A Nearly Beautiful Thing by Cathy Ulrich

There’s a ballerina your husband’s been fucking. While you’re at home, he meets her in hotels. She soaks her feet in oatmeal baths. Her feet are battered, torn. It would make you sorry to see them. Afterward, she wraps them in gauze. Your husband lolls on the hotel bed, watching Animal Planet.

While you’re at home, this is what your husband is doing. Lolling on the hotel bed, watching a special on bear attacks. He sees reenactments of a bear dragging a 10-year-old boy from a tent, a bear breaking through the window of a 91-year-old woman’s kitchen. He hears the word mauling, he hears encroachment, he hears territory. In the bathroom, the ballerina dries her feet with a hand towel, drains the bathtub. Bits of oatmeal cling to the base. The maids will hate that when they clean in the morning. The ballerina thinks, briefly, of wiping up the oatmeal with one of the towels.

The ballerina isn’t a bad girl. She is very young, a corps de ballet dancer. She’ll never be the prima ballerina, never dance Odette. She has an audition for a featured part tomorrow. She has practiced for months. Your husband tells her good luck when she mentions it to him hesitantly. The ballerina dips her head, nearly smiles. The ballerina is very beautiful when she nearly smiles. She wiggles her ugly toes before she wraps them in gauze.

While you are at home, the ballerina nearly smiles and becomes beautiful. Your husband kisses her chin, which she doesn’t like, kisses her throat, which she does. The ballerina sighs. The ballerina rises up on her wretched feet, falls back onto the hotel bed.

She doesn’t think of you, or, when she does, it is as an abstraction, the frigid wife. Your husband didn’t say frigid, but the ballerina thinks of wives as being cold things, thinks of ice and unyielding bodies.

You are at home. Your husband leaves the television on while the ballerina pulls her top over her head, while he kisses her navel, while they fuck. The television is the hum of park ranger chatter, statistics, bear growl.

The ballerina arches beneath your husband’s body, thinks of Prince Siegfried, thinks of swans, says yes, more. She knows your husband likes it when she says that. You know it, and all of his old girlfriends too, yes, more, such a simple little phrase. Such a nothing little phrase.

While you’re at home, the ballerina says yes, more, arches her body, and you trace your finger along the stem of a wine glass.

The ballerina rewraps the gauze around her feet after she and your husband are done, shy of him seeing her feet. She sips a glass of water, wonders how clean the cup could be, even with the sanitary seal over it.

Your husband kisses the ballerina’s wet mouth. Your husband says the usual things, makes the usual promises. The ballerina nods, says of course, of course. The ballerina isn’t holding her breath. The ballerina is familiar with the things men say.

She thinks of her aching feet. She thinks of her audition tomorrow, the shine of spotlight, the scuff of stage.

She says: I should go.

She says: I have a big day tomorrow, shoves her gauzed feet into some oversized sneakers, kisses your husband on the temple. He’s watching Animal Planet again, habitat, attack, bear, bear, bear.

Good night, says the ballerina.

Good night, says your husband, closes his eyes, listens to the delicate sound of her steps, the click of the door, the growl of a bear.

You are at home, tip over empty wine glass, watch it roll across the table, and wait for it to fall to the floor, and shatter.

 

Cathy Ulrich saves newspaper briefs on bear attacks because there is something really, really wrong with her. Her work has been published in various journals, including Little Fiction, Former Cactus, and Pithead Chapel.

No One Holds a Grudge Like a Crow by Marisa Crane

You wake up to the cawcawcaw of the crows outside. They still hold a grudge against you for that one month Lynx made you foster a cattle dog mix. He barked at the crows every time he took a shit, and they haven’t forgotten. Crows can remember individual faces. They pass this information down from generation to generation. In many ways, they are smarter than your own family that can’t even manage to call once a year. Somethingsomethingsomething about the June bug coffins lining your windowsill. They freak people out. Even over the phone. They can hear the June bug ghosts wailing.

Cawcawcaw, only louder this time. You muse over who you might be to the crows. “That imbecile with the evil dog” or perhaps, “That super cool guy we simply cannot pardon for his wrongdoings. No matter how rad his Saved By the Bell crewneck is. Yes, we mean it. No matter how rad.” You roll over and grab the notebook you keep on your nightstand for moments such as this and add the latter to your long list of crow speculations. You consider how the president may wind up pardoning himself before the crows pardon you.

You tried to make the crows forget. You started wearing a beanie whenever you left the house. They went crazier than ever as if to alert one another. A few even dive-bombed you and stole your beanie. It was a nice beanie too. Lynx had crocheted it for you. A pretty baby blue hue that calmed your tap-dancing neurons. After the crows stole your beanie, you started painting your face. First like a June bug, because why not? They didn’t like that. They took large dumps on your Welcome mat. Swirled like soft serve and impossible to fully clean up.

When you painted your face like the pink Power Ranger they cooed and fluttered their feathers. Yeah, they liked that shit. You thought you’d finally won and then what you think happened is one of the elders slammed down his gavel and said, “No, he is guilty regardless of his beauty.” Then one of the crows jimmied your bedroom window and broke in and stole the photo of Lynx that you kept on your nightstand.

Your last reminder of her.

The crows remember when you finally broke it off with Lynx. They remember it as well as you do.

You recall quite clearly covering her body in stamps. She just lied there and let you. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Like love is only love if you drive that person away. The crows gathered at the windows and pecked the glass with their black beaks.

It was a Sunday so you set her on the counter by the door where you wouldn’t forget her, but on Monday it was raining and on Tuesday you were late for work. On Wednesday your horoscope warned against taking chances and on Thursday you got into a fight with the sky. On Friday you worked from home and drank whiskey far too early. On Saturday you scribbled the return address on her chest, in hopes that she’d be sent back to you, but it’s been more than three years now and the mailman got a new job so he wouldn’t have to continue disappointing you.

You climb out of bed and put your robe on, wrapping it tightly around you. You examine the June bugs, take roll call. Sylvester, Frangelica, Bryant, Nuchi, Manuel, Zane, Eva, Bo, Jian, Arnold. Everyone is present and accounted for, their exoskeletons perfectly intact. You are envious of their armor.

You take a deep breath, pull your hood over your head, then walk out the front door. The elder crow alerts the others of your presence. Cawcawcaw cawcawcaw, a new urgency in their calls. You shadow-box the air, daring the crows to challenge you. One by one, they begin to surround you. Left, right, uppercut, right, right, you dance around your yard like a more agile, less sad version of yourself.

The crows fly in circles around you, so fast that you can’t see the individual birds. Just the dark blur of their hostility, like a tornado.

Over the years you grow old and fragile inside that tornado. Your punches turn to gentle waves, your feet become cement blocks. The crows lose their voices and the only thing you can hear is Lynx telling you that the stamps were expired. That she’s here and everywhere.

 

Marisa Crane is a lesbian writer and editor. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pigeon Pages, Pidgeonholes, and Drunk Monkeys, among others. She currently lives in San Diego with her fiancée. You can read more of her work at www.marisacrane.org. Her twitter handle is @marisabcrane.

Agonal Respiration by Caleb Michael Sarvis

Spencer and Josie are hosting a house warming party. I bring Dakari, because Megan’s left him and we arrive close to the end. I meant to arrive on time, but we saw a fox when we stepped out of our Uber and followed it briefly into the woods. It watched us from behind a fallen tree and we passed the boxed wine back and forth, content to wait for its return. I would have offered my meatball of a heart had it meant one caress of that fox’s tail.

It never did, and now we’re shirt-stained and late.

Spencer and Josie bought their place in Bartram, a newly-developed area of town surrounded by forest awaiting more destruction. It’s an end-unit townhouse, succulents planted underneath expensive rocks. When we step inside, familiar teeth play cards around the dining table. Spencer asks us to take our shoes off, Josie recommends a glass of Garfield’s sangria, who I recognize to be the husband of the woman I love. In the coming weeks, I’m supposed to raise their newborn baby because neither wants to be a parent. He and I’ve never met, and I don’t think he knows who I am. She and I decided the adoption over pizza.

I realize Garfield looks exactly like me, only beardless, with different eyes. His eyes are all white, no pupil, and I’m not sure where he’s looking.

Josie’s plastic wings shake as she deals the cards. I avoid the Sangria, though Dakari’s finished off our box, and my thirst is only worsening. For a while I was sober, but I can’t remember the value in that.

The three other friends leave, they’ve been there for hours. Dakari deals and Spencer asks me how I’ve been. I tell him my new job has a lot of free snacks, plenty of dead time, and I can swear as much as I want. Spencer nods, he was a copywriter long before I was, is part of the reason I fell into it. I’m supposed to have edited this novel we’re going to publish through our small press, which I haven’t, and he’s avoiding asking me about it.

“How do I get a job like that?” Garfield asks.

“You have to be an artist,” I say. Dakari snickers at this and throws me a thumbs-up, shoves grapes in his mouth.

“You could be an artist, Garfield. Just have to become a little less practical,” Josie says. The wings she’s sewn into her shoulder blades look weathered and torn. She needs to replace them, just as I do my windshield wipers, but I imagine the process is plenty more difficult. Josie believes she is a fairy – has chosen to be a fairy – and doesn’t want any children of her own. Spencer waves it off, thinks her youth currently speaks for her, and like her youth, this mindset will fade.

Garfield pulls a pill from a zip-lock bag. He washes it down with some of his sangria. There isn’t much about him I dislike, I guess, other than he’s married to the woman I love. He shuts his eyes, smiles, and returns to the conversation. Creases slowly fade from his brow.

“Everything will be fine soon enough. Just a waiting game now,” he says and collects his cards.

“Game isn’t over,” I say.

“Evidently, you’re mistaken.”

I’m worried the baby will have his blank eyes, his smug stillness. How will I ever trust it? Dakari is out of his seat, dancing without music. Josie laughs and takes the hand he offers, teeth marked purple. Garfield pulls cigars from his shirt pocket, motions them towards Spencer and me. We join him on the porch.

The smoke is chalky and stale. I’ve never been good at this.

“How does the world look to you?” I say.

Spencer peers over his shoulder, watches Dakari and Josie.

“Different than you, I imagine,” Garfield says. He can puff rings, tiny and large. When he relaxes, smokes normally, it scoots from his lips like a seahorse. “How does the world look to you?”

“Hard to explain.” But it’s not. The world is a finely-painted aluminum ball. We’re the afterthought of someone else’s lunch. I spend most of my day wondering how to peel it all open. I won’t say this aloud. Instead, I say something stupid, like, “Babies are an art.”

“Hmm.” Garfield’s eyes appear to be made of the same smoke he spews into the night.

Spencer laughs at this, cheeks fat with drink. “My intuition only works in hindsight. I think I’m broken.” He sucks on his cigar, blows a large cloud to the sky, “She had me cut slots in the back of all her shirts.”

We sit in silence, listening to the minute crackle of our burning cigars. Smoke leaks from my mouth, a foggy sort of drool. I don’t believe in souls, but I imagine mine to be a little droopy, heavy with nonsense. I forwent efficiency in exchange for meditation long ago. No turning back now. A fox, perhaps the same as before, trots around the man-made lake behind their townhouse. It appears present, immediate, hungry.

Dakari knocks on the sliding glass door. We turn and see his face, eyes in bloom, face sagged. In his hands, he holds Josie’s wings.

Spencer opens the door, takes the wings from Dakari, then runs up the stairs. “Josie!” he says.

Dakari grabs three beers from the fridge, joins us on the porch.

“What happened?” Garfield says.

“She went to get comfortable. Her dress got caught, so she pulled harder.”

The fox returns, begins its second lap. I feel for it, the chase. Perpetual.

We drink our beers, content to watch the lake and overstay our welcome. Garfield’s voice grows soft. He tells us he doesn’t want to go home, that it doesn’t make a difference, either way.

Spencer’s returned downstairs. He has blood on his hands, his shirt, no concern for us. He’s flushed, hair slicked back. He washes his hands in the kitchen sink, returns upstairs. He leaves the water running.

Dakari finishes his beer, orders an Uber. “Beach bars?” he says. I think he might be asleep.

Garfield walks backwards, away from us, towards the lake, leaves his cigar and beer behind. When I think he’s looking at me, his eyes are lunar. “Make sure you do it right,” he says. The fox approaches lap three, fearless. When it passes, Garfield takes off after it, a pacing sort of trot, and my chest swells like the Hindenburg.

 

Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Dead Aquarium or (i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith) (Mastodon Publishing 2019). He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Press and co-host of the Drunken Book Review Podcast. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Saw Palm, Fjords Review, Eyeshot, and others. You can read his column on FX’s Atlanta at barrelhouse.com.

Birds of a Feather by Tianna Grosch

The small view on the New Mexican plain doesn’t offer much from the barred windows of cell 118, but sometimes I catch a glimpse of a bird out in this heat. These are the ones I sketch, in quiet moments to myself with a pen and paper I bought from Charlotte. Her favorite, she told me, are hummingbirds. Mine too. I draw them from memory. My garden used to attract them for miles. I would sit by the window, glass between us, and watch as they swarmed, wings buzzing and beating against the stiff air miles a minute.

I fondle three pills tucked away in my breast pocket, imagine what it would feel like to pop them in my mouth and swallow. I wouldn’t need water to chase them down, but I don’t dare take them. The little pills anchor me in more ways than one.

I think back to Charlotte’s proposal, her nonchalance in telling me how to start. I could see how it would become a habit, hiding the tiny pearls in my cheek at each Med-Line, transferring them to the secret pocket fashioned in the breast of my jumpsuit.

Charlotte and I sat together in the middle of the block, two months ago now, a sea of women surrounding us. I looked around, keeping my head low. My eyes registered the human shades coloring the room – midnight, chestnut, olive, porcelain. The rhythm of voices pulled me in and pushed me back out, a tide of small talk, complaints, criticisms, and misfortunes – secrets were the undercurrent.

I focused back on Charlotte.

She leaned in, whispering. “You know those little pills you get?”

“Yeah.”

“Share those with me and I’ll share my commissary.”

“What do you want with them?”

Charlotte chuckled, tugging at her scraggly, braided hair. “Same as you, sweetie. An escape.”

Charlotte reached out and traced the tip of her finger across the back of my hand.

“Take your time, think about it.” She smiled at me, and her eyes wrinkled at the corners. “We have all the time in the world.”

Charlotte is invincible, I’m almost certain. Like a hummingbird flitting her wings, she is unstoppable. But then again, she’s already caught.

A bird without wings at all. Just like me.

 

Tianna Grosch received her MFA at Arcadia University last year and works as Assistant Editor at Times Publishing Newspapers. She is working on a debut novel about women who survive trauma, as well as a memoir. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Ellipsis Zine, Crack the Spine, Burning House Press, Who Writes Short Shorts, New Pop Lit, Blanket Sea Magazine, Echo Lit Mag, and Nabu Review, among others. In her free-time she gardens on her family farm and dreams up dark fiction. Follow her on Twitter @tianng92 or check out her writing on CreativeTianna.com.

Feeding Time by Tara Isabel Zambrano

Almost spring, and a sparrow hits the fan and falls into the mutton curry while we’re having lunch. Papa says it’s something to do with feeding her chicks, the bird’s always in a hurry. I pick up and carry the stunned little creature to the bed where Papa and Ma don’t sleep together anymore.

Year after year these sparrows have been making nests in that corner of the living room―one morning a broken egg on the floor, yolk clinging to the fractured shell. The same week Ma woke up in a pool of blood and cried for weeks because it was a boy.

Every few days, Ma cleans the bird shit stuck on the floor and the wall. Back in the nest, the mother’s at attention, a rush of wings as if responding to Ma’s curses. Some days the sparrow sits on the fence, flies around, swoops this way and that, shows off.

Now the bird lies on her side, breathing hard, until she puffs her gravy stained chest and stands up. Before I help Ma to dispose the mutton curry―the only food we had because we’re down to single meals a day since Papa got fired last month, I check on her again―and sure enough she’s back in the nest, peeping at our empty dining table.

 

Tara Isabel Zambrano lives in Texas. Her fiction has been published in Tin House Online, Bat City Review, Slice, Yemassee, and other journals. She works as a semiconductor designer in a startup and holds an Instrument Rating for single engine aircraft. She reads prose for The Common.

Wild Hairs by Tomas Marcantonio

“You see those sparkles on the water? There, where the sun catches the crests of the ripples? They set my blood alight.”

I make an effort with the reaction. Less a laugh and more a heavy exhalation, but it’s polite enough. She’s still looking at me.

“Look at this,’ she says, taking the lighter off the wooden table. She opens a flame, holding it in front of me. ‘Imagine your blood’s laced with paraffin and I hold this to it.’

“It’d hurt,” I say, trying to smile.

She shakes her head. “It’d rip right through you. You could cower and shrink into the corner, or you could charge like a flaming phoenix into the air.”

I smile and thumb at the condensation on my beer glass. I never know what to say when she talks like this.

“You’ve no idea, do you?” she says. She looks back at the water, at the progress of the yachts, sails up before the horizon. “Don’t you wanna get out there? Doesn’t it make you want to do something? Look at that peak,” she demands. I do what she says. The cars are scrolling past on the bridge, the mountain green behind it. “What do you think when you see that peak?’

“It looks good,” I say. I wish I could say more, but I don’t know what she wants.

This time she’s visibly frustrated. “Let’s hike it,” she says, her eyes fixed on mine.

“When? Today? I thought you just wanted to chill.”

She rolls her eyes. “Fine, tomorrow, whenever. I just want to get to the top of that mountain.” She looks away at it. “I wanna rip my way to the top like a clawed beast, then stand there and crow and look down at the water. And then roar, and shout, and throw a frisbee from the peak and watch it sail across the water.”

I shrug. “We can do it if you want.”

Her chin goes down, her jaw clenched. This isn’t going to last. I start to wonder if this will be our last day together. I take a sip of the beer.

“It said on your profile you liked to travel,” she says after a time.

“I do,” I say. “I did. I told you lots of my travel stories already. Africa and everything, remember?”

She runs a finger around the rim of her glass. “And now your wild hairs have fallen out.”

I look at her, but her eyes are on the ocean again. “What?”

“Your wild hairs. You had them, and now they’ve fallen out. Your peacock feathers. You plucked them and threw them behind you like a trail of crumbs, and you think that’s enough.”

I start thinking how I can end this amiably.

“Let’s swim,” she says. “Now, right now. Let’s charge into the water like golden pups.”

I pick up my drink again. She’s been getting more like this every date.

“What is it?” she says. “What’s holding you back? There’s something, isn’t there?”

“You mean why don’t I want to swim? A dozen reasons.”

She smiles. “Wow. You’re riled. I can see that you’re riled now. It’s taken long enough. There’s never more than one reason. Give me the real reason.”

I look around.

“Give me the real reason,” she says again. “Stop making stuff up in your head. Give me the reason you won’t go swimming right here, right now, with the water sparkling like that.”

“There’s all these people here.”

She looks at me and nods. “Yeah. So what?”

“No one else is swimming.”

“Yep. No one else. You a sheep?”

I don’t say anything.

“Can I ask you something, Mark? When did it all stop being exciting for you? When did you start caring so much about what everyone thinks?”

I can’t answer. I can’t answer because I don’t know.

“Goodbye, Mark.”

She stands and finishes the last gulps of her beer, drops it back into the condensation puddle on the table. She walks onto the sand and strips down to her underwear, runs into the water, screaming like a banshee. The people on the other tables are watching her, smiling.

I watch her from the safety of my chair. Wild hairs. Yes, damn it, I used to have wild hairs too. I used to have them all over. I had balls of electricity on the tip of my tongue. Golden fireworks fizzing through my toes. Where did they all go?

Maybe I burned them all out. Maybe I was too pleased with myself, let myself off the hook. Yes. I stopped trying. Trying to scare myself. Scare away the anxiety.

I stand. I feel the eyes on me. My heart’s going like a damn stampede. Horses’ hooves churning up the ground with their lucky metal shoes. I usually try to slow them down, herd them into the shadows, sling on their blinkers. But maybe I’ve been hiding too long. I close my eyes for a moment, imagine pulling out the starter’s gun. Hold it into the air. Bang. Now they’re thundering into the home straight, and I’m riding every damn one of them. Standing on their backs with my hands in the air and my wild hairs on end. Yes, it’s been a while.

I charge into the water. Dive, and the cold engulfs me. Crystal awakening, a rebirth in ice. I feel the salt on my lips, the sting of the sun in my eyes. Too damn long.

She swims over to me, hair plastered over her face. We float, face to face. She has the mountain behind her, the sea, and I want it all. I want to gobble it all up and tear it to shreds.

“I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” she says.

I nod.

“It’s not my job to put you together again.”

I nod again. And smile. I lick my lips and taste the salt on them. It tastes much better than I ever remembered.

 

Tomas Marcantonio is a fiction writer from Brighton, England. He has been published in various journals and anthologies, most recently Ellipsis Zine, Firefly Magazine, Storgy, and The Fiction Pool. Tomas is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he teaches English and writes whenever he can escape the classroom.

Teethings by Deena Lilygren

I’m on my front lawn, undressing Barbies and exposing their breasts to passing cars. I’m the neighborhood pervert, but no one notices. Ten years later, a more advanced neighborhood pervert will expose himself to me on the street and I will be scolded by the police officer for laughing as I run away. That’s exactly what he wants, the officer will explain, and now, my laughter has encouraged his penis. Do I understand? I will think about my own disappointment when the cars had not gone careening off the road, or even slowed for my peep show and will tell the officer I do understand. Neither of us will be punished.

In fifth grade, I meet another neighborhood pervert, one of those sad latchkey kids from the news, born from worldly mothers and lacking discipline. She takes me down to her basement and teaches me about strippers, how they work on a pole and how their job is to take their clothes off very slowly. This is all news to me—thrilling news, to learn I’d had the right idea on my front lawn, after all—and I sit on the concrete floor watching her spin around the load-bearing pole, inching her shirt up over her bra. I don’t have a bra yet, so when it’s my turn I start with my belt, a clunky thing with a childish magnetic clasp. I leave the belt behind and later on the school bus, with the sunlight glinting on her Sunkist-colored hair, I’m reluctant to bring it up. I’m punished for the lost belt, but not the stripping.

***

I’m in my twin bed, kicking at Mother. Nightly, I wake just before midnight and yell out all the violence that’s collected in my body during the day. When my parents rush in, they’re frightened by the serrated edge of my screams. With that weapon, I savage the household peace. In the morning, they all hate me and I have to drink my juice from the glass with the Hamburglar on it, which Mother used to trap a spider that time. Father takes me to Pastor, who says a special prayer just in case.

***

I’m eating scrambled eggs. It’s Saturday morning and I am remarkably unpunished. My sisters are suspicious of this rare desegregation. They feel they are receiving mixed signals about my place in the family and stare at me as they chew the crust of their toast, searching for answers. Mother doesn’t answer questions. She neither gives time-outs nor instructs me to think about my choices. I am simply punished. Dr. Dobson says the adult must always win a power struggle and she has the stamina of a woman who as a girl carried water from a well and used an outhouse. I have the stamina of a prisoner in possession of a sizable library. The problem is that we’re too evenly matched. But she has the book with my name on it: STRONG WILLED CHILD.

***

Mother has news. She has read something interesting in Redbook magazine about how to more effectively discipline her children. Father is also intrigued. They are the two most dangerous people I know.

***

I’m whispering in class with Jenna, the kind of child punishments are made for. The very idea is a deterrent. She would never choose pain, or shame, or conflict. For me, punishment is always on the table to be weighed against the thing I want to do.

I watch out for Jenna because she seems younger than the others. She has a gray tooth and her hair is boy-short, brushed with vanilla. These shortcomings aside, she is eager to learn the roller skating routines I’ve choreographed. Verisimilitude is important to us both. I’ve heard about Olympian gymnasts’ harsh Eastern European coaches and she lets me scold her the way I imagine they do. I pinch her when she misses a turn and leave thumbprint-sized smudges of purple on her bare arms. But today, we are in school and Teacher is tired of our talking, so here we go to the front of the room to make a record of our behavior on the chalkboard. Jenna doesn’t bear this classroom disgrace nearly as well as she bears my abuse.

***

I’m in the kitchen corner, taking my punishment. The rule is that no part of my body touches any part of the wall. I begin with twenty minutes and Mother will add five minutes each time I ask about the time. This is the trick: I can’t stop asking. Soon, my sentence has swelled to twenty, forty, fifty-five. The timer only goes to sixty. With only the wallpaper in my scope, I am convinced that at my back the world has changed. My family has been raptured away and gangs of godless cannibals are casing the house right now, wiping their bloody handprints on my bedspread. Or worse, Mother is still here, and the stovetop timer has stopped. I’m growing like Alice. My shoes are beginning to pinch. They will discover me months too late, dressed in rags, shriveled in the kitchen corner like a dead cricket.

At one point, I’m left alone in the kitchen for two years.

***

I’m listening to Mother and Father discuss how to best punish me. The problem is the church. Mother wants me to go and learn how to be better, but Father doesn’t like how fun they have made things for children. When he was a child, church was being hung by a rope until your prayers became real. Sometimes, a snake was involved. They compromise. I go to church but am kept in the sanctuary to suffer through long, adult sermons I survive because Mother’s parenting, it turns out, has a loophole. Books, she believes, are written by men like Father, to improve and instruct mankind. While Pastor drones on, I think about the things I read in the books I’ve acquired: all the places women are willing to pull up their skirts—civil war-era plantations, suburban schools, apocalyptic compounds—the ways a witch might curse and then bless another witch, always with blood, the things men to do wind up in prison, and what they do once they’re inside. I never once look at the clock. I am becoming unpunishable.

***

Mother has read something else. She tells me that she has learned about night terrors from Reader’s Digest. How funny, she says, for such a misunderstanding to have occurred. It all makes sense now, she says, her voice light with relief. She has done a fine job, after all. Dr. Dobson didn’t account for night terrors. She will write him a letter in the morning.

***

Part of it is that I’m getting older, which means people, even Mother and Father, are more careful about discipline. Now that I’m older, I’ve discovered the double life of everyday objects: feathers, leather belts, almost any kind of fruit. This, of course, is how the concept of prison came about. The only way to punish sinners of a certain age is with boredom. Corporal punishment is too exciting.

Jenna doesn’t know about any of this. She’s been saving up. She’s hoarding bad behavior, as though she can hedge the future with twenty years of obedience. Obedience isn’t the same as sweetness, and I’m convinced that her one gray tooth is discolored with repressed screams. She’s never pledged me any kind of loyalty, but she has mine. I need to see how this ends. How terrible to be so unpunished for so long, forever waiting for the belt to strike.

 

Deena Lilygren lives, writes, and indulges her many obsessions in Louisville, Kentucky. She is an Associate Professor of English at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College. Her work has appeared in LEO WeeklyNew Southerner, and 94 Creations.

A Gun in the First Act by Scott Garson

I saw him working on his bicycle, and I watched from the window above. Just for no reason. Not because I was worried about him. Not because I was a person who might be sensitive to the parts of a moment for which there was no direct gaugethe parts, for example, which might have opened some door to premonition. I just happened to be there. In the window. I happened to see. He was doing some work on his bike, as I’ve said. The bike was upside-down. A wheel of the bike spun free in the air near his hand, tickety-tick. I don’t know if he didn’t know how to proceed or if there was something he lacked, but progress had ceased. He was out of solutions, for now. He circled the problem of the bike. I watched as he made of his thumb and two fingers a weaponhammer and barrel. I watched as he raised it. Steadied it, fired it into his temple. He made the hand jerk and recoil with the force of what it had accomplished. He made his mouth gape. It was like the mouth was the hole, and the sound coming outI knew there was soundwas just air, the gentle, hushing sound of air when it flows in new spaces.

 

Scott Garson’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best of Small Fictions annual, The Three Penny Review, Conjunctions, The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, and others.

Early Intervention by Colleen Rothman

Six days after my son was born, I started to worry. Though my body was exhausted from having carried him for twelve months, the memory remains as clear to me as the deepest waters of the still ocean. He opened his mouth as though to babble, but all we heard was a pop of his jaw. For weeks, he swam in my slipstream, emitting only these soft pops that sometimes sounded like cracks, depending on how they refracted through the pool. Over time, we’d learn it was how he’d show us he wanted to be left alone. Our stubborn firstborn, swimming on his own wavelength from the first week of his life.

The other parents in our pod swore he’d vocalize soon, but each day passed without so much as a click. Instead, he developed other ways to communicate. A slap of his tail against the water’s surface meant he was angry. A flick of his flipper meant he wanted to play. Sometimes it meant he wanted another fish. It all depended on the look on his face, which I alone could interpret. His father only guessed right half the time.

We could tell he was on a different path from other calves. I tried not to compare him to the brood. Still, we expected his signature whistle by his first birthday. The year came and went, in the alternating flurry of activity and mundanity that any new parent would recognize. Our ears remained open, but we heard nothing.

***

At fifteen months, the trainers intervened. There were tests, followed by his first report card. They deemed his motor skills advanced, like an eighteen-month-old calf. His language skills, both receptive and expressive, were that of a newborn. It was hard not to interpret this as a failure, not on his part, but of mine. I swam in circles, my mind on a loop. If I worried enough, I could pinpoint where I had gone wrong. Faulty milk, perhaps—a lifetime of too much mercury, or endless jumping through hoops. His father shrugged it off, the news washing over him like an oil slick. He blamed the trainers and their crude instruments. As a calf, he’d never been much of a test-taker, either.

My mother suggested it was an outgrowth of coddling, a life that had known nothing but the pool. She’d heard chlorine stunts brain development. I dismissed the thought. If captivity’s the reason, shouldn’t it affect all the calves equally? I didn’t tell her I stayed up late worrying about invisible wave transmissions from the deep end’s night-vision camera. Maybe that had something to do with it. I asked her if I was a late babbler, too. She said I clicked the day I was born.

***

Three days ago, I heard him squeak. We were eating lunch; frozen cod, like every other Tuesday. Usually we float together in silence, or rather, he’s silent as I vocalize, rambling in hope that he’ll repeat something back to me. That’s what one of the trainers suggested. He has to learn to imitate before he can speak on his own.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard him make a sound. He’s done it before, then stopped—coasting on a verbal plateau before descending back into his silent bubble, the one in which I’ve feared he’d be trapped forever. This time, I could tell from the look on his face that the squeak meant something. He squeaked again, louder this time, and angled his nose in my direction. Mama. The squeak meant Mama. My heart could have burst. I wanted to hug him.

***

Two strokes forward, one stroke back. He hasn’t squeaked since. Maybe he’ll do it today, or tomorrow. Or never again. Either way, we don’t have much time left. His baby-dark skin has lightened, and he’s almost as long as his father. Soon he’ll be ready to anchor his own show.

I berate myself for wasted years. Couldn’t I have enjoyed those quiet moments, instead of willing him to speak? Our interventions seem so futile. I take a deep breath through the crest of my forehead. My thoughts cycle back to wanting to hear him whistle, once, before he leaves me. I want a cute anecdote about something he said to share with the other parents in the pool. I want to know he’ll be okay when they haul him into a holding tank, awaiting a destination I’ll never see. But what I want no longer matters, and I don’t get to decide when the story ends.

 

Colleen Rothman grew up in southern Louisiana and currently lives in the Chicago area. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Atlantic, Jellyfish Review, MUTHA Magazine, and Chicago Literati. You can find her @colleenrothman.

Escalator by Dan Sanders

“They took the candy store away,” Peg said, waiting her turn. She started the conversation into the air, turned at a forty-five-degree angle, not looking down the escalator or up at her husband, but across the chasm to the empty space where the candy store had been. It was not polite to stare and she did not want to embarrass the fallen woman. Peg said it loud enough, so people could hear her over the crying baby.

The fallen woman was a few feet in front of Peg. Peg had even politely waited a moment so the woman carrying a baby and a bag of shopping could use the escalator first, and the woman hadn’t noticed, mistimed that tricky first escalator step and had stumbled, fell back and sat down hard. The woman’s bags slammed against the rubber railing and her baby, jostled but not dropped, began to cry. Everyone was tacky and gasped. Peg composed herself and offered up her candy store observation as the stairs continued to flow.

A line had formed in the few moments while the stairs slid under the fallen woman, their metal teeth trying to grip her back, her legs and her bags. She’d tried to fight it, but didn’t try hard enough and she eventually just let herself be swept away. Peg thought it best to look away, not because it was too much to handle, but to not participate in the fuss, and instead search for and find something else to focus on.

The candy store was only open a year, maybe not even that. A bright purple storefront, big looping letters, candy by the pound and never a soul inside. A chain, but what’s wrong with that? Peg’s husband Tom did not enjoy the mall, found flaws in everything, and did not think it was nice that there were still candy stores if those candy stores were part of a larger chain. It didn’t count.

She enjoyed their visits to the mall because they were at an age when they were able to walk, but no longer at the same pace and so it gave them time to be together but also to be apart. He’d been ten steps behind her when the woman fell and had given her a good reason to mention the candy store so loudly, over the sound of the child. She offered up her voice to everyone, so they too could have a reason to look away from this woman and her flailing. It was courteous. She hadn’t meant to sound quite so distressed, as though she’d personally owned the candy store and some evil had come up behind her, grabbed it from her, and left her to float down the escalator alone.

Peg’s voice locked her into the decision not to help, and left her clear headed enough to make a proud and careful selection of her escalator step. She hoped her husband saw her do it, saw how capable she still was, especially compared to this younger fallen woman and even himself, with his knee that he never took proper care of and which left him dependent on railings, her kindness, and someday soon a cane. Peg claimed her stair and thought for a moment that she wouldn’t hold the rail out of spite, but did, out of wisdom and spite.

Helping was inappropriate. The lord helps those who help themselves, but she was stubborn besides and once she’d changed the subject to the candy store she didn’t see how she could change it back to the fallen woman. Even if nobody heard her, not even her husband, who never heard anything, hadn’t noticed the fall and seemed always to be concentrating intently on something else. The moment to help had passed and she was beginning to feel the weight of it lift, somewhere between the second and first floor, and started to feel annoyed for being forced to even have these thoughts in this place.

She wouldn’t want help herself, so why offer it. She was no hypocrite. She’d never accepted help from anyone, thought it was rude. “I’m fine,” was something she said reflexively, if someone startled her, or tapped her on the shoulder, or asked for directions. A two-word shield against a world that seemed to be endlessly aware of her. She was just fine, thank you very much.

Peg’s parents were quiet, miserable people who enthusiastically encouraged her to marry a stoic and maybe stupid man, because he owned his own failing business. At his insistence, she dusted off his poorly-kept books and rescued him, his business, their home, and their marriage time and again.

It was Peg’s solitary and relentless effort in life that made it so that she could afford to retire and enjoy the mall on a Tuesday afternoon to walk for exercise in reasonable, but fashionable, walking shoes through this climate-controlled eyesore that she railed against in city council meetings. She hated most the things that she enjoyed. She was certain, becoming only more certain as they descended, she would have slapped the hand that offered help. What a shame for that woman to be so helpless, not to mention the baby, to be saddled with such a mother, born into the kind of life that was ruining this neighborhood.

If she’d fallen, she would prefer it if everyone looked away, looked at their phones, or dispersed like a shot had been fired. She would also have had the dignity to not continue to ride the escalator seated, she would have had the strength and humility to stand. She would not have sat there in a heap, demanding attention, generating pity, radiating her pain into others. She would have thrown her bags into the penny fountain below and forced her child to stop wailing. That child deserved to learn a valuable lesson about self-reliance, minding your step, making better choices.

Peg made relentlessly good choices and to the best of her memory had never once fallen down.

Peg and Tom did not have children, though she couldn’t remember the exact circumstances of how they came to that decision. Sometimes she remembered that there was a matter-of-fact doctor’s visit, and sometimes during a night of drinking and listing regrets, her husband saying something about barely surviving their own past and not creating more burden. He would take it away from her, she would try to pull it back and they’d argue over their non-child until they wondered why they were talking about it.

She was certain that she once knew the exact moment they made the decision, she memorized it so she could deflect criticism from her parents, or when Tom became stricken with regret. She remembered remembering that there was one conversation when decisions were made and when they chose this life over that and they were done with it, put it away forever. She dusted off her hands whenever she thought about it, even now, on the escalator. But it was a long time ago now, long enough that it seemed like a reasonable thing to forget. She was deciding not to be worried about the forgetting.

Tom had been hinting that she’d been getting chronically forgetful lately, and agitated, angry. He liked to scare her, and she had decided to let herself resent him for scaring her, as he did about her knee-nagging. Resenting each other gave them something to do. She kept a list of the things that he said she’d forgotten and looked at it every day. Forgiveness was hard, required too much reflection, which she thought was haughty.

They were at the age now when their children would have forgotten about them anyway, so it had all sorted itself out. They’d have non-grandchildren by now. They’d be ignored by two generations and they’d still have just wound up here, trying to ignore each other and this woman at the end of the escalator, her adrenaline wearing off and finally allowing herself to cry about the fall.

Peg took the appropriate caution and planned her dismount as the stairs flattened out to merge with the floor and accidentally locked eyes with the crying woman. Her baby was cooing, coming down from her emotions as the crying woman was ramping up. Peg looked away and up, deciding that the cooing reminded her of the summer birds that would become lost and fly overhead, trapped in the giant expanse of the mall.

The birds would nest in the rafters under the fake sky painted on the arched ceiling, or perch in the big fake trees in the food court, living on stepped-on french fries, or occasionally, bravely swooping down after someone holding one of those giant food court pretzels, or chase each other through the open air above the atrium fountain. She wondered if they didn’t know the difference, if they were born in the building and didn’t know there was an outside world, or if they knew but didn’t care and they knew that they were safe and good enough was good enough, and made the smart decision to stay.

Three people helped the woman up from the floor, and held her baby as she limped to a bench between two potted plants, which Peg knew to be fake. She stared at the baby, felt the five empty stairs to the bottom of her husband’s feet and from the last stair, she called back over her shoulder. “Did you hear what I said, I said they took the candy store away.” He hadn’t heard, and she took his hand, and they guided each other around all the unnecessary commotion.

 

Dan Sanders is a writer in Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared in Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, The Daily Dot, and elsewhere.