We Thought It Was Lost Forever by Eileen Frankel Tomarchio

The rewind button, remember? Popped off the remote when you threw it at the TV that time? I was rubbing the nubs where your toes had been while you watched a nature show. All those sea walruses crowded on stony cliffs, tumbling in slow motion into an Arctic sea, their writhing hulks like bodies in a bag. Bellows so loud that next-door pounded the wall. It was telling, the way you curled your hands into yourself after the throw. I know you wanted me to think it was a neighborly fuck off! that missed the wall, or a shot at me for not rubbing hard enough. (I never could rub hard enough to relieve the numbness one minute, choke the stabbing sensation the next). But it was those walruses, wasn’t it? Their odd cave noises in open air. They must have sounded to you as if your own pain were being fed through a landline a thousand miles long, across a continent, coming out on those cliffs a garbled, whiskered lament. 

I remember thinking this was a perfect chance for a big-picture talk. The kind you couldn’t stand and that I hated hearing myself say. Some facile link from the panicked beasts to melting sea ice to forest loss to palm plantations to the processed oil on the list of ingredients in the Fig Newtons and Tombstone Frozen Pizza you loved to high A1C levels to neuropathy to gangrene to amputation to stuck in a chair watching nature shows. Except I could imagine your side-eye too well, hear your You learn that stretch in yoga? Then something about how I’d rather dump the world’s problems on you than, say, get together with my sweet, funny cousin with MS, or make a donation to the local Catholic Charities, or bake you a tray of dream bars for the freezer, just to have on hand, the only pleasure left to you, so why would I deny you unless I were the cruelest sort of daughter?

It was easier to spare you the talk and go hunting for the remote behind the TV. I lingered in a crouch back there, feeling weak from the surround-sound of walruses and sad violins. For months afterwards, you controlled the rewind with blunted toothpicks until it got too hard to finesse. You resorted to the pause button a lot, just to absorb, catch up. You’d always been a mindful viewer, doubting everything you saw and heard that you couldn’t go back and watch again, see right, hear for sure. But in the end, you stopped bothering even with the pause and kept the TV running live, believing too easily the things you barely caught or filled in wrong or just wanted to believe.

I’ve got it in my hand now, the rewind button. I found it at the edgelands of the carpet with some mouse droppings and a cracked Metformin pill. It snaps right back into the remote. I press it a bunch of times. A reversed Lester Holt un-reports the wildfires out west, scrolled script pages in his downturned prayer hands, the straining flames sucked back into the ground. When I release my thumb, the rewind stays stuck at triple-speed, the backward programming a slapstick blur. But I don’t fix the jam with a toothpick, a ballpoint pen, my teeth. I leave it alone. I hang here in your chair and close my eyes and let rewind send me back to before you had to go into nursing care. Back further to before your amputations. Further still to the days I rubbed your toes with your favorite palm oil-laden Gold Bond. To you and the neighbor chatting over tea, trading door wreath tips. To you pushing your cart through the grocery aisles in sunny flip flops, before the mobility scooters. To you making me vow never to move back home, no matter how sick you ever got, and me lying when I said I promise. To my last summer before college and a Sunday afternoon we watched TV together, me breaking off half a still-warm dream bar to share, both of us making happy eating noises while walrus families lolled on plentiful ice floes in healthy seas, before they were forever lost.

 

Eileen Frankel Tomarchio works as a librarian in a small New Jersey suburb. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Forge Lit Mag, Longleaf Review, Pithead Chapel, X-R-A-Y, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from NYU Film. She’s on Twitter at @eileentomarchio.

Starburst: A Dispatch of 100-Word Stories by Julia Halprin Jackson

Take care

After the cicadas stop humming, after the moon flushes the sky clean of stars, we hear it. A thrashing, a clanging, a hurtling, is whirling towards us from below the campground. You pace on the pulsing soil. “Don’t worry,” you call. “I’ll take care of it.” The earth is loud. Insects gather at my feet. Then I notice it: the ground has seams. Stick your finger in and up it rips, soil and roots and worms, concrete foundations, wooden beams, gravestones. “Don’t!” you say. But my fingers are hungry. I pull back the earth beneath your feet. I take care.

No vacancy

Night falls over Crater Lake, that blue gully with its mouth open to the heavens. The man and woman approach the summit as the rain drops like marbles. The campgrounds are full, as are the chalets; there aren’t any hotel rooms this close to the crater’s rim. What if we could make it to the island? she says. It’s probably vacant. When he doesn’t answer, she puts the car in reverse, aims for the rim’s biggest lip. Floor it, he says. Rain steers them down, down. The sky has never been more vacant. They push the stars aside. They land.

Ways to fall in love

One bought me glucose tablets. Another held my hand while we biked. Another took me to see the seals in the snow. One left a birthday gift outside my parents’ gate, close to midnight on a day I thought he’d forgotten. These are all the ways I’ve fallen in love. But this one unrolled the country and we hiked right through it. He vacuums. He lets me drive his ATV. This one woke me that night I’d fallen off the bed, wet and shaking, and didn’t mind that I’d broken his glasses. This one is afraid of the right things.

Transit

We park my bike next to yours in the shed overnight. The next morning, three small tricycles lurk under my back wheel. The tricycles have my curvy handlebars and your racer stripes. My bike looks tired, her tires deflated. Your bike’s pedals spin midair. You reach for a trike, but it rolls out of view. Someday these might come in handy, you say, patting my belly. You reach for the door but I stop you, saying, Let’s leave it open. We’re not gone long, but when we come back, the bikes are gone, a trail of grease staining the floor.

Bean counter

It’s a tireless game, all this imagining. You want a universe and so you must invent it. You want a popsicle and so you must make it drip down your chin. You want a man with a Frisbee for a head, so you draw him. Etcetera. Other people—PhDs, MBAs, MDs, JDs, CFOs, UFOs—other people perform real services, create real goods. Other people can weigh what they’ve created in two hands. Other people chat you up at cocktail parties, say, What you do sounds so fun. You smile, but inside you know. Your hands are dirty from counting words.

 

Julia Halprin Jackson’s work has appeared in Cutleaf, West Branch Wired, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Fourteen Hills, California Northern, and elsewhere. A graduate of U.C. Davis’s Master’s in Creative Writing program, Julia is the co-founder and publicity director of Play On Words, San Jose’s collaborative literary performance series, and a 2021-2023 Lighthouse Book Projecteer.

Superposition by Josh Denslow

Unobserved, the dog is able to exist in two places at once.

He lies at the foot of his owner’s bed, her hand idly stroking his fur as she struggles to find the inner resources needed to finish the book she began reading over a year ago. On nights like this, expectant and alone, the book is a morass of words. She can no longer remember the characters or the plot or anyone’s motivations, so she starts from wherever she had put the bookmark previously and mouths each word as she moves toward the inevitable, and frankly disquieting, end. The dog likes when she reads. There is more room for him, on nights like this, when she craves another presence. Someone to prove she’s alive.

The dog is also, at this precise moment, across town, running loose in the yard of the object of his owner’s affection. He’s a vibrant man who hasn’t read a book in years. Not since his ex-wife gave him a copy of Mending a Marriage: Who is the Needle and Who is the Thread, which he read with an earnest fervor he’d never felt in all their years together. He highlighted and underlined and copied his favorite passages, but they never once talked about the book. They signed the paperwork without ever attempting to mend anything. He thinks about that book more than he would care to admit.

The dog doesn’t give a shit about books, or even words for that matter. He can feel his age in his bones and his loosening skin and his drying hair. He wants two warm bodies in his bed, one on either side, like bookends. These two, the dog’s owner and the object of her affection, will do nicely. They are the needle and the thread.

So the dog puts his head on his owner’s thigh and sighs, tilting his deep brown eyes up at her; while at the same time, he rubs against the man’s leg, his tail whipping uncontrollably.

The woman mouths more words as the man says, “Whoa, buddy.” His fingers reach out, those magical digits with the power to move all the matter in the world, and he clasps the dog’s collar.

He sees the name there and the number, and the dog rolls onto his back on the bed next to his owner because he knows what happens next.

The phone rings and she puts her bookmark in the book and closes it. She has no idea when she will open it again.

“I found your dog,” the man says.

She looks at her dog and the man looks at her dog, and thus observed the dog chooses a location.

Alone in bed, the dog’s owner rubs the spot where her dog had been moments before. “I’ll pick him up,” she says, the book forgotten now. “I’ll come to you.”

 

Josh Denslow is the author of the story collection Not Everyone Is Special (7.13 Books) and the novel Super Normal (forthcoming Fall 2023, Stillhouse Press). He listens to a lot of music.

 

The Man I Killed… by Corey Miller

sputters and beats his wings like a stink bug, always returning to the ceiling of Wal-mart. He bashes his antennae and thorax into the metal rafters, looking for an escape as I sideswipe cereal boxes into my shopping cart: knockoff Cap’n Crunch, Lucky Charms, and Life.

Headstones name the dead to be remembered. I don’t know where the man I killed is buried — if he is buried — so I call him Coffee.

Coffee had a son in my Geometry class who wore shiny braces and a #44 football jersey. I always wanted a son, one who would grow explosively stronger than myself and play sports on the front page of the local paper. Enough ball to earn a free ride through life.

Being a teacher earns me food stamps to deliver passing grades.

This shopping cart bears a bum wheel pulling me left, veering across common grocery store traffic. I push harder with my left hand to correct this misguided vehicle.

Coffee’s forty eyes follow me whenever I stock up at Wal-mart, the only store for miles. I considered making the road trip elsewhere, but we need to history book each other.

Solve for X: If Coffee’s wife sucker punches me in the face with a velocity multiplied by doctors pronouncing her husband dead upon arrival, how long will my nose make a wheezing noise? My students couldn’t stop laughing behind my back those following two weeks as I contrived mathematical equations on the chalkboard. Different angles to get to the point.

My arm weakens and my cart rams into oncoming traffic. No apologies. The shoppers try to fear-swerve my aim. They mumble to themselves, I hear how their mandibles jabber.

The dairy aisle is freezing, solidifying the milk into blocks that could break a foot if dropped. I don’t notify the underpaid, underappreciated, overwhelmed staff. How will kids drown their cereal? Will the boxes displaying puzzle distractions remain on the shelves?

I’m the teacher. The one with the answers to the questions. Where is your father #44? He’s a bug man hovering above me. An exoskeleton scared to float down and be crushed under my foot.

Walmart is wonderful because it’s a one-stop-shop. I can buy everything I need in one place: batteries, wiper blades, tissues, prescription glasses, SPEED on BluRay. I run into former students of mine. Outside the Math Room we don’t acknowledge each other. I used to say Hi, but they’ve stopped responding.

I grab a newspaper. On the front page: Our high school Hornets win regional, #44 still front and center after my car missed him five years ago. I roll the paper into a tube and monocular Coffee. Each of his spurred tibias grab for the steering wheel to jerk away. The lifespan of bugs ranges from five minutes to fifty years. How long will Coffee consume me?

The coffee aisle is where I first saw him, when he was alive. His family a face full of grinning teeth. I always drink my coffee black, the heat scalding the roof of my mouth, awakening me to start my morning. I haven’t slept in days. Like a tree falling in the woods, I wonder if Coffee is always here, even while I’m away, waiting my return.

Solve for X: If a car is traveling 25 miles-per-hour in a grocery store parking lot and not watching for pedestrians, hitting and dragging the body beneath the car for 15 meters with the nearest hospital a forty-five minute drive, how fast does the ambulance need to move to keep him alive?

Growing up, I was terrified of bugs. It spawned from an overnight camping trip that my parents made me attend. Each rock I lifted revealed creatures scurrying every direction. Now I see how silly my fear was. In the cleaning aisle, I catch a tiny mufflehead by the wings and watch it flail. They can’t bite and only live the last week of May, right before kids graduate. Right before families celebrate a milestone. I squeeze its body between my thumb and index, feeling the smallest of pops. What’s left behind is nothing but a dark smudge. The considerate thing about bugs is that they have no names. I don’t want to call them anything. I can pretend they never had a life to forfeit.

“Did you see that, Coffee?” I yell to him, as he crawls around a condensate lamp.

A woman with a cart full of wasp spray and ant traps questions me, “What are you doing here?”

“I need to press on.”

I self-checkout, scanning the vitamins and fats, over packaged and shipped around the world. Will this be the day Coffee comes down? Sucks the life out of me? He springs towards the ground, but is drawn back up to the ceiling like reverse gravity. We’re becoming old pals who get together as often as I need to replenish my food supply. How’s the family? Job treating you well? Life okay?

I never married. Never found that special person. Not that I wasn’t searching. That special someone must have been in the one place I didn’t look.

Wal-mart’s parking lot is overflowing, the heartbeat for a town in the middle of nowhere. I load my Nissan Pathfinder, drive through the striped lines webbed on the pavement. My rear view mirror reflects a man who’s aged twenty years in the past five. Pedestrians cross, and it’s him, the man I killed, walking with his family as if he’s alive again. As if he’s happy once more. A three corner fly circles my sweaty head, landing and biting me like it has a point. I steady the wheel and let them pass this time, not fumbling with the receipt and coupons to confirm I saved X amount of cents.

 

Corey Miller was a finalist for the F(r)iction Flash Fiction Contest (’20) and shortlisted for The Forge Flash Competition (’20). His writing has appeared in Booth, Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, Hobart, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. He reads for TriQuarterly, Longleaf Review, and Barren Magazine. When Corey isn’t brewing beer for a living in Cleveland, OH, he likes to take the dogs for adventures. Follow him on Twitter @IronBrewer or at CoreyMillerWrites.com.

Tongue Depressors by Emily Behnke

It’s murky, but at the bottom of Sadpond I think I see streaks of green and yellow. Mabel watches me from the window with worry winnowing across her face, so I cut my staring short and go inside. She asks if there’s something wrong with Sadpond. I don’t know, I tell her. Something’s growing in it. She looks at me, serious as she was as a little business-like infant. Ponds are habitats, she tells me. Okay, I say. Things will grow, she tells me. She walks away from me to let that sink in. I haven’t had it in me to tell her about the sunflowers, but she’s putting the pieces together quicker than I can stop her. I don’t go back out to Sadpond for the rest of the day, but I don’t talk to her either, not until she comes out of her bedroom red in the face and sweating. I have a fever, she says in a long yodel. My fingers are ice against her head. She sinks against me and I toss her to the couch. My daughter, I say. We are so easily taken out. Soon enough, her throat is crawling. She hacks up green and asks me to look at her throat so I get the tongue depressors, even though she’s too old for them. We both like the woody taste. I press down. Inside her: swaths of bright red patched with yellow and green, just like at the bottom of Sadpond. Did you drink the pond water, I say, and she pulls away from me in disgust. I’m not fucking stupid mom, she says. I roll my eyes. There isn’t time for this. She hacks again and something comes out like a silken petal. I made a mistake, I say all choked up, and hurt flashes across her face. For some reason, I think she assumes I meant having her. Obviously, that isn’t it. My mistake: thinking I could protect her alone. My mistake: thinking the sunflowers wouldn’t come for her.

 

Emily Behnke is a graduate of The New School’s MFA program. Her work has been published in trampset, Bear Creek Gazette, Tiny Molecules, and other venues. She’s currently at work on a novel.

There Is Only One Object in the Museum of Darkness by Helen Harjak

It all started with these pains deep in her eye sockets. From there, a tightness would snake into her temples before settling in the back of her head. She felt people’s piercing gazes on her, assessing and questioning. She dropped out of her courses and got an office job, but the pain didn’t seem to go away. Her mornings were spent willing herself to get out of bed.

When she quit her job, the throbbing stayed with her. She moved into the family cabin, tucked away at the edge of a pine forest. She didn’t leave the house much besides a daily walk to the local shop to get the paper—there was no phone line and the TV reception was sporadic, amounting to three different channels that all showed the same shows where the people said the same things.

One day, she read an article in the paper about a young man who had won a novel-writing competition. He was only two years older than her. He was asked how someone so young could come up with a work so deep and meaningful. The young man listed a number of inspiring writers the girl had never heard of. He said he’d gone through a very difficult time in his life. ‘But what really changed me was the Museum of Darkness,’ he said. ‘It’s in England. A bit of a journey from London but well worth the effort.’

She found out that the museum had opened when she was at school. It was popular then, but nobody had written about it in recent years. Yet, according to the museum’s website, it was still going and free to enter. She used what was left of her savings to book a plane ticket.

* * * *

The Museum of Darkness wasn’t easy to get to. You either had to drive along winding, gravel-strewn roads, or walk five miles from the nearest village with a train station. In the initial bubble of excitement, when many people made their way there, they travelled by taxi. It was busy enough that there would always be somebody to pick you up on the way back. But that was then, and this is now.

Nobody sees the girl walking up the road. She takes a small digital camera from her backpack and photographs the front of the building: concrete walls with a vaguely cubist texture forming little turrets, and balconies jutting out full of lush green vegetation. There are many windows on different levels, but it’s hard to gauge what lies beyond them. The girl doesn’t venture off the narrow path that leads to the entrance. She observes her reflection as she approaches the large tinted-glass sliding doors. She can’t bring herself to look away from the two hollows in the middle of her sunlit face. She stops and takes a photo.

The doors slide open when she comes within an arm’s reach. In front of her, another wall of darkened glass. She steps inside and the doors behind her close, trapping her in the narrow space. When she glances over her shoulder, she can still see the outside. With slight unease, she realizes she might be watched through the set of doors in front of her, just as she can look at the rose bush growing alongside the path she has taken.

“Welcome to the Museum of Darkness,” a voice rings out. “Please switch off your mobile phones.”

She can’t tell where it’s coming from and whether it belongs to a man or a woman. It has the metallic twang of a robot but with a tone to it, something subtle, almost mocking. She hasn’t turned on her phone since she landed. She checks it just in case.

“Please mind your step in the dark,” the voice says as the second set of doors in front of her open.

When she walks into the darkness, she discovers she can’t see through the layer of glass that has closed behind her. She’s caught by a sound. A rustling? No, a shuffling. There are waves nearby. And the sea breeze—she’s sure she can smell salt and algae. The ground underneath her feet crumbles like sand. She starts moving towards the waves but stops after a while for fear of hitting a wall. She reaches out a tentative arm. The wall isn’t there. Yet, she can feel the warmth radiating from it, an uneven rock surface heated by the sun. It’s close enough, so she’d better turn left.

The air is damper now. Her thin top clings to her back despite the relative chill. She recalls being in the cellar with her grandmother, removing sprouts from the potatoes. They sat on small stools, her thumb growing calloused from pushing the growths off the surface of the icy-cold vegetables. Her grandmother was telling her a story. That’s when the honking starts.

She jumps to the side, expecting the glare of headlights to illuminate everything in a second. Instead, she hears the clatter of tracks, catches a whiff of something bitter, exhaust-like. She moves away from it and her hand brushes against a flaky tree trunk. A man’s voice is calling out in the distance. The floor underneath her feet dips and squelches besides the occasional sharp crunch of twigs or acorns. There are others around her now, with their tentative footsteps and quiet breathing.

She smells burning, heavy and musky. The smoke stings her eyes. Something falls on her face: little feathery touches run across her skin. She tries to brush them away and detects an earthy odour, of tobacco, something herbal. By instinct, she navigates the corridors of the block of flats. The sound of a distant TV, a child wailing a few doors down, the scent of onions and spices cooking in the kitchen. She hears whispers, a giggle. Somebody takes her hand, squeezes it as they climb the stairs. Then, the hand is gone and she’s grasping at emptiness.

“Are you here?” she asks when she stops, one foot poised in the air. Her voice echoes back at her. She takes tentative steps in one direction, then another. The door! She remembers reading something about an emergency door. Were there stairs leading up to it? She only skimmed old articles about the museum because she didn’t want them to spoil her experience. She lowers herself to the floor and is surprised by the warmth of it.

The floor eventually leads to something solid and rough to the touch. She slides her palm along the wall until she feels a little blister. It’s a small rubber ball, or maybe a large piece of gum someone had left behind. She pokes at it with her index finger. At first, nothing happens when she pushes it. But gradually, the darkness around her begins to hum. Overhead lights blink on one by one, illuminating a vast space painted a soft grey, with clean walls and a shiny floor. By the far corner, a narrow red door bears a sign that says: EXIT.

* * * *

You came from where you came from. You came to leave behind what you no longer needed, the parts that kept you tethered to your fear and grief. The darkness in the museum grows every year, but its walls stand firm.

Nobody sees the girl leave the museum. For a while, she stands by the exit door squinting up at the sky. She wonders how many hours or days have passed since she has last looked at it. Then, she adjusts her backpack and begins her walk back to the village.

 

Helen Harjak was born in Estonia, studied literature and philosophy in Scotland, and now lives in London, where she works as a freelance journalist and copyeditor. In 2021, she was chosen to participate in A Brief Pause, a professional development program for short fiction writers, run by Dahlia Books. Her work has been published in Visual Verse, Fudoki Magazine, and the anthology Small Good Things.

How to Take a Vacation: A Guide for Medieval Women by Maria Poulatha

1.  Pretend You Fell into a Well.

You are up before everyone, so take your time lowering yourself into a dry well. If it is full of water, be sure you know how to swim. Do not forget to pull the rope down with you and bring a meal that does not spoil. After you are discovered (because the bairns will sniff you out), tell them that you have enough food and water, and to fetch an extra-long ladder that only the chimney sweep two towns away owns. Count how many clouds passing over the window of your well-mouth are shaped like wheelbarrows. Listen to the sound of mud settling.

2.  Break a Leg.

Hold an iron pot as you collapse onto one leg. Continue to scour soiled clothes, stir the pottage, milk the sheep, and plant vegetables with a splintered cane because you can. If you have earned no more than four hours of vacation time, see number three.

3.  Break All Your Limbs.

Jump into a dry well, then order the husband to lower a basket. Stay in bed avoiding all household chores and farming, but remain immobile and unable to dodge even your toddling littlest. Rest your bones as you are fed boiled turnips from a wavering spoon and get assailed with crusty kisses. Limp off in three weeks, otherwise die from thrombosis or bedsores.

4.  Get Abducted by Pirates.

Stay put and look smug, as others flee while your village is getting sacked. Learn new songs, see the world, and abet some despicable crimes. Imagine how much the children would enjoy this.

5.  See Visions.

Describe a field of flaming poppies in the shape of the holy babe, remove yourself to a cloistered space the length of a broomstick (the shed where the dog expired in labor yesterday), and like the mystic of Norwich, accept only visitors wishing to confess their deepest darkest secrets through a peephole or children in need of a wound kissed.

6.  Join a Nunnery.

A convent may not admit a woman with six children, but insist that your husband has lured your offspring with the dark arts and is now trying to convert you. Complete a needlepoint cushion, see a book for the first time, and press it to your breast so that the words may seep into your heart. Notice that the tallow in the votive candles is the same hue as your youngest’s complexion when she has a humid fever. Announce you miss fornicating with the devil, get returned home in a horse-drawn cart full of garlic.

7.  Go on a Pilgrimage.

Make a vow to visit the Holy Land, then collect funds from friends and family to secure their heavenly passage and a slice of the True Cross. Discover that there are new names for birds and flowers and even bugs in Flemish and Breton. Feel faint at the French words parapluie, pantoufle, choufleur. At night, when you lean your head on a rock to sleep, remember the husband’s muscle and jelly arm under your head, and giggle at the way the brute could make you laugh. Go as far as Marseille, then return on your pirate friends’ ship sailing in the opposite direction.

8.  Grow Old.

With the help of wormwood tinctures and magical amulets, reach the all-gum and barnacle age of forty-nine. The surviving children have their own families and the house overflows on Sundays. The eldest daughter brings candles she molded herself and the middle son arrives with baskets of turnips. Bend tiny loaves into bunnies for the little ones and in the evenings, let your husband knead the knotted twigs of your feet, as he tells funny stories about the neighbors. Laugh until the sun sets.

 

Originally from New Jersey, Maria Poulatha lives in Athens, Greece with her husband and daughter. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Split Lip Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly (finalist for the Grand Micro contest), Copper Nickel, trampset, and others.

Azaleas by Rachel Hoiles Farrell

A woman goes to Ohio to visit her father. She drives a thousand miles through snow and rain. When she arrives, she finds her father asleep on the kitchen tile. He’s too tired to move to the bed or the couch, he explains. Impossibly, irreconcilably, desperately tired. He says this in a whisper—he is even too tired to talk. The woman asks her father if she can bring him a pillow. No, he says. But the daughter insists. She’s a good daughter, and she doesn’t want her father to have neck problems. The father says he doesn’t care if his neck hurts. Everything else hurts, so why not the neck, too? It feels wrong, he explains, to spare one part of the body when the rest of him must suffer. The woman notices her father is shivering. At least let me bring you a blanket, she says. Her father tells her to fetch one from the refrigerator. In the crisper, he says. Under the mushrooms and onions.

The woman, worried about her father’s state of mind, buckles him into her car and drives him home to Georgia. She carries him through the door in her capable arms, lays him in bed, tucks the covers up to his chin. You’ll never be cold again, she tells him. She gives him a little bell to ring in case he needs anything. She brings him nourishing meals on a tray with a multivitamin and a glass of milk. She bathes him and combs the tangles from his hair. She explicitly instructs him not to wilt or wane. Still, she can feel him diminishing. She bundles him in a sling while she performs her chores, cradling him against her chest, coaxing him to settle when he wakes to cry. She knits him socks and beanie hats.

One day, the woman enters her father’s room to find him curled on the hardwood floor. He’s tired, he explains. He needs to lie down. But you have this bed, the daughter says. Blankets, a pillow. A little bell. Blood coursing with milk and vitamins. Please, her father says. Tears run down his face. Please, can he please have a moment to lie down. The woman goes out of the room and closes the door. She goes outside and pulls the trellis away from the porch, crawling under the house through darkness and dirt until she is under her father’s bedroom. Through the floorboards, she hears him crying softly. She knocks three times. He doesn’t answer. She knocks again. A beetle nests in her hair. The dank smell of earth washes over the woman. She knocks again, listening and waiting. In the yard, azaleas bend toward the sun. The woman knocks again.

 

Rachel Hoiles Farrell is a writer in Georgia. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Jezebel, Joyland Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, PANK, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She recently wrote and co-produced the digital web series LOST/FOUND in collaboration with Outjogging Pictures. You can find out more at rachelhoilesfarrell.com.

A Girl Builds a Snowman by Ruth Joffre

Her windows smell like ice. Frost like delicate threads of lace embroidered in the glass. It refuses to melt when the dawn hits the panes, like a surprise slap in the face. Her cheeks are flush with heat after a night spent under her mountain of blankets. One by one, she presses them on the cold sheet of glass, pretending she is an alpinist resting on her ascent of a snow-capped peak. She knows even before she turns on the radio that school will be cancelled. A blizzard has descended, hiding the pits and curves in the road, smoothing the curbs until she can’t tell where the sidewalk ends and the backyard begins. Enough snow has accumulated on the windowsill to bury a bird. If she were to leap into the snowbank now, it would swallow her whole. Sometimes she wishes her parents’ bank would get the whole mess over with already, take the house and the yard, stop giving her parents those predatory loans. Life would be simpler then. Smaller, colder.

For once, she wants to be sure of what comes next.

Her parents take turns shoveling the driveway while she eats breakfast in her slippers. No one notices when she dollops peanut butter into her bowl or sneaks a little ginger cookie from the cabinet. Or perhaps no one minds. Nothing matters on a snow day, it seems. Nothing counts. She could while away the hours reading comic books on the floor or making snow angels outside, but come tomorrow the world would be just as still and the day would be just the same: oatmeal in the morning, soup in the afternoon, canned chili for dinner, the flavors identical, all options exact but for minor variations in the bowl being used, the curve of the only clean spoon, the quality of light reflecting off the icicles in the windows. She can do whatever she wants in these periods between meals. Sled down the hill. Throw snowballs at the neighbor kids. Build a snowman and pretend it will never melt.

All of this is extra. A heart over an “i.” A spell that stops time. Why waste it?

After breakfast, she pulls on her winter gear, her waterproof pants, her big puffy coat that makes her look like a walking sleeping bag with teeth. Outside, she cinches the hood so tight, her field of vision narrows to a point, pinching away the extraneous, the prepubescent nuisances who might distract her from her goal. One snowman isn’t enough. She plans to build dozens. Not only men but people of all genders and of no gender, people more properly defined as witches from an ephemeral snow coven that emerges once a year, after the first big snowfall. What do they want? What spells do they whisper into the frozen heart of the cauldron? The girl cannot say. She is just the sculptor tasked with building containers for their magical spirits. She doesn’t understand their ways any more than she understands her parents’ jobs.

What she does know is this: snow is like love—it collects, it drifts. It takes on unexpected shapes reflecting the source of desire, not the object. You could say that the girl has fallen in love with the one witch at her school, but you would be wrong. It would be more accurate to say: love is the only magic sustaining her as she waits for the other shoe to drop. For months, she has been gathering its power in the bottle of her body, storing up magical moments with the witch—a pale afternoon spent panting on the swings; a portrait unit in art class, where she was the artist and the witch the model; the stray lock of hair the witch allowed her to tuck behind an ear. Now, she will draw on that magic to build her miniature coven. Their pointed hats. Their arcane symbols. Their brooms made out of twigs. She thinks they’re perfect just as they are.

 

Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon ReviewLightspeedPleiades, The Florida Review OnlineFlash Fiction OnlineWigleafBaffling Magazine, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021 2022Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest. She lives in Seattle, where she serves as the 2020-2022 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House.

Deer by Hannah Silverman

Emi finds the deer in the forest. It hasn’t been dead long, is still warm. It reminds Emi of her mother, something about the grey around its eyes and the sagging nipples on its belly. Emi has the urge to lean down and suckle.

Emi will be fifteen this month. Her mother is planning a party with peony centerpieces. Emi finds the whole affair grotesque.

Emi sits down in the dead leaves beside the deer. It is heavy-looking and beautiful. Emi respects the deer, the way it retreated to the forest to die without ceremony. She wonders what it must have been like to live so quietly, to die in the leaves.

Emi’s mother wants to know what Emi will wear to the party. Emi says, antlers.

Emi visits the deer again the next day. It is still there, but a little less. There is a sparrow on its back, nestled in its fur. Emi strokes the deer’s snout. The bird is unbothered. Emi thinks the deer must have been a mother, and she hates it a little bit. She opens its eyes, yellow-orange irises. The eyelids droop slowly closed as if the deer is drowsy.

Emi goes through her mother’s closet. Sharp, pointed heels. Pearl buttons. Stiff fabric and wires and hidden zippers. In the back, white lace. Beading and tulle. Wherever her father is, Emi is sure he does not keep his wedding tux in the back of a closet. For this, Emi thinks her mother pathetic.

By the third day, the deer is a home for flies and ants, a few maggots in the ears. Emi wishes to climb inside its stomach and go to sleep. She rolls the deer onto its back. It’s no small effort. Emi wants a good view of the stomach. Bald patches, dry blood, matted fur. This stomach has scraped the forest floor, nourished hungry babies with sharp teeth. Emi lifts her shirt to look at her own stomach. It is rounder and rougher than it used to be. A patch of dark hair blooms around her belly button. Perhaps she is turning into a deer. She feels around for extra nipples. Still only two.

Emi’s mother has locked Emi in the house. It is a small house in a cul-de-sac of identical small houses. Emi is not allowed to leave until she picks out a dress for the party. Emi’s mother suggests pink, to match the peonies. Emi suggests brown, like dirt or death. There is a standoff.

Emi will be fifteen tomorrow. She lies naked on her bedroom floor. She may not come out unless she is wearing a dress the color of flowers. Emi lies on her side, head tipped back, belly brushing the grassy carpet, eyes wide and seeing nothing. She imagines she is a dead deer in a forest. She can feel the maggots crawling into her eye sockets, the birds pecking at her tail. Emi’s mother calls to her from the hallway, but Emi does not move because she is a deer and she is dead.

On the morning of her fifteenth birthday, Emi slips out of the house. Her bare feet scrape the perfect suburban pavement. Behind the house, the sun rises above the forest where the dead deer lived. Emi is wearing her mother’s wedding dress. It droops over her shoulders, gapes at the chest, leaving space that Emi is not woman enough to fill.

Emi walks into the forest, the long white skirt turning brown beneath her feet. The deer lies on its back, the way Emi left it. Four legs splayed out, hooves reaching for the sky. Its chest is a cavern, ribs exposed, reddish-black guts spilling out. Emi rolls up her sleeve. The inside of the deer is cold and wet and alive. An ecosystem of things that live inside other, dead things. Emi searches for the heart, but another scavenger has already claimed it. No matter, Emi has a heart of her own.

Emi wipes her sticky pink hands on the white dress. She pulls more goopy blood from the deer’s innards, paints four fresh nipples on the front of the dress. She thinks perhaps this is how girls become mothers, or maybe it is how girls become deer.

Either way, Emi turns fifteen in a pink peony-colored dress.

 

Hannah Silverman is a Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker. She earned her BFA in Film & Television with a minor in Creative Writing from NYU. She is a reader at Pigeon Pages literary journal. Her prose has appeared in Litro Magazine, Pigeon Pages, Flypaper Lit, and elsewhere.