The Falling Baby by John Jodzio

I caught a falling baby once. He hadn’t fallen out of a high-rise apartment window or anything fancy like that. It happened at a birthday party where some people knew me from the horse track and some people knew me from selling them horse drugs. There was a trampoline. Someone set a baby down on the trampoline. Soon the baby flew through the air.

I caught the baby like a football before he landed on a concrete patio. No one gasped and only one person clapped. This was the 1990s and sometimes babies flew off trampolines and sometimes their parents took horse drugs that made them want to dig hundreds of holes in their yard or not move from their couch for a week.

The baby had dark hair and brown eyes. He wore a onesie with a green turtle on it. He was not crying, but he was certainly breathing heavily. Hey little one, I said, cradling him in my arms, maybe this will only be a tiny blip in an otherwise unscarred life? Hey little buddy, I said, maybe this will only make you terrified of trampolines and not scared of the entire goddamn world?

I walked around the party, asked everyone if this was their baby. Fifteen minutes went by and no one said he’s mine. Fifteen minutes went by and I couldn’t help but imagine a future where the two of us moved into a house near a river with a backyard that would occasionally flood, a place where I would not sell horse drugs or regular drugs or at least would only sell them to supplement his college fund. 

“Why is my drug dealer holding my baby?” a woman yelled out.

This woman had feathered blonde hair and light blue eyes. I did not remember selling her drugs because I sold a lot of people drugs and usually tried to not to look anyone in the eye unless they made me.

“How do I know he’s yours?” I asked.

“How do you know he’s not?” she said.

I turned the baby toward the mother. I wanted to see if there was any sort of joy or connection between the two of them when they looked at each other. Instead of recognition or happiness, the baby yawned.

“I saved his life,” I said.

“I gave him life,” she told me.

She held her arms out and stepped toward me. Instead of handing the baby to her, I tucked him under my arm and sprinted toward my car. 

I did not get far. Two men tackled me and the mother pulled the baby from my arms. Some people at the party wanted to call the cops, but most of the people there did not want to lose their connection for their horse drugs. In the end, I was kicked in the ribs a couple of times and told to leave.

I sat inside my idling car as the party went on. The mother was holding the baby now, watchful, bouncing him up and down on her knee. He seemed fine? Soon the two of them went inside and I watched people jump up and down on the trampoline for a couple of minutes and then I drove back to my apartment that was not by the river and would never flood.

 

John Jodzio’s work has been featured in a variety of places including This American LifeMcSweeney’s, and One Story. He’s the author of the short story collections, KnockoutGet In If You Want To Live, and If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home. He lives in Minneapolis.

American Movie by K-Ming Chang

She was born in Hefei but only wanted to watch American movies that took place on coasts where it snowed. She’d never seen snow and I’d never either, but we invented for each other its taste: I said sweat and she said sunlight. I said she was wrong, that snow was just a kind of dandruff, something to brush off our shoulders in the morning. We were literal with each other. I love you so wide, she said, and slipped me her fingers, my legs lended over her shoulders. I love you so lean, I said, when we couldn’t afford our appetites. At fourteen we were both in factories, hers for skirts and mine for shirts. We matched in ways we’d rather not, like how her father died in an electric scooter accident, struck by a minivan full of mushrooms, and how mine died eating a poisonous mushroom on purpose because he’d read about it in the newspaper, a listicle about common mistakes made by children, and he believed reports that it had been painless. It was determined later, though I didn’t know how, that he vomited until his lungs collapsed. We both believed we would not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. She didn’t ride anything with two wheels and I did not eat anything I touched. Instead she fed me, powdered my mouth with instant noodle packets, fitted my teeth with slices of peach. I only ate what she gave me. Every swallow a trust exercise. She said she used to believe Americans only wore jeans. At the factory, she made denim skirts and came home with fists strangled blue. One time she brought me a zipper with nothing attached to it, a zipper as long as my arm. She fed it to me, unfurled it to the bottom of my belly. I swallowed its whole cold length, waiting for something to unzip inside me. Wondered if this was the waiting my father did. He used to grow tomatoes in an urn full of soil, teaching me when they were ripe, just before their skins sauntered off, watered into waltzing. At night, she repeats the lines of American movies. Hands up. I love you. Drop your gun and kick it to me. She tells me again she’s getting in trouble for dropping buttons on the factory floor, fistfuls for fun. She likes the sound they make, like rain. We wonder if snow clatters when it lands, if it weighs anything in the palm, if it falls like a flock of birds when they’re shot down, talons snagging on the sky, a seam everywhere I see. Probably not, I say, and but she says it does, it does. We stand outside and do not touch. We wait for a snow of mushrooms or beads of light or spilled buttons. For something to make a sound of us.

 

K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her debut novel BESTIARY is forthcoming from One World / Random House on September 29, 2020. Her poems have been anthologized in Ink Knows No Borders, Best New Poets, Bettering American Poetry, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. More of her work can be found at kmingchang.com.

Tiger by Gary Moshimer

The man at the door wanted to paint my face. Five bucks. He was homeless and hungry. He could buy a burger. Or a salad, if today made him hopeful and he wanted to live longer.

Kind people like you, he said. What to be? A lion? A cat? A mouse?

Tiger, I said.

Good one.

He rolled his wagon in. The wheels squeaked. It was dusty with rain spots. Next to the paints a fedora with feather, bedroll, water jug.

I sat in my favorite chair by the window. My only chair. Now I lived alone, wife gone with son.

Very good light, he said. He was so delicate my hair tingled. It tickled, and I suppressed giggles. He hummed a tune and said it was the brave tiger song; did I ever hear of it? He sang it to his son. But now his son was a grown man and he didn’t know where he went. He thought he was with the tigers, brave in the face of something.

I know where my son is, I said. Sometimes I see him.

Thank god.

I didn’t tell him I didn’t believe. Why would god leave me so alone?

When he was done he pulled a cracked hand mirror from the wagon and said, Have a look. He told me to growl. I said, Grrrr…I was the real thing, alright. I scrunched my nose and bared my little eye teeth. We hummed the brave tiger song.

I shook his hand and gave him a ten. I watched him pull the wagon down the street. I waved.

I went to the upstairs hallway to look in the big mirror. I smiled. I pictured my ex standing over my shoulder shaking her head. Still such a child, she would say. Grow up now. From there I went to the mirror in my bedroom, tilted the lamp this way and that. And then I went to the dusty mirror in the basement, the one with my son’s baby fingerprints I could never clean. This one scared me; the fear and emptiness. I tried to smile it away. I did that for an hour.

Later I decided to go out. I was thinking about a salad from Wendy’s. I drove around first, showing strangers my face. They waved and laughed but I thought I looked fierce in the rearview. I growled at the Wendy’s drive-thru girl and she giggled. I told her it wasn’t funny. I was proud and to be feared. I ordered the salad with raspberry vinaigrette.

As I waited I scanned my territory. I saw the wagon by the dumpster, He was on his back next to it. I drove over there. Someone, or maybe a gang, had painted him like an absurd clown and bloodied his nose and mouth. His hair was smeared with red paint. He groaned. I helped him into the car. I got the wagon into the trunk. I went back through the drive-thru and ordered a Frosty. I hissed at the girl when she asked if I still wanted my salad.

Back at my house I dabbed his wounds with napkins, spooned the chocolate cold goodness into his mouth. We sang to our sons and watched the moon.

Afterwards he painted me as a mouse and himself as a cat. I crept around my big empty house and waited for him to pounce.

 

Gary Moshimer has stories in Pank, Frigg, Smokelong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, and many other places.

Half the Joy by Ruth Joffre

After we agreed to a divorce, Ray and I continued to live together for weeks until she found her own place in town. Our apartment was a narrow one-bedroom barely bigger than a studio, with no room for a decent couch or a fold-out, so she and I continued to share the bed. At night, in those quiet hours between when we said goodnight and succumbed to sleep, I listened to her breathe and wondered how we ever made the mistake of believing we should be lovers rather than friends. One night, I confessed, “I always had a crush on Joyelle,” laying this information delicately beside her, like a blouse hung to dry on the back of a chair. Her head shifted on the pillow, just enough for her to trace my outline in the dark if she wanted.

“I knew that.” She turned again to the ceiling. “You didn’t hide it well.”

“Half of the joy of a crush is it being an open secret. Attempting to hide a blush. Knowing your friends can see through you. I wanted people to know,” I said, slipping momentarily into that old infatuated skin, indulging in the flush of my cheeks, the tingle of my lips, the sweetest ache in my tender chest. How many hours had I spent in high school surrendering to exactly this sensation? “I used to fantasize about what it would be like to press my lips right between her shoulder blades.” I lifted both hands, as if to frame the precise spot where the skin rippled with strength. “You know, because of all those tennis tournaments.”

Ray restrained herself from laughing. “She was like a foot taller than you.”

“That was part of the appeal! Didn’t you ever want someone who was so unlike you?”

“All the time,” she said, rolling onto her side, her back to me, though neither of us slept for hours. I pressed my hand into hers, remembering the night in senior year of high school when she dressed up as the lead singer of her favorite band for a Halloween party hosted by her neighbor, a theatre kid who attended a performing arts private school and didn’t know anyone from our class—how simultaneously delighted and petrified Ray was as she got dressed, donning a red wig, tucking for the first time. When Ray whipped her head around and lip-synced, “Come on, baby, be my bad boyfriend,” I was lounging on a bean bag chair, masquerading as a leather-clad bass player: aloof, indifferent, goateed. All night, I postured, practicing my guitar solos, encouraging Ray to sing, not realizing until we snuck back into her room and collapsed in a heap that this would be the night.

“You know how I told you I untucked because I had to use the bathroom? Well, that wasn’t the whole story,” she said, recounting how her neighbor, the budding thespian dressed as Elphaba from Wicked, waited on the other side of the bathroom door while Ray was untucking, then slid in when Ray opened the door and shut them inside together. “His cloak swept over the floor in an arc when he got down on his knees. He clearly knew what he was doing. I had to hide the green smears on my thighs from you the next morning.”

I hummed at the thought of a witch buried that deeply between my legs, willfully ignoring the fact that I was not the first person to feel Ray’s palm curve to the back of their head. Instead, I whispered, “I’ve always wanted to have sex in a theatre. Something about that velvet curtain.”

Ray understood this. “For me, it’s aquariums. Being surrounded by all that water.”

“And sea creatures,” I said, thinking of a turtle touching its flipper to the glass to say hello. What joy was in store for Ray when she at last fulfilled her dream. Every night after, we shared all our most carefully guarded fantasies, inventing lovers and alter egos that were braver, sweeter, and more limber than our true selves. In one of my alternate lives, I managed to charm a French pastry chef into setting aside her whisk, unbuttoning her jacket, and allowing me to pipe a line of bourbon whipped cream from her navel to her lips. In another, I accidentally got locked in a bookstore with a man on only our third or fourth date, and we spent hours reading our favorite poems to each other with a single flickering booklight before making love on one of the display tables.

“Which one?”

“Hardcover nonfiction.”

“That’s risky. You might end up fucking on a picture of the pope.”

“I’ll take that chance,” I laughed, because that was the future that lay in store for us: taking every chance for happiness, allowing ourselves to be pressed between two female bodybuilders or ravished underneath a giant redwood by a humble forest guide who knew exactly how to maneuver our bodies so we lay cradled by the ancient roots. We would plant gardens full of summer squash, beefsteak tomatoes, and nasturtiums. We would sip whiskey by the fire while working on an idyllic puzzle of ice skaters gliding through winter. We would do all these things and many more, and we would never feel betrayed or regret our wasted years, because now we were free, freer than we had ever been. This was our parting gift to each other.

 

Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast, which was longlisted for The Story Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon ReviewLightspeedGulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, The Masters Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle, where she serves as the Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House and co-organizes the Fight for Our Lives performance series.

I’ll Allow It Maybe Just This Once by Jeff Chon

Brett Lamonica had long feathered hair like Bon Jovi. He was three years older than me and his black denim jacket smelled like baby powder and Lucky Strikes. I used to see him smoking with the other metal kids off school grounds, spitting brown tobacco flakes off his tongue.

He wasn’t the first person to call me a Chink and far from the last, but he was definitely the only one who’d made it matter. It might have been the way he smiled, like he wanted me to think he was joking, even though he wasn’t. He’d put his arm around me when he said it, pulling me into a headlock, or he’d slap me on the back like it was supposed to be good-natured. But he wasn’t fooling anyone—not even himself. I’d once asked him to stop, and then he asked me what I was going to do about it, and that was the last time I asked him to stop.

I used to see him after school, bent over the boy’s room sink, making sure all the eyeliner was gone before he went home. He’d clench his eyes shut and scrub pink powdered soap into his eyelids. It looked so painful, the way he’d squint at the mirror, his bangs sticking to his cheeks.

* * * *

He once came over with his dad so he could apologize for squeezing a ketchup bottle down my shirt. He said he was sorry and then went home, and his dad and my dad smoked on the porch. I don’t know what they talked about, but I do remember getting hassled for making another boy’s father feel sorry for me. A couple days later, I was enrolled in Taekwondo, where a stocky, middle-aged man yelled at me in Korean and told my dad how sensitive I was. Other than that, nothing much changed. Brett kept hooking his arm around my shoulder, and the little fourth-graders never tired of snickering at my pathetic front kicks.

* * * *

Brett was the lead singer of Vendetta, a hair metal band he’d formed with these guys who were always telling him to lay off of me. I’d once heard them perform “When the Children Cry” in his garage. It was one of two times I’d ever thought about fighting back, about rising from the bicycle seat and pumping the pedals harder and harder as I barreled toward his bewildered bandmates, about leaping off the bike, crashing into him as my ten-speed crashed into one of the amps. But instead, we locked eyes as he held the mic against his lips and sang about a world healed by tears, and I rode away.

Looking back, Vendetta was a pretty good name for a band.

The only other time I thought about fighting back was when he crimped his hair. The only reason I didn’t was because he’d changed it back to normal the next day—at least that’s what I told myself. He also had a fat lip, which at the time looked really funny. I remember laughing at how dumb he looked, his eyes bloodshot from the pink soap, the water sliding off his overhanging bottom lip like some kind of drooling idiot.

* * * *

Sometimes, you realize your hands aren’t clean and you tell yourself it makes you sick, but that thing you’re feeling isn’t anything like sickness. It’s something else you can’t name, even though not naming it means you’re either stupid or cruel. And then you shrug and tell yourself there’s nothing else to really say about it, but you know that’s a lie.

* * * *

Brett graduated and I didn’t see him again until my senior year, a couple months after he’d been kicked out of the Navy. He asked if my parents were home, and I told him they weren’t. Then he told me he was here to fix the sink, and I told him I knew that.

So you’re working for your dad now? I asked. He didn’t say anything.

We walked into the kitchen so I could show him what needed work. You look different, he said. I told him I’d been working out, and he gave me a weird look because how else do you respond to that? He crawled under the kitchen sink and I went back to the living room to unpause Road Rash 2.

He finished up and I gave him the money my mom had left. I stood on the porch and watched him walk to the van.

Remember when you crimped your hair? I said.

He stopped, and chuckled, asked why the hell I’d bring that up, so I told him he looked like a fag. He took a breath and shook his head.

Yeah man, he smiled. My dad said the same thing.

He slammed the door and turned the ignition. Guns N’ Roses was in the tape deck. We locked eyes as he backed out of the driveway, and I wanted him to call me a Chink again, just one last time, like maybe he’d be the only person I’d make an exception for.

 

Jeff Chon’s most recent work has appeared in Juked, The North American Review, and The Portland Review. His novel, Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun, is forthcoming from Sagging Meniscus Press. 

Stones My Mother Carved from the Mountain by Noa Covo

As children, we would speak to the giants through the pipe that snaked up the mountain and blossomed into an ear trumpet miles above us. We never really had anything to say, so we resorted to niceties. How’s the weather up there? Seen any good birds recently? The blueberries are lovely this year.

I could never understand why we bothered doing it, why we leaned our heads into the massive, rusty pipe at the foot of the mountain and hollered sentences, just to hear them echo against the craggy peaks above. Our mother told us we did it because it was good manners. She’d take us by the scruffs of our necks as little ones and yell up into the pipe. She’d yell her baking tips, and her thoughts about chickens, and her opinions of our neighbors. Then she’d make us say something too, about nice rocks we found, about something we learned, about ourselves. We’d rest our little heads in the waiting crescent of the sun-warmed pipe, years later, we still had silver scars ringing the bottom of our chins.

The giants never replied, or at least, not in words we’d understand. My mother said they replied in other ways, in storms, in avalanches, in blessings. When her stomach billowed for a fourth time, she said it was thanks to the giants. When it collapsed back in on itself, she didn’t say anything at all. I stopped listening to what she told the giants after that. I told myself I was too old for pretending, but truth was, I was angry with the giants, and I was angry with my mother for forgiving them after what they did to her.

Our mother died on the longest day of the year, and sent the three of us back to the foot of the mountain to a grieving father and an open grave. The mountain had never left us. The three of us had tried to plant ourselves in willing soil, convincing ourselves we were just saplings waiting to grow. We would never grow, I thought, running dust through my palms, because we had never been alive, just stones our mother carved from the mountain. Our breath was nothing more than the heat of day slowly surrendering itself to the dark sky.

We buried our mother in the shade of the mountain. My siblings left the next day, claiming they had things waiting in places where the sky spread unchallenged. I stayed. I stayed and sat in the yard between the chickens, loss ballooning in my chest and pressing against my ribcage. My father came out to the yard as well. He had no hand in making us, I realized, and he did not know what to do with our shards. He looked to the top of the mountain, to the pipe snaking its way through the side. Someone, he said, raising his eyebrows, has got to tell the giants.

I went alone the next morning. I walked up to the waiting pipe, and then I continued, taking the winding trail that followed the pipe up the mountain. I walked until the sun was low in the sky, and only when it began to set did I reach the part where the pipe curled into a rusty flower. I looked around the mountaintop. It was empty, just like I knew it would be. There were no giants here, nobody to inform of my terrible loss. I tiptoed towards the ear trumpet. Looking down, our house seemed years away, not hours. I leaned against the ear trumpet and closed my eyes. On a mountaintop devoid of giants I heard the wind whistling in the pipe. I imagined it was my mother’s words crawling out of her mouth, slithering up the rocks, not for the giants but for her stone children, the ones she knew would day climb up the mountain that overlooked their childhood and try to remember all they had once ignored.

 

Noa Covo is a teenage writer. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Jellyfish Review, Waxwing, XRAY, and trampset. Her micro chapbook, Bouquet of Fears, was published by Nightingale and Sparrow Press in July 2020. She can be found on Twitter @covo_noa.

Making It by Cate McGowan

The stilts were necessary. If I’m being honest about it. Sure, in most settings, they were goofy, but Liz, they made me taller than you and your bully friends. The summer after Dad died, I begged our next-door-neighbor, Mr. Hansen, to fashion them. The old man took pity on me, and I lurked outside his garage workshop, listened to his circular saw whine as it chewed through two thin railroad planks he then painted sea-foam green, the color of lunchrooms from the 80s.

For days, I used all my free time learning how to walk on those stilts. I gripped the splintery handles, planted my heels on the wedge footholds, hoisted myself up. My first attempts were a disaster. I’d invariably lose my balance and tumble ass over teakettle onto our driveway, raspberrying my knees and elbows. But I persisted. Soon, I rose nimbly in one swoop, and my new appendages became extensions of my stubby legs. That season of slanting shadows, folks in the neighborhood stood in their front lawns and cheered me as I scuttled up and down the street. Sometimes, I even moonwalked or braved a herkie jump. Wow, would you look at that!

But when it got cold, I abandoned my precious stilts down by the creek. Kids are like that, I guess, leaving important things behind, moving on to master something new. Anyway, no matter how many jokes I made, no matter how many tricks I learned or how tall I was on those stilts, Liz, all the adults liked you, not me. They were stupid.

Years of ballet and tap followed at the Fleetwood School of Dance. But Mom loathed the other stage mothers and stopped paying for my lessons. My dreams of sugarplum fairies were dashed, so I aimed my sights on the school talent show instead. I made do with what I had. For my costume, I dusted off the old stilts I pulled from the basement. Then, I blacked out a tooth with a crayon, plopped on a hat like some Minnie Pearl hick. Donned a red gingham shirt. Overalls.

I was the last to take the stage. The velvet curtain parted, and the first notes of “Mr. Bojangles” crackled through the speakers, and from center-left, I romped to the song’s banjos, the spotlight following me. All the Sacred Heart of Mary School kids, first to eighth grades, egged me on. Go, Annie! Go, Annie! GO!  They clapped at the chorus, and I transitioned from boring shuffle-ball-changes to wild antics, slapstick, strategic slips. A herkie jump. A moonwalk. Go, Annie! Go, Annie! GO!  On the front row, Ryan Richards, perfect like a comet in that dark auditorium, laughed. He thought I was funny. They all thought I was funny.

Later, after college, I didn’t move home. You got Mom’s adoration; I got stand-up and bus tours and TV appearances. Last year, after your funeral, my manager, Mike, and I went to clean out your house, and I ventured out back behind the porch. Under the eaves, I found my old stilts tucked in a veil of cobwebs. With the clouds speeding above me, I hopped on, the plunkety-plunk of wood on the walk. I sang and danced to “Mr. Bojangles,” hamming it up, and Mike hooted—You’re a carnival freak, Miss Thang! We laughed and laughed, though there’s nothing funny about me.

 

Cate McGowan is the author of the short story collection True Places Never Are (2015), which won the 2014 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her debut novel These Lowly Objects is forthcoming from Gold Wake Press, and her writing has appeared in Flash Fiction InternationalGlimmer TrainCrab Orchard ReviewTahoma Literary Review, and numerous other outlets. Find out more about her at www.catemcgowan.com.

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.