Plan Exclusion by J. Bradley

The magician died before he could put me back together again and my health insurance wouldn’t cover “acts of god” (their words). The woman skewered with swords who leads our support group reminds us that we should count our blessings, but the boy who lost his nose and index finger disagrees, always.

J. Bradley is a two time winner of Wigleaf‘s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions. He’s the author of Neil & Other Stories (WhiskeyTit Books, 2018). He lives at http://www.jbradleywrites.com.

Madlib by Kim Magowan

Mom, when you were at the FERRIS WHEEL Saturday, Ron BENT the CLOCK, so I couldn’t HICCUP. He put his KNEECAP over my EYEBROW, so I couldn’t even GIGGLE. Then he stuck his ELBOWS inside my EAR. I JUGGLED and JUGGLED. Remember, you asked why my TEETH were so TURQUOISE? I know you MIX Ron is FIZZY, but really, he’s a KANGAROO. Mom, I don’t SNORT you, I know how SUGARY you’ve been, but I fucking CARTWHEEL him. Ron said if I KNITTED you, he would FLY me, and besides, you would never WHISPER me. So, do you SNIFF me?

 

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and was published in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She is Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.

Outline by Darrin Doyle

“Please lie down,” the man said. He gestured at the pale sidewalk pocked with divots.

“What for?” asked the boy. Could he trust this man? This stranger?

“I can’t draw your outline unless you’re on the ground, can I?” The man’s lips smiled. His eyes sparkled.

He was younger than the boy’s father. Better looking, slim and athletic. Carried himself with a bright and bouncy step. Dressed in khaki shorts and a blue shirt the color of the afternoon sky. The boy had been reading on a bench in front of the library, waiting for his father to get out of his doctor’s appointment down the block.

“Jack London,” the man said, nodding at the book. “Man versus nature, am I right?”

The boy closed the book, embarrassed. Reading was his own private experience, and he didn’t like talking about it. Not to anyone, not even his parents.

“Man doesn’t usually come out on top in that battle.” The man threw back his head and gave a robust chuckle, as if he’d made a great joke. His blond hair was as bouncy as his step.

“Like I said,” the man continued, “I’m doing an art project. Kind of an experiment, actually. What kid doesn’t like experiments?”

He set his case on the sidewalk. It looked like a suitcase, rectangular, bound in dark leather the color of a storm cloud. The man unsnapped a button. Kneeling, he spread his wares, revealing an extensive collection of chalk. Each piece was strapped individually to the inside of the case.

“My own personal rainbow,” the man said. “Pretty much every color you can think of.”

The boy’s curiosity was piqued. He’d been warned not to talk to strangers, but this man seemed kind. Other people – families – strolled along the sidewalks on this sunny warm day, peering into shops, licking ice cream cones. The boy felt safe and he was enjoying the attention from the man. He didn’t have any close friends. When your parents were both ill, kids didn’t like to play with you.

“Take one,” the man said. “Whichever one you want, it’s yours.”

The boy selected a piece the color of blood. It was nearly as thick as his wrist and as long as a pencil. “I can have this?”

Seeing the boy admire it, the man said, “You won’t find this at the local art supply store. This is special chalk, the only kind like it in the world.”

“Where did you get it?”

The man’s expression was thoughtful but guarded, as if remembering an event he wasn’t sure he wanted to share. “I’ve had it for a long time, put it that way. Got it when I was around your age.”

The man said they needed to relocate so nobody would step on the boy, or bump him while he was tracing. Around the back of the library the two found a square of pavement close to the dumpsters. From this vantage the boy could no longer see the sidewalk.

“Don’t worry,” the man said, noticing the boy’s concern. “Won’t take long.” He opened his case again and slid on a pair of gloves. “Were you waiting for someone?”

“My dad. He’ll be back soon.”

“He left you at the library?”

“He’s at the doctor’s,” the boy said. “Should I lie down here?”

“Looks like a good spot. Nice and clean.”

“I can’t think of a pose.” The boy was sitting on the pavement, suddenly at a loss, suddenly weighted by the inevitabilities and possibilities of life, which he was only now beginning to recognize.

“When someone walks past your outline, what should people think about? Anything you want to be, we’ll make you come alive.”

“Flying, I guess.”

“Wonderful. A common request.”

The boy lay on his stomach. He extended his hands and tried to imagine he was soaring through the sky. But the ungiving cement, rough against his bare arms, made him terribly aware that he was stuck to the earth.

“You thinking about your dad?”

“I don’t know.”

“He sick?”

For the past few months the father had been having dizzy spells. It was hard for him to take deep breaths. The boy’s mother had an advanced case of M.S. and couldn’t walk or move well. She’d been suffering for years, since the boy could remember. The boy tried not to think about what would happen if he lost his dad.

The man began chalking. The boy could feel the pressure of the man’s hand against his ribs, wiggling back and forth as he drew a thick line. The raw scraping of the chalk sounded small and lonely. The concrete was cool against the boy’s cheek. He imagined the man cutting a hole in the world. The boy would drop through it, leaving a space in the shape of him. He wanted to experience falling. He wanted to be pulled toward something terrible and permanent where bodies didn’t exist. “To Build a Fire” was the story he had just finished. The man froze at the end. It was sad, but everybody dies.

That’s what the boy read.

The man worked without speaking, a steady pace, as if completing the outline was both necessary and urgent. It was a strange and unfamiliar sensation, someone working so diligently for him. It gave the boy a feeling in his stomach he’d never had before. The man progressed around the boy, doing the arms, hands, and head. The boy breathed in the man’s body: rich, salty sweat mixed with the dust of the chalk. Pressed against the pavement, the boy became aroused. Before long the man’s hands were positioned inside the boy’s thighs: back and forth, back and forth, jiggling the boy slightly but persistently. His erection strained. A powerful surge rushed through him. He gasped, feeling his own hot breath as he kissed the pavement.

“All done,” the man said. “Let me help you up.” He extended a hand.

The boy stood on his own. Wetness on his belly. He hoped the man hadn’t seen, didn’t know. The man’s face gave no indication. The boy slid the gifted chalk into his pocket.

The man stepped back a few feet and looked hard at the outline, as if searching deep water for something he was certain lay just beyond his vision. “What do you think?”

The boy was shocked by what he saw: “It’s me.”

The man had used vibrant colors, lines weaving through each other, intertwining in a braid. The effect was of a pulsing energy, like a force field in the boy’s shape. The boy couldn’t believe how big he’d gotten.

A faraway voice called his name. The boy ran to his father without looking back, the blood-red chalk nestled firmly against his thigh.

 

After graduating from Western Michigan University with an MFA in fiction, Darrin Doyle taught English in Japan for a year. He then earned his PhD from the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of the novels Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story and The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, and the short story collection The Dark Will End the Dark. His short stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Harpur Palate, Redivider, BULL, and Puerto del Sol, among others. Currently, Darrin teaches at Central Michigan University and lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan with his wife and two sons.

On the Point Between You and Infinity by Chloe N. Clark

I had a dream that you submerged my body in the lake. My husband told me this, as he washed dishes after breakfast. He was so careful with the plates, slowly turning them in his hands as he washed away the remnants of French toast and syrup. I almost didn’t hear him, he spoke soft as he stared out the window. I wondered for a moment if he meant to speak aloud at all. His gaze was out the window, focused on a distant point—maybe the tree that grew on the hill behind our house, he was always looking at that tree. But then he turned to me, looked me directly in the eye, and asked, why the fuck would you do that?

In dreams, when I was a child, I’d get lost for days, weeks, once even for my entire lifetime. My mother called me “her good dreamer” and other mothers marveled at the way I would nap anywhere—the limbs of trees, the backs of cars, under tables at neighborhood birthday parties. In my dreams, I’d always be going somewhere else, I could never stay in one place. Sometimes my legs ached when I woke up, from all the trudging through forests, the swimming through oceans, the walking through cities I’d never been in before. But I’d never submerged anyone in a lake. So I turned to my husband, what are you talking about?

I don’t mean you, like in reality, I mean the dream you. Why would you push me under the water? He turned back to look out the window, hands returning to the work of dishes. His back turned to me reminded me of the first time we’d met. I’d been lying on the river bank, elbows spread wide so my hands could clasp behind my head, staring at the sky to watch clouds. I liked to find the shapes that I knew weren’t there—it was easy to say what a cloud might look like, much harder to figure out what it could never look like. I heard a splash and turned my gaze earthward, to a man at the river, who was trying in vain to skip a rock across the surface. As if you could do that on such a moving surface, there was something so hopeful in his foolishness. I’d yelled out, I don’t think they’ll skip. He’d turned to me, one hand going to shield his eyes so he could see me through the sunlight. I’m not trying to skip them, he said. I’m just throwing them.

Maybe I was mad at you? I ask him. I tried to imagine the stream of dream events that would lead to me wanting to sink him like a stone. He shrugged, I don’t think I’d done anything. He has moved on to drying the dishes, to the slow movement of towel across plates. Well, what happened before the submersion? I stood up from the table, walked to him, put my hands around his waist, tucked my head into the crook between his head and shoulder. That was the beginning, he said.

About a month after we were married, he’d told me that when he was a child he had used to sleep walk. His mother would find him halfway across town, some nights. His parents had rigged up bells, alarms, ways to make sure they heard him or he walked up. He told me that the strange thing was that he never dreamed of movement, he was always still in his dreams, removed as if he was watching a movie of someone else’s life. And then one day he stopped doing it, he started dreaming as himself. He never woke up again, outside, staring up at the night sky peppered with sharp stars.

Well, what was the end then? I asked. He stopped drying the plate in his hands, set it down, turned so we faced one another, his hands now on my waist, my hands again on his. Outside the birds in the trees were singing, the crickets were chirping, such sounds. He pulled me a little closer, let our bodies sway together to the sounds. Our hearts beating to the same tune for a moment, and then he spun me out into a single twirl. He said, I think you pulled me back out.

 

Chloe N. Clark’s poems and fiction appear in Apex, Future Fire, Little Fiction, Uncanny, and more. She is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph, writes for Nerds of a Feather, and teaches at Iowa State University. Her debut chapbook, The Science of Unvanishing Objects, is out now and she can be found on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.

Bear by Shayne Terry

You think it could never happen to you, and then it does. You are attacked by a bear.

It happens on vacation. You decide, what the heck, you’ve been talking about Yosemite all these years. You pack your sleeping bag, your work boots. They’ll do on a hike. You load up the wagon and make the drive. It’s long and the AC craps out, but you’re seeing a goddamn national park. People lived in the heat for so long. People lived!

The price to camp in the park is extortion. You pull into the Jolly Kone in Bridgeport and order a malt. Tomorrow, you’ll leave the wagon and walk. Tonight, you’ll sleep in the backseat. You’ve slept in your car before. So little in this world comes free.

At dusk, you have to piss, so you cross a field in the dim pink almost-night to get to a gas station. The whole world smells like rock and diesel.

An old man loiters at the nearest pump. You are an old man. An older man, a man with a chicken gizzard. You aren’t afraid of old men.

The bathroom is locked.

“Need a key,” the old man calls. He puts a hand on his invisible truck.

You are gearing up to go inside when you feel a shadow from behind like a plane overhead and you find yourself in the grip of a bear.

It begins as a bear hug, but he gets you on the ground quick. His fur is wet and thick like a pelt of moss. He has been rolling in sweet grass.

You expect a beating, to be paddled around. But the bear drapes himself across you and lies there, heaving into your ear. Your right cheek flat against the gravel, you spot the Velcro sneakers of the old man.

“Help,” you call. You would scream, but your ribcage is compressed by the bear. “Help me.” You haven’t heard your own voice in months and it sounds weak, even considering the circumstances. You always hoped you’d be able to muster strength in a dire situation.

A pair of snakeskin sandals emerges from the gas station.

“Would you look at that,” a woman says.

“Tell me about it,” the old man says.

“He’s playing nice,” the woman says. Then she calls, “Good bear! Good boy! Good bear!”

Upon hearing these encouraging words, the bear nuzzles into you. His weight chokes your breath. “Help,” you try to say again, but nothing comes out.

It seems the bear wants to bore a hole in your back with his chest. He rolls across you and moans, plants his snout in your hair and sniffs. You have been driving all day in the heat. You don’t smell pretty, but the bear seems to like it. Maybe your pheromones speak bear. Maybe somewhere way back in your ancestry there is a bear enchantress.

With your one unpinned arm you wave at the sneakers and the sandals. You mean to express that you are frantic, but they interpret your wave as fun and games.

“Yes, hello,” the woman says. “You’ve met our friend. He looks smitten.”

“He doesn’t encounter too many strangers.”

“Sure doesn’t.”

The bear places his paw over your hand. You are submerged, swimming in his musk. The pad of his palm is soft like old, loved leather.

You think of Virginia, who always wanted to see the West, but never made it past the Mississippi. It never seemed like a good time to pick up and go. Still isn’t, apparently. Here you are trapped under a bear. Better than other kinds of being trapped, she might say. At least you can feel the life in this thing, feel it when the bear breathes in, a temporary release of the crush of your spine. Feel it when the bear breathes out, a heaviness that threatens to sink you into the ground.

You try to match your breathing to the bear’s, but he has astounding lung capacity. You shouldn’t have smoked all those years.

A pair of boots arrives, kicking up the gravel.

“Sheriff.”

“Sir. Ma’am.”

“Sheriff.”

“What do we have here?” The boots circle you and the bear, exiting and reentering your line of sight. “Looks like he’s nodding off.”

And indeed the bear grows heavier. He lets his cheek rest on the side of your face. A fly that formerly buzzed around his ear takes up residence on your brow as your temple is pressed into a rock like a crushed flower. You blink the fly away. The pink of the sunset gives way to the yellow light of the gas station and the dark beyond. You will not be saved.

“Good bear,” says the Sheriff. And then to the sneakers and the sandals: “I’ve been trying to teach him to be gentler.”

The bear stirs briefly on the brink of sleep, then relaxes his full weight into you. You try to live on a little less air.

The boots approach you under the slumbering bear, stop a few feet short of your face. They are scuffed with a silver heel.

The Sheriff crouches and peers at you. His face is lined like yours. He has had to make hard choices like you have. He has half-trained a bear.

“Passing through?”

You blink twice.

“You know, you’re pretty close to Yosemite. You make it there yet?”

You blink once.

“Too bad,” the Sheriff says. “It’s beautiful out there.”

 

Shayne Terry is a Midwestern transplant living and writing in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in American Chordata, (b)OINK, and Wigleaf and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She was a contributor at the 2016 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and is the recipient of a 2018 residency from the Vermont Studio Center. Shayne is a member of the Rumble Ponies Writing Collective.

Lottie’s Husband, Out of His Skin by Nick Black

I was tossed twenty, thirty feet into the air, without, I noticed, my body coming with me. My mortal remains, below, stood a second or two, then dropped like a pile of kicked-over books.

Mourners rushed over, no trace of decorum, blocking my view from above…

…where I hang suspended, high above the plot where, moments ago, I’d been officiating the funeral of Saul Rubinstein.

Now I’ve never felt entirely comfortable around Rubinstein – Rubinstein whose shadow only darkened my shul on High Holidays, and only then to pass his business card around, not that this is so rare, Rubinstein who’d shoot me looks that could slice salmon if I even glanced at his wife (his second, a convert half his age, if that) in passing on the street, Rubinstein who shuffled like a thief in his oversized shoes whenever I went with Lottie to buy a nice dress in his shop – but I’d thought burying him at least would be easy.

It had started fine: in the prayer hall, tears, wailing, everything good. Things done the way they’re always done. It’s not the best part of being a rabbi but I’m told I give a good funeral. “They’re queuing up to be buried by you,” Lottie would tease. “Because you sound like Paul Robeson. If he came from Manchester. Or even…,” and she’d bump her eyebrows up toward the ceiling, once, twice, until I poked her to be more reverent.

After the service, we went out to the graveside, the less steady attendees catching a ride on the back of the groundsman’s buggy. It rattled off between the gravestones, passengers clutching each other, risking death and mutilation. Nevertheless, a beautiful day, rows of wet marble sparkling in the sunshine. There must have been rain in the night.

A few minutes to get to the plot, then wait for the stragglers. This place is always expanding but people won’t stop dying. “I’m glad we didn’t get lost,” I said to the widow. “It wouldn’t have been the first time.” She smiled at me, and wouldn’t look away, and I didn’t want to be rude, so there we were, staring at each other, until finally she said, “You want to carry a sat nav around widya,” in her Irish accent and laughed. It’s actually not such a bad idea.

Everyone finally gathered, I was just about to say some words, my head dipped, the crumbling mouth of the grave in the corner of my vision, when suddenly I heard five loud raps against wood.

And that’s when I seemingly leapt out of my skin.

* * *

I don’t like this.

“I don’t like this!” I cry, no Paul Robeson now. Nobody looks up. Can they not hear me? Or see me? (I’m not a small man.) Is a six foot three rabbi hovering in the air a thing to ignore?

I flap, I flail, to no avail.

Looking down at the mourners crowded around my body, I wonder can they not hear Saul’s banging either? Who knows what sort of mood he must be in, almost choking to death on a fish supper, then waking up to find he’s being buried alive?

And I think I’m having a bad day.

* * *

My mind, as it’s wont to do, begins to fret.

My late wife, Lottie, may her memory be a blessing, I drove crazy from the first day we met with my thoughts and doubts. “What if we’ve been wrong all these centuries?,” I’d ask, four in the morning. “You think Jesus will forgive us?”

“I know,” another time, “The Lord gave us Free Will so we must actively choose the right path, but couldn’t He have at least given us a nicer nature with it?” For four hours in this vein. That one got me banned from drinking coffee after 7 pm.

Our daughter Simone was even worse, all big black eyes and bad nerves from birth. Her night terrors would have her paw the paper off the bedroom wall, that when we could wean her out of our bed and into her own. We’d talk to her, “What are you so frightened of, darling? You’re such a good girl, we love you ‘til our hearts burst” – not a good thing to say, it turns out.

I’d watch “The E.T.” with her, over and over, she loved that one, we must’ve worn the video tape thin, and Lottie would radiate with amusement to see how it wet my face, every time.

Lottie said Simone had an overactive imagination, something she’d outgrow. (“Don’t you worry,” she’d whisper, stroking hair off Simone’s forehead. “Don’t you worry about her,” she’d whisper, doing the same with me, hours later.) Now Simone lives in Tel Aviv, and takes medication against “panic attacks.” She should know the morning Saul and I are having, she thinks she has anything to panic about! Of course, she should never know such a thing. My little girl.

Her husband Yoshi Muginstein is a giant. Even I, at six three, have my face pressed into a wall of chest when he insists on embracing. “Let him be,” Lottie would say when I’d complain. “He’s a warm man, and he makes her feel safe.” Reading my mind: “Most the time.”

I wish he were here now, the giant Yoshi, to reach up and pluck me from the sky.

I wish Lottie were, even more so.

A handsome young man, seeing the waving-around arms and poor Mrs. Rubinstein, the young widow, is sprinting from his service to ours, leaping over headstones, skullcap clutched to his head with his right hand so it doesn’t fly off. The huddle around my body breaks to let him in. I hope he’s a doctor and not just nosey.

* * *

I’m still here.

Turning somersaults.

Though I think I’m managing to slow now, thank HaShem. I was only trying to reach down, wave for attention… The spinning’s made me dizzy. Like a hamster wheel, round and round! Oy gevalt, I hope it stops entirely soon…

This reminds me of the night Lottie and I tried to help Simone with her P.E. phobia. Ha! Never a small-boned creature, she’d come home from primary school sobbing, drained, her face like putty, “Please write me a note that I never have to do P.E. again!” So Lottie and I, and we weren’t young parents, Simone was a late and unexpected blessing, like with Abraham and Sarah, we dragged all the furniture in the living room to one side and we were all three of us practicing forward rolls on the carpet, my legs and feet crashing into the side tables, Lottie toppling sideways, bottom over head. Oh, we ached and hurt afterwards, but for the laughter, it was worth every bruise. What the congregation would have thought to see us, rolling about. We could probably have sold tickets.

* * *

The young grave-hurdler is performing CPR on me. Some of the mourners are getting restless. They see enough medical drama on television. Stray members begin to drift off.
My gaze falls upon a girl in her forties on the edge of the party. Lottie always complained that I had an eye for the ladies, and I cannot, floating above holy ground, deny this girl’s a beauty, her eyes, under her hat, huge and dark like prunes soaking in water. A healthy figure, too, but I’m not dwelling on that, Lottie. I’m noticing that, hand raised against the sun, she’s got her back to everyone else, and is looking around.

Can she see me? Did she spot a foot, dangling down, black polished shoes shining in the sun?

Someone calls, and she turns. She’s walking towards an older couple and the three of them are striding away, to the car park. So maybe not.

Then suddenly she stops and turns again, touches the older woman’s arm… What’s she pointing at?

Quieter from up here but tap, tap, tap…

He’s behind you!, I want to shout. Could I sound more like a pantomime?

Tap, tap, a couple more.

I turn…

And in the far trees see a tiny woodpecker.

I’m floating in the air, a blimp, because of a farshtinkener woodpecker.

If I wasn’t probably already dead, I’d die of shame.

* * *

A short time later, and Mrs. Rubinstein’s hugging the young man. Men are hugging him. They’re queuing up now to hug him, to pat his shoulders, bank notes are being stuffed in his top pocket to his protests.

All the while, I’m drifting down, slow as tree fluff airborne on a hot summer’s day. My face is a few feet below me, the eyes still closed but there’s colour in my cheeks, egg yolk in my beard. Why didn’t I notice that before leaving home? The least of my problems.

Not too decrepit looking, from a certain distance. Would you still take a dance with me, Lottie?

Before I even get there, my old dry lips start to part in a smile.

 

Nick Black manages two small public libraries in North London. His writing has been published in lit mags including FlashBack Fiction, Entropy, Jellyfish Review, (b)OINKzine, the Lonely Crowd, Open Pen, Train Lit Mag, and Funhouse, He tweets about things he likes as @fuzzynick.

 

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.