The Fount of Destruction by Julie Zuckerman

By 8:30 pm, the line snaked three times around The Fount of Destruction, and Pete’s manager came by to give him the Jersey Joyland “keep it moving” signal, meaning: be ruthless and weed out anyone too young or too small. Pete forced anyone licking their soft serves or pinching tufts of cotton candy when they reached the front to move aside. If the kids grumbled or tried to hand off snacks to their parents, he pointed to the simulated smoke seeping out of The Fount’s interior, the lava-breathing monsters on the posters, the fake flames lapping the opening, and barked, “This is no ride for whiners!” Sometimes the fathers argued, got in Pete’s face, but he’d learned from his own dad how to stand up to that kind of aggression. The mothers of the rejected riders looked relieved; as kids disappeared through the entrance they could hear the booming voice of The Fount proclaim, “You will not return the same.”

Pete narrowed his eyes and surveyed the next load for kiddies to reject: a girl around 12 whose green pallor boded poorly, a little dude in a Carson Wentz jersey trying to puff himself up like the star quarterback, identical twin brothers shoving each other. He wouldn’t be sorry to leave Joyland behind at the end of the summer; by this time next year he’d have his degree and hopefully a real job in New York City.

At the exit, Pete’s coworker helped the kids unbuckle their safety belts, and then wiped down the seats of the ones who’d been so frightened they’d wet their pants. This kind of thing happened on other rides too – all Joyland exit greeters were given packages of wet wipes – but The Fount was known to be the most pee-inducing.

Joyland was 100 feet from the Atlantic, a boardwalk in between, but the nights were too black and the music too loud to see or hear the waves. The seagulls that snatched sunbathers’ snacks during the day – Shoobies from Philly who didn’t know how to guard their sandwiches or soft pretzels – stayed away in the evenings. Pete’s mom had sailed away on those waves, but unlike those exiting The Fount, she’d never returned.

The kid in the Carson Wentz t-shirt neared the front. Maybe 10, but short for his age. Pete’s gaze darted from the top of the boy’s head to the height chart. He was about to make the universal “you’re out” gesture with his thumb when a man whose forearms were as thick as the rotting beams holding up the boardwalk elbowed his way towards the front, a Coors in each hand. The kid’s eyes told Pete he’d already seen plenty of destruction. If he squinted, the boy’s missing inch and a half became less visible.

“You don’t look like the type to wet your pants. Am I right?” Pete leaned down, his voice not unkind. He’d been about the kid’s age when his mother had left.

The boy smirked, a tough guy. But Pete felt a kinship with these kids, the ones whose fathers spent most nights at the bars along Atlantic Avenue or sometimes in a holding cell until they could sober up. Who came home sowing strife, full of liquor, mean and snarly, like his old man.

“Go ahead,” he said to the boy, taking the requisite four tickets. He pointed to the next empty compartment, a few yards away from the fake flames at the Fount’s mouth.

The kid rushed past but then wavered when he got to his seat. Pete called: “Get in. You’ll make it.”

 

Julie Zuckerman’s debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, will be published by Press 53 in 2019. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Salt Hill, The SFWP Quarterly, Ellipsis, formercactus, Sixfold, descant, and The MacGuffin, among others. A native of Connecticut, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children.

Outline for an Eco-Romance by Ori Fienberg

Opening Scene:

Joe and Cindy are talking. They are both very beautiful and young, in love, and about to graduate from college. Joe has been promised a job by his reclusive and highly successful grandfather. Joe is bringing Cindy to meet his parents, at their yearly family retreat to Montauk. Cindy is worried because she does not think Joe’s conservative parents will like her, and also because she has a deep-rooted fear of bonfires, which are an important family tradition.

Inciting Incident:

Cindy meets Joe’s parents, but they are taken aback because Cindy is actually an oak tree. Joe’s parents are not into inter-Kingdom partnerships, but they agree that they will try to get to know her. Only Joe’s grandmother is unfazed, declaring that Cindy seems to be a lovely young tree.

Decisive Moment:

Cindy agrees to go to the bonfire, to show Joe’s family that she can have a good time with them, despite being an oak tree.

Mishap Scene:

When Cindy sees the bonfire, and determines that in fact a large amount of the wood being used on it is oak, she begins to cry, dropping leaves everywhere. She runs into the forest, and Joe follows her. Cindy wants Joe to come live in the forest with her. Joe does not want to live in the forest because he is not sure how he will be able to take the corporate job his grandfather offered him in his multinational landscaping business. Joe convinces Cindy that his family didn’t have the oak wood in the woodpile out of spite.

Climax:

Cindy tells Joe that she’s worried about losing him, and that she will not leave the forest until they are married. They find the tallest tree in the forest, an old white pine to marry them, and then they consummate their relationship.

Falling Action:

Cindy invites the children of Joe’s family to climb her. When Joe’s parents see the children having a good time with Cindy, they feel better about their relationship.

External Challenge:

Joe’s parents inform them that Joe’s grandfather, the reclusive millionaire who sponsors the family retreat, has decided to join them. Joe’s grandmother is very nervous.

Dénouement:

It is revealed that Joe’s grandfather is actually a highly successful shrub. He has stayed hidden out of embarrassment, but now, since it’s become clear that Joe is deeply in love with Cindy, he comes to give his blessing. Joe and Cindy admit that they have already married according to an ancient tradition, and they learn that it was the same way for Joe’s grandshrub and grandmother. A tear of joy comes to Joe’s mother’s eye when she spots a budding acorn on one of Cindy’s branches.

 

Ori Fienberg’s poetry, essays, and short stories appear in many venues including Always Crashing, Cincinnati Review, Essay Daily, Pank, Subtropics, and ZiN Daily. A graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, Ori works for Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies and lives in Evanston, IL. This piece was completed at a Sundress Academy for the Arts Writers Coop Residency. Read more at http://www.orifienberg.com.

The Redwood Table by Kaylie Saidin

I was eating cereal when Elon Musk launched a car into space. The milk was going bad soon, three days past expiration, so I shoveled spoonfuls of lucky charms and sweet and vaguely curdled liquid into my open mouth. On the television across from the redwood table, I watched the event being discussed by a grinning anchor and a gray-haired scientist who did not look like my father but could have been.

I couldn’t hear them over the sound of the cereal fragments and marshmallows squeaking over my molars. I was sure I had cavities. I had asked my mother for braces a year earlier and she had said no, my teeth were fine. And my teeth were fine, but I wanted braces anyway, to pretend I wasn’t born with straight teeth, to pretend I was born with enough money to pay for a full set of braces, to pretend I wasn’t born lucky.

My mother and I lived in the woods below San Francisco when this aeronautical miracle happened. The television cut to Him, the man who put the car in space who looked a little more like my father but could not have been, I told myself. His face was square, lips thin and pursed, and he said,

I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.

The cereal slid off my spoon and onto the redwood table. The table was my great grandfather’s, who’d lived in the tail end of the Old West, who’d been one of California’s first park rangers, who’d helped build the now-historic county store. Redwood was the only kind of wood that didn’t get eaten by termites, my mother said. Sometimes I counted the rings, the looping pattern that expanded beneath he finish, trying to see how old the trees were here, how ancient the land was.

Later that day my mother came home after sitting in her office way up on Nob Hill, the highest hill I’d ever been on. From her office you can see the businessmen scurrying around clutching briefcases, the tourists clamoring on the cable cars, the junkies and their dogs laughing, young men who just got hired at Google smoking legal weed in the park. Once, I went to her office, and that was what I saw. But my mother told me most of the time it was foggy, and she never saw anything but the tops of skyscrapers, pointed and flat, and sometimes the glisten of the Bay far away. I had just gotten lucky that day I visited.

She put her coat on the coat rack and saw I’d left the cereal spilled on the table. She asked me how I could treat an old thing with such disrespect, and my teeth, ridden with sugar, ached.

Then she talked about her day at work, and all I could think of was ancient redwoods.

I thought of men in overalls hauling lumber, laying down railroad tracks, rust and gold dust, earthquakes and bank robberies, ruins of a burned down bathhouse on the unforgiving coast, Janis Joplin and Grateful Dead and skinny houses that go farther back than you think. And then hills and valleys of silicon, buildings with every wall and floor and ceiling made of clear glass. The house I lived in, the house Elon Musk lived in, the hands that built them, and how different were they than the hands that built the redwood table?

As I fell asleep that night, I saw the high-pixelated image burned into my skull, the sleek spaceship of a cherry-red vehicle rotating around the planet, floating in perfect suspense. Space was a vacuum, they said. I wondered if I cut open the earth’s core, could I count the rings? If I didn’t think any more about the way the land had changed, about the way the people had changed, would I be happy? Change was progress, they said. That was why the rest of our family had moved away so they could afford braces, that was why they stopped building houses out of redwood. But none of that mattered – the future was here.

 

Kaylie Saidin grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and now lives in New Orleans. She is an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Her work has won the 2018 Dawson Gaillard Award for Fiction and has been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. You can read more of her in Atlas and Alice, Jellyfish Review, Every Pigeon, and others at http://www.kayliesaidin.weebly.com.

Uprooted by Brianna McNish

The hair refuses to pull free from Fran’s flesh. It shivers and recoils against her razor blade, fearful of what fate awaits after being discarded into a trash heap among other equally long black hairs. It wants attachment, flesh, sweat. Seeing other hairs collected in her sink, in her tub, in her trash, only compels the single armpit hair to stay here longer, to remember a time when there were more of them. To Fran, its insistence is cause for concern.

Days later, she will receive a wax underneath her pits, above her lip, below her crotch. By the time it is all over, she is pink and cold and filled with ache. The hair, dejected and irresolute, still remains. In her apartment, she will lie in bed, her arms and legs splayed like a starfish while she tries to pluck the hair free between her fingers. Later, she will get her girlfriend to try, and though the hair finally relents under her touch, it’s still there and craves attachment.

“I don’t know why you need it off so badly,” says her girlfriend. “If a person can’t comprehend that women grow hair, then they seriously need to grow the fuck up.” She is fuzzy like a peach and soft. Tiny hairs sprout from her legs like weeds, waiting to be uprooted. Among other things about her, this is what Fran likes: feeling her girlfriend’s hair stand on end as their arms and legs brush against each other in bed. Feeling the hairs on the nape of her neck as she draws her into a kiss.

“You don’t get it,” Fran says. And she knows just by the look her girlfriend makes Fran disappointed her somehow, disappointed to find the woman she believed to be careless and inventive and all the things she is not, is in fact just as acutely aware of her existence as everyone else. “I can’t have the kids seeing me with this. They’ll eat me alive.”

“It’ll be a good learning experience for them,” her girlfriend explains. “They’re, what, like, eight or nine? They should understand, and if they don’t, then they’ll understand now.”

Fran wants to be the kind of teacher the kids find pretty and affable and memorable. She wants them to tug on her skirt, throw their arms around her, and cry, “We love you, Miss Fran!” Something about their affection, so open and unified, strikes her as the most authentic. Even now, weeks before she begins her position as an art teacher, she can envision her students returning back to her years later in high school, their voices several octaves deeper, stubble amassing under their chins, and arms long enough to wrap her into a familiar embrace. The potential memory is sweet, welcoming. A single hair, even tucked beneath her armpit, somehow disrupts the possibility.

She finds herself in a doctor’s office, lying against the paper-lined cot with her arms raised and pits exposed. Her doctor is a bespectacled man and forever sniffling, as if he is trying to exhale the world in a single breath. He is too old to be a doctor, she thinks. His trembling finger curls around the hair, testing its viability, its strength. Under his breath, he says, “Mmm,” and “Interesting,” and, “That’s nice.” Fran doesn’t say a word, even as his ink pen glides across his notepad.

“I’m referring you to a specialist,” says the doctor. “A good one. Laser hair removal. You’ll like her.” Teasingly, he pulls at the hair. “It’s nothing but a little growth,” he says. Then, his eyes narrow. This is the first flicker of expression passing over his face since she entered his office.

A little growth. That’s all, that’s it. Growths are simple, extractable. Later, in bed, as her girlfriend fingers the single hair, she tells her, “Later, there won’t be anything.”

“You’re making a mistake,” her girlfriend says. She goes on about how if kids can’t understand she grows hair, then they have to deal it with regardless. They’ll grow up to actually hate hair on women. They’ll grow up to skirt away at the site of fur, to question the presence of imperfection on a woman’s skin. All the while, she kisses underneath her pits and keeps the hair curled around her finger. Fran fears her girlfriend loves her body hair more than she loves her.

Later, when Fran finally finds herself sprawled on the surgical table, she admires the stinging sensation as the laser glides across her flesh, each zap bringing a dull ache and discomfort, each flicker of pain sending her whole body humming with life. She feels as if bees are sinking into her flesh only to remove their stingers and inject it again and again. She feels as though fingers are plucking weeds from her flesh, desperate to find flowers there.

When it is all over, she thanks the surgeon and studies the pink, blistered flesh. In this way, she is reborn. She is all naked and hairless and shivering. When it is all over, she goes to her girlfriend who sits in the waiting room flipping through Marie Claire, points at the smoothness of her flesh that no longer feels like her own, and says, “Do you like it?”

Together, they ride home in silence. Neither mention how there is one week before school starts, one week before Fran encounters her first classroom of eager, wide-eyed eight-year-olds who may or may not know what grows from flesh.

Fran tells herself she wants to be the teacher everyone likes, the teacher who allows children to dump entire containers of glitter onto their creations. After her first day of teaching, she is uncertain whether anyone fully likes her yet, but she remembers when she placed popsicle sticks onto the table for their latest activity, one pig-tailed girl deeply inhaled the sweetness of her grapefruit-scented deodorant and smiled at her. Normally, a moment like this would’ve made her buzz with validation. But Fran only wished she had something underneath to keep her warm.

 

Brianna McNish writes from Connecticut. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Moon City Review, Jellyfish Review, Pidgeonholes, Hobart, and elsewhere, including a Pushcart nomination and recognition on Wigleaf’s Top 50 longlist.

Breast Roulette in Utero by Jennifer Todhunter

At 3am, two nights before her double mastectomy, my twin sister dances on a table at the only bar in town. She twists like the straws we sucked chocolate shakes through when we were young, slips down, down, down, like she did when she showed me how to give a guy a blowjob. There is a sweetness woven into the filth of this bar, and I wonder if she’s holding onto that. Holding onto it before everything becomes antiseptic and bleach.

Last call isn’t a thing here. Booze is served until you leave or pass out. My sister and I slouch against a jukebox that’s been fed so many quarters it’ll play AC/DC well into next week. A disco ball casts glitter across my sister’s chest. She is exhausted, has been exhausted for months, but we are having a night. That’s what she said when I said it’d be better to stay in and rest: fuck that, let’s go and have a night, goddammit.

When I was born, a deep hemangioma protruded from my chest like a third breast. Its center was the same color as the beets our dad canned every summer. I used to worry my sister would grow only one breast, that I had stolen the other from her in the womb. Now I am torn between guilt and relief that we split the breasts the way we did.

Tonight, my sister pokes at her left breast with the olive pick from my half-drained martini. Softly at first, then harder.

She’s wearing a low-cut shirt and the pick depresses her skin in a matching deep vee before piercing through. We both inhale when her blood pools at its point. I’m taken with how it resembles the blood that spilled from her knees when we were kids, by the thought that her disease may have made her blood different somehow. Darker, maybe. Thicker. Rancid.

She thrusts the pick with force again and it sinks much deeper this time.

Stop, I say, grabbing her hand. It’s shaking. Her whole body is shaking.

Do you remember the time you fell out of the tree and bit a hole through your tongue? she asks.

I nod.

Do you remember how mum ran out and thought you were dying because you were winded and couldn’t tell her where the blood was coming from?

I nod again.

Do you remember what that was like?

Being winded? I ask.

Looking at someone who thought you were dying.

I shake my head.

It’s the worst, she says. The absolute worst.

I look at her and she smiles.

Yup, just like that.

For the record, I don’t think you’re dying, I say, but part of me knows that’s not true.

Did you think you were dying? she asks.

I shake my head. I just wanted to get back up that goddamn tree.

Exactly, she says.

 

Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. She was named to Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2018, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes. Find her at http://www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.

Clapping by Sarah Salway

It started where it shouldn’t but it always does, with his lips fastened on home, the sweetness filling him and all he has to do is be a baby.

“You’re too old for that.” A sharp slap followed by spoonful of mashed potato he’s not allowed to spit out, the spoon waving towards him like an aeroplane. He’s no longer mummy’s boy. He’s a good boy, a hungry boy.

Other things form in his mouth, called words, the way sounds began to fit together to bring him everything he wants now he’s a talker.

Playing in the garden, when, shhh, a cousin calls him over to a hole in the hedge. Stay silent as he watches the couple moving like music, like a waltz, or was it war? He watches open and dry mouthed as they form words between them that he knows he’ll understand too if only he can stay there a little longer. Voyeur, they call out, and it sounds so pretty, so sweet, a peeping tom.

The world’s a pantry cupboard left open and he’s a scavenger on the spice shelf, putting tastes together just because he can. He’s working his way from Aniseed to Zatar until one day, he unscrews a top open without thinking, stops thinking as he loses sense, fills with every sense.

The splinters in his heart means to hold his body a certain way increases the sharpness of the pain, to let his mind wander causes a dull throb. He leaves people behind to concentrate on art, allows the stream of invoices to plug his gaps, and he listens, fingers steepled, as others call him a connoisseur.

External is all. He cheers up the drabness he feels with potted plants, builds bridges around his world so no one is sure whether he is coming or going, he calls everyone darling, and although he reserves his fondest strokes for the wine bottle – a drinker? Not him.

She’s dabbing his forehead when he wakes up. “Can I call you nurse?” he jokes, but she doesn’t smile but says yes, it’s her name. He shouts it out across wards, and corridors, and theaters. Rings bells to get her to come running. She’s a hole in the hedge, sweetness and words waltzing, she’s bottles knocked over and treasures hunted down, she’s bunches of grapes and everything he wants. “Your name, your name?” He wants to taste it in his mouth to see how they fit together. Now she’s his darling, he’s happy to be patient.

 

Sarah Salway is a writer based in Kent, England, and has just completed her fourth novel. Her previous novels have been published by Ballantine Books, Bloomsbury, and Harper Collins. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry London, PEN International, Financial Times, and many other magazines.

Holiday Party Etiquette for Insects Recently Transformed Into People by Ashley Memory

Greet your host enthusiastically. Rather than flick your eyebrows —they are not antenna—extend one of your hands and gently shake the hand of your host. Offer a small gift, preferably something you have bought or made, rather than foraged from the Burger King dumpster. Put on the reindeer ears that she gives you  the little bells and flashing lights will remind you that you are now a mammal.

If there is a buffet, do not whirl your head around constantly for fear that anyone behind you is going to squash you or steal food from your plate. It is okay to silently curse the loss of your compound eye, but don’t obsess about it. No zigzagging through the room. You now have only two legs and you must master the bipedal gait while holding a plate of food. Practice at home beforehand.

If there are poinsettias at your table, fight the urge to hold them up to your nose and taste them. Ingesting the blossoms might make you sick. And you are too big to bury yourself inside the petals and gather nectar. Unfold your napkin, put it on your lap, and use it to wipe your mouth during the meal, rather than continually licking your lips with your tongue.

If someone waves to you from across the room, do not assume they are from your former colony with a special message and start shaking your body. Just smile and ask: “How is the family?”

While eating, chew slowly and do not gorge. In your new life, there is no need to eat as if you might not ever see food again. And it’s best to avoid the eggnog. A tipsy former insect could be unpredictable. Instead, turn your attention to getting to know the others at your table through polite conversation. Safe subjects: Books. Warning! Try not to talk only of Kafka and how he got it wrong in The Metamorphosis. Movies: Ant-Man or The Fly would be acceptable films to discuss, but do not express a secret desire for a remake of Killer Bees where the bees actually win. Music: Great choice! Everyone loves music. If the subject turns to opera, however, don’t denounce Madame Butterfly for not featuring a real butterfly.

If talk at your table turns to New Year’s Resolutions, don’t share the goals you set during your support group about remembering that you can’t really fly or trying to wean yourself from your addiction to carrion. Instead, it’s better to just repeat what others say, such as “I hope to lose a few pounds next year,” or “Spend less time at the office.”

If, on your way back to the buffet for seconds, someone corners you by the mistletoe and tries to kiss you, turn your head to the side demurely, as if you are shy. Your instinct to bite is still too powerful to engage in kissing. Maybe next year.

Congratulations! If you make it to the Yule Log cake, you have survived your first holiday party as a human! Before you leave, be sure and thank your host. You might even offer to stay and help with the dishes. If nothing else, ask if you may take out the trash. You could stash it in your car, drive home, and just for old time’s sake, rifle through it later for a delicious midnight snack.

 

Ashley Memory is a former blue orchard bee living in the ancient Uwharrie mountains of Randolph County, N.C. She has finally accepted that she can no longer fly, but she confesses to gathering nectar wherever she can. Her poetry and prose have recently appeared in The Birds We Piled Loosely, Gyroscope Review, The Ginger Collect, and numerous other literary journals and anthologies. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she is a two-time recipient of the Doris Betts Fiction Prize sponsored by the N.C. Writers’ Network. She is currently over the moon that in January 2019, Coffin Bell will publish “Orchard #9,” her narrative poem about a haunted cherry orchard.

Star of Wonder by Kathryn McMahon

Down the street comes a trio of carolers, hymns swirling with snow. They leave each twinkling house and tip-toe up the next set of steps to wait. One song. Two songs. However long it takes. The door opens and out wafts the tang of chestnuts and rude bursts of log fire. Apologizing, the carolers push into the foyer where they stomp away slush. None remove their gloves. Eyelashes glitter with white as they smile at the daughter.

A caroler waggles her thermos at the girl. Go get some mugs, hon.

Her parents laugh nervously and protest, but the carolers say, No, no we insist.

Could there be a safer night to accept the generosity of strangers? Polite, the family take the mugs and sip eggnog spiced with cardamom and something more difficult to place. In divine sopranos and one transcendent tenor, the carolers’ mouthparts pull back and the trio begins to sing.

The eggnog is blissful; the music, serene. The family teeters on their heels. Won’t you come into the living room?

The carolers each take a hand. Well, yes, it has been a long journey, but one more song won’t hurt. They lead the family to the couch. Gloves gripping gloves, the carolers stand while the family sits in matching ugly sweaters, listening. Drinking.

Heads nod. Droop. Empty mugs tumble between the cushions. The logs are minor, popping volcanoes when the carolers refresh the chorus of We Three Kings, their favorite. Discreetly, they scratch the chapped scales under their gloves.

Lulled by the gravity of their bodies, the parents stretch out on the floor. The husband’s sweater rides up and the hair on his stomach mashes into the carpet. The wife slips off her heels, no longer self-conscious about the rich funk that leaks from the sweaty soles of her stockings. The daughter, meanwhile, sinks down and, even though she is not a baby, she crawls, making it as far as the Christmas tree where she grasps a green and silver box with her name on the tag.

In the warm room, the carolers’ eyelashes are still caked with white. They blink and clumps of roe drip to the floor. For a moment, nothing stirs. Melting, the eggs sacs glisten, and under the Christmas lights, the larvae shine blue and orange, pink and gold. Then, between pine needles and runaway tinsel, feelers rise from the carpet. They sense the heartbeats of larger bodies. With a hungry whine, their tiny jaws inch closer, closer towards a stomach, a leg, a small fist.

The carolers watch, proud, their cheeks ruddy with the success of the births. Satisfied, but quashing a sniffle or two, they shut the door behind them. As they select a hymn and tramp towards the next house, their eyebuds already trickle new yolk-jelly that crystallizes in the cold.

Hovering above, other eyes watch. Human. Venison. Boots and hooves test-tap the roof to make sure that none will fall through. The boot-wearer, a man roly-poly in red, squeezes down the chimney, and with a grunt and black puff of dust, he hops over the flames. From his sack, he extracts a bottle and spritzes the larvae with a potion of reindeer musk mingled with orange and clove. In death throes, the small, hungry bodies jingle like bells.

The girl rolls over and snuffles. Both parents sigh, and the one who would be most embarrassed to, farts. The man-in-red parkours up the chimney, chuckling at how very much like an orifice it is.

The family sleeps off the eggnog, and in the morning, the daughter wakes first. She winces as something pierces her sock. A pine needle? She pinches it. Maybe not. Stiff, it is old and dead. She flings it away, shouting for her parents to wake up, it’s Christmas! They groan and pull each other upright. Vacuum as they will, they’ll complain how the pine needles linger for weeks, how they should’ve bought a fake tree, how isn’t it a good thing Christmas comes only once a year?

 

Kathryn McMahon is an American writer living abroad with her British wife and dog. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Booth, Passages North, The Cincinnati Review, Jellyfish Review, Split Lip, FLAPPERHOUSE, Third Point Press, Atticus Review, and others. Her work has received nominations for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net and the Pushcart, and has been selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50. She was recently a finalist for the first-ever SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction. On Twitter, she is @katoscope. Find more of her writing at http://www.darkandsparklystories.com.

Twenty-First Century Life by Sarah Freligh

We smoke out back on breaks because Mr. B. says it doesn’t look nice for a flock of angels to be smoking too close to the live creche or the people who line up to pay a buck to witness the miracle of Christmas. We smoke within whiffing distance of three sheep, two donkeys and the one spavined camel Mr. B bought for cheap off a him-and-her circus act that was divorcing. Everyone but Lydia, that is, who sits a ways from the rest of us and swats at the bad air. She’s barely two weeks late but claims she’s already sick as a dog, morning, noon and night. Today she actually pulls the pee stick from her purse for a little show and tell. Says she might tie a blue ribbon around it and present it to her boyfriend, Brett, but what do we all think.

“I had to pee in a jar, take it with me to the doctor’s,” Cherise says.

“You pissed in a jar?” Samantha says. “Jesus.”

Cherise blows a perfect smoke ring. “Peanut butter jar.”

“So, ribbon or no ribbon?” Lydia says.

We all look at each other. Personally I think it’s a bad idea to dress up a mistake and pass it off like it’s something you’re proud of, especially when you’re dealing with a here today/gone tomorrow kind of guy. Take it from me, I know the type.

“Seriously,” Jill says. “You really going to have the kid?”

We all look at her. In three weeks, Jill hasn’t said much beyond hello or nice day. Mostly she humps up her shoulders, slouches over to cover up how big she is.

“I cannot believe you said that,” Samantha says. “Seriously.”

“Why? We’re 21st century women,” Jill says. “We got options. Choices. You know.”

“It’s a baby,” Samantha says. “Not a menu item from the drive-up.”

Jill flicks the ash off her cigarette. “It’s a blob of cells. The size of a sweet pea.”

Lydia’s caged her hands over her stomach like she’s afraid Jill’s going to break and enter at any moment. “I swear I felt it move. Like the flutter of butterfly wings.”

Cherise laughs. “That’s probably gas, honey.”

Samantha tosses her cigarette on the ground and stomps it. “It’s a baby,” she says.

I have seen faces like Samantha’s on a sidewalk, crazy-eyed men and women with twisted mouths out of which fell the ugliest stuff: Murderer. God will judge you. Burn in hell.

The abortion was the easy part.

Some folks would say being single at forty with nothing but a couple of cats for company is a judgment of sort, but then I look around me. At women with wrung-out faces, the occasional black eye. At their men in the bars downtown flirting with girls just out of high school.

I got a life, though not the one I planned. Still, it’s a life. A twenty-first century life.

I check my watch. “Break’s over, kids.”

We stand and shoulder our wings, arrange ourselves in a wedge of angels, tallest to shortest. I reach out with an aim to straighten Jill’s wings, but she’s standing shoulders-back tall for once.

Only then do we fold our hands. Like we’re praying. Like we’re angels. Like we really might believe in miracles.

 

Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Sun Magazine, Hotel Amerika, BOAAT Journal, diode, SmokeLong Quarterly and in the anthology New Microfiction: Exceptionally Short Stories (W.W. Norton, 2018). Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.

To Repel Ghosts by Ran Walker

My mother used to tell me about a ghost that haunted the house across the street from where she grew up. The ghost was a little boy, who, according to legend, was shot by his stepfather. It was the kind of story that was difficult to determine the truth of, but the kind of story that would sneak into my consciousness, just as I was preparing for bed.

The story felt like one of those tales spun to scare kids around campfires or during sleepovers. It probably wasn’t real at all, but that didn’t stop me from imagining a kid of no more than ten, standing face-to-face with his stepfather, a twelve gauge pressed against his forehead.

I had no explanation for why my mother would tell me a story like that, except that maybe it had something to do with my father choosing to leave us after his girlfriend became pregnant. My mother never talked about him, and because I didn’t want to upset her, I never brought him up either.

Maybe the ghost was supposed to represent my father, although I couldn’t see how. Or maybe this bit of the macabre was my mother’s way of exorcizing some other demon. Then again, knowing my mother, she could very well have been talking about an actual ghost.

When she grew particularly melancholy, I would ask her to tell me about the ghost. For some strange reason, she enjoyed recounting the story, as if it provided some relief to her keeping the darkness bottled up inside.

One day, I built up the courage to press her more about the ghost, wondering if there was any greater specificity to her usual anecdote.

“Did you ever see it with your own eyes?”

“Yes. Twice.”

“What did it look like?”

“Everything above his chin had been blown completely apart. His entire head kind of folded in on itself. It was the kind of thing you kept looking at just to see if you could make sense of it.”

I hadn’t expected that level of detail from her, and my stomach tightened. My mother was carrying this around in her head like loose change in her pocketbook. She had told the story so nonchalantly that I wondered if she even knew what she was saying to her sixteen-year-old son. My imagination had never constructed so graphic an image of the ghost and now I found myself unable to think of anything else.

After that revelation, whenever I prepared for bed, I found myself unable to lie down without the aid of a nightlight. I was afraid the ghost might appear in my bedroom, the nearly headless figure creeping closer to me with each child-like step.

One night my fear-induced insomnia led me to seek protection in my mother’s bedroom. I found her asleep, upright against several pillows in her bed, a cocked twelve gauge resting in the corner, not even a full arms length away.

I backed away slowly, careful not to make a sound. Until that moment, I was not aware my mother even owned a shotgun, especially one identical to the gun in her story.

As I tiptoed back into my bedroom, I locked the door behind myself. I didn’t know who or what my mother feared, but I immediately feared it, too.

With darkness encroaching on my nightlight, I buried my head beneath the covers. It was all I could think to do to repel the ghosts.

 

Ran Walker is the author of sixteen books. He currently serves on the creative writing faculty for Hampton University in Virginia. He can be reached via his website, http://www.ranwalker.com.