Choices by Anna Hundert

1.    In the beginning, there is the sea. There are no choices in the beginning, because I always begin in the sea. I breathe the tides and the tides breathe me. And who would choose the dry, tasteless air over this sun-soaked dwelling of saltwater breath? I wish to stay here always, to never trade my shimmering fins for grasping fingers and toes. But something out there is calling out to me with a fierce and joyful song. What is calling to me?
        –> The rivers that run through the land like so many veins (go to part 2)
        –> The mountains that rise out of the land like so much adolescent acne (go to part 3) (If you are reading this aloud, omit the following sentence. The third choice is a secret: if you wish to abide by her wishes and allow her to remain in the sea, stop reading here.)

2.    The rivers ask me to become one of them, and I enthusiastically consent. River-spirits can undertake many wonders with our freshwater flow, with our roiling river run of cosmic commotion in our high-fabled rapids and such peace in our quieter bends. Over on the land, I see a young woman running from a pursuer and she calls out to me for help. I —
        –> Pull the pursuer into my currents and drown him inside of me (go to part 4)
        –> Transform her into a tree so that she cannot be violated (go to part 5)

3.    In the mountains, I befriend a great clan of ravens who bestow upon me the secret knowledge of flight. My wings emerge from my shoulder blades and they remind me of my days in the sea. When I begin to lay eggs, I —
        –> Find a sexual partner who might make the eggs into something more (go to part 4)
        –> Scramble them with chopped onions (if you are reading this aloud, bring along the necessary supplies to chop some onions, and then allow yourself to cry in front of your audience; when everyone is sufficiently uncomfortable, you may proceed to part 5)

4.    For a time I think that maybe he can stay inside of me forever, moving with my rhythms, touching each groove and turn and the rim bones of my earthly skeleton. I think I might love him, somehow. But I tell him too soon, speak the love into its own undoing, and he says he must go. I grieve this loss for —
        –> Exactly one hundred years, and my tears create new river tributaries (go to part 6)
        –> The amount of time it takes to press the tip of a thread though the eye of a needle (if you are reading this aloud, you must bring along a needle and thread to demonstrate, and then go to part 7)

5.    I deeply regret that I have done this, and —
        –> My body twists itself into a weeping willow upon the riverbank (go to part 8)
        –> I vow that I shall someday have a daughter and make it so that she can be always wild and free (go to part 9)

6.    A man comes along and sees the rivers of my tears and tells me that I am being melodramatic. I say to him, Nobody asked you. And then I say to him, Let me tell you a story about a young woman who only ever wanted to —
        –> Learn the secret language of trees (go to part 10)
        –> Be able to touch her toes without bending her knees (if you are reading this aloud, demonstrate according to your own abilities, without judgment or fear of judgment, and then proceed to part 11)

7.    I say to myself: If I ever have a daughter, I will make sure that she will —
        –> Respect all rivers as holy places of movement and change (go to part 10)
        –> Always cover her mouth when she sneezes and never dare to grow wings from her shoulder blades (go to part 11)

8.    Life as a weeping willow is not terribly exciting, but one day an oracle comes along the path. In exchange for the shelter that I offer her from the rain, she tells me a story from the future about a young woman who will —
        –> Carve her own self-portrait into the face on the moon (go to part 12)
        –> Conduct a research study in pursuit of a more precise identity for Mitochondrial Eve (if you are reading this aloud, ask your audience if they are familiar with the theory of Mitochondrial Eve; if necessary, attempt to explain mitochondrial genetics and matrilineal descent, dispelling common misconceptions as you are able, and then go to part 13)

9.    She will not cry often, but she will never hold back tears when she feels that they are coming. She will —
        –> Learn how to swim at a young age (go to part 12)
        –> Study to become an engineer and someday design bridges to connect all those castles in the air (go to part 13)

10.    She will study the secret language of trees and will find a way to transcribe that poetry which, over the ages, all of the women who have ever been changed into trees have been composing in their photosynthetic minds, with no way to write it all down, making it difficult for them to keep all the line breaks straight, with their style relatively spare yet overusing commas, and never employing the liberating device of multiple choice; after all, they did not choose to become trees (go to part 14)

11.    She will compose melodies so beautiful that her listeners fall in love with their own breath and never think about dying again (go to part 15)

12.    She will paint another self-portrait using her own menstrual blood and critics will call it a little too on the nose and she will point to the nose in the portrait and say, Yes, blood on the nose, blood everywhere. She will insist that her true home is a place where it is always Christmas and never winter. Meanwhile, the hurt changes from day to day but some essential quality of it remains the same. She will continue to feel this mysterious hurt and wonder about its shape, its size, its texture (go to part 14)

13.    She will wear golden eyeliner and carry a flaming sword. She will enjoy speaking with split infinitives and always find opportunities to use phrases like put that in your pipe and smoke it and how do you like them apples (go to part 15)

14.    She will wash her hands frequently and will always say bless you when she hears somebody sneeze. And she will return to the sea someday; I am sure of it. When the light hits the horizon just right, she will watch the glints on the hairs on her legs as they become the scales of a mermaid’s tail. She may still take human lovers if she chooses to, but she will always make sure that they do not drown.

15.    (If you are reading this out loud, softly hum a song that makes you feel safe. If not everyone in your audience can hear it, that’s okay. And if you sneezed while reading this, bless you.)

 

Anna Hundert is a fiction and nonfiction writer currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and elsewhere both online and in print. She is also a regular contributor to the Ploughshares blog. You can find her on Twitter @anna_hundert.

So Much an Outlaw I Belong on a Wanted Poster by Holly Pelesky

My first bull ride was like my first orgasm: mechanical. It was one of those nights when headlights reflect off the wet streets and everything is slick and shiny. Us girls found ourselves where 1st Avenue meets King Street, at Cowgirls Inc. A bar with bras strewn over clothesline, where the bartenders wore shirts cut high enough to show off their belly button rings and the air hanged hot and thick like breath. We had grown up in split-levels, on cul-de-sacs, but that night we wore cowboy boots, bought earlier that day from Renton Western Wear, price tags still affixed to the soles.

I wasn’t going to climb onto that bucking machine so the boys could watch my tits bounce. I was still a virgin barely, but nonetheless. I mean the shyness of me was still intact. I wasn’t going to, but my new boots with the fringe, the music beating in my ears, the beer, that bootstrap, that saddle. The buzz of the crowd electric as I swung my leg over the automatic beast, squeezed it between my thighs. On my revolving perch I learned what the other girls already knew, what I was after: forty-five seconds of being watched like that.

 

Holly Pelesky writes essays, fiction and poetry. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska. Her prose can be found in Roanoke Review, The Nasiona, and Jellyfish Review. She recently released her first collection of poems, Quiver. She works, coaches slam poetry, and raises boys in Omaha.

Soft Bundles by Meghan Lousie Wagner

At night, mother feeds me hair. I slurp it down like spaghetti. She rolls me into bed and locks the door. Only after I begin to dream, a mountain girl comes to unspool it from my throat. In the moonlight, I watch her twist it into tight spindles around her knuckles. Golden flecks sparkle off her skin. Her head is bald and smooth and when I to reach up and touch her—to feel if she is real the same way I am real—she swipes a sharp hand across my neck.

Each morning, I find glitter on the floor. It pricks my bare feet as I walk to the mirror to check my throat.

In the kitchen, mother makes bread. I show her my scars. She punches dough against the counter.

“Did they get it all this time?” she asks.

* * * *

Our town is small and we are not the only ones in debt to the mountain girls. Every telephone pole has a yellow sign, CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE MOUNTAIN GIRLS. I pass them on the way to school but never stop to read the fine print. It’s bad luck to know about the deals your mothers make. Everyone has heard stories about curious kids who sneak letters out of mailboxes and then, the next day, are found drowned in their bathtubs. Or impaled by tree branches in their sleep. Or, worse, they wake up toothless, without tonsils—no good to anyone.

* * * *

Some mothers tell stories to help their children swallow hair. They say it’s made from magic sugar cane. That it’s been spun into caramel. They promise if you eat it all, then you’ll grow into the prettiest woman in town (no matter how you look now), you’ll be the richest man (no matter how poor you are now), you’ll have the happiest life (no matter how miserable you are now).

If, if, if…

My mother never lies. Not like that. After dinner, she takes hair from the fridge and combs it across the counter. Some nights it’s brown, some nights black, some nights it’s as soft and silver as the snow on the mountain tops. Her forearms are tight from pounding bread all day, but her fingers are delicate. She twirls it into soft bundles of noodles.

“If you don’t eat it all,” she says, “they’ll only bring more tomorrow.”

“And what if I don’t eat that?”

“They’ll bring more,” she says, shrugging.

“They bring more anyway.”

“Exactly,” Mother says, pushing a bowl toward me.

* * * *

The mountain girls come to my school’s graduation. Their golden heads cast a glare in the stadium. None of us will admit we know them. On our way to pick up diplomas, they wave their yellow signs. They cheer the loudest.

* * * *

Years later, when I am grown, I am neither beautiful nor rich nor happy. My throat is too old for swallowing hair and now my mother wanders town, tacking the yellow signs to telephone poles. At night, we eat melon dipped in salt. She tells me I should get married and have children of my own.

“Then,” she says, spitting out a seed, “we can get back in with the mountain girls.”

The next day, I take a train headed to the coast, far from the mountains. There’s another town on the shore that smells of sand and seaweed. I walk past telephone poles with blue signs, CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE GROTTO GIRLS. The clouds hang low. I stop inside a salt water taffy shop and buy a box to bring home for mother. The girl who sells it to me has crosshatches on her neck. She pretends not to notice mine.

I take another train going north, further from the mountains. When I arrive in the city, I have eaten most of the taffy. The sky is dark, but the lights are bright. Electronic billboards line the streets. Images flicker on their screens. CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE CONCRETE GIRLS.

I stay up all night, drifting past neon lit bars and storefronts until I am back at the train station. I have no more money for a ticket back to the mountains. Inside the terminal, I see a booth. CASH FOR DREAMS.

“Tell us about your dreams,” says a bald, golden headed girl.

Since I don’t dream, I tell her about the mountain girls. She offers me a clipboard and pen. I sit on a cushioned chair.

“Can you help me get home?” I ask.

“We can arrange a deal,” she says, showing me the fine print. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it myself. My instinct is to look away. But I want to know. To finally know what it is they take.

“Oh,” I say, disappointed by the obviousness of it. “I’ll have to give you children.”

“Only their dreams.”

“But I have to have children?”

“We offer alternative plans.”

“How can I get back to the mountains?”

She flips a page in the clipboard. “We have plans for that, too.”

* * * *

In the morning, as promised, I awake in my bed. I look out the window and see mountains. There is no glitter on the floor.

In the kitchen, I find Mother at the table. I take out a blade and shear her head. She stands still, but winces when I move too close to her ear. Her crinkled, silver hairs fall onto the floor. I sweep them up and carefully twirl them into bundles. Once I wrap them in plastic, I pack them into my basket, crooked beneath my arm.

“It’d be easier if you had children,” she says, shaking her bald head.

I leave the kitchen and go to feed the town.

 

Meghan Louise Wagner is a writer from Cleveland, OH. Her work has appeared in places such as AGNI, Shirley Magazine, matchbook, Hobart, and X-R-A-Y.

Yes, You Can Eat Your Goldfish by Susan Rukeyser

Yes, you can eat your darling goldfish. He is most likely a form of ornamental carp, and he will taste as you expect: muddy and full of bones.

You can eat all your darlings, once you kill them. Although why you killed Prince Harry the goldfish I cannot understand. Was it all the staring, his bulging eyes? Was it his flashy orange scales, so out of place in your dark, dusty cabin full of your ancestors’ ghosts? Or was it that his beauty faded by the day, in your care, and you could not bear to watch it—how his scales grew dull and his swimming listless, until he mostly stayed put in the middle of the small, round, glass bowl that was his world since you brought him home from that Memorial Day carnival? His translucent fins fanned like the scarves of an old burlesque dancer still going through the motions.

You sure looked like you wanted him when you paid $3.00, six times in a row, tossing rings onto a pole. Prince Harry watched you from the table full of glass goldfish bowls and saw how you labored for him, how you fought against your own shortcomings to win him as a prize. But now it’s August, and you should have set him up with a proper tank by now, some plastic plants and aquarium gravel, at least.

Prince Harry was an $18.00 goldfish, which makes him as expensive as any other freshwater fish on the menu at your local upscale seafood place. But you should know that the diet you fed him of dehydrated fish flakes won’t please your palate, nor your conscience. (Maybe you could have treated him better?)

What’s done is done, I get it. I just hope you killed him with kindness.

Because, you know, Prince Harry the goldfish was miserable in that little glass bowl. He was never going to become the best fish he could be, trapped in there. In the wild—if you had released him, an invasive species—he could have grown far beyond your expectations. (Seriously, he could’ve grown to be a foot long!) But at what cost to the other fish in the lake that butts up to your cabin? Prince Harry would crowd out the others that belong there.

Your darlings can be eaten, and they should be, if they fail to thrive. If you fail them.

But Prince Harry the goldfish will leave a bad taste in your mouth. He watched you toss all those rings at the carnival. For him. He thought you loved him. He thought he was home.

 

Susan Rukeyser writes and reads in Joshua Tree, California. Her debut novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying, was released by Twisted Road Publications and she recently completed her new novel, The Worst Kind of Girl. In 2018, Susan founded World Split Open Press to publish feminist books, including The Feckless Cunt Anthology. She also hosts the Desert Split Open Mic, Joshua Tree’s feminist, queer, and otherwise radical open mic and occasionally interviews local and visiting authors. Susan’s short fiction, creative nonfiction, and multimedia work appear in numerous places, both online and in print. linktree.com/susanrukeyser

Transfiguration by Nancy Hightower

You aren’t scared the night he creeps into your room. You know you should be scared, as he stands in front of your bed—hands on hips as if sizing you up—but there are too many things competing for your terror right now. You have to choose wisely.

I heard you crying, he says.

How’d you hear that? you ask because you’re sure he’s lying. You know how to sob quietly into your pillow so your Daddy can’t hear, how to quit early, so Mum won’t ask the next day why your eyes are puffy. Good girls don’t get puffy eyes or nighttime visitors.

You know how to lie, too, now that you’re turning thirteen. This was the week Mum said you could no longer run outside with your brothers. This was the week your hair was pulled tight and tied back in blue ribbons, while a chemise and corset imprisoned your chest and cinched your waist. This is the week you were to learn how to be a lady.

I heard you, Peter says again while his shadow nods in agreement. You don’t think much of that trick. What good is a delinquent boy and his shadow when doomed to a life you don’t want? Tomorrow you are to be fitted with new shoes that includes a little heel. It will angle your back and shoulders for a more ladylike posture, Mum explained.

Come with me, instead, Peter interjects, as if he had overheard the conversation.

Where? you ask, as if there are safe options for a thirteen-year-old girl whose room has been invaded by a boy and his shadow.

The Island, another voice answers. Or possibly many voices, as it does not sound like just one. You look at the shadow, which scratches its head. And then you see someone though a dust red haze standing by the window. If anyone says fairies like pink, know they’re lying because Tink hates pastels. Even leaning against the wall, hands in pockets and head tilted to one side, they are taller than Peter who scarcely seems taller than you. You take in their mass of black ringlets that frame a wide jaw and high cheekbones. You envy their maroon pinstripe suit. You can be anyone you want to be there, Tink adds. Not a girl’s voice, yet not a boy’s either. You can’t tell if they’re sixteen or sixty, and don’t care. Your palms are wet and your heart beats so loud you are worried Peter can hear it, but he just smiles as if he understands everything and says, we leave tonight.

 You want to pack your dresses and shoes and ribbons, but Peter keeps asking what for until you leave it all on your bed. Tink keeps close to the window, as if your room were a prison and to venture too far in might jeopardize their own freedom. When they hold out their hand, you lace your fingers through theirs, watch as they fold the moon into a smooth bright road calling you to another place.

Everyone is still up by the time you arrive. Young and old alike wear whatever they want: off the shoulder dress, slitted skirt, breeches with waistcoat and rainbow tie; their hair in braids or cropped short, while others sport wigs in cotton candy colors as if they were crowns. We’ve been waiting for you, Tia says, pointing to a large table filled with food. You and Tink sit side by side, your nightdress hiked up so that your thigh rests against theirs. Mum would never have approved, but you can’t quite remember her face or voice now. Even your old room disappears in the mist. Where can I get a suit like that? you whisper, but Peter overhears you. Hook will take care of it, he says. He can tailor anything.

Peter started the tradition, I help with the transition, Tink explains, as they take off their jacket to reveal a pair of razor-sharp diamond wings. Hook can sew, but no one cuts a pattern as well as I do. A shiver of fear and joy runs through you as Tink leans in, puts their hand on your lower back. Don’t worry. I can wait

You change your name from Wendy to Wen to Wendell, as Tink shears off your hair little by little, and the wind at the back of your neck feels like freedom. Peter gives all his future grown-up selves to keep the island invisible. Some days he can’t fly, because magic like that demands balance, courses through his muscles and joints like lightning. Tink makes a special tea to help him sleep through the night. Sometimes he takes too much and pretends he’s Queen Victoria. These are your favorite nights, even though the next morning is rough. Peter remains young and weary and welcomes all those cast out of their houses. Year after year they come to find a banquet awaiting them. Some weep at the sight. Others are surprised into laughter at such tenderness. Hook gives a fashion show every Spring to show his new line and you take up woodworking, surprising Tink with a rocking chair made for two.

One day Peter doesn’t wake up.

You feel the shift in the wind, watch the tides grow stronger and wonder what ships might accidentally find this harbor now. Some take a boat with Hook in hopes of finding a similar haven. Others travel deeper into the forest where Peter said there were caves to build a fortress, if ever the need came for it. Everyone knew Neverland was made on borrowed time. You and Tink remain in the house you built together, a stone’s throw from the green mound where Peter sleeps. Tink’s wings, beating back the tide each night, shrink with each new moon. Their glorious ringlets have started turning gray and shed with each new rain. Every evening you ease Tink out of their clothes, massage each sore muscle with hands, lips, and tongue. They moan with exhausted pleasure and lay curled up between you and Peter’s shadow, sleeping. You take turns holding them as a new storm moves in and the nightmares descend. One day we won’t need an imaginary island, Tink whispers. They kiss you for a second, an hour, an entire year, extending your life with each breath until you are an old man sitting with his shadow on a white sandy beach, dreaming it all true.

 

Nancy Hightower has had work published in Joyland, Gargoyle, Entropy, Washington Post, HuffPo, NBC News Think, and elsewhere. She is the author of Elementari Rising (2013) and The Acolyte (2015).

Not a Lump by Greta Hayer

I would have known what to do if it had been a lump; instead, in the mound of my left breast was a hole. At first, it was hardly more than a dark pore, like a pinprick, but after a few days, it was big enough to hide a button in.

I called my brother’s husband. “Honestly,” he said. “I don’t know that much about breasts.”

“You’re a surgeon.”

“I’m a foot surgeon.” He sighed, breathing into the mouthpiece. “Besides, I’m usually the one making the holes.”

Not what I wanted to hear. “How’s Mike?”

“Tell me you’ll get that looked at by an oncologist or something.”

“It’s not a lump. Cancer is a lump.”

When we hung up, I looked at my chest in the yellow light of the bathroom. The hole looked up at me, as wide as a dime. Inside, I only saw blackness, maybe a pinkish tone to it. I leaned closer to the light, shoving my chest over the sink and pressing hard against the cold porcelain. Inside, I saw a shiver of movement. Had something burrowed deep within me, or was I merely seeing my own heart?

I called my doctor, who asked if it hurt. It didn’t. Since it didn’t hurt, and it wasn’t a lump, he figured what was there to worry about? I nodded, though we were on the phone, and he couldn’t see my assent.

I went out. I started the night with a trio of friends. Not good ones, not friends who discussed something a precious as our own mortality. Besides, they were perfect, flawless versions of the female form, and certainly, none of them bore a hole in their chest.

I lifted a glass of wine to my lips, and for a moment, the world was only a pungent red sea and a clear sky. When I lowered the glass, my friends were gone, easing their way into the crowded bar, fitting into circles of conversation and pockets of secrets.

The bartender waved at my empty glass.“Another one?” 

“I guess. It’s not a lump.”

His face broke into a grin. “Then, you’re celebrating.” He poured a pair of shots. “My mom’s a survivor.”

His mom? How old was he? Not so much younger than me. Or maybe a lot younger. I couldn’t tell the ages of people younger than me anymore; maybe that was a symptom.

I grinned shallowly, but threw back the whiskey. The heat of it traveled down my neck, pooling like liquid fire in my chest.

My shirt dampened. A dark pool gathered above the hole, leaking whiskey onto my top.

The bartender noticed, pointing with an elbow as he poured another patron a drink. “Looks like you spilled.”

I shook my head and tried to cover the seeping wetness with a hand. I felt the eyes of everyone in the bar, gawking. My friends were nowhere, or maybe they were among the strangers staring. The liquor trickled down my chest, under my bra, past the waistline of my pants. I was dying. I had to be.

In the ER, the doctor checked my breathing and shook his head. He pressed the stethoscope to my whole breast and shook his head. “Your vitals are fine. Bloodwork is negative.”

I covered myself as best I could with the papery hospital gown. “What’s wrong with me?”

“I suggest you go home, sleep it off.” The doctor was already moving toward the door. “At least it’s not a lump.”

I touched the edge of skin around the hole, sticky with the remnants of the alcohol. It was big enough that I could probably insert my pointer finger. “Yes,” I said, nodding and smiling vacantly. “So lucky it’s not a lump.” 

 

Greta Hayer received her MFA at the University of New Orleans and her bachelor’s degree in history at the College of Wooster, where she studied fairy tales and medieval medicine. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Luna Station Quarterly, and Maudlin House and her nonfiction has appeared in Booth and Flint Hills Review. Her column, “In Search of the Dream World,” can also be found in Luna Station Quarterly.

Five Things I Admire About Tudi by Olivia Post

1.   Tudi cannot be humiliated. This is not unusual for a dog, but it’s notable because my love language is cruelty. I tell her that she’s funny looking. I tell her that her face looks like a boiled potato that got dropped on the ground. She’s got that stupid Shih Tzu profile, where her protruding eyes fit snuggly between a leathery monkey nose. Sometimes her face, full of adoration and need, makes me so mad. I mock her in private and in front of others, but I always cast a smile on her after. I love her oddity—her goblin face, the way her fat ass waddles from room to room, how she’s unhurried like she has already decided where she’s going. I love her so much it spills out as contempt. I admire that she knows the difference between derision and love, and that it doesn’t affect her self-esteem.

2.   Tudi makes eye contact with everyone she meets and that makes people smile. And when someone tries to bend down to pet her, she’ll trot away knowing that she doesn’t owe them anything. This is admirable, because I’m so eager to please and rarely do. Sometimes she’ll make sustained eye contact with a man, and he’ll smile at her and then say hi to me. I’ll say hi back and notice that my voice doesn’t quite work, because I haven’t talked to a human in a long time. Tudi doesn’t talk much either. When she barks, which is usually at cats, she seems surprised by her own voice.

3.   Tudi has no friends except me. This on its own is not admirable, but she’s so satisfied with only one friend. In reality she’s my only friend too, and that thought fills me with a frantic loneliness. I wish I were more like Tudi.

4.   Tudi doesn’t have any ambitions and that doesn’t bother her. She sleeps twenty hours a day and only moves long enough to eat, or find a different place to sleep. I don’t have any ambitions either. I just get out of bed and go to work because I have to. Tudi doesn’t need to work and I wish I had her life. I do wish she would contribute though. I ask her to tip her server after meals (me). I ask her who will pay the bills. At sixteen, my mother started demanding rent money. She’d call me a lazy, fat slug in front of her friends. She’d call me useless and then give me a private little smile. When I ask Tudi for rent money, she looks interested, but then sticks her whole back foot in her mouth. I tell her she’s choosing to do nothing with her life, parroting my mother. But she doesn’t care.

5.   Tudi exudes a quiet joy and shares it with me. I named her Latuda after the anti-depressant my insurance wouldn’t cover and she’s exactly that. I call her over, telling her it’s time for my medicine. I call her CEO of Snuggle Corp. and demand a shareholder’s meeting. I admire her emboldened cheerfulness, how she’s immune to my criticism. My inner voice has mutated into a crueler version of my mother’s. “You stupid, fat ass,” I think to myself when I do something not quite right. “You’re pathetic.” I don’t think Tudi has an inner voice, but if she does, it probably doesn’t say that.

And One Thing I Don’t

1.   She terrorizes the neighborhood cat who often lurks outside our door. The cat is only a little smaller than her and hides under parked cars when Tudi approaches. At first, I thought she loved this cat, but her behavior doesn’t look like love. She barks and lunges, pulling at her leash with an unfamiliar fury. I can imagine her saying, “Get a job, you lazy, fat ass. Do something with your life,” as if she’s learned from me too well that cruelty is more admirable than the softness in small things.

 

Olivia Post currently lives in New Orleans, where she is working on her MFA in Fiction at the University of New Orleans.

Where There’s Smoke by Leslie Walker Trahan

I never saw my mother with a cigarette when she was alive, but now that she’s dead, she goes through a pack a day at least. I smell her smoke in every room of my house. I find her butts smashed into my floors. She’s with me while I make dinner. I grease the pan with butter. I prepare the chicken to roast. Then I hear the quick tick of a lighter, and when I turn around, there are ashes lining my pan. Mother, I say, stop it. But she never listens. She’s already burned three holes in her recipe book, one in her wedding dress, too. At night, she waits for my husband to fall asleep before she starts in. There is the smell of smoke and the glimmer of a cigarette in the dark, and when I run my hands over my husband’s chest, ashes grind against my palm. When I go out, I smell smoke on the streets. At the dry cleaner, the bank, the grocery store. Everyone breathes out smoke, long wispy curls that dissolve when I look straight at them. So many people, I think. So many secrets. I remember those final days. My mother in her thick floral nightgown, tucked tight beneath her sheets, and me leaning down to hear her better. I sure would like to get in trouble someday. Her lips were pinched back, her pale pink gums exposed. I stop at a bar and ask a man out front for a book of matches. He winks and drops one into my palm. Come see us sometime, sweetheart. I hear Mother’s laugh behind me. When I turn, her embers graze my hand.

 

Leslie Walker Trahan’s stories have been featured in The Forge, New Delta Review, Gone Lawn, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas. You can find her online at lesliewtrahan.com.

This Isn’t Anything by Francine Witte

When Burley comes home late every night, I tell myself he’s busy. He tells me that, too, but I believe it more when I say it.

Now, I do understand. He’s been busy before, but this is a busy with a smell on it.

This particular night, it’s 9 p.m. exactly. He comes in all fed even though I made pot roast. The pot roast that burned while I waited for him, the flat char of it still coating the air. Burley whooshes himself into the shower. Careful to take off his jeans and shirt and ball them into a wad. “Best to leave those,” he says. “I stopped for gas, and some jerk spilled coffee all over me.”

I wait till the shower is running to give his shirt a good sniff. Not a hint of coffee anywhere. Nothing is wet. And then I go for his jeans – in the pocket, a matchbook. Red with the black outline of two lovers, two cocktail glasses about to clink.

After the shower and him toweling himself off. “Whatta day” and “I shoulda called.”

I hold up the matchbook. “Oh this,” he says. “This isn’t anything. Guy at work was passing them out. New place opened up down the street.”

Burley says, work’s gonna be a bear this week, just so I know. He likes to compare everything to animals. Guys at work are a bunch of donkeys. Me, I’m a cute little cat.

And I am. Curled up and patient, like my mother taught me to be. This is what men like, she said. And really, I didn’t mind. Although Burley forgets sometimes that a cat needs attention. A tickle on the back of its neck. A rake of fingers through the hair. Later, in bed, I nuzzle up, kitten-like. He turns on his side. “Tired,” is all he says.

I whisper, “hey I’d love to go to that matchbook place with you. Have drinks like we used to.” I say this as his breath becomes even with sleep. I wobble his shoulder, and say it again, but he doesn’t move. He is a lost mountain to me now.

Something that isn’t hunger exactly gets me up on my feet and into the fridge. I pull out the leftover pot roast, burnt as it is. I kitten my face into it. Nuzzle and nibble and suck. Soon I go from tame little cat to feral. I crouch down to the floor and start gnawing like a lion on one of the nature shows I watch when Burley isn’t home. And then, without a sound, Burley just like that in the doorway. The swell of the fluorescent light overhead, sudden and sharp.

Burley leans over and struggles the pot roast away from my mouth. A look on his face like he caught me kissing another man. He lifts me to my feet. He flinches as my fingernails dig into his shoulders. Any harder and there would be blood. “What’s wrong with you,” he says with a look on his face like one of those animal trainers who realize they’ve gone too far. “I told you,” he says, “none of this is anything,” He grabs a dishtowel, wipes the grease off my chin and kisses me down to the floor.

Next morning, the mess from last night all over the kitchen and Burley humming from the bathroom. The pot roast, the dishtowel, the spot on the floor with naked us rubbed into it. I think about asking Burley now to tell me about the gas station. What was the feel of it, I want to say. Who was this guy? Was he bigger than you? Was the coffee hot? Why weren’t you burned? I clean everything up and put on a pot of coffee, the smell of it filling the room. The same smell that wasn’t anywhere on Burley’s shirt, and when Burley comes in and kisses me on the cheek, pulls back and winks at me, I feel a million questions on my tongue, a lion’s growl forming in my throat…

 

Francine Witte’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Mid-American Review, and Passages North. Her latest books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press,) The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction,) and The Theory of Flesh (Kelsay Books.) Her chapbook, The Cake, The Smoke, The Moon (flash fiction) will be published by ELJ in Fall 2021. She is flash fiction editor for Flash Boulevard and The South Florida Poetry Journal. She lives in NYC.

Big Head Syndrome by Hannah Whiteoak

George is proud of his oversized head, but the girls in the office keep laughing at it when they think he can’t hear. Arriving in the office one Monday morning, he hears them giggling in the break room and catches a snippet of their conversation. “I wonder how he fits through the door…” When he stomps in to heat up his morning mackerel, they give him the briefest of greetings and scuttle back to their desks.

At home, George has a specially made door, which is wider at the top, so he has no trouble fitting through it. Of course, he doesn’t tell the girls that. Instead, he grinds his teeth and writes an angry email to human resources.

The reply assures him that the company takes bullying very seriously. However, it points out, having an oversized head isn’t a protected characteristic. Unless he would describe it as a disability?

George most certainly would not describe the head as a disability. It’s inconvenient from time to time, but it’s also where he keeps his gigantic brain. George knows that his superior intellect is what makes him so good at his job. His spreadsheets never have errors. He doesn’t make basic spelling mistakes in emails, unlike his manager, Karen, who doesn’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its,” and yet still tries to tone-edit his written communications with junior staff.

* * * *

At St. Matthew’s Independent School for Boys, George’s extra-large head was considered an asset. It did most of its growing during his boarding years, swelling from an average-sized noggin to the impressively bulbous specimen it is today. Every time he reduced an opponent to tears in a debate, it grew a little more. His parents praised the growth at the end of every term, and put him on a special diet that they hoped would make it grow faster.

He’d been bullied back then, too. Some of the stupider boys pretended to be overwhelmed by the smell of the brain-boosting fish he ate at every meal. George, who took great pleasure in sitting in front of them in class so they had to lean into the aisle to see past him, knew they were jealous. His big head would take him places, while they, with their macaroni cheese and pin-prick skulls, would never amount to anything beyond these ivy-covered walls.

* * * *

Molly from HR taps her pen against the side of her cheek and stares across the desk at George with a look of pity that makes his fists clench.

She tips her head to the side, mimicking the simpering dog in the calendar on her wall, and says, “I don’t suppose there’s any way you could get it treated?”

George splutters with rage. Do they ask Marcus to suppress his tics? Do they expect Maria to magic away her photosensitivity so they don’t have to hold meetings in rooms so gloomy several of the older managers — himself included, though he hasn’t liked to mention it — struggle to read their notes? No? Then why should he get rid of his extra-large head?

Molly smiles. “Karen says that sometimes it shrinks a little when you’re absorbed in a task. I wonder if that’s something we could cultivate.”

George storms out, grazing his ear on the door frame. All he wants are some reasonable adjustments. Someone to do his copying, because it’s… well, not impossible, but unpleasant, certainly, for him to squeeze into the photocopier room. Someone to fetch him coffee, so he can keep his great mind focused on his work, rather than being waylaid by chit-chat. And an end to the head-focused bullying.

As he returns to his desk, Karen shouts a cheery hello from the neighboring cubicle. Of course, she can see the crown of his head, showing off its bald spot over the top of the divider. Will they never give him any peace?

But even though it attracts attention, he wouldn’t give up his head for anything. When that evening he lays down to sleep, blood rushes to his brain, bathing him in a soothing wooziness. If other people’s minds are like televisions, replaying memories whenever they close their eyes, then his is an entire multiplex cinema. He selects a film from his school days and basks in the glory of himself.

 

Hannah Whiteoak’s work has recently appeared in publications such as Flash Fiction Online, Reflex Fiction, TSS, and Brilliant Flash Fiction. Connect online at www.hannahwhiteoak.me or on Twitter @hannahwhiteoak.