Satellite of a Satellite of a Satellite by Avra Margariti

It’s been fourteen days since my wife made good on her threat to launch herself into space. Locked in accidental lunar orbit, she spins around the moon and her own axis. Meanwhile, I’m getting tired of the stillness in our house. The silence.

I dial the moon base number I now know by heart. Ask the operator, “What’s taking the rescue team so long?”

Luna’s lone operator recites some excuse or other—construction accident in the asteroid belt, freighter lost in space, giant squid invasion. I picture the operator behind an old secretary desk, filing her nails in-between managing the call center.

“Put me through to my wife, please.”

The operator sighs. “She doesn’t want to speak to you.”

Her and her pride. I picture my wife going round and round, acting like she could come down any time she wanted.

“Will you give her a message?”

The operator hums her assent.

“Will you tell her I miss her?”

The call disconnects before I can ask the operator if my wife misses me, too.

I wheel my old telescope onto the balcony and watch my wife orbiting Earth’s satellite the way she used to orbit me. Her luminous skin reflects all the stars and spilled dust of outer space. The unknowable black holes of her eyes seem to swallow the matter around her. I’ve heard it’s cold, up there, and she freezes so easily, toes chilly at night, fingers twitching with minute shivers.

I call the operator again to say, “She likes soup. Can you send her some French onion soup?”

The operator exhales. Drawn-out. Long-suffering. I hear her clicking buttons.

“You want any croutons with that?”

The operator is perpetually exasperated with me. It makes a girl wonder. Is she lonely up there? Does she enjoy the solitude my wife and I have disrupted with our melodrama? All these days—wax and wane—and my telescope has never once caught her leaving her Luna-based station.

I realize the line is still connected, but quiet. Static-y with the sound of our syncopated breathing. That is, until the operator asks, “What was the fight about?”

“What?”

“When she left you. What did you two fight about?”

She didn’t leave me, I want to shout loud enough I’ll be heard in space. All I say is, “I can’t remember anymore.”

Hum. Click. Soothing, strangely.

As I wheel the telescope back inside, clutching the phone tight between my chin and shoulder, I am reminded of my mother. How she once told me adulthood means losing people more than you get to keep them. Later, I can’t help taking another peek through the lens of my telescope, the view obscured by the smudged window. The cream glob drifting toward my wife could be her favorite French onion soup. The bright glint on her face could be a smile. But meant for me, or for the operator?

“Do you talk to her?” I ask the operator some rotations after that. Her voice is all buttered toast and golden sunlight, at least when callers like me don’t irritate her. A good voice to hear in the cold and dark, I suppose.

“Of course. Days feel long on Luna.”

Days are long here, too. Such is the interconnectedness of satellite systems.

The landline’s cord around my fingers cuts off my blood circulation. “Do you talk about me?”

Silence. I hate her silences. The operator isn’t exactly friendly, but hers is the only voice I’ve heard in so long, sometimes it slinks and settles into my bones through the distance between us.

I go to bed—my wife’s side—and picture her and the operator chatting through their headsets while my phone remains silent. My wife explains how to pair wine with soup, then laughs as she and the operator ponder how aeration works in space. She admits, all soft and confidential, that launching herself into space, then being pulled into accidental orbit, was worth it.

Why? the operator asks. And my wife says, Because I got to meet you.

My dreams that night orbit them both.

 

Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Forge Literary, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other venues.

Oxygenation by Gabrielle Trúc Cohen

Heat
(Fermentation)

Strawberries nestled between lumps of brown sugar-coated oatmeal for breakfast. Juicy, grainy, sticky.

Birds sing between the branches of jacaranda trees to the tune of something that sounds like honey spread on leaves, butter on bread. Snippets of summer radio remind us to stay hydrated while the cars whistle by, slowly. There’s nowhere to go. August will come.

South Los Angeles is just thirty minutes from the ocean. But most days, the only body of water we touch comes from the one we create. Sweat and joy. Pain and sadness. Cool to the touch.

Our heads submerged, coming up for air only when it is time to shower.

After breakfast, there’s always a can of Altoids. Inside, flakes of brown and green leaves. I watch you roll and lick, then pass. No mint, just grass. An early flame. We sit on your porch in plastic green beach chairs and smoke for hours. Through the morning, through the afternoon heatwaves, and wonder.

* * * *

We didn’t have any money. We were always driving around in old cars. Cars that belonged to someone’s sister or roommate, cars that someone’s something or other said we could borrow while they did their backpacking trip through Europe, a graduation present to themselves. We celebrated your graduation with beers, upgrading from Keystone Light to Corona. As if that was a rite of passage. No lime, still cold.

I celebrated your graduation by graduating from my parents. Nineteen and just happy to be loved by you.

Who needs parents who don’t know how to parent themselves?

This is how I remember us that summer.


Fruit-forward
(Rich, Lush)

Dinner always begins with the crack-and-pop of Trader Joe’s two-buck-chuck wine bottles. Moist cork. Glass pressed to your nose. Blackberry and aged grape. And the most important flavor: oxygen. Breath of life. Just enough, not too much.

Kitchen knives placed perfectly, Netflix ready on your computer. One day, we’ll afford a television.

Boiling water for pasta and fresh-cut cilantro, the crunch of black pepper, rosemary-crusted lamb roast. Fingertips pressed on the oven. Electric heat burning my face.

There I am, nineteen and already looking like my mother. Her waiting and all.

“I want to go everywhere with you and I want to go nowhere without you,” I say drunkenly, pulling you on top of me, undressing you with my wine-stained lips. And nowhere we go. We lay and smoke and watch ourselves become black skies. The place where stickiness feels like vast seas.

We knock down glass after glass with exhilaration, a forgetting. Like to be drunk is a climax, like to no longer be sober is to remember. Inhaling enough of each other to be high, cutting ourselves off just before comatose.

Multiple universes exist, I know that and only that for sure. But I still want to ask: where do the stars go after they die, where do meteors crash on Earth, where do you and I fall when we finally decide to wake up?

This is how I remember staying.

* * * *

I often wonder. If I could go back, would I tell myself the truth? That most of the time, my eyes were closed, like I was just bracing myself, hoping that I could make it through all the horrible parts of my life and somehow still come out alive?

Will you save me?

I never asked directly.


Structured
(Intense, Full-bodied)

I remember my parents talking about one day. One day, you will meet someone who you will share your life with. One day, you will be loved.

One day, they said, as if they were ever happy.

You kill cockroaches and yell at landlords while I pop two pills of Effexor, watching from the window. Peering through the blinds, I can feel you sighing as soon as you reach your car, the parking ticket flying like a kite underneath the windshield wiper. The auto shop across the street would always win the street-parking-war. Right next to an auto shop, you said. The perfect apartment.

Always preparing for the worst, you and I. Ready for a break-down. You never did go to that auto shop.

Has the lamb finished cooking, baby?

It’s done.

* * * *

Do you remember wheeling our baskets to the laundromat around the corner, our entire evening blocked off just to separate colors? Do you remember the church chorus serenading us while we soaped clothes? Do you remember the smell of street-grilled carnitas and piping hot tortillas? How we always stopped at the taqueria on the way home, how I would ask for all three types of salsa. Drenching my tacos until they bled.

Too much detergent, baby.

I’m sorry. I’m always too much.


Acidic
(Sharp, Spicy)

You can tell that wine has oxidized, if not by your nose, by your mouth. Tornado spinning on your lips, spiraling inward towards itself. Stringent enough to rub the insides of your cheeks dry. Wine goes down best when you close your eyes.

I could never handle my alcohol the way you could. Stinging. Sour. Full-bodied, all tannin. Jagged, dry burn in the throat like sandpaper rubbing the roof of your mouth. Nausea to make your head spin. Heartburn in the chest. Prepared to erupt.

A pause, then deep sigh, from the hollow part of your belly. The place where it hurts so bad that no one can ever visit, not even me, the supposed love of your life. I know this place because I have this place, too, and I promise: for all you think you have seen of me, you have never traveled here.

You, on one side of the bathroom door, and me on the other. Me on my knees.

What’s wrong what’s wrong what’s WRONG.

Is it your voice or mine? I cannot be sure.

When I finally unlock the door, you glance over at the unflushed toilet. You don’t know what to say after, and I can’t blame you.

We will always remain silent about these nights.


Oxidation
(Bitter finish)

Here’s a question I have been dying to ask you: when (if) you remember me,

Do you remember the summer, the girl on her knees, or both?

I tried to leave once before I really left.

Maybe, it was only in that space, the distance between us, and between that locked door, that we finally heard each other.

You remember, don’t you?

It was you who told me to go.

My bags packed. Suitcase at the door.

We never talk about that night. How you opened me up and left me exposed like the cork, the tree pulled from its roots.

I asked you to ask me to stay, and yes, I know I should have just said I’m sorry. But I was nineteen and still playing games. Pretending to be an adult when I was a child. Pretending to be your confidante when I still was a stranger to myself.

Our values are just different. Not just opposites-attract-different but irreconcilably different. Maybe it’s a good thing.

Your words melted like ice on my tongue, slid down my throat. I took the words with me when I left, when I found myself awake the next morning somewhere other than your bed. I told you I was a child.

But I came back, you remember that part, right? The knocking down of it all, the truth peering in like light through the window, the opportunity for us to set it straight. There was a chance for us to stop annihilating each other with our own demons.

When I returned, it was you on your knees this time. Please, never again. I love you. Whatever you need. The first and only time I have ever seen you cry.

You can give someone everything and it’s still not enough, baby. It’s never enough when they don’t love themselves.

This is how I broke.


Vinegar
(Enough)

I wonder what it would be like to work on a vineyard, to pull grapes and press them into something beautiful, to watch liquified fruit swim through machines and bottles, and eventually end up in the hands of two people, like you and me. To give someone something beautiful.

To give someone something that they want to remember.

* * * *

Why do people stay together when they are so different?

We learned to give each other space. So much air, we stopped breathing altogether. Squeezed every ounce of sweetness out, wringing the towel, licking the glass clean. Until there was nothing left but the pungent, sour, suffocating, sharp-like smell of acid.

Aeration is good for wine until it is not. Until it rots.

You never asked me, but I know it was always on the tip: Why are you like this?

I think you should have trusted yourself. But maybe that is why people stay together when they are different. Because of the things they refuse to admit, to each other, and to themselves. After all, here I am.

Years later, still letting the wine swirl, tasting you turn on my tongue.

 

Gabrielle Trúc Cohen (she/her) is moved by narratives that interrogate space. The spaces we take up, the spaces we leave behind, and the spaces where we live in-between. She has previously published an essay about this in diaCritics, a journal of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian diaspora arts and culture. This is her first published work of fiction. She is a multiracial, Vietnamese-American writer from California who currently lives in Saigon.

And Then She is a Witch by Ellen Rhudy

Clarice wakes on blankets wet with her own secretions, damp with sour milk. “You know how you find a witch?” Sam asks as he strips their bed, Clarice watching from the corner. “You light a fire beneath her feet, and if she laughs instead of screaming, then she is a witch.” In the shower she presses liquid from the bee stung lump on her stomach, until the water cools and then shocks. But still there’s more to come, her body an endless fount of milk, and when she returns to the bedroom she can find the damp outlines of her body beneath the fresh sheets.

“They would have drowned you, once, for having that,” Sam says after scheduling her dermatologist appointment. That night he lowers his face to her stomach and suckles until he is stretched full of her. Once, Clarice thinks, she would have woken to a cat or a dog, a bat, latched to her; now, there’s only this man who holds her hand as the dermatologist explains it’s a supernumerary nipple, nothing odd, Ryan Reynolds has one, he usually wouldn’t remove them but since it bothers her—he numbs Clarice’s skin, and slices the nipple free with a blade flexed between thumb and forefinger.

“You know how you find a witch?” Sam asks the next morning as he changes Clarice’s pinkened, rusty gauze. “You dunk her in the water, and if she drips free with a smile instead of drowning, then she is a witch.” Clarice looks at a smudge, a potential cobweb, near the ceiling, because she cannot look at her stomach. She feels there is a thread latched to her wound, and if Sam finds that thread he will tug all of her out, inch by inch, until she is a heaped coil on the floor. He pats her thigh when the fresh gauze is taped. “Maybe tomorrow you can shower.”

In her dreams, her body remains complete. A child milks from her, grows larger and larger until she looks so much like Clarice herself that when she grips the girl’s arm Clarice is startled by the lack of her ghostly hand’s pressure on her own skin. Her wound will not heal, it weeps continuously and begins to smell rank, to smell like a dead thing. Sam drives her back to the dermatologist, who refers them to a plastic surgeon. “Maybe there’s a reason,” the doctor says, “I don’t normally remove these.” Clarice holds a hand on her stomach at all times and strangers, who do not realize she is trying to contain her body in itself, ask when she is due.

The plastic surgeon offers discounted supplementals—“while I’m in there anyway,” he says. A tummy tuck, a breast lift. “No thank you,” says Clarice, still waking fearful that her entire body will be encased in gauze, that she will have been made a thing unknown to herself. But there is only Sam, a clean bandage on her stomach. “Did you know,” Sam says, “that if you force a woman apart from her faithful black cat, and if she is rent with emotion rather than going to the barn to find another, then she is a witch.”

“When did you stop speaking like a person?” Clarice asks, but she still holds his hand. She does not wake him that night when a frog comes to her and pads down her thigh, or the next night when a black cat kneads at her heel. Clarice is in and outside her body in one moment, she feels every part of her self but cannot locate her presence in physical space—as if she is everywhere, and nowhere, at once. The plastic surgeon is pleased with her healing, her stomach swells, she feels Sam watching her closer and closer, she closes her eyes when he lays his hands on her. One day she is searching for a pebble in her shoe and finds instead a familiar damp soaking her sock. A slight, sour release when she presses the lump nestling into her arch.

Their daughter is born that July, a girl who looks so much like Clarice as a baby that she might have borne herself. At night she cries until Clarice relents and carries her back to bed, where Sam pretends to sleep and no more toads pay their silent visits.

“You know how you find a witch?” Sam asks. “You watch her at night, for who comes to her and lays close to her body—and depending on what you find, she is a witch.” Clarice wonders who he might have been in a different age—this man with his pocked cheeks and scratching beard, always inspecting their sheets. “So,” he says, “what do you say?” Their daughter suckling at her sole, Clarice reads Sam’s eyes on her and waits for him to speak her name.

 

Ellen Rhudy lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an instructional designer. Her fiction has recently appeared in Split Lip and Gigantic Sequins, and is forthcoming in Story, Cream City Review, and Pithead Chapel. Her story “A Writer’s Guide to Fairy Tales” will be included in The Best Small Fictions 2020. She joined Ohio State’s MFA program in the fall, and you can find her at ellenrhudy.com, or on twitter @EllenRhudy. 

Fireflies by Ron Burch

At night when she exhales, fireflies burst forth, yellow fireworks against the nighted sky. She covers her mouth, surprised, terrified, a tear and trip of emotions, as one more flits forward, hovering in front of her eyes until it sweeps away.

From the house, her husband calls her name. She doesn’t want to answer. Things haven’t been easy. They have nothing, jobs, a breath gone, him, a trigger of frustration and loss.

At first, she was afraid of them. Of what they were, of where they came, of what they might mean. She didn’t know why it was happening, didn’t want to waste money on a doctor who might not be able to tell her anything at all. Even worse, might want to run more expensive tests. Like her friend Diane who got cancer and lost her house. There’s no mercy in this world. Online, she’d read about weird stuff like this. She searches the internet while he naps on the green couch, across the large-screen tv a black and white line of monstrous bugs crawls through the desert. She finds nothing.

During the day, when she breathes, it’s normal although, after it had first begun, she feared every exhale. She took measured breaths in an attempt to control them; it changed nothing. When it gets dark, the fireflies leave from her, staggered times, sometimes one, sometimes many, often none at all. She sits in the dark of the back yard, her husband inside, months of staring lifelessly at the tv. They have no children. She feels it and opens her mouth, a yellow flash shooting out. He bellows. She shrinks back, ignoring it. Later, she tells him she’d fallen asleep in the moonlight.

She begins to anticipate it, impatient for the night, the day a wall to climb. While she sits in the backyard, the moon a curved stick, a pale remnant, she waits, away from a weak yellow bulb burning a hole in the space around the back deck, thinking of them, begging them to fly. One by one they flutter out, brushing the night.

When she creeps late into the house, the tv a commercial, her husband, a snore. She goes to bed and sleeps dreamless sleep and wakes up, already anticipating that evening. Her husband doesn’t pay attention, his face obscured behind his dirtied coffee cup, lost in his own bad dreams.  Never does he ask about the burgeoning nights that she doesn’t return.

The crickets swell in the full light of the moon while she hides in the back of the yard, lost in the trees at the edge. Her fireflies sail through the sky, twinkling like steampunk ships. Tonight, she can’t seem to stop them: a consistent flow that fills their back yard. She hears something clank and sits up, unsure of what it is, probably their widower neighbor tinkering in his garage. She leans back and another firefly appears. Her husband walks up behind her, both of them watching the firefly linger on her lips before it joins its companions.

This is her gift. Hers alone. She doesn’t want to share it with anyone. She never wants it taken away.

“I saw the yard,” he says, “it’s lit up like at summer. Like when we were kids.”

She nods and another firefly slips its head from between her lips, leaping into the air. She watches her husband as he watches it. He sinks down beside her, into the grass, the blades wetting his legs.

He looks at her and she smiles. He places his head on her knee, gazing up. His face, younger in the dark, like when they’d met almost ten years ago, a kid again watching the stars. The fireflies burst forth, a sparkler so bright they both have to close their eyes.

 

Ron Burch’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including South Dakota Review, Fiction International, and Mississippi Review, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His novel, Bliss Inc., was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles. 

Whale Watch by Gabrielle Griffis

Theo didn’t want to be baptized. First, the baptistry was gross. Second, the pastor made her feel creepy. Third, she didn’t believe in Jesus.

Her parents sent her to boarding school after her Sunday school teacher found her making out with Gina in the church library. Theo regretted the loss of their love notes, which included a lot of suggestive stick drawings.

From there, it was a downward spiral. First, the school was boring. Second, everyone was noticeably miserable. Third, she set her agenda on fire in the school bathroom. Citing her potentially violent tendencies, they revoked her dissection privileges, which was fine by her, because she wasn’t interested in cutting up dead squids anyway.

Her earth science teacher tried to get her excited about whales, by inviting her on a whale watch.

Theo’s parents wanted her to become some kind of missionary evangelist, spreading the gospel to less-fortunate nations. Theo read about colonialism that included pictures of forced labor and threw up in her hand. She didn’t want to be a missionary. She was prone to vomiting and didn’t know why.

On the day of the whale watch Theo listened to a CD Gina gave her. On the bus, she drew a picture of herself as a monster. In the drawing, she had thick tusks, big eyes, a lot of teeth, and drool. She figured it’s what her parents thought she looked like.

She got sunburnt on the boat.

One layer of sunscreen wasn’t enough for a couple hours on the open ocean. One of Theo’s classmates with hair down to her butt stood at the front of the bow. Her hair whipped into Theo’s face when she tried to get a better look at a humpback breaching in the distance. Theo tried to enjoy the experience, but it was hard with an odd chick’s ponytail in her mouth.

The whale spewed hot air and mucus from its blowhole. Her teacher said whales were like humans because their respiratory system’s had a larynx, pharynx, trachea, and lungs.

A pod of mottled dolphins swam beneath the surface.

That night, Theo lay alone in her dorm room. The bed rocked like a boat. Theo enjoyed the sensation. It was the most pleasant thing she’d felt in a while. It made her think magic was possible.

Spring air blew through her window screen. She could hear peepers and insects being electrocuted by floodlights.

Theo kept thinking about that baptistry. She wondered how they cleaned it. The grimy white tiles and dust. It was weirdly large, like a mini-swimming pool behind the choir. People probably contracted meningitis from giving themselves to the Lord.

At church, Theo mouthed the words to a hymn. Her voice seemed to have choked at some point, but she didn’t know where or when. On some level, she didn’t really care.

On Friday, her earth science teacher asked her to stay after class.

“I have a surprise for you”, he said, lifting the cover off a dead squid. Theo frowned.

“I thought you’d like to dissect your own,” he offered.

“Yeah, I really don’t,” Theo replied, repressing the urge to vomit. “Where do you even get these?” She asked.

“Mostly the wild,” he shrugged.

“Well that’s awful,” Theo replied. She was afraid of the wild. She was afraid of blood, and needles, and feelings. Her emotions hid in church libraries, folded notes, and dark corners.

She felt obligated, and sat at the lab table, donning an apron and latex gloves. A fishy pickled odor emanated from the body. The squid’s tentacles and suckers looked incredibly sad lying limp on the metal tray.

Her hands shook as she pressed the knife into the squid’s soft gelatinous body. She apologized to the squid for its life being wasted on her education.

The squid jiggled beneath the knife as she moved its sallow pink skin aside. Theo held her breath as she cut. She referred to the dissection diagram. Siphon. Ink sac. Ctenidium. The lab room was very quiet.

“How do you feel?” Her science teacher asked, smiling as she looked up from the dissection tray.

He looked genuinely eager to know. She felt genuinely eager to leave. She felt anxious, but she always felt anxious. Sad. Lost. Empty.

Now she was filled with this. This squid-guts experience, and the bizarre part was it was sanctioned as perfectly normal.

“Great,” Theo said, flashing a fake smile.

She went to the school library and checked out an art book. She drew herself as a pagan wearing a floral crown. She thought about the baptistry, how steam rises off wet fields in the morning. She missed Gina. It started raining outside. Fat silver raindrops burst on the rooftop. She put her headphones on to drown out the hymns in her head. She preferred not to be filled with the holy spirit. The only thing her parents focused on was God, so she didn’t know how to focus. Her feelings were pink ephemeral clouds. They dissipated and died. She was outer space. Cold.

 

Gabrielle Griffis is a mutli-media artist, writer, and musician. She studied creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she has also worked for the Juniper Writing Institute. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from XRAY Literary Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Gone Lawn, Cease, Cows, decomP, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. She works as a librarian on Cape Cod. You can visit her website at www.gabriellegriffis.com.

When Your Mother is a Mermaid by Candace Hartsuyker

When your mother is a mermaid, no one except you gets to see her before the show starts, poised on a fake rock, tail curled in a spiral behind her, arms above her head and pressed against her ears, ready to dive in. There are four mermaids, but your mother has the most experience. This gives her a special privilege: she has a show where she performs by herself.

Before the show, your mother applies waterproof mascara to her eyelashes. In the mirror, she blinks rapidly, purses her mouth like a fish. You love your mother’s shell bra, the turquoise color. But it’s the tail you love the most, its luminescence, glowing sea glass green. You watch your mother pull on her heavy sequined tail, twisting her hips and peeling it upward. You have a ritual before every show, a way of wishing your mother good luck. You rub the scales on her tail with your hand, gently. It makes you feel brave to do this, like the time your mom took you with her to her boyfriend’s house and he let you hold his pet. The corn snake zigzagged up your arm, pink tongue flicking, body heavy and warm against your skin.

The audience waits. All they see is the large glass window of the aquarium reflecting darkness. Then, the lights above are turned on. During the show, your mother swims past leopard sharks, sea turtles and angelfish. Her body twists next to coral and seaweed and her tail skims the shells on the sandy ocean floor. Your mother is more graceful than a dolphin. She dips and twirls, flips and pivots. She’s not a mother now but a real mermaid. Her long hair billows. The mermaid cups her hands, delighting in the pebbles she picks up from the bottom of the sea.

You love the looks of admiration the audience gives your mother: the oohs and aahs. The flashes from their cellphones or handheld cameras, the jostling of bodies, mothers plucking children out of strollers and holding them to their chest so they can have a better view.

Your mother surfaces. Water beads her bare swimmer arms. Then she plunges down, tail slapping the water. And even though you know how the show ends, there’s always a moment when you panic. Watching silvery bubbles stream from your mother’s mouth, you leave a small, smeary handprint against the glass as a sign for your mother, to let her know she’s been down there long enough, that it’s time to return to the surface.

 

Candace Hartsuyker has an M.F.A in Creative Writing from McNeese State University and reads for PANK. She has been published in Cotton Xenomorph, Heavy Feather Review, The Hunger, Maudlin House, and elsewhere.

Nursing by Gary Fincke

After our father left, my mother decided to become a nurse. She’d always taken care of him, she said, but now he was gone. She’d loved having babies to tend to, but now my sister was four, I was six, and my brother was eight, all of us old enough to manage a few hours a day with our unmarried aunt. “Harry was a faithless prick,” our mother said to her on the phone, her back to us as if that set her voice on mute. When she turned around, she smiled and said, “Now we’re getting educated and starting over.”

Our mother came home with thick books and samples of the things we’d seen at the doctor’s. She measured our height and weight. She took our temperatures. She wrapped a cuff around our arms and read the numbers for our blood pressure. While she listened to our hearts and lungs with a stethoscope, she said good or excellent or perfect.

She brought home a book called Human Anatomy. It was big and full of pictures like ones we had in our rooms, but my brother said there wasn’t a story. “Oh yes, there is,” our mother said. “Let me tell you.” She told us to lie down and be still so she could identify all the body parts. It sounded easy—arms and legs and knees and all the rest, but instead she named the bones—tibia and fibula, ulna and radius—while she tickled us and recited.

“There are more characters,” she said, and she started on all the places inside us, the things we had to imagine—kidneys, liver, stomach, lungs.  She poked us softly as she found the spots, but my brother said, “Stop” and walked away.

She located the parts of my sister and me I’d never heard of—pancreas, gall bladder, diaphragm. She turned pages to show us the pictures in her book, but my sister had already begun to play with her dolls. “You’re so sweet,” she said to me each time she turned a page.

I was the only one who learned where my thyroid was and what it looked like. I was the only one who could put my hand over where my appendix was and know that a doctor could remove it someday, and I’d never miss it because it didn’t do anything anymore except get infected and make you sick. “Vestigial,” mother said. “No longer with a function.”

“Enough anatomy,” she said one evening. “I need to practice the things I’ll be doing soon. Who wants to let me get an IV started?”

Nobody, not even me, wanted to be stabbed by a needle. “We’re not cars,” my brother said when she asked again. “We don’t need a fill-up.”  My sister began to cry.

“It’s just a prick,” she said, but we all shook our heads. “It’s just a tiny prick and a slow drip. Before long, you’ll forget it’s there.”

I said, “None of us are hospital sick, but there’s a patient in my closet.”

“Pretend isn’t the same as real,” our mother said, but she waited until I came back with the Barbie our father had sent for my seventh birthday, the limited-edition rubber one our mother had laid on her bed before saying, “It looks like you know who.”

“Make her have something wrong inside her where nobody can see,” I said.

“Her esophagus,” our mother said at once, and pointed. “She’s so skinny because she can’t swallow her food.” She sucked up water in her eyedropper and tried to get the doll to drink, but Barbie drooled and slobbered all over herself. “See?” our mother said.  

All three of us got in close to watch. Barbie didn’t even move as the needle pushed into her hand. “This is just to get things started,” our mother said. “To keep her hydrated until I learn how to do a feeding tube.”

“Poor Barbie,” my sister said, but now our mother was smiling. She said she could learn everything else without us. That things were more complicated than names. What Barbie needed was a surgeon, someone she would be able to help when she learned enough to be a real nurse and she could hand the doctor the proper knives.

 

Gary Fincke’s latest collection is The Sorrows (Stephen F. Austin, 2020). His story “The Corridors of Longing” will appear in Best Small Fictions 2020. An essay “After the Three-Moon Era” has been selected to appear in Best American Essays 2020. He is co-editor of the international anthology series Best Microfiction.

The Chorus in My Walls by Elisabeth Ingram Wallace

Honey I say, honey, I think we have bees, listen I say listen: he freeze frames and listens, and there’s an unmistakable thud behind the chipboard; Badgers?, he says, or rats, or a ghost, this is our first house and we have no fucking luck he says, of course it’s fucking possessed, No I say, no it’s bees, look at the electric socket, and he does, he sees the gold gloop splooging down the eggshell blue, my choice, Shit he says, do you think this will be like France, when we had the millipedes?, no I say, thinking of how the black walls would scatter scuttle under the floorboards when we flicked on the ampoule to eat le souper Lidl, and the night he’d said “maybe we should have a bit of time apart?,” not fucking likely I’d said, and we slept in the car, then I called an exterminator and put it on my credit card and said it was only 200 Euro but I still haven’t paid it off, God I hope not he says, definitely not, I say, I think it will be more like the time I dropped the crystal champagne glass in the kitchen on our wedding day, and it shattered into a thousand billion splinters, and a full six months on my bare feet will occasionally catch one and bleed profusely, then hurt profusely because crystal cuts they go deep and go black blood hard, and I will not “just put some bloody shoes on” and I will not pull the splinters out either because each time I step-hurt I remember you, that cloudy cold day, the beach the rain the arduously selected Non-Denominational master of ceremonies who turned out to be a religious nut job and rambled about The Judgement Of God for thirty minutes while my mascara ran and you squinted rain and shivered like a puppy and then on the way home my ring disappeared, but I only noticed after an hour after we’d wondered around the town drunk like eejits, and you paced up and down the streets all night looking for it, even up streets we hadn’t ever walked down, didn’t even know existed, because I was crying and you wanted to make me smile.

 

Elisabeth Ingram Wallace is the winner of the Mogford Short Story Prize, Writing the Future, and a Scottish Book Trust “New Writers Award.” Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Atticus Review, Flash Frontier, and many other journals and anthologies, including Best Microfiction 2019. A founding editor of “BIFFY,” the Best British and Irish Flash Fiction series, she is currently Submissions Editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, and Senior Editor for Flash Fiction at TSS Publishing.

The Falling Baby by John Jodzio

I caught a falling baby once. He hadn’t fallen out of a high-rise apartment window or anything fancy like that. It happened at a birthday party where some people knew me from the horse track and some people knew me from selling them horse drugs. There was a trampoline. Someone set a baby down on the trampoline. Soon the baby flew through the air.

I caught the baby like a football before he landed on a concrete patio. No one gasped and only one person clapped. This was the 1990s and sometimes babies flew off trampolines and sometimes their parents took horse drugs that made them want to dig hundreds of holes in their yard or not move from their couch for a week.

The baby had dark hair and brown eyes. He wore a onesie with a green turtle on it. He was not crying, but he was certainly breathing heavily. Hey little one, I said, cradling him in my arms, maybe this will only be a tiny blip in an otherwise unscarred life? Hey little buddy, I said, maybe this will only make you terrified of trampolines and not scared of the entire goddamn world?

I walked around the party, asked everyone if this was their baby. Fifteen minutes went by and no one said he’s mine. Fifteen minutes went by and I couldn’t help but imagine a future where the two of us moved into a house near a river with a backyard that would occasionally flood, a place where I would not sell horse drugs or regular drugs or at least would only sell them to supplement his college fund. 

“Why is my drug dealer holding my baby?” a woman yelled out.

This woman had feathered blonde hair and light blue eyes. I did not remember selling her drugs because I sold a lot of people drugs and usually tried to not to look anyone in the eye unless they made me.

“How do I know he’s yours?” I asked.

“How do you know he’s not?” she said.

I turned the baby toward the mother. I wanted to see if there was any sort of joy or connection between the two of them when they looked at each other. Instead of recognition or happiness, the baby yawned.

“I saved his life,” I said.

“I gave him life,” she told me.

She held her arms out and stepped toward me. Instead of handing the baby to her, I tucked him under my arm and sprinted toward my car. 

I did not get far. Two men tackled me and the mother pulled the baby from my arms. Some people at the party wanted to call the cops, but most of the people there did not want to lose their connection for their horse drugs. In the end, I was kicked in the ribs a couple of times and told to leave.

I sat inside my idling car as the party went on. The mother was holding the baby now, watchful, bouncing him up and down on her knee. He seemed fine? Soon the two of them went inside and I watched people jump up and down on the trampoline for a couple of minutes and then I drove back to my apartment that was not by the river and would never flood.

 

John Jodzio’s work has been featured in a variety of places including This American LifeMcSweeney’s, and One Story. He’s the author of the short story collections, KnockoutGet In If You Want To Live, and If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home. He lives in Minneapolis.

American Movie by K-Ming Chang

She was born in Hefei but only wanted to watch American movies that took place on coasts where it snowed. She’d never seen snow and I’d never either, but we invented for each other its taste: I said sweat and she said sunlight. I said she was wrong, that snow was just a kind of dandruff, something to brush off our shoulders in the morning. We were literal with each other. I love you so wide, she said, and slipped me her fingers, my legs lended over her shoulders. I love you so lean, I said, when we couldn’t afford our appetites. At fourteen we were both in factories, hers for skirts and mine for shirts. We matched in ways we’d rather not, like how her father died in an electric scooter accident, struck by a minivan full of mushrooms, and how mine died eating a poisonous mushroom on purpose because he’d read about it in the newspaper, a listicle about common mistakes made by children, and he believed reports that it had been painless. It was determined later, though I didn’t know how, that he vomited until his lungs collapsed. We both believed we would not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors. She didn’t ride anything with two wheels and I did not eat anything I touched. Instead she fed me, powdered my mouth with instant noodle packets, fitted my teeth with slices of peach. I only ate what she gave me. Every swallow a trust exercise. She said she used to believe Americans only wore jeans. At the factory, she made denim skirts and came home with fists strangled blue. One time she brought me a zipper with nothing attached to it, a zipper as long as my arm. She fed it to me, unfurled it to the bottom of my belly. I swallowed its whole cold length, waiting for something to unzip inside me. Wondered if this was the waiting my father did. He used to grow tomatoes in an urn full of soil, teaching me when they were ripe, just before their skins sauntered off, watered into waltzing. At night, she repeats the lines of American movies. Hands up. I love you. Drop your gun and kick it to me. She tells me again she’s getting in trouble for dropping buttons on the factory floor, fistfuls for fun. She likes the sound they make, like rain. We wonder if snow clatters when it lands, if it weighs anything in the palm, if it falls like a flock of birds when they’re shot down, talons snagging on the sky, a seam everywhere I see. Probably not, I say, and but she says it does, it does. We stand outside and do not touch. We wait for a snow of mushrooms or beads of light or spilled buttons. For something to make a sound of us.

 

K-Ming Chang is a Kundiman fellow and a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her debut novel BESTIARY is forthcoming from One World/Random House on September 29, 2020. Her poems have been anthologized in Ink Knows No Borders, Best New Poets, Bettering American Poetry, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. More of her work can be found at kmingchang.com.