve been a butterfly for all the paint.

The color we had chosen was Hawaiian Blue. It’s like we’ll always be on a honeymoon, Mark had said. I’d never been to Hawaii, so I wouldn’t know. And we never talked about a honeymoon since, or the pomp and circumstances that would lead to such a trip. The color was closer to the tears painted by children. We adults know that tears are clear and they dry white and phantom-like on our skin. They aren’t blue at all.

Up on the ladder, I felt a sudden surge and dropped my paintbrush. “Gotcha”! Mark growled as he grabbed my waist. I slipped down the rungs of the ladder and my head whacked the corner of the counter. I saw speckles. They looked like the wings of a moth. Of my moth. Of a moth shaking off its paint, its bindings.

“Ha,” Mark said, and went back to his corner to continue his important work.

Mark painted as I nursed my head with a bag of frozen corn. Mark called me lazy a few times with a smile. But he never noticed the moth as he went over to fix my mistakes.

We stayed in the house for four years. I’d made up many stories for the stains on the carpets. Stew. Coffee. Love. Miscarriage. Death. And nearly every night, under the great heft and misguided love of my boyfriend – who was still my boyfriend and not my husband, or even fiancé despite his move-in promises – I watched and waited for a sign from the moth. Whacha looking at? Mark would say before he came. Whacha looking at? as he rolled over and turned out the light. He never waited for the answer. I know because his snores quickly replaced his oh gods.

The moth, I understood was dead the minute I coated its not diseased but beautiful wings.

 

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, F(r)iction, and in the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology. She is also the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. Her debut short story collection, THE PREDATORY ANIMAL BALL, is forthcoming from Okay Donkey Press in November 2021. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or on her website at www.jenniferflisscreative.com.

Undertow by Matthew Mastricova

Jeff wants to grows long enough to reach the moon. He’s been doing those stretches, where you grab on the gnarliest limb of a tree and let your body stretch down. Jeff says the neanderthals used to do it. He says one day he’s gonna get big enough to crush the moon between his palms. Serves it right for sitting up so close in the sky, causing tides and shit. His arms have grown like an inch or two. Or maybe he dropped his body so hard he unraveled something. I missed the first two snaps and have to settle for gawking at the rough fractal guts of his uncle’s maple tree. It was like looking at the inside of my own skeleton. I wanted to hurl. The last time I wanted to get sick so bad was when Jeff’s older brother pushed me off their back porch and I landed on my arm wrong and clean broke it. He was that kind of motherfucker.

The third time Jeff’s fat ass breaks a branch, I’m videotaping him to find the moments where gravity drags Jeff’s arms down beyond their limit. No one believes in Jeff but me. They don’t know how much spite is in that guy’s teeth. Venom can take you a long way if you let it, so even though Jeff’s hands are splintered to hell after the branch breaks, he doesn’t even wince. He’s been through worse. At his brother’s funeral, Jeff showed me the scar from where his brother sliced his stomach for hogging the xbox. He pulled me into the bathroom and said “Jody I gotta show you something” and he let me trace the shape of it and I swear to god I could feel it breathing.

Jeff gives me his hands and I get to work removing the slivers of pulp. I want to stick his whole fist in my mouth, suck out the poison that’s keeping him going, but I focus on the damage I could see. By the time I return Jeff his hand it’s swollen like a corpse. Another shot at vengeance the wild stole from him. Even with the dead hand he still plans on trying. He asks me if I’d come over next time and watch just in case something happens and the other hand goes, too. If I’d tie his hands to the trees, then. I say yes, of course I’d do that Jeff, but it’s only because I believe he’d figure a way to do it some other way. Jeff, one day he’ll crumble the moon between his fingers and banish the ocean tides, and then he’ll have nothing left to break but himself.

 

Matthew Mastricova is the fiction editor for Third Point Press. Their work has appeared in Catapult, Joyland, Redivider, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.

The Curtains We Bought by Sheila Mulrooney

We ordered curtains from a second-hand furniture shop. They said shipping took nine weeks, but we agreed that two months of naked windows was better than funding Bezos. I remember how we murmured this to each other as we fell asleep, like a lullaby. You in your boxers, me in my t-shirt, both thick with sweat. I didn’t tell you, but I was scared those nights, unable to sleep with the glare of streetlamps on our drywall. I felt like the whole city could see us. They were watching, laughing at our poverty and love.

~

They came wrapped tightly in plastic and crinkled with static. The white polyester was blotched with purple lavender, a synthetic pattern repeating itself like cars on the highway. You shook them out and immediately the room smelled of something processed and unclean. I wished we could afford nice things, like linen curtains or cotton bedsheets. You took four quarters from our Mexico Vacation Jar and left for the laundromat. I saw the static shock you as you turned the doorknob.

~

You picked them up after dinner, along with two six-packs. We were slightly drunk when you plastered them against the glass and said look, we can finally do it with the lights on. This reminded me that I wanted to string Christmas lights around the rod, then drape the curtains over them, creating a gauzy purple glow. Kinky, you said. So we fished out a string of lights, untangled them, then looped them around the curtain rod, singing Deck the Halls and spilling beer on our jeans. What I wanted to say was we are so happy, we should die so we don’t have to be scared and unhappy tomorrow. But I didn’t because I knew doing so would bring tomorrow anyway.

~

The next morning we tried putting up the curtains hungover. I think you were ashamed of our silliness the night before. You clipped your movements so they were angular and sharp. The stitching is already coming apart, you said as if the low quality disgusted you. Again I wished we were rich and spent our Sunday afternoons shopping instead of bartending and writing blogs for start-ups. You would choose beautiful curtains and we could be happy in this life that we share.

~

The curtains did not fit over the Christmas lights. We tried for forty-five minutes before stripping them from the iron rod and letting them fall into tangles.

~

We abandoned the apartment for the afternoon, the curtains a pile of soft purple on the floor. We went to Tops, bought heaps of ramen, eggs, and vegetables, planning an enormous stir fry to fight the hangover. You needed shampoo and I remembered toothpaste. By the time we checked out, the bill was $77.93, almost $30 overbudget. We walked home deflated, knowing we spent too much but could not take it back.

~

It is sunset, dinnertime, when the curtains are finally up. In the flutters of evening wind, they seem both mysterious and adolescent. Like a symbol in a coming-of-age movie, where a female protagonist will lose what her parents call her virginity to the wrong boy. This will be the greatest hardship of her affluent life, the only plot point bourgeoise screenwriters can produce. I imagine the actress as wispy with thick eyebrows, and I resent her and her fictional ilk. I stand there hating her, wanting to be her, until you yell food’s ready, come and get it. Then I shut the window and return to you.

 

Sheila Mulrooney has an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of journals including White Wall Review (forthcoming), The Wayfarer, Rejection Letters, and others. She is at work on her first novel.

After 70 Years in the Ice, Steve Rogers Visits Whole Foods by Emily Capettini

I.

The first time, he never makes it past the fresh produce section.

Steve stares at the leafy greens ivied against the far wall, radishes like low-slung suns through smoke. He recognizes the cloudy marbles of cabbages, tucked in with purple twins. Knuckles of ginger root and seven kinds of apples, piled high like pirate treasure. There are packages of fruit slices nearly as green as that liquor a grateful woman in Belfort had insisted they take. They’d known it, too, was a treasure excavated, cellar dust layered thick on the bottle.

One of his men had thrown up in a field later and Steve thinks that field must have grown lush since ’44, plants gone to seed decades-thick over where his boots sunk. How many ghosts layer there like impression fossils. Then, Steve had hoped to press his own mark on history, leave something for another to find.

Now, he fills his basket with fruits and vegetables bright enough to hurt.

 

II.

Steve goes to the far side of the store next time, back set against the lure of produce. He finds himself in front of a long case heaped with cheese like rubble. Steve rests his hand just inside the glass, the cool breeze a modern marvel he expects will never fade to ordinary. There are things that stay fixed, even in this new century: summers are still sticky in New York; a body still sweats.

He picks a few wedges of cheese, soft-rinded and dimpling under his gentle grip. They’d always been his favorites, even before hard cheeses disappeared overseas.

There was a day not long after Steve hung up that prop shield when he had to dart through a farm field gone fallow. He ducked into a cave, tried to remake himself small. Steve brushed against rough wood and found on top a cool surface that dimpled under his touch.

The search for him crossed back and forth in front of the cave, and Steve slivered off pieces of the cheese, letting each melt on his tongue until dawn or death found him first.

 

III.

Everyone gives him a double-take when they see him texting, as if a full keyboard would be any trouble after a telegraph. Steve sighs, wishing for the luxury of being unremarkable. The problem with imagination, he thinks, is it only looks forward.

If anyone ever bothered to ask him what he liked best about here, he’d say coffee. Not the lattes and specialty cafés that remind him he ought to see Rouen or Paris again, but the bins lining the aisles here, each tracing an origin that spirals somewhere else. He buys more than he can really drink, stacking it inside cabinets until his whole kitchen smells like coffee.

When he and his men were able to save up enough coffee for full cups to go around, they used to wish for another tomorrow, blowing away steam like birthday candles. Steve remembers the odd splendor of rest. The comfort of sitting squeezed together in whatever shelter they’d found or made. He never made his own wish, too aware of his still-new body’s mortgage.

There are thousands of tomorrows between him and those scraped-together evenings, now. Sometimes, Steve wonders if those wishes had been rationed out like the coffee, and his share is what finally pulled him free of that long sleep.

 

Emily Capettini is a queer fiction writer from the Midwest who loves a good ghost story. Her work has most recently appeared in places like Middle House Review and Lammergeier, among others. Her chapbook, Girl Detectives, is forthcoming from Porkbelly Press later this year. Find out more about her at emilycapettini.com.

The Blob by Karissa Venne

I was chopping onions when the blob materialized in my kitchen.

I turned, and the blob was there, tucked in a corner by my fridge. I yelped, dropped my knife, and backed into the counter, its edge rocklike against my spine.

The blob didn’t react. It stayed in its corner, pearly and jiggling. Its amorphous body was opaque, like a giant egg white. It was as small as a basketball or a toaster or a Maltese dog. Every few seconds, I thought I could spot a pair of eyes or a mouth, but then it would shift, and the features would fade. It was a bleached-out Flubber, a mercurial creature of my very own.

A normal person would have shooed the blob away, attacked it with bleach, called their landlord or animal control. But I wasn’t normal, or at least, not in a normal stage of my life. I was 21, newly graduated from college, and I lived alone. I’d metamorphosed from a fledgling surrounded by warm, laughing bodies to a solitary and apathetic adult existence, the stuff of nightmares. There were days when I didn’t talk to a single person unless I ran into one in the office bathroom.

So I welcomed the blob. I cooked an omelette and ate it, studying my new houseguest. Before leaving for work, I filled a bowl with water and left it on the floor, figuring all creatures need hydration. Eight hours later, I found the bowl drained and the blob sporting a lovely translucence, like liquid soap or plastic wrap.

The next morning, the blob was opaque again, and though I’d struggled through high school biology, even I could figure this out. I left out another bowl of water and that night, the blob was clear again. As I fell asleep, I wondered how it drank. Did it have a mouth I couldn’t see?

Days passed. The blob huddled in its corner, its jiggling mass a comfort to me. It was always moving, but never getting anywhere. I watered it every morning and evening, the routine cemented like teeth-brushing. The blob was always translucent now.

I tried feeding it. I offered it sliced banana, spoonfuls of yogurt, handfuls of cereal. I experimented with kale, salted cashews, a chicken breast. I even tried a poached egg, figuring it might appreciate the egg’s blobbiness, remind it of itself.

The blob didn’t touch any of it. In my cubicle, instead of compiling spreadsheets, I’d Google things like, “what to feed a frog” because it felt like the pet closest to my blob. My blob. Somehow it had become mine.

That was when I wondered if my blob was like a plant, and needed photosynthesis to survive. If that was the case, I was worried, terrified really, as my blob had chosen the darkest corner of my kitchen to habitate.

That night, I dragged a cushion from my couch to the kitchen floor, sat across from my blob, and ate with my plate in my lap. After a few nights of this, my blob jiggling in agreement as I complained about my day, I finally touched it.

It was wiggling like usual, the movement even lovelier up close. I lifted a single finger. As I reached, my blob jiggled faster, almost vibrating.

My finger brushed the blob’s surface and it was exactly as I’d imagined: cold, smooth, and pliable, like gelatin. Our contact filled me with confidence. I moved to grip the blob with both hands, imagined pulling its entire body toward me. But instead, it shuddered and flattened onto the kitchen tile, trying to hide.

My blob was scared of me.

I woke up the next morning optimistic: I’d proven my blob could move. That day, I placed its water a foot away.

At work, I was filled with a jittery anxiety, as if I’d downed four coffees instead of three. Was I right? Would it move? I ached to leave my cubicle.

That night, I found my blob in its corner, but with the bowl of water drained. I congratulated it, and it jiggled faster in response.

Each day, I moved the water bowl further, and my blob drained it and returned to its corner. After a week, I placed the bowl in front of my kitchen window, sun streaming through the panes. I bounced out of my apartment and spent hours daydreaming about my blob. No one at work noticed. That was the problem with my life then, nothing I did made any impact.

I imagined my Blob, capitalized in my mind now like a true name:

Dragging itself to the window, slurping its water, and finally soaking up the sunlight it craved.

Transforming into a small doughy person, greeting me with open gelatinous arms each night, and talking in a gurgling language only I could understand.

Evolving somehow, infusing color into its viscid insides, dashes of bright pinks and purples, dots of yellows and oranges, bursts of blues and greens, like one of those bioluminescent sea creatures in National Geographic.

So convinced I was of this fantasy, that what happened instead took a moment to register. The Blob was indeed in front of the window when I returned home. But something was wrong.

It was a puddle on the kitchen tile. Completely still, no jiggling, not even a quiver. I rushed to its side, placed my palm against it, and felt a warm, hardened, plastic-like surface. It smelled acrid, wrong.

Peeling it from the floor, I held the flattened Blob to my chest, its hard edges poking my arms. I waited for the Blob to rouse and transform into its usual lump, prove it was hiding like the last time, only faking, what a great joke.

But my Blob didn’t budge. I’d coaxed it toward the sun, overheating its innocent goo body, liquefying it. I’d reduced my beautiful, effervescent Blob into an object.

And I was alone again.

 

Karissa Venne (she/her) is a Digital Resource Development Editor at Oxford University Press who lives in Western Massachusetts with her soon-to-be wife and their epileptic kitten. She received her MFA from The New School, has a story published in F(r)ictions Dually Noted, and one forthcoming in Pure Slush’s Lifespan Vol. 2: Growing Up.

Bill Murray Terraforms Mars by Robbie Maakestad

When Bill Murray sets foot on Mars, he sets to work terraforming straightaway. That’s not to say he doesn’t first look up at the stars, bright spots of light arranged afresh within the celestial void, radiating down upon Martian meadows. After that briefest of glances up, Bill will deploy his terraform training—memorized and practiced these many years—but right now he’s still glancing up and thinking ever so briefly about how he wouldn’t have aced his terraform test, sped into space, and stepped out upon the red planet had it not been for his grandmother, Mary Agnes, who instilled industry and economy through the assignment of daily chores. If young Bill ever so much as protested his allotted workload, Grandma-Murray lobbed this axiom at his ears: “All play and no work makes Billy-boy a jerk.” And so young Bill had set about sweeping the front sidewalk, dusting between the banister rail-posts, and gathering trash from the bins about the house. On Mars, as Bill first hefts his terraformer while looking up at the stars—but before he flicks the “Grass” switch—Bill will think back to his grandmother’s finest qualities: her patience, her exactitude, her laser focus on the most banal of labors. Before he begins his terraforming, Bill will remember how her nimble fingers slipped the tiniest of colored beads upon her needle, how that silver barb dipped and rose, coursing with exactitude, and how she’d done her best to teach him to do the same. “Here,” she’d say, handing Billy a single bead of the bluest hue. “Look through the center hole and the world opens up on the other side. Stick the needle in one motion, and pull tight. Repeat, repeat, repeat. One motion, Billy. Creation requires the precision of minutiae.” And Billy had tried to be precise, really he had, but he’d always ended up with a Band-Aid on his index finger, a spot of blood blooming up beneath the gauzy pad, swirling outward, when pressed, like the arms of a galaxy. That single bead had stuck in Bill’s mind, though, for as he looks up from where he stands on Mars, before sweeping his terraformer, before turning arid regolith into fertile loam, before sprouting green grass from red rock, Bill’s eyes will affix upon Earth—that tiniest of blue beads stitched up within the patterned heavens—and only then will he understand his grandmother’s lesson.

 

Robbie Maakestad is a Senior Features Editor for The Rumpus and an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is writing a biography of place about Jerusalem’s City of David archaeological site. He has been published or has forthcoming work in Boulevard, The Normal School, Essay Daily, and The San Diego Union-Tribune, among others. Follow him @RobbieMaakestad.

The Cake You Bake Your Father is Not a Cake at All by Sara Torres-Albert

Writer’s tip: Panic-bake this story on your oven’s highest setting the afternoon after your dad’s birthday for best results.

INGREDIENTS:

Whatever dregs of groceries are left from last week’s haul. You have no time to shop.

PREPARATION:

Step 1: Bring your batter to a boil

Complete this step while beating stiff peaks into cream cheese like the froth of rabid waves. The kind that pitched your father’s stomach on the days he’d shell out a hundred bucks for two spots on a fluke boat and you’d dredge up nothing but barking sea robins as he floundered about the cabin, slipping the crewman a fifty to hook a fish on your line. The frosting will basically be meringue, and the toothpick you run through the yellow cake you pull from the oven will tell you it’s still soupy in the middle. The top will begin to burn. 

Notice your garbage bin eying your not-cake wantingly. Hurl your creation inside.

Tell yourself cookies mail better anyway. Cookies send a better message, too. Cookies say, See? I didn’t forget your 60th, and I totally didn’t blank on what to get you. Cookies are an act of love.

Step 2: Cream the butter until your heart aches

Settle on your go-to chocolate chip and leave three sticks of butter out to sit. Remember your mother won’t eat the cookies you send—not with her recent health kick. Notice the butter in its wax sleeve like a plaque-caked artery. If you know anything about your father it’s that his cholesterol has stunned three doctors and he’s compensated with fish oil and Alex Jones miracle pills ever since. Grate your teeth against the thought that maybe cookies don’t say I love you at all. Maybe if you really loved your father you would buy him an exercise bike or a juicer, an Apple Watch. At least you’d cut the sugar down by half. 

Step 3: Whip your flaxseed until it achieves egg-like consistency

The juicer you find on Amazon will be on backorder. Relent. Swap the butter for a vegan recipe by a mommy blogger with four and a half stars. Blend the wet ingredients first—the coconut oil and brown sugar, the vanilla extract. Check the yield and wonder what kind of lunatic writes a recipe that makes eleven cookies anyway. Mutter, The same kind of lunatic who puts flaxseed in dessert, under your breath. 

Tell yourself you’ve got to stop talking to yourself. Your father talks to himself and it’s always given you that fluke boat angry ocean churn, the same one you got on road trips when you’d finished telling a story and his twitching silence told you he was somewhere else, that he’d been somewhere else for some time. Stir over where it is he goes, where it is he’d rather be so badly he can’t help but beam up out of his skin without you. Your cookies will be a homing beacon—Earth to dad. Come in, dad. You’ve left someone behind.

Step 4: Mound your dough into generous golf balls

Admit you’ve felt weird toward your father since long before the abductions started, since half of every sentence your mother speaks to you became a dig at him after you asked if they were still in love at the movie theater when you were eight and she chewed the straw of her root beer through the previews and exhaled no. Swallow the fact that sometimes you’d like to tell her to shut up about him but you never summon the bile. So instead you let them wage their silent war tied up in birthday Apple Pays and holiday deposits, each extra twenty dollars that detonates in your bank account a declaration of who loves you more.

Think how fucked up it would be to send your father cash. More fucked up when you consider he just mailed your Christmas check. The money you’d send your father is a cash back guarantee. Plus twenty dollars? Plus fifty? Realize you don’t know how much you’d give him but you don’t know how to fucking bake either. Test your cookies to find that they are mineral oil and beeswax—food grade, sure, but better as table varnish than birthday treat. 

Say, Vegan cookies aren’t cookies anyway, talking to yourself again. Toss them out with the cake.

Step 5: No Guinness? PBR is fine

The post office closes in two hours, so find a nice beer bread recipe, done in forty minutes with prep. Recognize that your bread is a cheek gnawed with regret that your father’s not the type of dad you can grab a beer with. Fold in the protest—it’s not like you want him to start drinking. Just that maybe you’d have more to talk about if he did.

Step 6: If you can’t make your own salt, store-bought is fine

As you mix your ingredients, realize you haven’t spoken to your father in months. Guilt is the marrow that will weigh your bones before you remember he’s got your number too and you never know what to say to him anyway. Still, try him hands free and listen as the line cuts short. There will be no recording on his voicemail, the affectless beep alone. Your call will smack of the split lip you earned catching your face on the dining room table when you were five. Wonder if your father cries over you the way you’re crying now, whisking your salt into the batter. Wonder if he’ll recognize its tang.

Step 7: Season garbage with bread to taste

After twenty minutes in the oven, remove your bread to find the boule too sticky, your kitchen flourless. Feed your un-bread to the mass grave and buy an Amazon gift card for twenty bucks more than your father last gave you. Type, Happy belated, into the obligatory note space. I hope you buy yourself something nice.

Maybe he’ll get the juicer after all.

 

Sara Torres-Albert is a communication consultant by day, associate editor for the non-partisan youth vote initiative VoteThatJawn.com by night, and a fiction writer in the minutes in between. She lives in Philadelphia with her boyfriend and two cats.