A Monograph of Florida Man Headlines by Allie Marini

Introduction

Tell the joke & laugh, but remember: There But for the Grace of God Go I.

Components

Florida Man Arrested Outside Olive Garden for Belligerent Eating of Pasta

Stay drunk. It’s easier to forget where you are, how little you have. Eat like an animal, shoveling handfuls of someone else’s leftover spaghetti into your mouth with your hands, because forks are a luxury. Wolf it down, this is wilderness, & your Styrofoam container will be taken away once you’ve made restaurant patrons uncomfortable with your aggressive eating & the loud articulation of your misery, unfiltered. The bottle allows you to howl about the pain of what you lack. You are given a paper towel to wipe your face before they take the remnants of pasta from you. This small dignity, that you are allowed.

Florida Man Threatens to Destroy Everyone with His Army of Turtles

I need to leave now or you will all be sorry you fucked with the saint, he yells, but it’s only a legitimate emergency once you’ve made a scene at Starbucks. Take refuge at 7-11 instead. Tell the turtles, Be patient. Our time is coming. Try to articulate your desolation, all the places where humans have failed you. Turtles know all about encroachment, about habitat destruction, what it’s like to try & cross roads aswarm with fast-moving cars in search of safe marshland. Be careful you don’t end up cracked-shell in the breakdown lane, dying slowly & unnoticed under pounding sunshine.

Florida Man Attacks Parents Over Pork Chop

After the hunger years, a square meal seems a trap. Too good to be true. It must be poison disguised as meat & potatoes. An increase in paranoia in the ravenous weeks leading up to a meal is not mental illness—correlation is not causation. What starts off as a plate of pork chops ends in a mother glassed over the head & a butcher knife to the chest. No gift can be trusted. No meal without a string attached, a fishhook through the cheek.

Florida Driver Finds Boa Constrictor in His Car Engine

Well, what do you expect of an invasive species with no natural predators, perniciously changing the ecosystem in unpredictable ways? Here, everything in the environment—& the waters surrounding us—is actively trying to kill us, predating the inhabitants (themselves an invasive species, with no biological checks-or-balances), in a fight for domination of the earth.

Florida Man Confesses to Cops, Says ‘Jesus Told Me To’ Drive Ferrari 360 Off Pier

The Lord wants you submerged under 30 feet of saltwater. Wants you to drown the Ferrari 360 preaching, I have made it. Heavy is the head that wears this crown. He tells the arresting officer, Money will be irrelevant in two days, remember to smile, because he has been taught that true wealth is in the afterlife. What happens on earth is just marking time. Remember to smile.

Rattlesnake-Carrying Florida Man Claims to Be ‘Agent of God’

Armed with 7 feet of gentlemanly venom, who’s to say he’s wrong? The rattlesnake is relocated to its natural environs by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission. The homeless Agent of God will not be relocated. The wilderness of the street is his natural environ. There are no commissions dedicated to his safe release.

Florida Man Electrocuted Trying to Remove Bird from Power Line

Even your meager attempts at kindness will become a punchline.

Florida Man Accused of Attacking Mom When She Wouldn’t Dress His Mannequin

At the intersection of domestic violence & loneliness, find a mannequin. Love this female fob of plastic & metal articulation better than the flesh & blood mother who made you. Stuff dumplings in her mouth. See if she smiles showing her teeth.

Florida Man Calls 911 To Get Out of His Fast Food Shift, Cops Say

Your poverty—& the labor system that exploits it—is not an emergency.

Conclusion

You know these are not isolated incidents. You just know it’s in everyone’s best interests to pretend that these things only happen Over There, in someone else’s snake-riddled backyard, full of gators & invasives & clear-cutting & education budget cuts, the land of tourist dollars & minimum wage. You knew all that when you laughed at the uneducated populace & how easy they are for tyrants to manipulate. How easy it is to buy into poison when you were bottle-fed on a steady diet of nothing. Poison will fill your belly, if only for a moment before the toxins take down first the limbic system, then the cardiorespiratory system, leaving you thrashing in the scrub pine straw. This is how invasives with no natural predators gain dominance over an ecosystem. The same way a strangler fig throttles from the roots, leaving the branches to whither & die, even in full sunlight.

Citations:

1. https://thetakeout.com/florida-man-arrested-olive-garden-eating-pasta-1833970785 Accessed April 11, 2019.
2. https://www.clickorlando.com/news/florida-man-threatens-to-destroy-everyone-with-army-of-turtles-police-say Accessed April 11, 2019.
3. https://www.newsweek.com/florida-man-stabs-father-pork-chop-acidic-1390032 Accessed April 11, 2019.
4. https://www.wfla.com/news/florida/florida-driver-finds-boa-constrictor-in-his-car-engine/1699749944 Accessed April 11, 2019.
5. https://www.thedrive.com/news/26006/florida-man-told-cops-jesus-told-me-to-drive-ferrari-360-off-pier Accessed April 11, 2019.
6. https://www.wthr.com/article/rattlesnake-carrying-florida-man-claims-be-agent-god Accessed April 11, 2019.
7. https://www.wthr.com/article/florida-man-electrocuted-trying-remove-bird-power-line Accessed April 11, 2019.
8. https://www.wsbtv.com/news/trending-now/florida-man-accused-of-attacking-mom-when-she-wouldnt-dress-his-mannequin/935524590 Accessed April 11, 2019.
9. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/state/florida/article228487694.html  Accessed April 11, 2019.

 

Allie Marini is a cross-genre Southern writer. In addition to her work on the page, Allie was a 2017 Oakland Poetry Slam team member & writes poetry, fiction, essays, performing in the Bay Area, where as a lifelong Floridian, she is always cold. Find her online: www.alliemarini.com or @kiddeternity.

Nine Fictions by Scott Garson

1. MALL

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

 

2. LOOSE

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

 

3. KINDERGARTEN

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

 

4. HIGH

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

 

5. STORY

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

 

6. BUREAUCRACY

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

 

7. SPELL

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

 

8. NIGHTSWIMMING

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

 

9. HISTORY

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

 

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

Modern Ghosts by Chelsea Stickle

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

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

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

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

 

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

Girls in the Woods by Madeline Anthes

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

Of course, you can’t know that now.

You just know he’s late.

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You will become the earth itself.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

She says you make people around the office feel uneasy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I trust you.”

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

“Caroline told you, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was she like?” Joy asks now.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Being the Murdered Girlfriend by Cathy Ulrich

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

Your boyfriend will say: I was just playing around.

He’ll say: I didn’t mean to.

He’ll say: The gun just went off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Thermoregulation by Amie Souza Reilly

On the evening news a droning man described another atrocity, and the banality of his delivery aroused a fury in her. Didn’t he see that the world outside was crumbling? But when she looked out the window expecting to see fissures in the ozone layer they weren’t there. Everything appeared the same, though she knew it wasn’t. She opened the front door to test the acidity of the rain and inhaled to see if disillusionment had a scent. The smell was acrid and somehow cold, like a dead battery, and when it opened her just wide enough, the broken world throbbed in.

It entered her body with the chill of a thousand knives and untied the knot in the fibrous chord of her neck. Her skull and its contents fell slack. She yelled at her husband.

You need to help more around the house.

This made more sense than saying, I think I have swallowed the pain of the world and now my insides are breaking, because she knew that if she told him the truth his eyes would pry down her throat and probe the insides of her ears trying to determine whether or not she was being metaphorical. That was not what she wanted. What she wanted was for him to press his ear against the tattoo on her back and tell her if he could hear the wind change. As she shook her heavy head, tiny shards like shattered glass clinked down her spine and landed in a glimmering heap in the bowl of her pelvis.

The cacophony of splintering and tinkling stirred a gang of homunculi. Their movements ground grooves into her bones and left u-shaped indents on her organs. She felt each one separately: from beneath her uterus, a sad-faced woman with bags under her eyes and fear in her jaw rose to pull out the shards that had wedged in the cracks of her pubis bone. Above her, a bearded ex-husband stopped swinging from the ball joint of her hip to smoke a Parliament Light. He flicked his ashes into the pile of glistening splinters. Further down, a beautiful dead wife sat on her kneecap, while up around her heart a sick mother clung tighter to a rib beneath her left breast. And in the hollow of her shoulder, a man-shaped shadow with an afro sat on his motorcycle, whistling through blades of grass he’d stuck between his thumbs. When he revved the engine, the skin stretched across her clavicle quivered.

Instead of responding to her outburst, her husband put his drink down on the table and rubbed the stubble on his chin. His silence panged her breastbone like a mallet against a gong, so she told him a story. Sometimes the past makes sense of the present. The story she told was about the hurricane that blew toward their split level when she was six. Where beneath a sky striped with yellow and grey she drew chalk kittens on the concrete patio and everything was damp even though the rain still hung above the trees. She told him about the fat spider that skidded across one of her drawings, straight toward where her mother was stacking plastic chairs and how, without a word, her mother stomped on it, releasing a million tiny babies from her body, scattering like fireworks.

Beneath her skin, the world raged and her tiny beings worked between the smoothness of her organs and the softness that protected her from falls. Their movements felt like sobbing. Perhaps she could have pressed her hands across the top of her belly, smoothed the ripples of her thighs, quieted them all with the warmth of her palms and the sound of her blood, but she was tired. Instead she leaned into her husband, still upright on the couch, placed his hand on her flesh and whispered, Can you feel them? But he was already asleep.

She lay awake next to him and waited. When the cold air of the angry world warmed to match her body temperature, a hornet buzzed in her ear. Perhaps the only way to carry the fury of the world inside is to inhale the peace of night. With her steady breath, the darkness knitted together a lullaby that sounded like whales and mothers and scythes cutting through wheat. The tiny woman beneath her uterus and the dead wife came together and shook hands, then began to build a tower out of the broken glass. The mother on her rib whispered words of encouragement from above. Inside the tower, the ex-husband and the man-shaped shadow rode the motorcycle in circles. The night formed a crust that encircled the warming anger of earth like layers of shale, hard but fragile. Her grandparents had lived on a lake that held a monster in its depths so she’d learned to swim through thick waves without being afraid.

The grey of a new day retightened the knot in her neck so her head perched between her shoulders once again. When it did, the taste of honey appeared at the back of her throat. Inside her rippled warmth, and the dead wife and the tiny woman admired their shining tower. They wiped their hands on their thighs, kissed each other goodbye, and the fearful woman, whose hair had turned grey, went back to resting under her womb, and the dead wife slid back beneath her kneecap. Still high above, the sick mother relaxed her grip, slept in the curve of her rib. And the grass-whistling ghost and the bearded ex-husband were quiet as they climbed out from the twinkling tower and moved back to the load-bearing places of scapula and hip bone, while the angry earth reduced itself to a quiver in her bowels.

The woman watched the worm-like twitches of her husband’s sleeping eyelids. She put her face near his and smelled the musk of tenderness, licked the salty corners of his lips. Pulling his earlobe gently, she widened the tunnel of his hearing and whispered to him a story about the time she lived next door to a woman whose daughter had died and left behind a fat-fingered infant with the kind of smile that only curls up at the edges. She told him that her neighbor raised the boy as her own, let vines of wisteria grow into the windows and a family of raccoons make a home of her attic. Standing on her porch, holding a brown mug of brown coffee, the neighbor pointed to the patinaed drainpipe the raccoons were using as both a slide and a ladder, then to the hole that was only half hidden under the eaves. She yelled across the lawn to anyone who might listen, Do you see them? Ever? Do hear them at night? but she wasn’t disgusted or angry or afraid. She was protective of them, even proud.

 

Amie Souza Reilly is the Feminist Fridays blogger for The Adroit Journal. Her work can be found in SmokeLong Quarterly, Pidgeonholes, and Gravel, or at www.amiesouzareilly.com. Follow her on Twitter @Smidgeon227.

Bears by Tom Jenks

The bears grow bolder, crossing the main road, hanging around the petrol station. Yesterday, we watched one cram his giant paw into a disposable plastic glove whilst the others looked on. When our stipend arrives, we will buy yellow cream, for the storks, and apples, for the bears. Cooking apples are best, good and heavy, thudding on the forest floor.

 

Tom Jenks’ latest book is A Long and Hard Night Troubled by Visions (if p then q, 2018). Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Ambit, and Flash. He edits the small press zimZalla, specialising in literary objects, and lives in Manchester, UK.

Trees Like a Way Out by Jennifer Fliss

All right, so I needed gas and rolled into the Sunoco practically on fumes and next to me was Bob Ross. And I’m like, hey, hey man, Bob? Bob Ross? He nodded. Look at those trees, I said. Tell me about those trees, and Bob Ross was like I’m just filling my gas, friend.

He was filling up with Premium. Must be something, to live like Bob Ross. I ran into the food mart quickly, keeping my eye on Bob through the window. I slapped down a ten on the counter. Pump three please. Under the harsh lights and amidst the aroma of slowly churning hot dogs I realized maybe I was dead and this was a kind of waystation to heaven and Elvis and Jesus would pull in any moment. Gran always said she saw Jesus in things: toast, tea, Target.

I ran back out and selected the cheapest gas. Bob Ross was at the pump next to mine and his car was a 1985 Plymouth Voyager. You know that minivan? The one with the wood paneling along the side. It was just like Gran’s living room – minus the crystal bowls of Werthers and Precious Moments dolls. But the wood paneling. Sometimes it felt like those panels were prison bars. She eventually had the paneling taken down and after that I’d push my cheek up against the cold plaster of the wall and feel free and soothed, but like something was missing. Gran raised me after my parents left, together. I spent hours watching PBS while my grandmother knit in the corner. She made scarves that never ended. She didn’t say much except to say the following things: Are you capable of anything? What do you want to be when you grow up? Why don’t you apply yourself in school? But then, once she gave me some paints and a book of fancy paper just because. She’d run her fingers along the paint when it dried and pulled her lips into a line and said she liked my use of textures

One of my first paintings was of a great big tree with a nest of robins in a high branch. Robins don’t nest that high up, Gran said, but she hung it on the fridge anyway, where it still was, nearly twenty years later, hidden beneath coupons, childhood school photos of my mom, and reminders of doctors’ appointments long passed.

I said, hey Bob Ross. Your car reminds me of my Gran and he was all offended and I was like no, no, in a good way. You know those Precious Moments dolls? I said. With their eyelashes and cow eyes?, he asked. Yeah, I said. Those. I didn’t mean it like that but I didn’t think Bob Ross wanted to hear what I really meant.

Bob Ross was quiet for a moment and then was like, yeah. They were cute.

I loved watching your show when I was a kid, I said, toeing my shoe along some old gum, suddenly shy.

Thanks, he said and began to clean his windshield. Small rivers of dirt water fell off the ends as he completed one line then the next. Even finer strips of dirt were left on the windshield. It went dirt, clean window, dirt, clean window, so that when Bob was satisfied, he replaced the brush into the murky water bucket by the pumps. I looked at the not entirely straight lines in his windshield and thought, this was an artist.

He didn’t say anything else and I felt compelled to fill the space of silence. The trees, you know. The little trees, you made it seem so easy.

Yeah? He paced by his pump, his dollars ticking away behind him on the screen.

Yeah, in the end, just those little marks made everything so beautiful. That’s art.

And I paused for a moment, heard the click of my own gas pump. Yeah, it is, he said.

Back in my car I realized: I just saw Bob Ross. I picked up my cell to take a photo but the Voyager was gone. But I did notice a shiny rainbow puddle where the van had been and believed it was beautiful, in its way, the way all toxic things are. I snapped a quick photo. Maybe I’d share it on social media. My Gran just got a smartphone, so I zipped the image off to her and hoped she’d be able see it.

 

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and will be in the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology. She is the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.

Signature by Nicholas Grider

Jack arrived with a metallic blue Sharpie and wrote his name on me as if adding his signature, signing a receipt. Underneath it he wrote my name too (spelled wrong and crossed out and spelled correctly with a smiley face) so whenever we were half-dressed in the half-dark together and I could trust it was just him touching me and no one else, none of his friends alone or in a group, and I could trust where his dry fingers would fall like the soft rubber of an old pencil’s stained eraser, and I could trust when, and could trust that I could follow his instructions and he would answer my questions, or at least the important ones, and I could trust we belonged to each other, that I was capable of belonging to someone. While we waited for the gleaming ink to dry before I let him lay me on my bed and press me into romance we sat half-dressed, kissing and being kissed, and I thought of how when I was young and slid under another surface I’d trail the other kids as we wrote stylized tags on telephone poles and neglected walls––we’d seen it on T.V. and that kind of ownership felt rebellious––and I kept in mind how Jack told me “they say silence is golden because is beautiful,” reminding me that being quiet added to my appeal, that mystery meant value and naming meant knowing, and it was only later that I asked him why he’d named us on my lower back close to my waist and a small constellation of moles, he told me that from now on, in our future of shadowy bedrooms, neither of us would need to worry about forgetting who either of us were, and that this was a sign of his love. Love, he said before his fingers caressed my lips to erase my reply, was a good kind of stain, and not as painful as a name.

 

Nicholas Grider is the author of the story collection Misadventure (A Strange Object, 2014) and the chapbook Forest of Borders (Malarkey Books, 2019). Their work has recently appeared in X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Five:2:One, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and elsewhere. They can be found apologizing for lots of things on Twitter at @ngrdr and, as of September 2019, at www.nicholasgrider.com.