Opossum by Michael Czyzniejewski

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

Mom had just died.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

My mom had just died, Marla reminded me.

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad said, “Sorry.”

“Mom’s not in there, too, is she?”

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

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

 

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

Eating Dandelions by Luz Rosales

The new girl can take her eyeball out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about people friends?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Doesn’t it hurt?” Bianca asks.

“Not at all.”

Bianca lifts her hand. “Can I…?”

A nod.

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

The bell rings.

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

***

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

 

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

Tradition by Benjamin Woodard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Season 34, Episode 1

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

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

 

Season 34, Episode 2

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

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

 

Season 34, Episode 5

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

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

 

Season 34, Episode 7

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

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

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

 

Season 34, Episode 9

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

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

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

 

Season 34, Episode 11

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

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

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

 

Season 34, Episode 12 (finale)

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

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

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

 

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

Call It My Signature Kill by Kristina Ten

When did I start leaving “Best,” off my emails?

Best, Greg. All the best, Greg. Thanks and best, Greg.

It wasn’t always a lie, though by the end I couldn’t type the word without the tips of my fingers starting to burn. Imagine wishing Jay MacArthur in global sales the best and actually meaning it. Or Johanna Wrigley with her long list of demands, every one of them tagged, impossibly, priority number one. Or Brian Warner from HR, who once told me to my face that I might improve my rapport with the team by including more friendly exclamation points in my emails.

How we say something is as important as what we say.

All my best to you and yours! Greg.

Hard to imagine, but it’s true: when I started at the firm, I harbored no ill feelings toward any of them. I was there to do the work and collect the checks, and I wasn’t closed off to the idea of making a friend or two, having drinks at our local, watching the game back at mine.

But then you get to know someone. And it’s Jay with the Bluetooth headset always in one ear, taking loud calls in the shared bathroom, closing the deal in the stall next to mine while I debate whether to relieve myself or hold it in, whether I want whoever’s on the other end of the line to hear or not. Not in the best interest of the firm, sure, but could that foul sound be my weapon in finally bringing Jay MacArthur down a peg?

I chicken out, of course. Sit and wait, tense from the waist down. Wonder if he sleeps with the headset in. Wonder if he wears it with his wife.

So what came first: realizing I didn’t wish good things for these people or realizing that it was working—the wishing, I mean? Now, I’m not ordinarily one for delusions of grandeur. But you can’t argue with the facts. I joined the firm, I sent the emails—best this, best that—and by all accounts, they all seemed to be doing really, really well.

Don’t get me wrong. When we met, they were doing all right. Brian Warner with his shiny new son and homemade baby food. Once he accidentally packed a jar of it into his own lunch and when he pulled it out in the break room, everyone laughed and awwed like, new dad, endearingly frazzled, and makes his own baby food, too. Goes the extra mile. Sweet potatoes and wet banana mashed lovingly by hand.

Like I said, doing all right. But then I join up, fire off a few bests in his direction, and Brian gets a promotion and starts rolling an Alfa Romeo into the company parking lot.

And get this—get this!—Johanna signs a publishing deal for a goddamn memoir. I watch her empty three packets of instant oatmeal into a bowl every morning and stare at the microwave as the seconds count down. What could possibly have happened in her life that’s worth paying to read about? I wonder if her manuscript editor, like her colleague, will suggest more exclamation points.

Don’t believe me yet? How about this: IT guy, Alan something, nice enough actually. Haven’t exchanged more than a few quick words since he got me set up on my first day. We get into a long email thread about a glitching office printer and hours later I find out he’s put in his two weeks’ notice. Why? Huge inheritance. From? A dead great-aunt he didn’t even know.

Best, Greg. Very best, Greg. Really, why don’t you just win the lottery already? Greg.

So here’s what I did: I stopped. Call it a test, to confirm or deny my suspicions. Call me a man of inquiry. It’s not a crime. Show me a single piece of documentation inside or outside the firm that requires me to sign off with “Best.” You can’t. It doesn’t exist.

Hi Johanna,

Please find attached the files you requested.

Greg

Greg. Greg. Greg, Greg, Greg! And just like that, the spells I had unknowingly cast over the employees of Centurion International began to wear off.

And it was satisfying. It was what I wanted. More than that, it was what they deserved.

Suddenly, Johanna starts talking less and less about her writing deadlines—of which everyone has been so supportive, by the way: “Two hundred pages by Monday? Well, you’ve simply got to cut out early! The firm will understand.”—and come to find out the publisher dropped her.

One day, I pull into work and see Jay’s truck parked in the spot furthest from the building doors. That ridiculous oversize luxury pickup, invariably gleaming, no matter the weather, as if under hot, bright studio lights. As I drive by, I see he’s shirtless and shaving, the driver-side mirror flipped down, his heavy chest pushed up against the steering wheel.

Me, I’m not heartless. I was just about to feel sorry for the guy when I saw the Bluetooth headset already lodged in his ear.

Yes, satisfying seeing them get put in their place. At first. But the mind is amazing in its ability to recover from minor setbacks, and sure enough, everyone was back to their regularly scheduled programming within the week.

Then there’s this new hire, Paul Pritzker. “Call me PP,” he says and makes no indication of joking, displays not a molecule of self-consciousness. And the worst part is: people do it! Out loud, in person, straight faced, on the phone. When a difficult client shows up on the roster, they say with confidence, “Don’t worry. PP’s the lead on that one. He’s got it under control.”

But I consider myself a measured man. Level headed, not prone to overreaction. Hey, let him be called what he wants, right? Who’s it hurting? It wasn’t until this PP sat on the corner of my desk—sat, his full body weight, on the corner of my desk—to carry on a bit of mid-afternoon small talk with Rachel, who sits at the desk next to mine, that I made the decision. Straw, meet camel’s back.

So what goes in my emails now? Not “Best,” and not nothing, either. That wide white nothing after the body of the email and before my name, Greg? Well, you know what they say: empty spaces yearn to be filled.

What we say is as important as how we say it.

Use your words.

Granted, I have to be smart about it. I can’t be so obvious. It takes a certain finesse, an understanding of human psychology, multiple meanings: something our friend Paul Pritzker clearly doesn’t have.

Let them think you’re wishing them luck:

Break a leg,

Greg

Or celebrating their successes:

You’re on fire,

Greg

Or hoping they enjoy that conference in Vegas you never get to go to, no matter how long you’ve been with Centurion or how many times you apply for a spot:

Have a hell of a time,

Greg

Yeah, a real hell of a time. Let them think what they want.

Then watch them pack up for the day, every employee, no matter who they are, grabbing the same assortment of objects: two things they’re addicted to (smokes, phone) and two things they think they’ll need later (keys, wallet).

Watch them pull out of the parking lot.

And watch it come true.

 

Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer of short fiction and poetry, and a 2019 graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in LightspeedBlack StaticAE Science Fiction, and elsewhere. Find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.

Now We’re Getting Somewhere by Claire Hopple

We agree to liaise at the apartment building. I picture myself shepherding you through the tour and already feel perturbed before I’ve parked.

We surveille the vestibule and await developments. You hang your arms over the railing and momentarily drop your head.

“This cruelty-free deodorant has turned out to be anything but,” you say.

This three-story brick complex is barbarous and listless enough to suit you. A distant television is the only sound. There are bike tire tracks on the walls opposite the mailboxes. All the trappings of a dwelling you would consider renting. Or at least looting.

The landlord or property manager or whoever arrives. She sedates us with small talk and you politely avert your eyes.

Her precious schoolmarm demeanor has little effect on me and it’s difficult to determine whether I should be proud of this.

She leads us up to the third floor.

“This dining nook is large enough to host a dinner party, if I can muster enough friends to appear,” you notice once we’re inside.

She runs through the floor plan and the numbers with you while I test the plumbing. I go to wash my hands but can’t figure out how to turn on the sink. I pull at things and twist certain parts but nothing budges. I look underneath it, on its sides, flip the wall switches just to be sure. I walk out and remain quiet.

The woman gets a phone call.

“How’s school?” I ask.

You look startled.

“Let’s find somewhere we can discuss this.”

I oblige.

We move into a bedroom.

“First of all, your enthusiasm is becoming a problem. If you must know, school is going okay. I have this…semi-respected professor who’s very complimentary of my work. But it seems as if he’s becoming senile so I can’t really take him seriously. I have to question all of it.”

The woman ends the call and joins us, walking to the far side of the room to open a window. While she’s leaning over to lift one, you focus on my face and whisper “defenestration” like you want me to push her out into the gravel lot below.

“That abandoned car in the ravine down there should be towed by next week,” she says as she turns around.

She gets another call. I wonder if she is some kind of real estate magnate.

“And are your parents still in that, uh, rough patch?” I squint at you.

You tell me about running into your dad at the grocery store and him not recognizing you. How he blamed it on you wearing a hat. That he disclosed he’d kept a secret pet hidden in the garage. Your mom unearthed the ferret behind the bucket of badminton equipment and later hissed at your dad when he attempted to recuse himself. Then how your mother retaliated by purchasing a used lifeguard chair from the internet and planting it in their pool-less backyard to survey the neighborhood and whistleblow at behaviors she observed but didn’t take to.

“Melodrama” sounds like a caramel-based candy bar, not the highly emotive scenes it contains, though both are perhaps equally fabricated, I think.

When we’ve seen everything there is to see, you shake her hand while saying, “Please accept this symbolic gesture.”

I glance back to observe her wiping the hand she shook with on her skirt. She probably didn’t mean for me to see that.

I pick up what looks to be a Girl Scout badge from the grass and pocket it.

You sum things up by saying you haven’t been all too pleased with your own behavior lately, and so, acting as the only adult in your household, you have grounded yourself.

“It’s customary to stay home unless there are prearranged appointments such as these.”

You are learning that adulthood is basically a series of deciding things but never really getting to decide anything at all.

You’ve probably made it back by now and are reheating a bowl of some leguminous dish in your microwave.

I didn’t get a chance to tell you about the trap door at work. The door leads to what may or may not have once been a cellar. Employees regularly submerge their senses there after talking to clients (and each other) all day. The place seems ideal for a cigarette break, but no one smokes, so we end up bringing down lukewarm LaCroixs and standing around with those.

There isn’t a trap door anywhere in my house but I wanted a similar environment so I’ve created what might be a sensory deprivation closet. There’s nobody to escape from in this setting, only myself, and that is plenty.

You probably wouldn’t have a clue what to make of this news anyway, and you’re an adult who’s grounded herself, so what do you know?

 

Claire Hopple is the author of Tell Me How You Really Feel (forthcoming), Tired People Seeing America, and Too Much of the Wrong Thing. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart, Heavy Feather Review, People Holding, Timber, and others. More at clairehopple.com.

Martin Moves In by Ellen Rhudy

It was the morning after their third date. Jenny woke with an odd heaviness on her stomach, as if someone were sitting on her. To stand she had to first roll on her side, levering herself towards the edge of the bed. A pinching at her crotch: a sheet of notebook paper rolled into a cigarette emerged, mucus stringing from one end.

Huevos coming, written in clumsy block letters she didn’t yet recognize as Martin’s. iPhone charger.

Jenny held the note a moment before laying it on the bedside table. She squatted with one hand on the mattress for balance. She bore down, imagining she could see with the pads of her fingers. This was not so different from recovering a stray tampon, she thought. She felt for a foot, for one of those damp hands that had grasped her own just the night before. Nothing emerged but another note: Nice try.

An hour later a GrubHub deliveryman arrived with an order of huevos rancheros, which Jenny ate. The next day an Amazon package addressed to a Martin Penderson, containing a phone charger and a pair of blue earbuds. Order pizza, said the note pressing into her underwear that night. Did my package come? Low batt. The block letters didn’t connect cleanly and it took her a few minutes to decipher his meaning.

You can have your package when you come out, Jenny texted. Order your own pizza. She appended a dozen dancing cat gifs and imagined his cries as his battery drained. Her back was so stiff that she felt as though her spine had been removed, knotted in two, and planted back beneath the skin.

She cancelled plans with her friends that night. Cancelled a date for the following day. Martin pummeled the inside of her stomach, his fists pressing against gleaming white marks shot across her skin. At times he settled on her bladder or pressed an elbow against her kidney; other times he went exploring, his fingers grasping for something he could never quite locate. He would come out when he was hungry enough, she thought, though a week passed with no movement.

When she’d used all but one of her vacation days she called her ex-girlfriend Sam, a doula. “Well fuck,” Sam said when Jenny opened the door to reveal her distended stomach, Martin’s elbow visible through her t-shirt. “You could try giving birth, if he were open to it,” she said as she pressed her palms on Jenny’s stomach, “but I wouldn’t if I were you.”

“You wouldn’t…?”

“It’s dangerous enough to have a baby, and he’s a full-grown man.”

Jenny stared at her stomach. She’d spent the morning laying on the hardwood floor, knees bent. She could feel her spine compressing into itself. “What about a c-section?”

A fist billowed against her stomach. Jenny watched Sam inspect its shadow. “There’s a support group for this,” she said before leaving. “Down the community center. That’s the best thing.”

That night Jenny tried to convince herself she wasn’t alone though she had not received a note in almost two days. She touched her stomach, felt the bulge of Martin’s head beneath her palm. She imagined the enveloping comfort of being inside a body that was not her own, of curling in the pliable constraints of a stranger’s womb. She inserted string cheese and slim jims as though they were tampons, then plucked free their empty wrappers with hesitating fingers. She snaked in the end of the iPhone charger and Martin pulled it like a lifeline, so fast that the square plug popped off and clattered to the floor. Jenny felt something like a bee sting, and ten minutes later her phone pinged.

I don’t like the cheese. As she stared at her phone a light began to dart across the floor, streaming from between her legs. Martin’s hands groped as though he was searching for some part of Jenny she hadn’t yet found herself. She emailed the support group leader, who wrote back, Yr body is a life-giving vessel, it is a home, you are a miraculous being. Hope 2 C U Wed at 8. She imagined this placid woman rubbing a gleaming parchment-thin stomach broken only by purple veins and the shifting contours of the body it held. On Wednesday night she jumped up and down in her living room, Martin laughing. She ran a bath and raised minor waves as she lowered herself, lay a towel across her stomach so she wouldn’t have to see his face pressing against her skin. Watching her limbs distort beneath retreating bubbles, she recalled reading that people loved water because it reminded them of their first lives.

Jenny took a deep breath and sank below the surface. Distantly she heard water splashing to the tiles. She waved her hands, stroked the smooth walls of the tub. She would have liked to turn over, to feel the rippled flowers on its floor. It must be nice, she thought, to float – to just float, and nothing more. To feel yourself held so secure. A damp bitterness would grip her when she emerged from the water to find her back still pinched, pain radiating around her left hip, feet crushed by the doubled weight of her body, but for this minute – she could have this minute. What’s the harm in her one minute, when Martin has all the rest?

 

Ellen Rhudy lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an instructional designer. Her fiction has recently appeared in The Adroit Journal, cream city review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, and Monkeybicycle. You can find her at http://www.ellenrhudy.com, or on twitter @EllenRhudy.

here is the whole history of us chapter one by Amanda Claire Buckley

we came out of the ocean. coming out of the ocean began with your attempts to get on land. you’d developed lungs. they were badly formed. no one had even thought to try to get on land before you. you said it was easier for you on shore. it felt better. i worried about you. come down from there. i called from the sea bed. i’m ovulating. we had a child who inherited both your lungs and my gills. i worried my gills made her lungs even weaker. you died above us not long after she came out of me. it was too bright. your scales and your eyes had nothing on your lungs and your lungs were barely there to begin with. your lungs were small half-formed pockets that were continually ripping and sloshing with salt water. you’d cough up the salt water on the beach. you’d tell me about how the sand got wet where you coughed. you leaked our home out of your lungs. you said the shore wasn’t so different from what we had down below. everything was just heavier up there. the sand. your body. our child is already swimming and your bones are where the light is. she asks about you. i tell her i remember very little. i tell her she will have to remember better. her brain is bigger than the both of ours. but she has your cough. i worry about her lungs. i put my ear to her chest and hope. our books say nothing about what to do with these new bodies. i have read them all. our child is already kicking. i can’t believe it. she launches her body above the break of the ocean. into the air above us. then she crashes back down into the dark weightlessness. back to where we live together. we’re a small family compared to the others. i beg our girl to please stay near the sea bed but she says it’s easier for her up there. in the air. i tell her not to go on shore. i worry. she says she’ll try not to go on shore but it’s just so easy. it’s so easy for her up there. away from me. she’s growing. she doesn’t need her mother to tell her anything anymore. she doesn’t need my gills. i weave seaweed in my hair to make myself look younger. our child is growing faster than the others. i write the books i wish i could read to her. our child is grown. she is tan. one day she is late for dinner and i call her and ask her if she’s alright and she tells me she’s seen your skeleton on a nearby beach. how long have i known she asks. i tell her i didn’t want her to learn this way and she tells me she thinks she’s going to stay on the beach above me from now on. it’s just easier for everyone this way. by everyone she means her and her new child. my grandchild’s lungs are so wide they can’t help but float at the surface of our world. i would cry but I have not evolved tear ducts yet. i give a lecture to the others about paradigm shifts. the others say the world is flat. i tell them i’ve seen feet.

 

Amanda Claire Buckley is a writer who was once a waitress who was once a philosophy student who was once a musical director for a sketch comedy troupe. Her work has been featured in X-R-A-Y, The Same, and Story Club Magazine. She’s currently an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and is a contributing editor for the literary journal Pigeon Pages. She can be found on Twitter @aclairebuckley and online at http://www.amandaclairebuckley.com

Port Town/El Pueblo del Puerto by Édgar Omar Avilés (translated by Toshiya Kamei)

After the tsunami, in the port town some mermaids comb their hair in bathtubs, others swim at the bottom of tequila glasses, drivers see them reflected in their rear view mirrors, housewives find them when they open cans of sardines, the radio interrupts cumbia and lets the enigma of their songs be heard, children find them while playing hide and seek, the parish priest assures that a swarm of them goes to church and seduces angels on rainy nights.

After the tsunami, the port town remained under water, and the mermaids are terrified that this human memory still lingers under the sea.

* * *

Luego del tsunami, en el pueblo del puerto hay sirenas peinándose en las bañeras, otras nadan en el fondo de los vasos de tequila, los conductores las ven reflejadas en los espejos retrovisores, las amas de casa las encuentran al abrir una lata de sardinas, en la radio la cumbia se interrumpe y se escucha el enigma de sus cantos, los niños las descubren jugando escondidillas, el párroco asegura que en las noches de lluvia un ejército de ellas va a la iglesia y seduce a los ángeles.

Luego del tsunami, el pueblo del puerto quedó sumergido, y a las sirenas les aterra que aún persista aquel recuerdo humano bajo el mar.

 

Born in Morelia, Michoacán in 1980, Édgar Omar Avilés has authored several books, including the story collections Cabalgata en duermevela (2011) and No respiramos: Inflamos fantasmas (2014), as well as the novels Guiichi (2008) and Efecto vudú (2018). His short stories have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including The Airgonaut, New Flash Fiction Review, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse.

The Candy Children’s Mother by A.A. Balaskovits

I had to send them away. They were children not born of me; they came rushing out between some other woman’s legs, one right after the other, and I was told she lost so much of her liquid that, as soon as they squealed in the air, she had dried up, all broken apart, and pieces of her blew away with the gust of their father’s grief. I had not known her, being so young myself when she died, barely out of my first bleeding, that when I was invited to her funeral, as the whole village was, I looked at the fractured remains of her bones with the curious pity one has for a dead animal. I expressed the appropriate grief to the father, my eyes cast down and my lips trembling, but he must have seen something genuine in me, though there was none at all, and he asked my father if I would be a suitable replacement. My father hand hesitated to grant the blessing, but when a bag of coins found their way into his fingers, my father’s hand was firm.

It was not so bad, at first. The children would not suckle from my breasts, but I warmed milk from the goat and dripped it into their mouths until their skin stretched over their expanding bones. They grew fast: the boy, Hansel, with his greedy appetite, and the girl, Gretel, long and thin like a branch, but whose arms knocked the china from the table if she did not get her way. They loved me, I suppose, as much as their father did, though when they saw my belly begin to expand they huddled together and whispered. When the rain forgot to fall on our small garden and the ground cracked, our lone goat’s milk refused to be coaxed, and the four of us knew what would happen: a fifth would devastate us. Two of us would have to go. We would all starve if we remained together. I have not been taught numbers as men are, but even I know that three is less than five.

My grandmother once told me that once you go into the forest, you come back a changeling. Or you don’t come back at all.

Gretel was awake the night I decided. Our small house had only one room for sleeping, and so all of us dreamed together. I climbed above their father and massaged his neck and behind his ear, as he likes. I pressed his hands to my belly and rejoiced at what we had created.  In his ear I whispered that I would not die with its birth, for I was made of stronger things than dust.

It was difficult, after we finished, to fall asleep, for that daughter who was mine but not mine stared at me all night, the moon reflecting off her dark eyes.

They cried, of course, the boy more than the girl – his emotions reflected his appetite, and he could keep neither in check. Their father cried as well when he held the door open, but I held my hand on my belly – my only bargaining chip – and he gave them a little bread and told them they were old enough to make their own way, though they were young, too young.

At night, I asked them to forgive me, though they were already gone.

*  * *

I bore him my daughter and I did not die. She suckles from my breast and squirms and laughs with all the happiness of a small thing. I see myself in her, that bit of myself that did not have to choose. With so few mouths to beg, the goat returned to its milk. We are saved.

Their father weeps for them, though quietly, as he knows it upsets me and my daughter. I don’t voice what flows in my veins: I do not want them to come back, not my long-armed daughter nor my voracious son. If they come back, it is I who will pay the price for saving us, I who will pay the price for desiring my own daughter over them, I who will pay the price for making the difficult decision, though it was their father who held the door. After a few months, I suspect that they have died out there, and while I feel the ache of loss, I am also relieved that I will not suffer their retribution, even though they would be within their right.

* * *

One night, a little time before the birth of the new year, as I sit on the little landing with my daughter wrapped up against my breast, showing her snow for the first time, I see two figures make their way towards the house. Rather, I smell them first, the sickly stench of rotten sugar clings to them like a death. The boy is so big he makes the earth shake with each step, and the girl, tall and thin as she always was, had a red glint in her eye, and her teeth, when I they are near enough to see, are filed to uneven spikes.

They are almost upon me, and I hold my sweet baby daughter to my breast as I stand tall to receive them, these children that I have sacrificed to save my own, these children who are mine and not mine, these children who now sniff at my arms and neck, looking for the place to bite.

 

A. A. Balaskovits is the author of Magic for Unlucky Girls (SFWP). Her writing can be found in Indiana Review, The Southeast Review, The Missouri Review, Apex Magazine, and many others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief of Cartridge Lit. On twitter @aabalaskovits.