How to Wear White to a Wedding by May Hathaway

1.  Open the invitation on a Tuesday, two weeks after it’s landed in your cramped mailbox. You are curled on the couch, stretching your feet out of the tight ugly brown shoes you wear every day and sorting through the credit card statements you’ve been avoiding and Sears catalogs gathered on your coffee table when you see this envelope, large and cream-colored. The paper is so thick it feels like you’re rubbing powder off of it. Your sorority sister Sarah, the invitation says, is getting married. Would you like to attend?

2.  You don’t recognize the name of Sarah’s fiancé. Back in college, she had dated a guy on the crew team. You consider checking “declines regretfully” on the RSVP card; there are better ways to spend a weekend, like organizing your bookshelf by color or feeding pigeons in the park. Calculate the costs: you’ll need to buy a wedding gift, reserve a hotel room, and book a bus ticket; there’s no way you’ll be able to afford airfare, especially at this time of year. It’s okay, though. You’ll do anything for your sorority sisters. You promised them that much when you pledged.

3.  Email your boss to let him know that you’ll have to take off a day or two next month, hoping that the abundance of exclamation points will soothe his frustration. You’re not a particularly good employee, and you know that; you’re lucky he hasn’t replaced you. Still, sometimes when you sit down at your desk and plaster on your customer service smile, you feel a surge of rage. You did everything right—you applied to college, did okay in your classes, made friends. You told men in suits about yourself and described challenging life experiences in rooms with glossy oak furniture. You went on dates with your cousin’s friend and that guy from Tinder and your colleague’s dog-walker’s brother—even if the whole career thing didn’t work out, you could learn how to be a good wife. And still, look at where you are now: you are a receptionist for a dermatology practice and Sarah is a bride-to-be. Can you believe it? She probably hasn’t sent half as many emails in her lifetime.

4.  Sarah’s wedding registry is neat and colorful and expensive; she seems to have gained a taste for silverware. Somebody has already bought a panini press and a food processor. You duly scan the list of available items. You decide to purchase a tablecloth and placemats so that she’ll remember you at every meal. Maybe she and her husband will talk about you over plates of quinoa and invite you to dinner parties, where you’ll brush hands with business executives and women who wear Tiffany wristlets, real ones, and you’ll make casual conversation over cheese platters. You can only hope.

5.  The wedding is in the Adirondacks, which makes your stomach churn. You grew up in upstate New York; you know the lakes and mountains there better than the back of your hand. Sarah grew up in Alabama or Arkansas or Georgia, somewhere decidedly dry and full of non-hikers. And you don’t own the mountains, obviously, and you’re not going to gatekeep a whole territory, but Sarah? The Adirondacks? Really?

6.  You’re taking the Greyhound bus to the wedding when disaster strikes. You’ve left work early, much to the chagrin of your boss and the guy with severe adult acne who keeps trying to flirt with you while scheduling appointments, and you’re beginning to regret it; you get nauseous on buses easily. Your favorite purple minidress doesn’t really fit anymore—it’s loose around the waist and tight at the armpits—but you still went to the effort of getting it dry-cleaned. Everyone looks miserable here, yourself included. When the bus grinds to a halt, you stand up and feel the granola bar you ate for breakfast rising towards your throat. Outside, you spit a few times as people shuffle towards their luggage, trying to get the sour out of your mouth. By the time you’re done wiping your lips, only the driver is left. When you duck under the bus to grab your things, you see a single suitcase left—the duffle bag with your dress is gone. Shit.

7.  You hate the Adirondacks. You hate this venue. They have a small store, like you knew they would, and the dresses are all sold at exorbitant prices, like you knew they would be. The unexpected part is that almost all of their dresses are sold out; more than one guest, it seems, has been forgetful. The only dress they have left in your size is a lacy ivory sheath, and you swipe your credit card without hesitation. It occurs to you to let Sarah know about your new outfit, but you’re so tired after a long bus ride, and it’s definitely not a big deal; she’s probably at the rehearsal dinner right now. Besides, as much as it pains you to admit it, you hate Sarah.

8.  When you wake up in the morning and slip into the dress, you do not feel the expected guilt. You coat your eyelashes in mascara and rub blush onto your cheeks and wait for a pit to form in your stomach, but you’re surprisingly calm. You eat eggs from the hotel breakfast bar and observe how easily they break apart into little nubs. On the way to the venue, you think about all the times you could’ve gotten married, even if it was just to the guy who smiled at you in the parking lot once, and touch up your concealer.

9.  You are in the Adirondacks wearing white to a wedding. Everyone is staring at you. Everyone hates you. Everyone includes yourself, but more importantly, everyone includes Sarah, whose face is blotchy despite her heavy layers of makeup. She is screaming, you think. Specifically, she is screaming at you; the words are coming in chains of how could you wear that and how are you so stupid and you’re jealous of me, I’ve known since college and today is my day, mine. From her latest stream of vitriol, you have learned that her fiancé’s name is Mark. You wonder if he’s going to calm her down, but he stands there, useless, like most men. Sarah, you think, is having some sort of psychotic break. She is unwell. She needs help. It is not until Mark takes a step towards you instead of towards Sarah and places a hand on your arm, firm in an entirely uncaring way, that you realize that you are screaming too.

10.  In one of the most humiliating moments of your life to date, call your mom from your hotel bathroom. You called an Uber from the venue after Mark hauled you onto the grass, where you stumbled in your heels—it seemed like an appropriate time to splurge. When she picks up, you are crying too hard to get the words out. For a good minute, you are gasping for air while your mom asks you what’s wrong over and over again; each inhale feels like your chest is cracking open. Stop blubbering, she says, and you steady your lower lip long enough to tell her that you need money to book a ticket back home. She starts yelling, just like Sarah did, and snot leaks onto your white dress. I didn’t even do anything, you say quietly between sobs. I didn’t even do anything. After hanging up, you crawl onto starchy sheets of the hotel bed and think about how difficult it is to be loved. The deposit lands in your bank account three hours later.

 

May Hathaway is a writer from New York City. Her work is published or forthcoming in Hobart After DarkPANK, and Vagabond City Lit and has been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the National YoungArts Foundation. An alumna of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program and the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, she will attend the University of Pennsylvania in the fall.

You’re Still You by Anna Vangala Jones

My earlobes were the first thing I touched after waking from the brief coma caused by the accident. I was glad I could rub them between my fingers, unharmed and unbloodied, so different from the rest of what remained of my face. It was comforting and cozy to pinch and pull on them like saltwater taffy when surrounded by the doctors discussing me and my case each morning during rounds. I could hear with my ears and also escape into the texture of them.

Reconstruction makes you as unrecognizable to yourself as anyone else. They wanted to prepare me for what that first look in the mirror would be like after the surgery. They didn’t believe I was excited. You should be proud, I told them, not afraid to reveal your intricate and elaborate work. I joked to the attending that I would be like Frankenstein’s monster when they were done.

“You’re still you, Jane,” one of the residents called out. I remember staring at her, that young and eager doctor in training, long after she’d finished interrupting. I wanted to catch the soft flesh of her earlobe in my teeth, feel the tickle of that light peach fuzz on each bud of my tongue.

My nurse then said that my parents and brother were waiting to see me and could they come in now? But I told her I was tired, so maybe later.

Now the surgery is over and I am awake, looking at a face in the mirror they say is mine.

After waiting for my sobs to fill the room, the doctors leave upon seeing my anticlimactic reaction. I say, thank you but I would just like to sleep.

My beautiful resident closes the door and stays inside. “You don’t have to pretend to be so strong.”

“I’m not pretending. I don’t mind. I wasn’t attached to the old face.” I sound sure and therefore I probably am.

She makes her way to my bedside. “Does it look very different?” She looks so sorry.

“Yes.” I don’t hesitate or dress the truth up prettier than it is.

“We do our best, but when the damage—” She talks in that sweet honey singsong I’ve enjoyed so much, even as it’s made her colleagues roll their eyes when she speaks with confident authority. I stop her though I like to listen to her. The music of her.

“You don’t need to do that. I know. I’m not upset with you.”

 “It’s my fault,” she says, but I sense the words before I hear them. “I’m new at getting to assist during the procedures. And my hand—I got so nervous, it shook, and I’m so sorry.”

She’s breathing too fast for language to keep up and I place my hand on hers, the one she indicated had been the guilty party during my surgery. I can feel it tremble now beneath mine. I reach for her arm, to pull her closer to me, until I feel the rigid tension in her small frame start to lessen and then she’s seated on my bed as I want.

“It’s the only way you baby doctors can learn,” I tell her with a smile I mean genuinely even if it looks false, like a stranger’s. “Besides, they wouldn’t have let you do anything too important.”

She laughs with tears in the notes. “You’re not the one supposed to be comforting me.”

“Maybe. But you’re upset and I’m not. So this way makes sense for now, right?”

“What are you, a saint?” She notices the fixation of my eyes on her earlobes and the mood in the room shifts. I know she’ll probably leave any minute now and I’ll let her. Then it’ll just be me and the mirror. Alone.

“Sad that being understanding and decent qualifies one for sainthood now,” I say, but I keep my tone light and playful as I release her hand and readjust my body against the pillows behind me. I’m not looking at her anymore and I think she knows she’d better go. She stands and I focus on the wrinkles and creases of her turquoise scrubs, so I can unmemorize her face.

“You’re very nice to make me feel better, but I am still sorry,” she says.

“You’re forgiven.”

She seems to be going and is almost gone. But then she turns around and leans back against the door and nods at me. Something in her expression reminds me of the warmth intermingled with pity I could read in the faces of all my loved ones the first time they saw me after it happened. It was maybe not as painful as it would be if they’d physically recoiled, but somehow it felt like they had anyway. I haven’t let any of them come back inside my room since before the surgery. I’m told they took turns showing up just in case for a while, only to be rejected outside my door. Each day, my nurses would remind me that they were there, in the waiting room, poised and ready for when I’d change my mind. Until I didn’t and the nurses stopped saying they were there. I can’t ask now even though I wonder and need to know. Because what if they’re not anymore? I hate my doctor for staying.

“Don’t look at me.”

She stares out the window instead. Then she waits until I start to cry. Once I do finally begin, it’s hard to stop. I rub and scratch at my left earlobe so fiercely and savagely that my nails nearly draw blood. I don’t know why I seek to destroy my own pacifier, but I want to claw my earlobes until they resemble the pulp of a blood orange, like I imagine my whole face did in the back of the ambulance that night. When she wrestles my hands away from my ears and hugs me, I almost ask—did any of them wait for me? Are they still here?

 

Anna Vangala Jones is the author of the forthcoming short story collection Turmeric & Sugar (Thirty West Publishing, May 2021). Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Wigleaf, HAD, and AAWW’s The Margins, among others. Find her online at annavangalajones.com and on Twitter @anniejo_17. 

Dorothy Grows a Beard by Joy Guo

Dorothy decides to grow a beard. If she doesn’t do it now, she never will.

Not just a wispy mustache, or a goatee that traps sweater fuzz and cat hair. She goes for the full Bandholz, as depicted in the top right corner of the CDC beard and mask infographic.

It doesn’t take long to fully materialize. Dorothy drinks plenty of water, takes her vitamins, makes sure to get 10,000 steps in every day, activates the meditation app on her phone, cuts out alcohol and smoking, slips into bed at 10 PM sharp. She tracks the rate of hair growth closely, proud of the lush plumage her face is acquiring. Certainly makes putting on makeup a whole lot simpler – now she only needs to worry about the upper half.

As soon as she wakes up, she runs her fingers through it, amazed at how bristly it is, how rubbing against it produces friction, like she is touching someone else. She tends to it as if it were a finicky plant, snipping at the edges every two days. If left to its own devices, the beard could turn her into Gandalf.

Her colleagues don’t seem to discern what’s going on or, if they do, don’t care. Working remotely from home makes it so that a certain level of frivolity is tolerated and even appreciated. Like the green-screened backgrounds of various movie landscapes or the toddler that pops up randomly in the corner, her beard prompts a few chuckles, at most a joke that every day is Halloween for Dorothy, and then the focus of attention shifts to matters more important.

At the store, where shoppers scrounge for the last reserves of flour and toilet paper, Dorothy goes completely unnoticed. 

“You have a CVS card? Cash or credit?” The cashier flicks his gaze up at her, sees nothing out of the ordinary compared to the maelstrom of bizarre things he sees on a daily basis, and hands the bag over.

On the weekends, Dorothy sinks into a lawn chair facing her mother’s living room window. Ellen prattles on and on about the extinction of cruise ships, how the local elementary school keeps opening and closing every two weeks like clockwork, the neighbor’s teenage son who wanders around with his nose and mouth fully exposed.  

“Wait just a minute,” Ellen says, squinting through the screen.

Out of habit, Dorothy props her hand over her jaw. She used to do this all the time, in meetings, on dates, sitting alone on her couch, until the beard showed her a different way. She braces herself. 

“Is that a new scarf you’re wearing? Where’d you get it?”

Her father, God rest his soul, would have noticed as soon as Dorothy got out of the car.

One morning, on a jog, Dorothy spots another woman with a beard. Dorothy flags her down. Standing a few feet apart, they take off their masks, revel in each other’s visage, and exchange tips on grooming and eating without looking like a total mess.

“I have to say,” the woman enthuses, “I’m so glad I took the plunge. I’ve always wanted to know what it feels like.”

“Me, too.”

The beard lends a hand with various aspects of Dorothy’s life. She thinks, I can do this, so what else? She throws out clothes that are too big, too small, too otherwise different from how she is at that very moment. She reaches out to acquaintances to whom she has not spoken in years. She lets the scale under her bed grow furry with dust. She bakes loaves and loaves of banana and sourdough bread, eats them joyfully. She starts the first sentence of the novel she’s always wanted to write. She meets leering gazes head-on. She feels big and magnanimous, even towards the twenty-somethings huddled together at makeshift bars on sidewalks, their masks askew or tucked under their chins, poor imitations of her beard.  

Her boss announces a tentative end to working from home for April 2021. “Folks, that date could certainly end up being pushed back. We’re not ruling that out. But we wanted to let you know as soon as possible so you can start making the appropriate plans.”

Dorothy shudders. She can picture it. That first day back in the office – stumbling through all the hugs and high-fives, throwing out all the dead plants on her ledge, strapping the headset back into place. She’ll be clean-shaven, of course.

By this point, Dorothy can’t remember what she looks like without a beard. She has nightmares where it crawls right off her face and scuttles away on tiny legs, never to be seen again. “Bye!” It screams over its shoulder. “It’s been nice and all, but I’ve really got to get going before you throw me away.”

I won’t, Dorothy mutters herself awake. I won’t.

She throws out the trimmers, clippers, scissors, even the comb, instead. She decides to let the beard unfold according to its own seasons. Will it eventually fall all the way to her knees? Will she have to tie it back? Will it turn grey? She pictures herself hunched over and grizzled. The image puddles like hot honey in her chest.

Dorothy closes her eyes and pets herself, lulled by the tactile feel. She leaves those questions for another day.

 

Joy Guo lives in Manhattan with her husband. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and a white collar and regulatory defense attorney. Her work is forthcoming in Failbetter

My heart has given me the slip again by B. Tyler Lee

But if you’re searching for real, you’ll likely find him by the railroad tracks south of Settlement Road. Don’t tell the other organs. He’ll have his breakfast—which is also his lunch—wrapped in a handkerchief and tethered to the tea towel he uses as a bedroll. (Dinner is moonshine, always moonshine.) He’ll have his scruffy little dog with him. He named her after Daisy Buchanan: “Her bark is full of money,” he said. But it isn’t, and that’s swell, too. She’s made of tenacity and wire hair and lays down next to him like an ace girl should.

You probably haven’t heard over there in your land where amber waves and Washington’s cherry tree and equality all smell kinda genuine, but my heart’s a goddamned folk hero now. He’s the Johnny Appleseed of affection, the Doc Holliday of delight. He’s hard-boiled Casey Jones—he breaks instead of brakes. They say he doesn’t shy from donnybrooks, but that’s only because my heart seeks out injustice, and sometimes words can’t right a wrong. But he’s never bloodied a body who didn’t earn it.

My heart’s a true American. But not American like Babe Ruth and frankfurters. American like he won’t visit a doctor until his aorta practically smells of gangrene. American like he’d rather amputate his vena cava than admit he couldn’t find due west in the dark.

My heart has never read a Steinbeck novel because he’s the paradigm. (Also, he doesn’t have eyes.)

By day, my heart harvests blueberries three at a go, or he wields doll-sized picket signs and pummels the toes of anti-union goons. It’s all the same, in the end. By night, he sings Woody Guthrie ballads around a campfire to a different half-dozen hobo colons in every Hooverville. And when the bathtub bourbon surges inside him, he rubs an artery across his thimble-cup and thinks of you. No one knows but Daisy, but she’s always there, aware of how his months spent on Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway are really just the warp and weft of him running from you.

Even the ocean is treacherous, though: sometimes the Pacific will waft toward him, and he’ll remember the time you kissed us under the water in Atlantic City, how we rose after and felt you surface and dive, surface and dive, over and over like a mermaid, luring us toward that false realm of yours—bursting with stripes and stars, bootstraps and melting pots—we can never inhabit. This you know. This you knew. And sometimes he can’t tell one ocean’s perfume from another, the way you can’t tell an organ who loves you from one who doesn’t—but maybe he needs that reminder now and then, too.

Look, it’s true. My heart’s been avoiding you and me both. But you should also know that he’s only stolen once his whole life—the Widow Barker’s pocket pies, off her windowsill outside Duluth. Daisy lay starving, her fur patched away by an empty belly and the wind. Ravaged himself, he took two pumps and fed the rest to Daisy, ventricle to dying mouth, until she could roam and fight once more. And even after all this time, everywhere your beliefs have taken you, he’d still shatter his internal compass again like that if it meant he could save you, too.

 

B. Tyler Lee is the author of one poetry collection, With Our Lungs in Our Hands (Redbird Chapbooks, 2016). Her hybrid essay “●A large volume of small nonsenses” won the 2020 Talking Writing contest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Puerto del SolJet Fuel Review, HAD, Acting Up: Queer in the New Century (Jacar Press), and elsewhere. She teaches in the Midwest.

Night Feeding by Lindy Biller

I unbutton my nightshirt and discover them: tiny fire ants tracing the rosary around my nipple, each goosebumped pore and coarse dark hair a prayer bead. 

I don’t have any offerings to give. No crumbs, no crust of sugar for their squirming, hungering children. Mandibles pinch and release, testing ripeness. I brush them off and stomp the ones I can reach. The rest of the colony melts into hiding places: the cracks in the headboard, the chasm between wall and baseboard, the open-mouthed sockets. Do ants notice when fewer of them return? I touch my breast with one finger. Round and hard as a bowling ball, skin stretched tight. Your father is asleep in bed and there are no bites on his face, no dark pixels crisscrossing his skin. 

In the hallway, my hand misses the light switch a few times. The pump waits in the closet, top shelf. I grab all the parts and force them together. There is dried milk on the plastic shield, air bubbles in the tubing. There is mold growing in the first bottle I grab, and I can’t find another one. No time. I am moments from bursting, like the parable I was supposed to teach for Sunday school. New wine, old wineskins. If you mix them, both the wine and the skins will be lost. Isn’t that how the story goes? Your father, still snoring, would know. I’m not sure. I skipped church and took the stale communion bread down to the river and tore off pieces for the ducks, and even they knew better than to eat it. 

My skin prickles beneath the plastic shield. I pump the handle as though I’m spraying Windex on grimy windows. Nothing comes out and my breast is on fire and the rhythmic mechanical gasps make me think of heroic measures in intensive care units, though I’ve never been inside one. No time. The paramedics thought you were probably gone within half an hour of when I laid you down. I didn’t kiss you before I tiptoed out—you were in a deep, warm sleep and it seemed too risky. When we found you in the morning, your father did chest compressions: two fingers pressing straight down, dead center between your nipples. I sealed my mouth over your face and sent small puffs of air inside, inflating you like a balloon. If I could’ve blown my own life into you, I would have.

One drop falls in the plastic bottle. Two. Then the milk gushes. Everloving fuck. Soon I am past the one-ounce line. Soon I’m past two and three and four and I need to switch to a new bottle, except there isn’t one. I fill two cereal bowls and a confetti-glazed mug and the glass pitcher my mom filled with lemonade when she stayed over, doing laundry and cooking dinner and sitting next to my bed, rubbing my back until I fell asleep. She did the same thing the week you were born, except it was your back she was rubbing. Her visits like bookends. 

I break the seal with my pinky and set the pump aside. I am empty. Deflated. Fire ants emerge from the darkness, probing the sides of my mismatched vessels for something to grip.

I should donate my milk to someone who needs it. Next time I will. But for now, I carry the mug and bowls and pitcher outside, milk sloshing over. There are ant mounds sprawling along the back step, bathed in moonlight. I empty the pitcher into their tiny, gaping mouths. Maybe they’ll be satisfied and stop biting me awake. Maybe they’ll drown. Either way, an improvement. There are poppies growing along the fence, buds closed like small fists, and I pour the rest of the milk over them. Maybe when they open they’ll smell like your skin, that yeasty maple syrup sweetness, maybe I’ll hold the blooms close to my face and whisper your name to the soft, milky petals.

 

Lindy Biller is a writer who hails from Metro Detroit and now lives in Wisconsin. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at SmokeLong Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, Pithead Chapel, and Apparition Lit. She works at a small game design studio, crafting stories and concepts for online learning games.

What is Possible in This, Our Year 2021 by Kendra Fortmeyer

What is possible is loving. What is possible is not loving every person, but loving at least one thing about every person. What is possible is to remind yourself of this thing in traffic, in the grocery store, scrolling.

What is possible is to tell the people you love, and the people you almost love, and the people you love one thing about what it is you love about them. What is possible is to write it on postcards, on sidewalks, whispered into the pennies you press into their palms. What is possible is to linger a moment to see if they smile. If they turn the other cheek, and to what end. 

What is possible, though difficult, is to share the small gem of your love you have polished from the rock, and to have it tossed back through your window. To see your postcards and forests burned, your sidewalks flooded. What is possible is to watch the sun setting earlier and weaker, shadows collecting in the corners of your rooms as your love is returned with nothing at all.

What is possible is to save your love, lock it up in a small wooden box that still smells like the breath of its maker. What is possible, though not without copyright permission, is to hey, hide your love away. What is possible is to overthink, to retreat, to spinout complex calculi: whiteboards and footnotes and string theories of who is deserving of your love. What is possible to retreat to the internet! To publicly declaim, I offered the world my love and all I got was this lousy _____. What is possible to fill in that blank with anything, and preferably something that will get a lot of likes.

What is possible is to tell yourself that you are owed something on the merit of your love.

What is possible is to believe it.

What is possible — and, in fact, certain, according to the unmasked woman sitting in a pile of bags in front of the post office, gripping a tattered copy of the Farmer’s Almanac, and talking, talking — is that the winter ahead will be long, and hard.

The winter ahead will be long and hard.

The winter ahead will be long and hard.

* * * *

What is possible is that you will seal your house up tight. Treat yourself with wool and fleece, with clove and amber candles. Breathe clouds onto the chill windowpanes, and trace tiny hearts through which you glimpse, outside, the gray skeletons of the trees.

What is possible is that you could stay this way a long, long time.

What is also possible is this.

One day, when the shadows in your corners mass dark and deep, lapping at your toes, you’ll spy a girl moving down the street toward your house. She stops, bending on the sidewalk. Comes closer. Stops, bending. Now she’s at the house two doors down from yours. Now your neighbor’s. It is possible that a strange heat will rise in your chest. Hey, you think. They’d better not. Whoever it is. They’d better not. Not in my yard, they’d better — whirling tighter and tighter, until the heat and the pitch send you sweaty, reeling, toward the door. Mask and hat in your numb fingers.

And look — what is possible is that the girl is doing any number of things. Casing the neighborhood. Looking for her lost keys. Collecting acorns. 

It is, in fact, wonderful how many things are possible. And what is most wonderful of all is this:

The girl will be several houses down already by the time you come outside. It is possible is that, in her wake, the weak winter sun gleams on a bright copper penny shining right before your mailbox. As you watch, the girl pulls another penny from her pocket, brings it to her lips. Then stoops, planting it in front of the Ramirezes’ house.

What is possible is that you pick up the penny at your feet. All around you, the air sounds different than you remembered, unbounded. All that space.

What is possible is that, well, now you have a penny.

But this is also possible. What is possible is this: As you rub the coin between your fingers, the sharp smell of copper springs up sweet and strong. As if you can hear a whisper: Hello, and here is what I love about you.

What is possible is that tomorrow morning you’ll wake up, see the penny on your night table, and remember, fiercely, that there is a person in the world who believes in your beauty. Remember that you are loved. And you will rise, and try again.

Or maybe, the most wonderful of all possible things: You won’t wait. You won’t sleep on this love. What is possible is that standing there, penny in your fist, you’ll remember the same you accepted the embrace of a person you loved just one thing about. You’ll remember the gladness with which you both whispered, we are okay, we are okay, we will be okay. And what is possible, though it seems impossible now, is that you’ll take off running. You’ll fly down the sidewalk, past the Joneses and the Ramirezes and the Puris, pennies and whispers and wishes flashing beneath your feet. In your heart, you’ll be singing, It’s possible, it’s possible, it’s possible.

 

Kendra Fortmeyer is a Pushcart Prize-winning writer whose fiction has appeared in LeVar Burton Reads, Best American Nonrequired Reading, One Story, The Toast, Lightspeed, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and New Writers Project MFA program at UT Austin. Her debut young adult novel, Hole in the Middle, has been published in the US, UK, and Germany. Currently, she is the Visiting Fiction Writer at the University of Texas at Austin. She drinks too much tea, probably.

Second Life by Chelsea Stickle

The nutcrackers had gone rabid. At night they worked each other’s back levers to chew the acorn candles on the mantle. Little nibbles at first, on the side facing the wall. Then rivulets down the back once they discovered the wax was softer after the family lit fires. Emboldened by their success, they dreamed bigger. They were face down in the triple chocolate cake with peanut butter buttercream when Sandy came downstairs on Christmas Eve to perform her Santa duties. They lolled side to side in the dim light of the Christmas tree. She armed herself with the fireplace poker. “The fuck is happening?” she asked, holding it like a baseball bat.

“We’re starving,” said the first nutcracker. It didn’t turn to face her. The buttercream was smeared like a bad spray-on tan.

“This is your fault,” said the second nutcracker. It didn’t face her either. “You didn’t feed us this year.”

Sandy lowered the poker. “Feed you?”

“You have to use us,” the first one said.

“This was never a problem with your mother,” the second one said. “She always fed us.”

“My mother’s dead.” And if Sandy had been on her own, she would’ve gotten rid of the creepy crackers with their bulging eyes and the mammoth teeth, but her children had fallen in love with them. Her son made the soldiers reenact famous duels, and their hideous oversized teeth made her daughter feel less self-conscious about what would eventually cause an orthodontia bill from hell. “So you need nuts?”

“Yes,” the first one replied.

The second one lifted its head. “Was that unclear?”

Sandy hid the poker behind her back. “That buttercream is made from peanuts, and it’s mostly butter and sugar. I think we have some walnuts in the pantry.”

The nutcrackers looked at her in unison like twins in a horror movie. Their faces covered in her Christmas dessert. Their eyes lifeless and painted on. The glass dome lay on the counter with a large hole in it, like they’d eaten their way through.

“Come look.”

When they were in range, she swung the poker back and knocked the first one into the fireplace. An arm shattered off when it hit the stone backing. The second one swiveled and leaped away unsteadily, but Sandy slapshotted it in. The nutcrackers bucked and rolled. The fire didn’t stop them. They tried to maneuver themselves upright in the thick black smoke. Their voices became faint. The flames burned high and fast. She nudged them back with the poker after they flailed off. Silence.

It had been upsetting to find them ruining her cake, but there was some satisfaction in using a tool her mother would’ve gotten rid of immediately once they’d switched to gas. But Sandy hadn’t hurried. Sometimes objects found a second life if you kept them around, and that unexpected life could be even more rewarding. As the clock struck midnight, she watched the flames lick the nutcrackers like lollipops.

 

Chelsea Stickle lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Her flash fiction appears in Monkeybicycle, The Molotov Cocktail, matchbook, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. She’s a reader for Pidgeonholes. Her debut chapbook, Breaking Points, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press (fall 2021). Read more at www.chelseastickle.com, or find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.

Experts by David Byron Queen

Terry Rawlings knew nothing about gymnastics when he bought an abandoned aircraft hangar out by the interstate, and needed something to do with it. He hired his hunting pal, Murph, a foreman for a local construction firm, to gut the place. He replaced the dirt with padded Tight-Lock rubber flooring and lined the walls with polyfoam stunt mats. He bought a pommel horse, a balance beam, a few vault boards, some tension bars, uneven bars, parallel bars, a half-dozen chalk holders, and a set of still rings to hang from the rafters, above a thick landing mat.

Terry hired a team of coaches and assistants, then went to a local engraver and ordered a display case’s worth of trophies with our names and made-up achievements. Nobody ever questioned it—why would they? Rawlings Gymnastics wasn’t a place where champions were made; it was a place where parents could leave their kids for a few hours after school, and buy some much-needed time to themselves. If any students did show promise, Terry passed them along to the many more legitimate gyms in Missoula, or Helena. Talent was an unwanted burden; it distracted and drew attention to the place—something he worked hard to prevent.

The staff, of course, knew all this. A Google search had revealed that he hadn’t come in 2nd Overall in the 1973 Big Sky Gymnastics Competition (it wasn’t founded until 1981). But Terry was nice enough, and he paid us well enough. At sixty-four and retired, he was looking for a source of income to supplement what he had already, and (maybe) a place to hide it.

Terry seemed tough when you’d meet him. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and had these rough, knotty hands. He’d made good money at a power plant in New Jersey, before heading out west on a bow-hunting trip and falling for the place and making a down payment on a twenty-acre piece of land in the Bitterroot Valley, a few miles outside of Florence.

Truth is, we inflated our own knowledge and experience knowing Terry wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Sure, we’d done some high school athletics. I had run track at Hellgate, and gone through basic, but my fitness had dropped off by then. One of us, Claire, had gone to state on floor and still had a tremendous stag leap, but for the rest of us it was a stretch.

Everything would have been fine, if Terry hadn’t attempted to relocate. Murph’s crew came in once again, breaking down the entire gymnastics center with the goal of moving it, piece by piece, up a nearby hill he’d also bought about a half mile away.

Why? It’s hard to say. He’d lost a son later in his life, and most of us figured this project was his way of working through it. They’d found the man’s car in a lake in Canada somewhere. A note had been left in marker on the windshield. He was buckled in his seat inside.

As long as Terry was paying us, we’d hang out around the worksite, watching the backhoes move dirt into piles. He’d arrive each day in a truck that had a severed elk head in the bed of it, blood spread out under in a black-red circle. We could smell it up the road, coming our way, adding new life to the smells of the worksite—the stacks of saw-ripped two-by-fours, the torched steel, the power-shoveled earth—as the sun beamed through the ceiling truss on the hill, throwing shadows across the lawn that at certain parts of the day looked like the skeleton of a whale. Terry would approach us sitting there. He’d say how nice the new center was going to look, and how thankful he was for our patience during this “transition.” Some days, we’d see Terry lying on the crash mat for hours, staring up at the sky, watching the gliding clouds.

We did our best with what we had. We set up the pommel horse and some of the mats and, while the weather was tolerable, we’d instruct the kids right there, under the big open sky. We’d talk them through tumbles, handstand walks, hollow body holds, and the steady rings Murph would sometimes hang from his team’s mobile crane when it wasn’t in use.

By winter, everything stalled. The snow and cold prevented us from continuing our instruction outdoors, and Terry had burned through a considerable amount of money. When our paychecks started coming in more irregularly, most of us went our separate ways.

I stayed on longer than most. Less out of a sense of commitment to Terry—though we got along fine, he and I—and more because I couldn’t find a new job.

I had no real plan back then. I applied all over. From the juice stand at the mall, to a place called The Gun Barn, that always had a man dressed as an Ambush 300 dancing by the road. I applied to teach at an elementary school, but failed my trial when I gave one child in the class permission to use the bathroom; seeing my weakness, more kids asked to use the bathroom and didn’t return. Finally, most of the class was gone and my supervisor, Leah, had to leave in the middle of my lesson and track them all down.

One night, I must have written her an email. Leah wrote back to say she didn’t like my tone and a few months down the line we’d be living together and when things were good some nights we’d sit on our patio, looking at the mountains. She’d tell me wild things like you could put your hand theoretically right through a solid table if its atoms were arranged a little differently. And I’d watch her and fall in and out of love. But that’s a different story.

To help cover the rent on our apartment after Leah left, I asked Terry if he’d be OK with me taking on a few of his students. He allowed me to take whatever equipment I could load into my truck and set up in my living room. The equipment had sat out all winter and was rusted and banged to hell with these coiled metal springs reaching through in places, and I had to be careful. I wrapped the balance beam and pommel horse with duct tape and it worked fine for a while until one day this boy was up on the beam and his foot slipped off the duct tape and he hit his head on the coffee table. I got the boy and all the others in my truck and hustled them over to the hospital where he had stitches put in. Out in the parking lot, the boy’s parents said I was lucky I wasn’t well off enough to sue. I’d never considered myself lucky before.

I brought the equipment back to Terry, who was living in the worksite trailer since he’d had to sell his house to pay off his debts. The hill was more or less blasted away, by then replaced by a deep ugly crater in the earth. I said to Terry he should say it was caused by some kind of alien meteor or something, and have people pay to come look at it, you know, bored families driving cross country, but he didn’t seem charged on the idea. “I’d have to get it verified,” he said. “And I’d have to find a meteor to blame it on.” He said he had something for me. A trophy. He’d had them made for the staff right around the time we’d all started leaving, and now they were sitting in a box in his office. He said I could have it, and told me if I saw any of them around, to give them their trophies. I put the box in my truck and forgot about it.

Then later that week I was pulled over after leaving the bar. I saw this red and blue and white swirling light in my rearview. This was out by the airport, from what I recall.

The officer asked me if I’d been drinking. I told him, yes, I had. He had me get out and kiss the little metal beak of his breathalyzer. Of course, I didn’t pass—there’s that. But I think he thought there was more to the situation than there was. So he asked to search my truck. I said OK, and at the time it felt strategic, like I had a bunch more ideas down the line, and each idea was informing and building on the next, when I don’t think I really did.

He shined a light on the box of trophies in the truck bed. “You must be pretty good.”

“An expert,” I said, and sprinted off into the night.

 

David Byron Queen grew up in Ohio. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, VICE, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, McSweeney’s, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from the University of Montana, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. Currently he lives in Brooklyn, New York and runs the indie publishing company word west. Find him on Twitter @byron_queen.

Jumping the Shark by Jennifer Wortman

We’d come to the point in our marriage where I’d forgotten my husband’s name and I barely remembered mine. He was husband. I was wife. I’d been reading spiritual teachings that lauded the virtues of boredom, and when my husband and I stared dead-eyed at each other across the dinner table, I took deep breaths and tried to connect to my vibrant essence. “How was your day?” my husband would ask. “Oh, you know…,” I’d answer. He did know! He could have easily summarized my day for me: I had two or three possible days I cycled through and he knew them all. This familiarity made us strangers. “How was your day?” I’d ask him. He’d say exactly what I knew he would say, and we’d gape at each other.

One night, after once more failing to connect to my vibrant essence, I said, “I want a divorce.” The words just sprang out, like a scroll from one of those joke guns. In the early days of our marriage, we used to demand a divorce as a running gag: You don’t like black olives? I want a divorce! It was funny because it wasn’t true. This time it was true, or not patently false, but my husband laughed anyway. I joined in the laughter and convinced myself I’d spun comic gold.

A few days later, he came home straddling a motorcycle. “How the hell did you pay for that?” I asked.

“It’s a Triumph,” he said, as if that were an answer. “Like Fonzie rode.” He knew of my childhood love of Fonzie, the chaste fantasies I’d concoct to help me sleep, where I’d hoop my arms around Fonzie’s leathered trunk as he zoomed us through the sexy Milwaukee streets. Oh, to be whisked away from my fighting parents! Their every word, gesture, action had significance, was some sort of act of war. Or every so often, a call for peace. But nothing was neutral.

“You looked up Fonzie’s motorcycle?” I asked.

He nodded shyly. “Want to go for a ride?” How could I not? I climbed on.

We drove through the unsexy but not unpleasant streets of our nondescript lower-middle-class residential neighborhood. My husband showed surprising facility with the bike, and I enjoyed the deep leans of our turns, the brief surrender to gravity only to flout it. We returned home exhilarated and holding hands. I let the grim matter of money drop. If feeling alive meant more debt, so be it.

The next day, when my husband came home in a black leather jacket and beckoned me with a flick of his head, I skittered right over and followed him outside. He’d done something different to his hair: a slick substance molded it back, lending his trim Anglo features Mediterranean oomph. I leapt onto the bike, donned my helmet like a pro, and off we rode.

My husband had an obnoxious habit of leaving lights on, but that night, not only did he turn off lights upon exiting rooms but he did so by punching the wall with the side of his fist. Within days, our sex life exponentially improved. It was like back when we first met and each touch a was a new weather, flouting forecast.

I continued with my self-paced spiritual studies and practices. Long ago, someone had told me that marriage was like meditation: the key was, come what may, to hold your seat. So each evening, I’d plop down on my meditation cushion and observe my breath, the rise and fall of my chest, the cool wind entering my nose and the warm air that emerged.

One night, I experienced a sensation of rising from the floor. I chalked it up to spiritual wooziness. But the sensation increased: the beige carpet dropped down beneath me. I’d never aspired to levitation, but now it was just happening: had I achieved a true magic, a transcendence beyond the Fonz?

I sensed something behind me and turned. My husband held his thumbs up, pointing outward, the classic Fonzie stance.

“Put me down,” I snapped. But he was so enamored of his own powers he didn’t hear me, or didn’t listen. “Put me down!” I repeated.

“But it’s amazing. A miracle.”

I’d thought those same words once, about us. Our love had been the Fonz: it was cool and fiery; it fixed broken things; it walked in a room and people cheered. Maybe not: but it felt like that, that together we were enchanted and enchanting. As my husband lowered me, I felt the letdown of our lives.

“Didn’t you like it?” he asked. I did. In fact, the second my hips touched the floor I felt a loss I couldn’t measure. But it was just another trick, and, worse, a trick played on me instead of by me.

“No,” I said.

“But I did it for you. I thought you liked magic men.”

“You’re not magic,” I said, channeling my parents’ habitual antagonism. “And I don’t like you.” All these years I’d kept it down. Most of the time. But being miraculously lifted and lowered shook it out of me.

I locked the door to our bedroom and tried to recreate the levitation on my own. I knew trying wasn’t the answer, but neither was trying not to try. I had to accept the trying without trying to try or trying not to try. This required a lot of failing, which I also had to accept. These conundrums humbled me, and I felt ready to apologize to my husband without making things worse.

I found my him hovering high in the living room, his denimed legs tucked in a full lotus, a position I could never achieve. His half-closed eyes saw nothing but his own bliss.

I wanted him to teach me. We could do this together. I’d rack up debt with my own bike and leather gear. We’d sit on air side by side.

“Hey,” I said. “I’m really sorry about before.”

Nothing. He was lost in the ether, I thought, but then his face, as if painstakingly adjusting itself to lower realms, registered my presence. “I want a divorce,” he said, his legs uncrossing as he drifted to the floor.

I spat out a laugh, but the croak that emerged only punctuated my foolishness. He didn’t crack a smile. My husband, who, if I was honest, had always looked a tad ridiculous as The Fonz, suddenly looked 100 percent not ridiculous. He’d become the Fonziest Fonz there ever was, his white tee a beacon of everyone’s dreams, his jacket a sheath for the blade of his greatness, his coif a plush arrow to heaven.

“Please,” I said. For what can you say to a god in desperate times but “please, please, please”?

He shook his head, and I knew all was lost. I ran outside, and there was the motorcycle poised at a fetching little tilt. I jumped on and rode through our little streets, waiting for a sign from a different god: one that hadn’t failed me; one I hadn’t failed. I should have been meditating, but I was done not trying. I needed a higher power, not an earth-bound cushion. And there, in a corner backyard, was a homemade skateboard ramp, a shallow “U” that if entered right would harness my horsepower and shove me aloft. Though I was barely controlling the bike as it was, I somehow ascended the skate ramp beautifully, launching over tangled backyard grass, a yellow whiffle-ball bat, an abandoned rake, and for a moment—let’s call it a very short eternity—before the humiliating crash, before the endless convalescence, before my husband sold the wrecked bike for parts and lost the leather and became my same old husband again, I soared.

 

Jennifer Wortman is a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. She lives with her family in Colorado.

Pot Roast by Alyson Mosquera Dutemple

My son rubs the lamp and a fairy godmother comes out. It’s not supposed to happen like this. My husband is mad. The genie’s been misplaced again, and he hates that fairy godmother. He fumes at my son. Put that lamp back down where you found it. Stop messing about! Behind my son’s head, the fairy godmother sheds a little glitter. I go for the vacuum cleaner, but by the time I lug it out of the closet, my son has applied sparkles to his eyelids and my husband is muttering his way out the door.

Why do you put up with that? the fairy godmother asks me, peering through the kitchen curtains as my husband paces the yard. She’s getting bored waiting for my son to figure out his heart’s desires. It’s always like this. She’s supposed to offer him input, sage advice, but she rolls her eyes when he takes out a pen and starts another list. I lean over his shoulder to whisper my own two cents. It seems so obvious, infinite wishes, but he waves me off with a small hand before I can even suggest it.

Seriously, though, the fairy godmother gripes. What choice do I have? I scream over the pressure cooker. A thick meat cloud wafts through the kitchen. Ooh, is that pot roast? the fairy godmother wants to know. She grabs the handles, tries to pry the machine open. I think about warning her to be patient or else she’ll blow us all to bits, but just then my son shoots out of his chair, eyes ablaze. Eureka! he says, and I hope that means he’s got it. That this time, he’s figured it out. A way to capitalize on the small handful of wishes this life would offer. 

Just outside the window, my husband’s footsteps grow louder, loafers crunching up the drive. Mealtime in our house is serious business, meat and potatoes and clockwork, but tonight my son is climbing the table instead of setting it, waving that tiny list high, as if inching all his future happinesses closer to the clouds. I squint up at that knot of jumbled letters there, try to make sense of what he’s written. But it is a tangle I cannot unravel, and, for a moment, I can only marvel at the maze of his heart.

In the doorway, my husband’s shadow looms. The pressure cooker sings. The godmother blows the hair out from her eyes. Here goes nothing. She flexes her biceps, gives a final yank on the handles and pow. Pot roast like ticker tape, gristle like rain.

Through the shimmer of debris, I think I can see my son leaping from the table, think I can catch a glimpse of his trail as he wends his way through the kitchen. A pair of shoes skidders past, and I sit right down on the filthening floor. I watch as my boy goes skipping contentedly on his way. And when I can no longer see him, while everything else is still falling, falling, I close my eyes. I cross my fingers. I hope he doesn’t stop forever and ever and

 

Alyson Mosquera Dutemple is a writer from New Jersey with an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Wigleaf, Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, Pigeon Pages, Empty House Press, and The Middle of a Sentence, The Common Breath’s short prose anthology. She is an Editorial Consultant for CRAFT Literary. Find her at www.alysondutemple.com and on Twitter @swellspoken.