Big Head Syndrome by Hannah Whiteoak

George is proud of his oversized head, but the girls in the office keep laughing at it when they think he can’t hear. Arriving in the office one Monday morning, he hears them giggling in the break room and catches a snippet of their conversation. “I wonder how he fits through the door…” When he stomps in to heat up his morning mackerel, they give him the briefest of greetings and scuttle back to their desks.

At home, George has a specially made door, which is wider at the top, so he has no trouble fitting through it. Of course, he doesn’t tell the girls that. Instead, he grinds his teeth and writes an angry email to human resources.

The reply assures him that the company takes bullying very seriously. However, it points out, having an oversized head isn’t a protected characteristic. Unless he would describe it as a disability?

George most certainly would not describe the head as a disability. It’s inconvenient from time to time, but it’s also where he keeps his gigantic brain. George knows that his superior intellect is what makes him so good at his job. His spreadsheets never have errors. He doesn’t make basic spelling mistakes in emails, unlike his manager, Karen, who doesn’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its,” and yet still tries to tone-edit his written communications with junior staff.

* * * *

At St. Matthew’s Independent School for Boys, George’s extra-large head was considered an asset. It did most of its growing during his boarding years, swelling from an average-sized noggin to the impressively bulbous specimen it is today. Every time he reduced an opponent to tears in a debate, it grew a little more. His parents praised the growth at the end of every term, and put him on a special diet that they hoped would make it grow faster.

He’d been bullied back then, too. Some of the stupider boys pretended to be overwhelmed by the smell of the brain-boosting fish he ate at every meal. George, who took great pleasure in sitting in front of them in class so they had to lean into the aisle to see past him, knew they were jealous. His big head would take him places, while they, with their macaroni cheese and pin-prick skulls, would never amount to anything beyond these ivy-covered walls.

* * * *

Molly from HR taps her pen against the side of her cheek and stares across the desk at George with a look of pity that makes his fists clench.

She tips her head to the side, mimicking the simpering dog in the calendar on her wall, and says, “I don’t suppose there’s any way you could get it treated?”

George splutters with rage. Do they ask Marcus to suppress his tics? Do they expect Maria to magic away her photosensitivity so they don’t have to hold meetings in rooms so gloomy several of the older managers — himself included, though he hasn’t liked to mention it — struggle to read their notes? No? Then why should he get rid of his extra-large head?

Molly smiles. “Karen says that sometimes it shrinks a little when you’re absorbed in a task. I wonder if that’s something we could cultivate.”

George storms out, grazing his ear on the door frame. All he wants are some reasonable adjustments. Someone to do his copying, because it’s… well, not impossible, but unpleasant, certainly, for him to squeeze into the photocopier room. Someone to fetch him coffee, so he can keep his great mind focused on his work, rather than being waylaid by chit-chat. And an end to the head-focused bullying.

As he returns to his desk, Karen shouts a cheery hello from the neighboring cubicle. Of course, she can see the crown of his head, showing off its bald spot over the top of the divider. Will they never give him any peace?

But even though it attracts attention, he wouldn’t give up his head for anything. When that evening he lays down to sleep, blood rushes to his brain, bathing him in a soothing wooziness. If other people’s minds are like televisions, replaying memories whenever they close their eyes, then his is an entire multiplex cinema. He selects a film from his school days and basks in the glory of himself.

 

Hannah Whiteoak’s work has recently appeared in publications such as Flash Fiction Online, Reflex Fiction, TSS, and Brilliant Flash Fiction. Connect online at www.hannahwhiteoak.me or on Twitter @hannahwhiteoak.

The Roadrunner by Brianne M. Kohl

Holly lays in bed, one leg bent over the edge, the other bare foot resting on the cool creased pillow. Pink toes. Avon Pink Minx. She idles the morning away, watching cartoons and smoking cigarette after cigarette. Charlie would not approve but Charlie is not here.

Holly throws an arm behind her head and stares at the television. Sly coyote – he’s painting a road on a desert floor that leads to a stone wall. He adds trees and a guard rail. Leaves no detail undone. He waits behind a dusty boulder for the Roadrunner to hit the wall. But the Roadrunner has a secret: she can turn paint into pavement, pavement into horizon, horizon into escape.

Holly pulls smoke into her lungs. Charlie is a doctor – a radiologist but still. He likes to tell Holly all the horrible things cigarettes can do to the human body. But Holly has decided: she will not die from cancer. Not any sickness, actually. Not fire, not gunshot – KAPOW! Not from Charlie’s fists that fall like anvils from the sky.

Her death will only be activated when (A) she lifts a soup spoon to her mouth, (B) pulling a string that (C) jerks a ladle which (D) chucks a bag of blue marbles at a bucket, tipping it and (E) spilling bird seed onto the table. The extra weight in the pail (F) pulls a cord which (G) opens and ignites a Zippo (H) setting off a rocket which (I) causes a sickle to cut the string (J) releasing a pendulum attached to (K) a blade that swings back and forth, across her throat.

The bird seed though? For the Roadrunner – who, let’s be honest, needs the calories.

A slip of greenish paper blows past her window, flush against the glass for a moment before catching the wind. And her funeral? Will Charlie come? Does a restraining order last after death? Will he send a bouquet of Daisies and a card that says, I’m sorry, sorry, so sorry, I love you, please? Baby, please. I’ll do anything.

Within moments of that first sheet of paper, a flurry of pamphlets rains down outside like ticker tape in a war parade.

Holly stamps out her cigarette and jogs to the front door of her apartment. The world outside is silent but for the shuttering of paper as it hits roof tops and slides down. She looks up but cannot see sky. Hundreds of thousands of sickly yellow-green papers fall.

Reaching out her door, she grabs one.

WE WERE HAPPY.

She opens the tri-folded pamphlet to find a watermark of an atomic bomb in the background. It is crudely drawn like a child’s rendering, ACME written on the side.

Come home.

You have nine days.

Holly steps out into the storm of paper, letting them slap past her face. People stand on porches and beneath awnings, pointing up.

“What the hell is this?” her next-door neighbor asks. Holly doesn’t know the woman’s name. She only knows the woman has a small, annoying terrier named Lemon Drop who barks constantly. The woman pushes against a drift of paper to open her door.

“I don’t know,” Holly says and hands the woman a flier. Lemon Drop bolts out into the lawn, yipping and chasing paper.

“This is some Heaven’s Gate bull shit,” the woman says. “Nine days. What’s in nine days?”

Air sirens go off and the two women stand together for several minutes, unsure what to say.

“You had problems recently,” the woman says. “Police were at your place a couple times. That guy wouldn’t leave you alone.”

Holly looks over in surprise. The papers taper off slowly until the last few fall and blue-skies return.

“I’m not sayin’ he’s doin’ this,” her neighbor says when Holly doesn’t respond. “But someone is. Probably the government. Russia, maybe. They gave us that virus through the chem-trails, you know.”

“Do you hear airplanes?” Holly looks up. Fliers pile up like snow drifts, clinging to trees and shrubbery, papering the entire neighborhood in sickening yellow-green.

“I didn’t hear nothing,” the woman says, grabbing Lemon Drop and slinking back into her apartment.

The woman reminds Holly of her mother. Chem-trails, Pizza-gate, there isn’t any awful thing her mother isn’t eager to believe.

Never about Charlie, though.

Back in her apartment, Holly checks her phone. The pamphlets fell not just on her neighborhood but the whole town. On the whole state. Reports come in quickly. Every state. Everywhere. Every country. Nine days, the pamphlets say, in every language. We were happy and now we are not.

Her wedding anniversary is in nine days. Holly sinks to the beige carpet. It smells like old, musty dog. She’s scrubbed it a dozen times and it doesn’t matter; she could scrub it a dozen more. The apartment walls are beige, neutral like sand. She was going to paint them but what’s the point?

Stupid Coyote – he’ll blanket the world in paper just to see her run. He’ll strap a rocket to his back and light his own tail on fire. He’ll paint a tunnel on a stone wall but she’s already on the other side of it. His schemes fail because it’s the Roadrunner who bends the laws of physics not the Coyote. She who can turn paint into pavement, pavement into horizon, horizon into escape.

 

Brianne M. Kohl’s work has been featured in various publications including Catapult, The Masters Review, and Jellyfish Review. She won first place in the 2018 Wigleaf Short Fiction Contest and second place in the 2020 Atticus Review CNF Flash Contest. She has work forthcoming from River Teeth.

No Running by Taylor Clarke

No one could tell him what to do, not anymore, so he went to the pool. The end of the world had happened overnight, and so everyone else remained tucked in their beds. The front desk staff slumped over their computers. Colin had the run of the place.

The resort pool was small, which was disappointing. It was designed for adults to sit around, a uniform four feet deep—which he could stand in, on his tiptoes —and without the fancy accessories one might expect from a resort: no slide, no diving board, no water features or zero entry. Colin had been to a pool with all of the above once, at Disney World. His parents had been upset because he enjoyed the pool more than waiting in line for hours to ride a lazy boat past some old robots from the Pirates of the Caribbean, and with only one pirate from the movie. He would have preferred to stay in that pool forever.

This pool was a subpar substitute, but it could have been worse. The pool could have been inside, humid and without a view of the sky. There could have been no pool at all.

So he decided to be grateful and strapped his goggles to his head. They were polarized, a word he’d learned from the packaging, dark lenses that made him feel like a spy, hiding the blistering sun behind sparkling blue. Through them, the water was a lurid cerulean. He kept his rash guard on, not because his mother had told him to, which she had, but because he was fat, and even now, with no one to see, no one at all, the existence of other people a total impossibility, he worried about his tummy extending over his board shorts, which he preferred to knot securely under the protrusion of his gut.

He jumped. Colin heard the splash and knew it was a big one, but there were no onlookers to confirm that his cannonball was a 10 out of 10. When he surfaced, the sun had already begun baking away the water he’d displaced. He floated on his back.

He flipped onto his stomach. He doggy-paddled back to the wall, a true doggy-paddle, pretending he was one of the fancy yippy dogs at the resort, some still closed in rooms, barking when he walked past to go to the pool. He sank beneath the surface, braced both feet on the wall, and was disappointed to find that the momentum of a single push was enough to get him to the other side, surfacing easily just before the opposite wall.

He decided on a tea party, with the goal not of a perfect mimicked tea party, beverages poured for friends, but of the longest tea party. Tea brought to his lips, pinky raised, for the longest time anyone had ever held an underwater tea party. He breathed deeply, the way his mother told him to do when he was upset, one hand on his tummy, trying to fill every inch of his insides. When he felt full, he gulped his last bit of air, filling the space at the very top of his lungs and throat, and sunk beneath the surface.

Sitting on the floor of the pool was easy. He always sank quickly—his swim instructors at the community pool back home had said, like a stone. He sat cross-legged on the concrete, bubbles escaping his nose even as he tried to hold his air in, and counted. Seven Mississippi, eight Mississippi, nine Mississippi. He poured himself tea. He didn’t pour any for imaginary friends. He knew they were all gone. He was eight, and no longer an idiot. He didn’t wonder what would come next, what would happen to the bodies in the hotel, or after he’d eaten all the food in the room’s mini fridge. He didn’t think about how he would feel when the dog down the hall from his parents’ room grew quiet. Twenty-six Mississippi, twenty-seven Mississippi. Counting left room for nothing else.

He sipped tea. The pressure in Colin’s chest was building, and he was in pain, but the record for the world’s longest underwater tea party couldn’t be less than forty-five seconds. He himself had hosted a thirty-five seconder, before.

At forty-nine seconds, he pushed off the concrete with his hands. The second or two before he reached the surface were awful, end of the world awful. He thought he wouldn’t make it; the pressure in his head would explode and he would simply be floating boy-pulp, like when someone vomits in the pool and the lifeguard has to fish out the offensive mass with a skimmer. He would be the offensive mass. Except there would be no one to use the skimmer. He would just float on the surface, forever, his brain food for gulls, if there were still gulls.

But Colin emerged, and he inhaled. The pool deck was empty. He wanted to knock the silence out of his ears like water. In the brief rise from pool floor to surface, he had imagined that his mother might suddenly appear on a lounger, a stopwatch counting up on her phone. She would have collected all the trapped dogs, and she would congratulate him on the longest tea party held by anyone left alive. She would be clapping.

 

Taylor Clarke is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Brooklyn College. Her fiction has appeared in Grimoire and The Nottingham Review. She is currently at work on a story collection about the end of the world.

Beauty is Only… by Jessica June Rowe

Or, How to Get Over Your Shitty Ex: A 10 Step Skincare Routine.

Step 1: Cleanser. You’ve got to start with a clean slate. Apply to damp skin in slow, circular motions. This is your chance to wipe away the past. Wipe until the long-lasting makeup you applied this morning lasts no more. It all breaks down: dark circles around your eyes, a red smear around your lips. Rinse. Watch the colors bleed from your face to your fingers to the sink.

Step 2: Exfoliator. You missed a spot. Scour your skin with a sugar-based scrub. Like your ex, who called you sweet and said you liked it rough. Exfoliate every molecule, spare no tender place. Rub your eye sockets, bruise your jawline, wring your hands around your throat until your muscles give way. Rinse.

Step 3: Toner. Restore the acid in your skin. You’re getting older, losing your edge. You wanted to leave him for ages, but you didn’t until it was him leaving you. But you don’t miss him. You shouldn’t miss him. Balance yourself every night with an alcohol-based toner. Feel the light burn of chemical stability, feel your tolerance build, feel better about your choices.

Step 4: Essence. What exactly is an essence? It doesn’t matter. Your skin is as dull as single life. Slap a hydrating essence onto your skin. When fully absorbed, slap on some more. You always need more hydration. Didn’t work? Are you drinking enough water? Are your showers too hot? Too long? Stop crying in those showers. Stop letting the tears and steam drain your sinuses, letting the water run until your skin shrivels. You’re always falling short. Drink more, cry less, slap more until your skin is drowning. Think it’s enough? It’s not enough.

Step 5: Roller. Take your routine to the next level with a jade roller. Start at the center of your face and roll outwards until you reach your hairline. Use the roller’s edge to work under the top layers of your skin and peel them off in a single motion. Set your face-skin somewhere flat to dry. No wrinkles here.

Pro-tip: Use the roller on your exposed superficial fascia. Fascia massage is all the rage, after all, and you know how to deal with rage. Be sure to wash your roller with warm water and gentle soap afterward; leftover blood can lead to bacteria build-up. You know how to deal with blood.

Step 6: Sheet Mask. Without your skin, you’re so sensitive. A sheet mask is soothing, revitalizing, reinventing. For 15-20 minutes, you can pretend that you’re someone else entirely, that you’re applying their skin. You pretend you’re the girl your ex is now dating. You watch the makeup tutorials she cross-posts on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok. You analyze every new video, searching for bruises lurking under all those layers of foundation. All you find is flawless skin. You wonder if your ex is the one taking all her staged poolside photos. You hate her. You envy her skill with liquid eyeliner. You love her skincare tips, her gentle voice, her #glow.

Step 7: Serum. God, you’re pathetic. Didn’t we go through this already? You need a serum, a punch of perfection. Active ingredients will actively eradicate your shame, your spite, your ugliness, your inability to let go. Use a high concentration, enough to erase any skin-memory that makes you you. No one wants that. For the best results, tear away the fascia, the subcutaneous fat, the retaining ligaments. Make it all the way down to your thick skull. Smear the serum across your cranial bones; let it soak into your marrow. If you experience soreness, irritation, instability, despair—ignore it. Dig deeper with a pair of metal tweezers. Chip away at your forehead; twist the sharpened points until you trepane your way to your frontal lobe.

Step 8: Spot Treatment. Through your skull-hole, it’s so much easier to see those hard-to-reach spots. Tweeze away the tricky blood vessels, the wrinkles in your brain, the scar tissue that keeps forming from overthinking, not thinking, stupid thinking. Trauma isn’t cute. You don’t want him back. You don’t. You do. You don’t. Apply a strong spot cream to the places, spaces, memories, emotions you want stripped away; apply at night so you can let it penetrate your imperfections all night long.

Step 9: Moisturizer. Doesn’t that feel better? Time for more hydration. A moisturizer will create a nourishing barrier to prevent all your efforts from going in vain—and it’s a great adhesive. Slather generously to both sides of your skull-bones and face-skin and press gently to re-adhere.

Pro tip: Follow up with a facial oil for true resilience. Feel your pores, your sweat glands, your nerves seal shut. Trap in everything from before. Your face should be as smooth as a mirror: reflecting everything, absorbing nothing. You are bright, immaculate, beautiful. The pain you felt, you feel, is nothing.

Step 10: Rinse, Repeat. This is the rest of your life. You will care for your skin until it dies, and you with it. Probably alone, but who knows. New skin, new you, maybe even new love. You deserve love, even when you don’t. You do. You don’t. You do. If you ever forget, just add more steps. You always need more hydration. Try creams, peels, correctors, removers. Mask your face, your hands, your feet, your hurt. Remember: you can’t break out if you never break.

 

Jessica June Rowe is an author, playwright, editor, and perpetual daydreamer. She is on the Editorial Board of Exposition Review and has served as both the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor. A Best of the Net nominee, her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Atlas and Alice, Pidgeonholes, Timber Journal, and Noble/Gas Qtrly, while her short plays have been featured on multiple stages in Los Angeles. One of her poems is stamped into a sidewalk in Valencia, CA, where she currently lives. She also really loves chai lattes. Find her on Twitter @willwrite4chai.

A Universe Waiting to Be Born by Cathy Ulrich

In this universe, time is on a rewind, time is in reverse, and the girl detective gets unkidnapped, gets set back down on the sidewalk beside the gaping Thomas from chemistry class. He is thinking apples like smells hair her, and his smile goes and comes, white-toothed. The girl detective becomes unaware of the long black car turning round the corner, her head dips down and up as she listens to Thomas’s backward talk, as they go backward into the school, as they grow younger imperceptibly, as Thomas’s hand nearly brushes the girl detective’s, as it pulls away.

The sun falls back into its rise, birds migrate north for the summer, the spools unwind and unwind, and the girl detective sits at her bedroom window and thinks alone not am I. Universes and universes and universes are there.

The girl detective walks backward home, her mother plays Billie Holiday backwards, her father returns from a trip he hasn’t yet left for. They uneat their dinner at the long dining table, empty forks becoming full, tipping back down to their plates. There is a silence of unspoken words that surrounds them.

The girl detective heads backward to her birth, she will be unborn, she will be part of the fabric of everything, small and new in this reversing place, she looks out across a sea of universes and a sea of girl detectives going forward and away from her, and she wants to tell them, I know how it ends, I know how it all ends, but she is swallowed up in her beginning and carried with everything into a universe waiting to be born.

 

Cathy Ulrich always sets her clocks at least 10 minutes ahead, which is kind of the opposite of going backwards in time. Or something. Her work has been published in various journals, including Quarter After Eight, Ecotone, and Flash Frog.

Other Husbands by M.L. Krishnan

 We aspired to be like you, with your spouse and lover and child, with the way that you gathered and displayed men as though they were hand-hammered coins that you strung from your wedding girdle—your veshti-clad husband with a voice like the wind at sea and a throat filled with song, and your lover from Bareilly or Ludhiana or some other city from the North with an incomprehensible name, with his mongrel loyalty and film-star looks, and your beautiful child whose joy fell upon you like a meteor outburst, her laughter slopping cosmic debris around your toes sheathed in silver. It didn’t matter who the father of that child was. It didn’t matter that you deserved none of this, the love, the men and their fevered attention, the way that you held yourself so self-effacingly, as if to dare us, as if to say, look what I can do with this cratered skin, with my unplucked eyebrows and unshaved armpits, with my teeth, with this phlegm-colored nighty that hung on me like a military tent, vast and irregular and frowned with creases. As though your good fortune was a life-insurance agent with a steady name like Kannan or Manikandan who pressed his bearded face into your upper thighs, and you took him in with your homemaker dullness, just as you did everything else. You were never like us. We shone too much, we jumped too far, we stood tall and proud in our splendor, in our angles of nose and jaw and leg, in the way that we excelled at everything that we put our minds to: field hockey, polynomials, makeup, the devotional compositions of Saivite saints. Maybe that was our downfall. Your compliance, wielded like a razorblade that slid easily under men, under us, under the viscera of our anxieties, our love, slick and hot and foreboding to the touch.

 

M.L. Krishnan originally hails from the coastal shores of Tamil Nadu, India. She is a 2019 graduate of the Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Trampset, Paper Darts, Quarterly West, Sonora Review, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @emelkrishnan.

The Painted Moth by Jennifer Fliss

My boyfriend Mark and I were painting the walls of our shitty little rental. The landlord gave us permission, though he refused to replace, or even spot-clean the haggard carpet – dotted with who knows what from who knows when.

We taped up the door frame and windows and the perfect place where the walls meet the ceilings. Blue tape like bodily outlines saying a death had been there.

“You idiot. You did it wrong. Let me,” Mark said, as he used his body like an insult and pushed me out of the way. As he grabbed the tape roll, he left a patch of scratches on my wrist, like a special plaid. He was not a man who bit his nails and he rarely trimmed them, preferring to go for monthly manicures. He liked them in points. His daggers often left marks, and I often ran my own fingers over the cuts and felt the burn again and again.

In the quiet of a cricket night, the screen door open, I stood on a ladder painting the upper reaches of the bedroom. Mark crouched at the floor, working near the baseboards. I closed one eye for precision. Ran the brush in a smooth line, impressed with my even lines.

About two inches from the ceiling, I discovered a moth on the wall. It was the size of a half dollar, beige, as moths are, mottled like it was diseased. I saw its whisper thin wings flutter. Well, it was really more of a tremor, so faint was the movement. But as I got near, the moth stilled its subtle beating. I blew at it and thought about flicking it with my finger, but imagined it immediately turning to dust and crumbling, and I don’t know where I got that idea. I decided to leave it, but when I bent to dip the brush in more paint, it had moved. Spectral. The ghost had departed.

I painted a few more lines, and dipped again and continued to search the walls for the creature. It only took a moment to realize that the moth had moved a couple feet back and I had accidentally painted it over. It’s wings, thorax, even the fine antennae, now a relief, but not quite a work of art. I dropped the brush. Horrified. I stared at the winged creature, wondering what to do. I tapped its body with a fingernail, came away with a smear of blue. The moth only twitched its antennae and then stopped moving altogether. It stayed on the wall, a tempest blue fresco of a moth; it could’ve been a butterfly for all the paint.

The color we had chosen was Hawaiian Blue. It’s like we’ll always be on a honeymoon, Mark had said. I’d never been to Hawaii, so I wouldn’t know. And we never talked about a honeymoon since, or the pomp and circumstances that would lead to such a trip. The color was closer to the tears painted by children. We adults know that tears are clear and they dry white and phantom-like on our skin. They aren’t blue at all.

Up on the ladder, I felt a sudden surge and dropped my paintbrush. “Gotcha”! Mark growled as he grabbed my waist. I slipped down the rungs of the ladder and my head whacked the corner of the counter. I saw speckles. They looked like the wings of a moth. Of my moth. Of a moth shaking off its paint, its bindings.

“Ha,” Mark said, and went back to his corner to continue his important work.

Mark painted as I nursed my head with a bag of frozen corn. Mark called me lazy a few times with a smile. But he never noticed the moth as he went over to fix my mistakes.

We stayed in the house for four years. I’d made up many stories for the stains on the carpets. Stew. Coffee. Love. Miscarriage. Death. And nearly every night, under the great heft and misguided love of my boyfriend – who was still my boyfriend and not my husband, or even fiancé despite his move-in promises – I watched and waited for a sign from the moth. Whacha looking at? Mark would say before he came. Whacha looking at? as he rolled over and turned out the light. He never waited for the answer. I know because his snores quickly replaced his oh gods.

The moth, I understood was dead the minute I coated its not diseased but beautiful wings.

 

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, F(r)iction, and in the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology. She is also the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. Her debut short story collection, THE PREDATORY ANIMAL BALL, is forthcoming from Okay Donkey Press in November 2021. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or on her website at www.jenniferflisscreative.com.

Undertow by Matthew Mastricova

Jeff wants to grows long enough to reach the moon. He’s been doing those stretches, where you grab on the gnarliest limb of a tree and let your body stretch down. Jeff says the neanderthals used to do it. He says one day he’s gonna get big enough to crush the moon between his palms. Serves it right for sitting up so close in the sky, causing tides and shit. His arms have grown like an inch or two. Or maybe he dropped his body so hard he unraveled something. I missed the first two snaps and have to settle for gawking at the rough fractal guts of his uncle’s maple tree. It was like looking at the inside of my own skeleton. I wanted to hurl. The last time I wanted to get sick so bad was when Jeff’s older brother pushed me off their back porch and I landed on my arm wrong and clean broke it. He was that kind of motherfucker.

The third time Jeff’s fat ass breaks a branch, I’m videotaping him to find the moments where gravity drags Jeff’s arms down beyond their limit. No one believes in Jeff but me. They don’t know how much spite is in that guy’s teeth. Venom can take you a long way if you let it, so even though Jeff’s hands are splintered to hell after the branch breaks, he doesn’t even wince. He’s been through worse. At his brother’s funeral, Jeff showed me the scar from where his brother sliced his stomach for hogging the xbox. He pulled me into the bathroom and said “Jody I gotta show you something” and he let me trace the shape of it and I swear to god I could feel it breathing.

Jeff gives me his hands and I get to work removing the slivers of pulp. I want to stick his whole fist in my mouth, suck out the poison that’s keeping him going, but I focus on the damage I could see. By the time I return Jeff his hand it’s swollen like a corpse. Another shot at vengeance the wild stole from him. Even with the dead hand he still plans on trying. He asks me if I’d come over next time and watch just in case something happens and the other hand goes, too. If I’d tie his hands to the trees, then. I say yes, of course I’d do that Jeff, but it’s only because I believe he’d figure a way to do it some other way. Jeff, one day he’ll crumble the moon between his fingers and banish the ocean tides, and then he’ll have nothing left to break but himself.

 

Matthew Mastricova is the fiction editor for Third Point Press. Their work has appeared in Catapult, Joyland, Redivider, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.

The Curtains We Bought by Sheila Mulrooney

We ordered curtains from a second-hand furniture shop. They said shipping took nine weeks, but we agreed that two months of naked windows was better than funding Bezos. I remember how we murmured this to each other as we fell asleep, like a lullaby. You in your boxers, me in my t-shirt, both thick with sweat. I didn’t tell you, but I was scared those nights, unable to sleep with the glare of streetlamps on our drywall. I felt like the whole city could see us. They were watching, laughing at our poverty and love.

~

They came wrapped tightly in plastic and crinkled with static. The white polyester was blotched with purple lavender, a synthetic pattern repeating itself like cars on the highway. You shook them out and immediately the room smelled of something processed and unclean. I wished we could afford nice things, like linen curtains or cotton bedsheets. You took four quarters from our Mexico Vacation Jar and left for the laundromat. I saw the static shock you as you turned the doorknob.

~

You picked them up after dinner, along with two six-packs. We were slightly drunk when you plastered them against the glass and said look, we can finally do it with the lights on. This reminded me that I wanted to string Christmas lights around the rod, then drape the curtains over them, creating a gauzy purple glow. Kinky, you said. So we fished out a string of lights, untangled them, then looped them around the curtain rod, singing Deck the Halls and spilling beer on our jeans. What I wanted to say was we are so happy, we should die so we don’t have to be scared and unhappy tomorrow. But I didn’t because I knew doing so would bring tomorrow anyway.

~

The next morning we tried putting up the curtains hungover. I think you were ashamed of our silliness the night before. You clipped your movements so they were angular and sharp. The stitching is already coming apart, you said as if the low quality disgusted you. Again I wished we were rich and spent our Sunday afternoons shopping instead of bartending and writing blogs for start-ups. You would choose beautiful curtains and we could be happy in this life that we share.

~

The curtains did not fit over the Christmas lights. We tried for forty-five minutes before stripping them from the iron rod and letting them fall into tangles.

~

We abandoned the apartment for the afternoon, the curtains a pile of soft purple on the floor. We went to Tops, bought heaps of ramen, eggs, and vegetables, planning an enormous stir fry to fight the hangover. You needed shampoo and I remembered toothpaste. By the time we checked out, the bill was $77.93, almost $30 overbudget. We walked home deflated, knowing we spent too much but could not take it back.

~

It is sunset, dinnertime, when the curtains are finally up. In the flutters of evening wind, they seem both mysterious and adolescent. Like a symbol in a coming-of-age movie, where a female protagonist will lose what her parents call her virginity to the wrong boy. This will be the greatest hardship of her affluent life, the only plot point bourgeoise screenwriters can produce. I imagine the actress as wispy with thick eyebrows, and I resent her and her fictional ilk. I stand there hating her, wanting to be her, until you yell food’s ready, come and get it. Then I shut the window and return to you.

 

Sheila Mulrooney has an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of journals including White Wall Review (forthcoming), The Wayfarer, Rejection Letters, and others. She is at work on her first novel.

After 70 Years in the Ice, Steve Rogers Visits Whole Foods by Emily Capettini

I.

The first time, he never makes it past the fresh produce section.

Steve stares at the leafy greens ivied against the far wall, radishes like low-slung suns through smoke. He recognizes the cloudy marbles of cabbages, tucked in with purple twins. Knuckles of ginger root and seven kinds of apples, piled high like pirate treasure. There are packages of fruit slices nearly as green as that liquor a grateful woman in Belfort had insisted they take. They’d known it, too, was a treasure excavated, cellar dust layered thick on the bottle.

One of his men had thrown up in a field later and Steve thinks that field must have grown lush since ’44, plants gone to seed decades-thick over where his boots sunk. How many ghosts layer there like impression fossils. Then, Steve had hoped to press his own mark on history, leave something for another to find.

Now, he fills his basket with fruits and vegetables bright enough to hurt.

 

II.

Steve goes to the far side of the store next time, back set against the lure of produce. He finds himself in front of a long case heaped with cheese like rubble. Steve rests his hand just inside the glass, the cool breeze a modern marvel he expects will never fade to ordinary. There are things that stay fixed, even in this new century: summers are still sticky in New York; a body still sweats.

He picks a few wedges of cheese, soft-rinded and dimpling under his gentle grip. They’d always been his favorites, even before hard cheeses disappeared overseas.

There was a day not long after Steve hung up that prop shield when he had to dart through a farm field gone fallow. He ducked into a cave, tried to remake himself small. Steve brushed against rough wood and found on top a cool surface that dimpled under his touch.

The search for him crossed back and forth in front of the cave, and Steve slivered off pieces of the cheese, letting each melt on his tongue until dawn or death found him first.

 

III.

Everyone gives him a double-take when they see him texting, as if a full keyboard would be any trouble after a telegraph. Steve sighs, wishing for the luxury of being unremarkable. The problem with imagination, he thinks, is it only looks forward.

If anyone ever bothered to ask him what he liked best about here, he’d say coffee. Not the lattes and specialty cafés that remind him he ought to see Rouen or Paris again, but the bins lining the aisles here, each tracing an origin that spirals somewhere else. He buys more than he can really drink, stacking it inside cabinets until his whole kitchen smells like coffee.

When he and his men were able to save up enough coffee for full cups to go around, they used to wish for another tomorrow, blowing away steam like birthday candles. Steve remembers the odd splendor of rest. The comfort of sitting squeezed together in whatever shelter they’d found or made. He never made his own wish, too aware of his still-new body’s mortgage.

There are thousands of tomorrows between him and those scraped-together evenings, now. Sometimes, Steve wonders if those wishes had been rationed out like the coffee, and his share is what finally pulled him free of that long sleep.

 

Emily Capettini is a queer fiction writer from the Midwest who loves a good ghost story. Her work has most recently appeared in places like Middle House Review and Lammergeier, among others. Her chapbook, Girl Detectives, is forthcoming from Porkbelly Press later this year. Find out more about her at emilycapettini.com.