Meat Bag by Hannah Gregory

Meat Bag goes to work. Meat Bag goes home. Meat Bag sleeps in her quiet, queen bed that she bought on the internet, that arrived in a narrow cardboard box with a common word for a company name with a non-essential letter missing (a silent e perhaps), that attacked her like a can of snakes when she opened the package, that off-gassed petroleum for a week. She bought a bedframe recommended by a Trusted Review Website because it was sturdy and reasonably priced; it only squeaks a little.

Meat Bag goes back to work in the morning. Her ceiling drips water on top of her head. Her boss accuses her of poking holes in the ceiling. Meat Bag wants to say that she would rather work on the first floor so she can be the first to drown when it floods, but the water dripping on her head is a good start. She wants to say this, but says she will try to fix the hole. She will be a good worker who loves her job as much as she loves her health insurance, so she can get her hormones and surgeries paid for, so she can be a Female Meat Bag, rather than a Meat Bag (culturally Meat Bags are assumed male, but the term can be used interchangeably for all Meat Bag genders; it is not a good system and Meat Bags hate it the most, especially when there are three gender options on surveys: Male, Female, Meat Bag). Meat Bag opens her lunchbox—another recommendation from the Trusted Review Website—and eats her lunch meats and cheese squares on artisanal crackers with imported olives and peak season strawberries on the side.

Meat Bag is stuck in traffic for several hours on her way home. She learns later that the driver just vanished in the middle of driving, causing a fifty-car pileup. Meat Bag also learns that the driver was another Meat Bag like her—the only fatality in the accident—but they reported her death using her old name and wrong pronouns. Meat Bag cries because that is what meat does when meat sits outside for too long. Meat Bag does not sleep well that night because there is a lump in her mattress that is not her dog. She is already past the 60-Night Sleep Trial Period so she cannot send her mattress to a homeless shelter as part of their 60-Night Sleep Trial Period Guarantee. Meat Bag tries to move to a different part of the bed, but Meat Dog takes up too much room.

Everyone gets their performance reviews at work the next day. Meat Bag has lots of Needs Improvements. Her boss tells Meat Bag that her best quality is how she shows up to work on-time. Meat Bag does not feel great about her job after her performance review. She sometimes hates being a Meat Bag. She wonders why she is part of this company, why she has to make incremental improvements in her life so she can have her health insurance and eat her estradiol too.

A co-worker comes up to Meat Bag and asks, “Hey, Meat Bag. You ever feel like a big ol’ bag of meat sometimes?”

Meat Bag looks at them and sighs. “All the damn time.” She tries to force a smile that shows them that they are in this together.

The co-worker looks annoyed and disgusted. “Why are you so weird?”

Meat Bag looks at her phone during her lunch break. She looks at reviews on the Trusted Review Website, because she wants a new non-lumpy mattress, but is disappointed that their top recommendation is the lumpy mattress she already owns. On the Feed, she sees an article about another vanishing Meat Bag, also misgendered, also deadnamed. Meat Bag wants to cry, cry. These vanishings are happening every day. She wants to know why this is not national news, why no one seems to pay attention except for a few people on the Feed. Everyone only seems to care about creating a separate Meat Bag Olympics and separate Meat Bag bathrooms so all Meat Bags can cram into a single stall and pee their Meat Pants while waiting in line because Meat Bags are apparently so numerous and pervasive that they are a threat to the integrity of national bathrooms and the Olympics. The ceiling drips with greater frequency on Meat Bag, so she moves her body and puts her garbage can under the drips.

That night, Meat Bag locks her dog out of the room and masturbates to videos of other Meat Bags like her. Seeing variations of her body eroticized turns her on, although her therapist tells her that this is a bad sign, that no one will give her hormones or surgeries if her idea of being a Female Meat Bag is because she is turned on by the idea of becoming a Female Meat Bag. She thinks this is old-fashioned as she wipes up the mess on her Meat Bag body. When she lets her dog back into the room, Meat Dog jumps on Meat Bag, licks her face, and jumps in the bed. The lump has gotten bigger in the mattress and Meat Bag cannot fall asleep that night. She thinks about all the other Meat Bags who have vanished. Raptured but not in a good way. She loves them and is sad about all the passion they left behind in this world.

At work the next day, Meat Bag’s boss tells her that everyone in the office hates her and that while meat is socially acceptable, it is inhumane. After her boss leaves, Meat Bag feels the water dripping on her head, turning into a thin stream, then a deluge. Her body becomes wet. Wetter than wet. She feels dissolved. She hopes that this is the flood that will take her away. She hopes that this is her turn to vanish.

 

Hannah Gregory is a trans, queer writer from Western Massachusetts. She lives with her wife and dog. More of her work is forthcoming in Passages North and X-R-A-Y. Find her on Twitter @hannah_birds.

Silver Rings by Aimee Parkison

An illusionist, Lillian could disappear inside silver rings. Shimming through silver rings, Lillian melted on stages to reappear inside me. Moving through my body, pressing against my organs, she was like a mother to me until I gave birth to her and she became like my child. Night after night in her rickety trailer with papered walls, cuddling like children, she coaxed me inside her silver rings where we joined a caravan of wheeled houses for magicians and traveling dancers.

Her makeshift bedroom would fall apart, maps sticking to my skin. When traveling with her, I would find Austria or France in the palms of my dusty hands. Once, I had to scratch Italy off my elbow in the dark, using a little scotch and pond water to whisk the boot tip away into the murk of gunpowder, soup crackers, and motor oil. After buying rough sponges to scrub Antarctica off my hip, even the thought of the poles made my skin break out in hives. Calmly, I told her the maps needed to come down from the bedroom walls. She refused.

“The maps are the walls,” Lillian whispered, polishing her silver rings. She used to whisper to me in Latin, but I grew tired of never knowing what she meant. I was weary of how estranged I felt when close enough to smell the chestnut scent of her long, tangled hair.

“What’s that sound?” I asked.

I was just a boy when I realized the whistling in the dark was wind whipping through creases of delicate paper. Her maps really were the walls. How long, I wondered, would her bedroom hold us, especially if we moved against each other with such force? She wounded me delicately, intimately, on an almost hourly basis. Our prolonged passion threatened to unravel the jumbled world of cities and villages mapped out on delicate paper.

Scarred and sacred, Lillian had been everywhere, or so she claimed. Criminals shuttled her around the world and traveled with her in scuttling ships and later in ramshackle caravans across dark country roads through entire summers of rain and locusts. She was born to the wrong people, the child of children who had no homeland, vagabonds or nomads or worse, some said. One of those men who traveled with her was supposedly her father, who died at the hand of a beautiful thief who had been a classically trained dancer. Lillian was an illegitimate child with a bastard’s knowing eyes illuminated by the loss of romantic notions. That was another life: the women her wayward father touched without remembering their names, stolen jewels more precious than spilled blood.

“She was glad,” Lillian said, speaking of her mother, who evaporated inside the silver rings to hide inside Lillian and never reappeared until Lillian’s father died. “Later that night, she was dancing. Never shed a tear. He wouldn’t have wanted her to. He would have wanted me to dance with her over his grave, so I did. That was our way, always dancing toward death, never looking back. There was no changing it, no making it right. There were only the silver rings.”

After dissolving inside the silver rings, Lillian wouldn’t let me touch her skin or her hair. I could merely caress her long fingernails or the jagged edges of her bright white teeth chiseled to shark points. Most of the time, I was afraid to touch her teeth, afraid she might bite me, although she never did. Maybe that’s why I was always stroking the maps with my sweaty hands, leaning against deep blue oceans in the night.

“Who do you think I am?” she whispered, crushing a cigarette in the ashtray.

“You remember,” I said, “who I was. Don’t you? You’re the one who found me inside the silver rings. Aren’t you?”

I discovered Japan twisted into a ribbon on my right knee and Canada encrusted on my inner thigh along with various fragments of nondescript ocean. Washing England off my arms in the shower, I found another greener England on my belly and realized there were many worlds in her bedroom, so many collections of repeated and overlapping continents and countries and oceans and rivers and islands that it was impossible to know where one old map began and another ended.

The maps were like my life, all those stories of who I was, who I could have been. Stories of me disintegrated like old maps on Lillian’s walls. In every story, my father was the exquisite thief who had stolen my childhood.

Maps of various colors and sizes, expanding or shrinking frames, repeated across Lillian’s tattered walls to reveal patterns and variations of time, temperature, elevation, rainfall, death rates, population, imports, and exports.

In the shower, washing all these wondrous places off my pale body, I sloshed and cried, realizing we went nowhere. She and I were staying in one place in her bedroom while studying maps. Only inside silver rings did I ever really go to all the places I wanted to go by exploring the complex territory of our bodies and the flat scales of her maps’ fading shores.

When she refused to look at me, she refused to say my name. She was preparing the silver rings for places she whispered like prayers. Some nights she communicated with me by saying the names of cities and countries and oceans I assumed she had traveled or longed to escape.  

She was always refusing something or someone, usually me. Everyone around her shaking her down for one favor or another, she was too giving, too generous with her vanishing until refusal became breathing. If she didn’t refuse, she would cease to exist, disappearing into her silver rings, as she had many times before an audience.

There were men who would suck the flesh off her bones if she would allow. There were women who would steal her name.

Fading, she would give herself to the silver rings that swallowed her.

Depending on which earrings she wore, she wanted to hide. The earrings were a clue to her state of mind. There were jewels inside her just as there were jewels scattered in dark corners of the trailer.  Silver rings swallowed unexpectedly rare jewels.

If I went down to the river, I could sometimes find the place where her life turned on the people we left behind. Despite all the faces she had touched as a child, there was always one face she was afraid of—the face of her father.

She walked the rickety bridge with a gun in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. As the silver rings moved over me without touching me, she gazed at me as if I were a boy. Then, she shot the vodka to keep me from drinking it.

Inside the silver rings, we traveled across this country and many others. Especially in rural areas braced by the old religions, there were those willing to pay to see us disappear. In her trailer where we reappeared, she ate and slept and barked orders and bathed and brushed her hair, always in the nude. The rings demanded such starkness, along with a certain abandon allowing her to suffer no shame. Life was the indignity she had to overcome daily, the comparable wealth of our poverty allowing her such freedom compared to other women, most of whom couldn’t approach us because of their fathers’ and husbands’ prejudices.

She used to call me inside the silver rings.

I ran to her brassy voice, despite my unwillingness to obey her without question. I owed so much to her because of the way she had found me and all she had done to allow me to live with her inside the silver rings, the deep warmth of her body enough to shelter me for the eternity of moonless nights we traveled. Under the clouded sky’s coming storms, mountains of distant tree hills became indecipherable walls of mist.

 

Aimee Parkison is the author of Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman, winner of the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize.  Parkison has been published in numerous literary journals and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma State University. Her historical feminist horror novel, Sister Séance, is forthcoming from KERNPUNKT.  More information is available at www.aimeeparkison.com.

Laughing with Anne Hathaway by Megan M. Garwood

He moans at night, but this one rattles the house. It’s 3 am. Bleary minded, we assume he needs changing, this man, so tall he must—no—he used to duck under doorways, this man who can no longer feed himself or hold a pill or two in his hand then place them in his mouth. He probably needs his diaper changed. His blood pressure is 109, that’s good. We smell him. He doesn’t need to be changed, not that way; he just can’t change the channel on his own. He wants Hogan’s Heroes. He can’t sleep. The changer tremors in his large hand. Is it bad that we wish the sickness had taken his brain first? We flick, for him, through the channels until we land on some rerun of a late-night show. Anne Hathaway is talking about a heist movie she shot during the quarantine. In it, she steals a diamond from a department store; her character is restless. He turns to us, it takes all his strength, and asks, could this possibly mean less to anyone? And he and we laugh, so loudly it must wake the neighbors, and he coughs, and we sit down to catch our breath on the worn couch next to the rented hospital bed. On the TV Anne Hathaway, hair and makeup styled to the nines, laughs with us, and all our eyes are tearing except his.

 

Megan M. Garwood is a writer from Metro Detroit. She has fiction published in X-R-A-Y, and her essays on art appear in publications like Triangle House and The Wall Street Journal. She is currently working on a novel. You can find her online at www.megan.wtf.

Wolf Shepherd by Sarah Arantza Amador

It gets harder to whistle and sing, which I’m doing to keep the animals away, which you hate precisely because it keeps the animals away.

We march along the trail and it’s early in the morning so there’s still an icy crust on the muck. We’re going at a fast clip, which I can never understand, how people always start out walking so fast when they hike. What’s the rush, you’ll get there or you won’t, who actually cares? My feet begin to skate out from underneath me, and I shriek and it’s like the noise of it swallows the whole world. My hiking pole catches along the side of the path just in time to keep me upright.

“Close call!” I chirp.

There were signs posted at the trailhead — bear country, wolf country, lone male spotted.

At the diner outside the campground the night before, we joked over our late-night breakfast and decaf coffee, and watched the men sitting alone at the counter. “That one’s a serial killer,” we giggled, “Oh, that one’s a psycho for sure.” The dining room was nearly empty, the waitstaff slamming chairs on top of Formica-topped tables, but I was certain that the men could hear us. I watched one after the other, a line of hunched lumberjack plaid and hunting caps, shift their weight on their stools, grind their heavy elbows into the countertop, their ears pricking like antennae, eyes like slits, as you kissed me with your open mouth. “They’re watching,” I whispered, your hand crawling up my waist. Snickering, we returned to our campsite under the vacuum of a new moon. I got my kit and scurried alone through the dark towards the tungsten glow of the restroom facilities at the far end of the service road, feeling their breath at my back, imagining their dripping incisors –

The facilities were bone cold, institutional, cinderblock. Sand and dead moths on the cracked concrete floor. Under the bright lights, brushing my teeth alone at the sink. There was an open screened-in window, where a vanity mirror would be. I bent down to drink from the tap and then stood up straight as I swished the cold water in my mouth. Framed in the window before me was the face of a man suspended in the darkness outside. It was the face of one of the men from the diner, yellow light from inside the restroom pooling on his balding forehead and the broad flat of his nose, coarse dark hair sprouting on his cheeks, spilling down his jaw and into the open collar of his tartan shirt. His watery eyes watched me. Expressionless as a mouse, I pretended to see through him as we locked eyes. Out the open window, the wind rushed through the trees, and my nostrils flared so slightly, trying to catch the scent of him. His thin, dark hair fluttered around his ears.

“Let’s watch you change,” a deep voice, loud, like he was in the room with me, “Let’s see what you’ve got under that shirt.”

I pretended not to hear him, like he was a hallucination, and lowered my face to spit the water out in the sink, thinking death. When I lifted my head to the screen again, he was gone.

We ascend through the white spruce and my heart is pumping hard. The trail is steep, and as I pick my way up through the rocks, I can’t see through the trees in front of us or side-to-side, but I imagine them in my mind — their leering yellow eyes, almond-shaped like danger. I struggle slowly up the mountainside and then you sigh as I stop at the edge of another switchback. “Just a minute,” I gasp, “just a minute to catch my breath.” I can’t whistle anymore but I think about those sly eyes, they are animals but, no, they are men —

When we reach the top of the climb, the trail cuts through a soft, level meadow and my spirit soars. We stroll past the late season wildflowers and the strangest mushrooms. “Is that bear scat or fungi?” I ask, and you get excited. You pull your camera out from its holster, and I get a chance to rest. I am excited by the thought of pulling sandwiches out of our packs at the end of this trail and I think, “I can do this, I can do this for lunch,” as we start climbing again.

The switchbacks up the second mountainside are worse, and the spruce at the top are stunted but packed together like trees on a Christmas lot. I try to force a whistle out as we wind our way through the pygmy forest but I’m a deflated balloon. The sun is hot as we step out of the trees and delight in the vista, the fertile bowl of the alpine steppe before us. “Lunch!” I proclaim. “There!” you point, and my eyes sweep up a branch of the trail scratched into the side of a bald summit hovering over the meadowlands.

We trek up the open trail and you encourage me, always one step behind me. This is my least favorite part about hiking, the words of encouragement. It means I’m failing, I’m faltering. On one side, the meadows roll up the granite faces of the peaks crowning the glacial valley. On the other, the lush spruce tumble down the slopes all the way to the lake edge, twinkling turquoise, far below us. I can feel a tightening in my solar plexus as I contemplate the view. “This is good!” I decide. You say, “To the top!” I say, “You go ahead!” But you push me on. A cold gust sweeps down from the crags above us, chilling the sweat drenching my clothes.

Voices rise up and over the crest ahead of us, buzzing down the trail, deep voices. I shiver. “Oh no,” I say as I approach the summit, my chest bursting, “Oh no.” I stop and grip my hiking pole, pushing it deeper into the bare ground at my feet, this rut in the earth. And what if a wolf, spade-shaped head low and grinning, were to emerge from the other side of the summit as I struggle to catch my breath? What if a wolf were to be there waiting for me with his enormous paws and dark plaid collared-shirt, snarling and howling? “Keep going!” I hear you say behind me, “You’re nearly there!”  And if the sky were to rip apart overhead, exposing the pitch of deep space? The wolf and I suspended like a constellation in the ecstatic moment before he catches my throat in his teeth, his watery eyes and his hands under my shirt —

“Hold me,” I call into the wind. Just like I did the night before, running back to our tent through the dead thickets. I spin to face you, my eyes shut tight, spinning blind  — I didn’t tell you about the men, I didn’t tell you about pulling off my fleece and my shirt in the restroom, shivering under the lights. Clutching my hiking pole tight in one hand and the scruff of your neck in the other,  I can hear you protesting, but I bite down on your shoulder as hard as I can to keep this rock from spinning.

 

Sarah Arantza Amador resides in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California and writes about longing, ghost-making, and the endearment of monsters. Her work is featured in Best Microfiction 2019 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions. She tweets @ArantzaSarah and sometimes blogs from www.saraharantzaamador.com.

Missing Enough to Feel All Right by Janelle Bassett

I’ve recently been forced to become a morning person, and I think this shift is rearranging other parts of me. Suddenly I crave citrus and can only sleep on my back. I wake up to the still-dark and drink coffee while lying down in front of a sun lamp. My neck is covered with scalds and my pajamas are covered in stains, but I can’t seem to sit up until I’ve had half a cup and ten minutes of LED shine.

I used to wake up and lie still, refusing to open the blinds, pitying the many people who were already standing up and buttoning their shirts in the mirror like idiots. I didn’t have a job to get to, no one was waiting for me to crack their eggs, my day started when I felt ready. But now, thanks to my sister, I have become something so much worse than a daylight buttoner: a person with a coffee pot on her bedside table.

Amy asked me to take over her catering business for six weeks, during her maternity leave. She has five employees. She could have asked any one of them to step up, yet she felt none were capable of being in charge—so our Amy either has trust issues or is truly very bad at hiring. My only qualification is her trust in me. She knows that I follow directions and hate letting people down. I can cook, sure, but it’s not the kind of food you charge money for, unless it’s dumped on a buffet counter and paid for by the pound.

There was an implication in Amy’s request that I wasn’t doing anything important with my life, that I could drop everything and be her stand-in for a month and a half, no problem. This wasn’t true—I had to cancel two weekend trips with friends I used to like, postpone a laser hair removal appointment, and fully bow out of my happy hour spin class. I had prepaid for sixteen weeks, which is practically a full-term pregnancy.

Amy and I have always operated at different speeds. She’s all in, she sprints, and I get there eventually, right when I have to. Just because Amy enjoys doing too much too quickly and without necessity, she treats me like I’m not doing enough. Sometimes I wonder if she handed me her business to show me, first-hand, what the early risers and the go-getters of the world can accomplish.

To help with my lack of catering expertise, Amy maintains a constant digital presence. She’s either FaceTiming in with that baby on her breast to berate me as I stir gravy, or she’s sending WhatsApp messages about proper basting or the risk of underseasoning. The chain-of-command in the kitchen is: Amy-on-my-phone, then me, then the five employees who resent my unearned authority. I’ve overheard them making fun of my inability to chop vegetables finely. “I’m sure the client was hoping for potatoes cut like thick toenails.”

But, two weeks in, I’m rolling along with this catering gig. Very few clients have asked for a refund. I’ve learned to pronounce cumin properly and have loudly proclaimed that aprons are the mullets of clothing—dull in front, cheeky in back.

This morning I get to Plenty of Dish at 6:30 to unlock the door and warm the ovens. (Amy swears she was forced to keep this name when she bought the bakery from her mentor—to preserve the name recognition they’d built up—but I’ve heard her tell people about the business and she delights in saying it aloud. She does an eyebrow thing with “dish,” as if to help the pun along.)

There’s a bridal shower order to fill today. They want forty lemon muffins with blackberry buttercream icing and uncircumcised penises stenciled on top. Last week, when we got the order, I messaged Amy, “Where do you keep the uncircumcised penis stencils? Near the whisks?”

It turns out I had to draw one, freehand, then cut it into a stencil myself. This took seven attempts. One of those attempts ended up looking like a thorny rose, which won’t go to waste, as we get more and more clients throwing divorce parties.

I turn on the lights and all the cake stands gleam “good morning.” It’s all open shelving in here, which means the drawers are stuffed full of unsightly items like meat thermometers, paper plates, and twisty ties. To maintain that clean, sleek look, we keep the paper towels in the refrigerator door.

Amy sent me today’s agenda at 2:30 in the morning. She has no night mode. Any correspondence is answered immediately and desperately and comes with a photo of the baby against her “I’m the BRIDE” sweatpants, which she’s been wearing ever since childbirth left her with a third-degree tear. We call the baby Rip Torn for now, but we will transition into calling him Anthony as the entrance wound he made in my sister heals.

The first item on Amy’s agenda is: “Line up ingredients on kitchen island, ensuring complete inventory and correct amounts.” I get out the flour, vanilla, and baking powder, the sugar and lemons. As I step toward the refrigerator for butter, my phone pings. Amy says, “the unsalted.”

I grab the eggs and unsalted butter. Now Amy is calling on FaceTime. I answer, but point the phone toward the egg carton because it’s too early for faces. “I’m following the directions. What do you want?”

The baby is screaming. He sounds red and like he’d like to go back where he came from. I pivot the phone, so I can see Amy’s face. She’s blank, desolate—she looks like she’s just seen the next four years of her life and they were as loud and insistent as that current moment.

I tell her not to worry, to get some sleep, that I have everything under control, that Deidre will be in soon to belittle and correct me, to give me some credit—I’ve been doing this for two whole weeks.

Amy is bouncing now. She’s set the phone down and is bending her knees over and over to jostle the baby into being soothed. Her head goes in and out of the frame as she says, “I just wanted to see the light in the kitchen as the sun came up. And oh, I see the stacks of saucers behind you. My saucers. Can you walk over and show me the magnetic knife holder?”

I consider saying no, but her face is a convincing counter argument. I carry my phone across the room and hold it in front of the wall-mounted knives.

Amy sighs. “I had zero stitches in my panties when I bought that.”

The baby (I really need to start thinking of him as my nephew) is still loudly hating his existence. The two of them are going up and down but staying the same.  “Do you… want me to show you the mixer?”

“Please.” I set the phone down temporarily, so I can move the stand mixer from the shelf onto the counter. It’s heavy—high-end, comparison shopped-for. I put my hand in the frame for the reveal, gliding it along the base, like I’m either selling the mixer or am about to make it disappear. “Here it is.”

“Could you turn it on? I want to see it go.”

I affix the beater and plug the cord into the wall. “You ready?”

She’s bouncing harder, blurry. “Do it.”

I turn the mixer up to ten—full speed—and point the phone down into the mixing bowl. I can’t see Amy, but I know she’s going faster still, that she’s whirring and full-speeding to keep up with all her babies.

(She bought this place at twenty-seven. She repainted, designed a logo, took the doors off the cabinets and worked every weekend. She developed a ricotta pineapple pie that was featured on a local news segment. She changed her pants daily. Her eyebrows only conveyed a fraction of her delight.)

Deidre is here. She calls over the noise, “If you’re making an ASMR video, you should put on some lipstick.”

I switch off the mixer and the baby stops crying. No. Amy has hung up. I don’t know whether to hope that my sister, suddenly alone, has stilled or that she hasn’t slowed down at all.

I eye my ingredients on the island, trying to act like I wasn’t caught participating in a digital postpartum appliance trance. “Amy wanted to see her kitchen. I don’t think she and the baby are getting along.”

Deidre nods. She’s had babies. “It’s an adjustment period. They’ve both been forced out.”

She picks up the penis stencil I’d set near the sink. “Divorce party today?”

“No! That’s my best penis! Amy approved it.”

Deidre puts the penis back where she found it and starts her ring-removing routine. She can’t bake with rings on, she says, and yet can’t leave the house bare-handed. “That’s clearly a thorny rose. Or a rumbled pug? Amy must be underslept.”

“Do you think I should go over there and check on her?”

Deidre looks up from her hands. “You haven’t gone to see her since she had the baby?”

“I’ve been running her business!” I suppress the image of my sister’s pleading, bobbing face. If Amy wanted my help or my company, she would ask, right? I try to think of a single time when she made herself vulnerable to me, or showed any strain from traveling at the speed at which she thrives.

Deidre is no longer looking at me, the bad sister, the thick slicer. She’s stacking her rings one by one, so she can slip them into a zippered pocket of her purse with one movement.

“I’ll go to her today,” I tell Deidre, trying to work out how many appliances I can fit in my trunk and whether I can seatbelt a stack of twenty saucers.

 

Janelle Bassett’s writing has appeared in The Offing, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, Smokelong Quarterly, VIDA Review, and Slice Magazine. She lives in St. Louis and is an Assistant Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine.

Explanation of Your Benefits and Losses by Angie McCullagh

This is an overview of transactions from November 2018 – February 2020.

This is not an actual request for payment. It is only a series of numbers.

Amount Billed – $59,578.66

Number of mammograms, ultrasounds, and biopsies required to confirm diagnosis – 4

Your negotiated discounted rate – $53,243.22

Total anxiety attacks experienced while you waited for the doctor to say invasive lobular carcinoma – 2

How many instances, after you heard and while you drove to your daughter’s third grade class Thanksgiving feast, that you had to pull over to scream into your cupped hand – 3

Amount covered by insurance (A bundle. Plus we allowed you to take advantage of our contractual rates – you should know this) – $37,007.03

Times your husband said he’d watch the kids so you could nap, but then disappeared to the garage – 7

Gift cards you won online playing casino games and taking surveys so you could buy goods, then return them for cash to pay the bare minimum on medical debt – 12

Amount you may owe – $16,236.19

This is definitely not a bill.

Who received care – You, mostly from nurses, who flushed your port and infused you with your chemo regimen and hugged you when you learned the octopus (that’s how you think of it now, with glissading arms and grabbing tentacles) had spread to your lymph nodes.

Head scarves, hats, and even a wig you ordered to find something that made you feel enough like your normal self – 11

Hours spent knowing you should help your son with math or wash the dog with her anti-itch shampoo or cook something, anything, so your family can eat food other than teriyaki from Sunshine Sushi – 3,017

Hey, this is no bill, but it is a heads up that another enormous payment is coming due soon.

Who should be grateful: you. Unless you enjoy, at the age of 43, the slow slither of death while your children who are too young to properly live without you (who else will remind them to wear helmets on their scooters and to cup their pink cheeks in the morning while you whisper they are more precious than Trader Joes Peppermint Joe-Joe’s – an inside joke?)

Occasions you’ve thought sliding toward oblivion and exploding into glittering stardust would be better – 0

 

Angie McCullagh lives and writes (mostly fiction) in Seattle with her husband, two teens, and emotionally fragile mutt.

A Closed Door with a Keyhole by L Mari Harris

I turn to the woman standing in line behind me: There are two doors. Which one do you choose—left or right? She looks up from her phone, wary. What’s behind the doors?, she asks. This is a simple game to get to know one another, to see if we are compatible as friends. I stare back at her. You tell me.

My great-great aunt broke into neighbors’ houses with a bobby pin she’d pull from her big cinnamon–bun of hair. I never met her. My parents told me the stories, how once they found out what she was doing they quietly went around to the neighbors’ houses and tucked envelopes of cash in their screen doors to make up for the little things my great-great aunt was taking—a decorative hand towel, toothpicks in a little ceramic penguin, butterscotches and cocktail mints. I asked why none of the neighbors ever called the cops. Because they felt sorry for her. They said she had seen much, had basic needs that went unmet for many years, that these life experiences changed her. Bis auf die Knochen?, I asked. We didn’t understand her either, they replied.

I think of my great-great aunt in that big rambling house all by herself for all those years, living among furniture brought over from the old country, how my parents described room after room after room filled with those heavy uncomfortable pieces, how as she got older and frailer the dust collected. After she died, my parents sold off every last piece and locked the door behind them. I once told them it all sounded so romantic, living among the ghosts of the old country. It wasn’t, they said. It smelled like a terrible sadness.

My parents ask if I’ve met anyone nice when they call. This sounds like a trick question, I say. My mother huffs You know. Like a friend or maybe a special guy. I hear a muffled discussion, then my father crystal clear: We’re worried you’re all alone there. I tell them I’m surrounded by ten million people, how can I possibly be alone? Then I ask if my great-great aunt ever took any dishware, because I need a new set.

Sometimes I ride two stops past my stop so I can repeat the past on a leisurely stroll. The woman from the other day is coming out of a store and I fall in behind her. She’s carrying shopping bags in both hands. Her high-heeled boots quickly clip-clip-clip on the sidewalk, as if she has to get home because she has a million things to do before she finally gets a moment to herself. I stay half a block back, follow her to a brownstone. She pauses, tilts her face up to the door and stares before climbing the stairs. She shuts the door behind her and the stoop light goes out. The night blankets me once again, and I imagine children and a husband tugging at her as she tries not to show she’s rushing through dinner preparation and bedtime rituals. I wonder if she’d enjoy weekly dinners out, a chance to vent about children sticky with pancake syrup and snot, the husband mumbling under his breath You wanted them. I’d pick at her fries and tell her about my great-great aunt’s renegade life, how people called her spinster but they were dead wrong, how she had the ghosts of our ancestors from the old country to talk to and that suited her just fine. I’d tell her I could understand what it’s like having so many people in my life that I can’t wait to get rid of them for an hour or two.

I dream of a closed door with a keyhole. I can hear laughter, music, glasses tinkling. I look through the keyhole and see a woman, her hair twisted and pinned to the nape of her neck, her earrings catching the light when she tosses her head back to laugh at something someone is telling her. I look closer, and I’m the someone who’s making her laugh. The room is crowded, and we have carved our little spot along a wall to share our secrets. We laugh, reminiscing about how we met standing in line all those years ago, how I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to pick the left or the right door. How she thought I was the most interesting person she’d ever met, how there was something so familiar about me.

 

L Mari Harris’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in matchbook, Ponder Review, (mac)ro(mic), Bandit Lit, Pithead Chapel, Tiny Molecules, among others. She lives in central Missouri. Follow her on Twitter @LMariHarris and read more of her work at www.lmariharris.wordpress.com.

The Pixelated Tiger by Jack Barker-Clark

I used to dream of traveling down my own throat. I had a stammer and tripped on words, and I would close my eyes and imagine myself passing through roped-off plasma and plunging carbon. I was hoping to find the cause: a constellation of upturned chairs or a picket fence. It was 1998 and every afternoon after school we played Tomb Raider, nosedived off ramparts and swam in low-grade lagoons. I was always zip-lining into clearings where tigers generated. They were pixelated, these tigers, but insatiable, rabid, a frightening blockade of sunburst cubes, and I came to wonder if it was a pixelated tiger rooming in my throat, swallowing up all my consonants.

He always looked over-toiled, moon-starved, whenever I imagined my tiger, which made me cherish as much as revile him, and we ploughed on together, pitiably, through the class register and the English presentations and the randomized swimming galas, one or the other of us always biting my tongue. In 1999 we took a school trip, a pretty place in the Lakes, and we were, my tiger and I, assigned a third party to row with. Alex, the history buff, had not quite volunteered but was rowed out onto the bruised lake anyway, and the dappling jangled and there was flotsam and bits of outcrop reflected back in the water. The rowboat was stiff and from far out the banking’s gradient looked sheer, a bowl, as though the landscape beyond was landless, was watercolour.

Unhappy at the rocking, the pitch of things, at how far I’d insisted we row, Alex berated me in the boat. My words wouldn’t rise and we faced each other in silence, eventually turning to watch the blue noise on the shore, its abstract brightness. Did he stand up or was the boat disturbed? they later asked, and I didn’t know. He was suddenly in the water, gulping, trying to sift the lake out from under him, and I sat with my tiger in the pale light and watched Alex thrashing until he wasn’t. The pixelated tiger rowed me back softly to the shingle beach.

In my late teens the stammer became less pronounced, was dimmer now. I had attended speech therapy, learned to tap my foot, sang in the choir. After such surges in confidence, I found, pixelated tigers often vacate the throat. At first I extolled this miracle. But I was only abbreviated in other ways. He sank into my core and knocked at my chest. Behind the fists of my lungs he hollowed out his den, prowling, unblinking. The pressure on my wide-tracked ribs was concentrated and I longed for my stammer back. At night I performed squat thrusts, my limbs as string, willed him to roll upwards: fundus, adrenal, thymus, trachea, cortex, thick pate, into sky, a ream of ash. But he never rose, he only sank. Did he stand up or was the boat disturbed? I still don’t know. Now here I go. I put myself in the bath, down flat under the skim. My body moves like a gondola. The words crawl all over me.

 

Jack Barker-Clark is a writer and artist from a passé valley in the North of England. He is the founder of Pale Books, a reading project, and writes primarily on literature and ornamental grasses. He tweets occasionally at @jackbarkerclark.

Sleeping Beauties by Tiffany Promise

The Land of Trazodonia is a hidden chamber within the walls of Slumberland Psychiatric Hospital. It both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. This is where we Sleeping Beauties tell our secrets. We all wear masks of each other’s faces.

Instead of swallowing, we let our pills dissolve on our tongues, sending them straight into our mucous membranes. Straight into our bloodstream. We don’t have time for them to dilly-dally through our digestive systems, to fight with whatever thawed-out muck was supposed to pass for Sup. The oblong blue bars that keep our brains from quaking; the tacky, sunshine-colored globules that keep our hearts from over-beating; the chalky, white tabs as big and round as moons. They taste a little bit like Clorox and a little bit like licking frogs. A lotta bit like love.

While waiting patiently for our Meds to kick in, we sit Duck-Duck-Goose-style while gentle technicians re-attach electrodes and sensors to our mottled chests and scalps. Their gloved fingers move across our skin like tiny sparks of hope.

We are so thankful to have ended up here. So far away from Rhinestone, Texas, the Pear Tree Trailer Palace, dead Maxine’s partially-deflated balloon-head. From the grit-grime of spanged change, from Johnny’s calloused hands. His sweet, sweet, sweet till sour breath. From under Pepper Jack’s thumb, the bruised knees & missing gag reflex. Broke-the-fuck-open face. From mother’s dusty attic, the clumps of hair & fingernail clippings. Rotten apple cores. From the fifty-one-fifty-one-fifty-one-fifty. Their bughouse rubber rooms ever-blooming with red storybook roses. From that quiet spot in the library. Backpack full of binge, diuretics, lax tabs & Philip K. Dick.

Far from everything……
                                              everything……
                                                                            everything……
                                                                                                          that hurt us……

Twenty hours of sleep might seem like a lot, but when you’re a sloppy, messy, useless thing—more mercury than blood—twenty hours ain’t peanuts.

So, safely snuggled by seven, we finger the starched sheets as the sleep-tingles slowly creep and we let ourselves sink deep into the deep. That sweet, dark spot where we’ve got whole ribcages of defenses to protect us.

We sleep……
                            we sleep……
                                                        we slee……

 

Tiffany Promise (she/her) is a writer, poet, chronic migraineur, and the mother of two wildlings. She holds an MFA from CalArts, and her work has appeared in Brevity, Black Clock, tiny journal, Every Day Fiction, Blanket Sea, Sunspot, and is forthcoming in Peculiar and Creative Nonfiction. Though she now lives in Austin, Texas, Tiffany is originally from the mudbug-ridden swelter of the Gulf Coast, which is the setting of her recently-completed first novel, Eggs.

Painting Birds by Jennifer Todhunter

Sometimes, when we caught the birds, we’d dip their tails in our fingerpaint, their tiny wings struggling against our clumsy hands, their miniature beaks gasping for breath or a worm, we were never sure which one. Sometimes, we’d sneak up trees toward their nests, shove their fragile shells in our pockets and scale back down, our feet barely hitting the trunk, our hands sticky with sap, our never-brushed hair full of pine needles, and we’d place the eggs in a shoebox underneath our bedside lamp, cushion it on some grass and sticks and we’d die at any sort of movement. Die. 

Sometimes, when a baby hatched in the wild, we’d sit on the windowsill in our bedroom and listen to it cry out for its mum, the frantic chirp of a newborn, and we’d think how familiar that was, how we’d be making the same noise if we weren’t so distracted by this perfection. 

One time, we caught a finch and we painted its tail yellow and after that it perched in the tree outside the kitchen where we scrambled eggs by ourselves every morning and sometimes it sang to us, a warbling lilt.

One time, we watched an eagle swoop down and carry a baby with a blue head away in its giant claws, while its mum flew around like she was on fire, and we looked at each, our hearts stuffed with envy. 

One time, we heard a yellow-tailed bird fly into our bedroom window and drop dead on our deck, and we put it in the freezer because we wanted to preserve its beauty, the contrast of yellow against black feathers, its delicate softness against the stiffness of death, so we nestled its body against frozen rib roasts and bags of blanched spinach, and we left it there until we didn’t remember it was there any longer.

 

Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have appeared in The ForgeHobartCHEAP POP, and elsewhere. Her work has been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and Wigleaf´s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes and founder of Trash Mag. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.