When Your Mother is a Mermaid by Candace Hartsuyker

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Nursing by Gary Fincke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Chorus in My Walls by Elisabeth Ingram Wallace

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

 

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

The Falling Baby by John Jodzio

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do I know he’s yours?” I asked.

“How do you know he’s not?” she said.

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

“I saved his life,” I said.

“I gave him life,” she told me.

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

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

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

 

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

American Movie by K-Ming Chang

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

 

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

Tiger by Gary Moshimer

The man at the door wanted to paint my face. Five bucks. He was homeless and hungry. He could buy a burger. Or a salad, if today made him hopeful and he wanted to live longer.

Kind people like you, he said. What to be? A lion? A cat? A mouse?

Tiger, I said.

Good one.

He rolled his wagon in. The wheels squeaked. It was dusty with rain spots. Next to the paints a fedora with feather, bedroll, water jug.

I sat in my favorite chair by the window. My only chair. Now I lived alone, wife gone with son.

Very good light, he said. He was so delicate my hair tingled. It tickled, and I suppressed giggles. He hummed a tune and said it was the brave tiger song; did I ever hear of it? He sang it to his son. But now his son was a grown man and he didn’t know where he went. He thought he was with the tigers, brave in the face of something.

I know where my son is, I said. Sometimes I see him.

Thank god.

I didn’t tell him I didn’t believe. Why would god leave me so alone?

When he was done he pulled a cracked hand mirror from the wagon and said, Have a look. He told me to growl. I said, Grrrr…I was the real thing, alright. I scrunched my nose and bared my little eye teeth. We hummed the brave tiger song.

I shook his hand and gave him a ten. I watched him pull the wagon down the street. I waved.

I went to the upstairs hallway to look in the big mirror. I smiled. I pictured my ex standing over my shoulder shaking her head. Still such a child, she would say. Grow up now. From there I went to the mirror in my bedroom, tilted the lamp this way and that. And then I went to the dusty mirror in the basement, the one with my son’s baby fingerprints I could never clean. This one scared me; the fear and emptiness. I tried to smile it away. I did that for an hour.

Later I decided to go out. I was thinking about a salad from Wendy’s. I drove around first, showing strangers my face. They waved and laughed but I thought I looked fierce in the rearview. I growled at the Wendy’s drive-thru girl and she giggled. I told her it wasn’t funny. I was proud and to be feared. I ordered the salad with raspberry vinaigrette.

As I waited I scanned my territory. I saw the wagon by the dumpster, He was on his back next to it. I drove over there. Someone, or maybe a gang, had painted him like an absurd clown and bloodied his nose and mouth. His hair was smeared with red paint. He groaned. I helped him into the car. I got the wagon into the trunk. I went back through the drive-thru and ordered a Frosty. I hissed at the girl when she asked if I still wanted my salad.

Back at my house I dabbed his wounds with napkins, spooned the chocolate cold goodness into his mouth. We sang to our sons and watched the moon.

Afterwards he painted me as a mouse and himself as a cat. I crept around my big empty house and waited for him to pounce.

 

Gary Moshimer has stories in Pank, Frigg, Smokelong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, and many other places.

Half the Joy by Ruth Joffre

After we agreed to a divorce, Ray and I continued to live together for weeks until she found her own place in town. Our apartment was a narrow one-bedroom barely bigger than a studio, with no room for a decent couch or a fold-out, so she and I continued to share the bed. At night, in those quiet hours between when we said goodnight and succumbed to sleep, I listened to her breathe and wondered how we ever made the mistake of believing we should be lovers rather than friends. One night, I confessed, “I always had a crush on Joyelle,” laying this information delicately beside her, like a blouse hung to dry on the back of a chair. Her head shifted on the pillow, just enough for her to trace my outline in the dark if she wanted.

“I knew that.” She turned again to the ceiling. “You didn’t hide it well.”

“Half of the joy of a crush is it being an open secret. Attempting to hide a blush. Knowing your friends can see through you. I wanted people to know,” I said, slipping momentarily into that old infatuated skin, indulging in the flush of my cheeks, the tingle of my lips, the sweetest ache in my tender chest. How many hours had I spent in high school surrendering to exactly this sensation? “I used to fantasize about what it would be like to press my lips right between her shoulder blades.” I lifted both hands, as if to frame the precise spot where the skin rippled with strength. “You know, because of all those tennis tournaments.”

Ray restrained herself from laughing. “She was like a foot taller than you.”

“That was part of the appeal! Didn’t you ever want someone who was so unlike you?”

“All the time,” she said, rolling onto her side, her back to me, though neither of us slept for hours. I pressed my hand into hers, remembering the night in senior year of high school when she dressed up as the lead singer of her favorite band for a Halloween party hosted by her neighbor, a theatre kid who attended a performing arts private school and didn’t know anyone from our class—how simultaneously delighted and petrified Ray was as she got dressed, donning a red wig, tucking for the first time. When Ray whipped her head around and lip-synced, “Come on, baby, be my bad boyfriend,” I was lounging on a bean bag chair, masquerading as a leather-clad bass player: aloof, indifferent, goateed. All night, I postured, practicing my guitar solos, encouraging Ray to sing, not realizing until we snuck back into her room and collapsed in a heap that this would be the night.

“You know how I told you I untucked because I had to use the bathroom? Well, that wasn’t the whole story,” she said, recounting how her neighbor, the budding thespian dressed as Elphaba from Wicked, waited on the other side of the bathroom door while Ray was untucking, then slid in when Ray opened the door and shut them inside together. “His cloak swept over the floor in an arc when he got down on his knees. He clearly knew what he was doing. I had to hide the green smears on my thighs from you the next morning.”

I hummed at the thought of a witch buried that deeply between my legs, willfully ignoring the fact that I was not the first person to feel Ray’s palm curve to the back of their head. Instead, I whispered, “I’ve always wanted to have sex in a theatre. Something about that velvet curtain.”

Ray understood this. “For me, it’s aquariums. Being surrounded by all that water.”

“And sea creatures,” I said, thinking of a turtle touching its flipper to the glass to say hello. What joy was in store for Ray when she at last fulfilled her dream. Every night after, we shared all our most carefully guarded fantasies, inventing lovers and alter egos that were braver, sweeter, and more limber than our true selves. In one of my alternate lives, I managed to charm a French pastry chef into setting aside her whisk, unbuttoning her jacket, and allowing me to pipe a line of bourbon whipped cream from her navel to her lips. In another, I accidentally got locked in a bookstore with a man on only our third or fourth date, and we spent hours reading our favorite poems to each other with a single flickering booklight before making love on one of the display tables.

“Which one?”

“Hardcover nonfiction.”

“That’s risky. You might end up fucking on a picture of the pope.”

“I’ll take that chance,” I laughed, because that was the future that lay in store for us: taking every chance for happiness, allowing ourselves to be pressed between two female bodybuilders or ravished underneath a giant redwood by a humble forest guide who knew exactly how to maneuver our bodies so we lay cradled by the ancient roots. We would plant gardens full of summer squash, beefsteak tomatoes, and nasturtiums. We would sip whiskey by the fire while working on an idyllic puzzle of ice skaters gliding through winter. We would do all these things and many more, and we would never feel betrayed or regret our wasted years, because now we were free, freer than we had ever been. This was our parting gift to each other.

 

Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast, which was longlisted for The Story Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon ReviewLightspeedGulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, The Masters Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle, where she serves as the Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House and co-organizes the Fight for Our Lives performance series.

I’ll Allow It Maybe Just This Once by Jeff Chon

Brett Lamonica had long feathered hair like Bon Jovi. He was three years older than me and his black denim jacket smelled like baby powder and Lucky Strikes. I used to see him smoking with the other metal kids off school grounds, spitting brown tobacco flakes off his tongue.

He wasn’t the first person to call me a Chink and far from the last, but he was definitely the only one who’d made it matter. It might have been the way he smiled, like he wanted me to think he was joking, even though he wasn’t. He’d put his arm around me when he said it, pulling me into a headlock, or he’d slap me on the back like it was supposed to be good-natured. But he wasn’t fooling anyone—not even himself. I’d once asked him to stop, and then he asked me what I was going to do about it, and that was the last time I asked him to stop.

I used to see him after school, bent over the boy’s room sink, making sure all the eyeliner was gone before he went home. He’d clench his eyes shut and scrub pink powdered soap into his eyelids. It looked so painful, the way he’d squint at the mirror, his bangs sticking to his cheeks.

* * * *

He once came over with his dad so he could apologize for squeezing a ketchup bottle down my shirt. He said he was sorry and then went home, and his dad and my dad smoked on the porch. I don’t know what they talked about, but I do remember getting hassled for making another boy’s father feel sorry for me. A couple days later, I was enrolled in Taekwondo, where a stocky, middle-aged man yelled at me in Korean and told my dad how sensitive I was. Other than that, nothing much changed. Brett kept hooking his arm around my shoulder, and the little fourth-graders never tired of snickering at my pathetic front kicks.

* * * *

Brett was the lead singer of Vendetta, a hair metal band he’d formed with these guys who were always telling him to lay off of me. I’d once heard them perform “When the Children Cry” in his garage. It was one of two times I’d ever thought about fighting back, about rising from the bicycle seat and pumping the pedals harder and harder as I barreled toward his bewildered bandmates, about leaping off the bike, crashing into him as my ten-speed crashed into one of the amps. But instead, we locked eyes as he held the mic against his lips and sang about a world healed by tears, and I rode away.

Looking back, Vendetta was a pretty good name for a band.

The only other time I thought about fighting back was when he crimped his hair. The only reason I didn’t was because he’d changed it back to normal the next day—at least that’s what I told myself. He also had a fat lip, which at the time looked really funny. I remember laughing at how dumb he looked, his eyes bloodshot from the pink soap, the water sliding off his overhanging bottom lip like some kind of drooling idiot.

* * * *

Sometimes, you realize your hands aren’t clean and you tell yourself it makes you sick, but that thing you’re feeling isn’t anything like sickness. It’s something else you can’t name, even though not naming it means you’re either stupid or cruel. And then you shrug and tell yourself there’s nothing else to really say about it, but you know that’s a lie.

* * * *

Brett graduated and I didn’t see him again until my senior year, a couple months after he’d been kicked out of the Navy. He asked if my parents were home, and I told him they weren’t. Then he told me he was here to fix the sink, and I told him I knew that.

So you’re working for your dad now? I asked. He didn’t say anything.

We walked into the kitchen so I could show him what needed work. You look different, he said. I told him I’d been working out, and he gave me a weird look because how else do you respond to that? He crawled under the kitchen sink and I went back to the living room to unpause Road Rash 2.

He finished up and I gave him the money my mom had left. I stood on the porch and watched him walk to the van.

Remember when you crimped your hair? I said.

He stopped, and chuckled, asked why the hell I’d bring that up, so I told him he looked like a fag. He took a breath and shook his head.

Yeah man, he smiled. My dad said the same thing.

He slammed the door and turned the ignition. Guns N’ Roses was in the tape deck. We locked eyes as he backed out of the driveway, and I wanted him to call me a Chink again, just one last time, like maybe he’d be the only person I’d make an exception for.

 

Jeff Chon’s most recent work has appeared in Juked, The North American Review, and The Portland Review. His novel, Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun, is forthcoming from Sagging Meniscus Press. 

Stones My Mother Carved from the Mountain by Noa Covo

As children, we would speak to the giants through the pipe that snaked up the mountain and blossomed into an ear trumpet miles above us. We never really had anything to say, so we resorted to niceties. How’s the weather up there? Seen any good birds recently? The blueberries are lovely this year.

I could never understand why we bothered doing it, why we leaned our heads into the massive, rusty pipe at the foot of the mountain and hollered sentences, just to hear them echo against the craggy peaks above. Our mother told us we did it because it was good manners. She’d take us by the scruffs of our necks as little ones and yell up into the pipe. She’d yell her baking tips, and her thoughts about chickens, and her opinions of our neighbors. Then she’d make us say something too, about nice rocks we found, about something we learned, about ourselves. We’d rest our little heads in the waiting crescent of the sun-warmed pipe, years later, we still had silver scars ringing the bottom of our chins.

The giants never replied, or at least, not in words we’d understand. My mother said they replied in other ways, in storms, in avalanches, in blessings. When her stomach billowed for a fourth time, she said it was thanks to the giants. When it collapsed back in on itself, she didn’t say anything at all. I stopped listening to what she told the giants after that. I told myself I was too old for pretending, but truth was, I was angry with the giants, and I was angry with my mother for forgiving them after what they did to her.

Our mother died on the longest day of the year, and sent the three of us back to the foot of the mountain to a grieving father and an open grave. The mountain had never left us. The three of us had tried to plant ourselves in willing soil, convincing ourselves we were just saplings waiting to grow. We would never grow, I thought, running dust through my palms, because we had never been alive, just stones our mother carved from the mountain. Our breath was nothing more than the heat of day slowly surrendering itself to the dark sky.

We buried our mother in the shade of the mountain. My siblings left the next day, claiming they had things waiting in places where the sky spread unchallenged. I stayed. I stayed and sat in the yard between the chickens, loss ballooning in my chest and pressing against my ribcage. My father came out to the yard as well. He had no hand in making us, I realized, and he did not know what to do with our shards. He looked to the top of the mountain, to the pipe snaking its way through the side. Someone, he said, raising his eyebrows, has got to tell the giants.

I went alone the next morning. I walked up to the waiting pipe, and then I continued, taking the winding trail that followed the pipe up the mountain. I walked until the sun was low in the sky, and only when it began to set did I reach the part where the pipe curled into a rusty flower. I looked around the mountaintop. It was empty, just like I knew it would be. There were no giants here, nobody to inform of my terrible loss. I tiptoed towards the ear trumpet. Looking down, our house seemed years away, not hours. I leaned against the ear trumpet and closed my eyes. On a mountaintop devoid of giants I heard the wind whistling in the pipe. I imagined it was my mother’s words crawling out of her mouth, slithering up the rocks, not for the giants but for her stone children, the ones she knew would day climb up the mountain that overlooked their childhood and try to remember all they had once ignored.

 

Noa Covo is a teenage writer. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Jellyfish Review, Waxwing, XRAY, and trampset. Her micro chapbook, Bouquet of Fears, was published by Nightingale and Sparrow Press in July 2020. She can be found on Twitter @covo_noa.

Making It by Cate McGowan

The stilts were necessary. If I’m being honest about it. Sure, in most settings, they were goofy, but Liz, they made me taller than you and your bully friends. The summer after Dad died, I begged our next-door-neighbor, Mr. Hansen, to fashion them. The old man took pity on me, and I lurked outside his garage workshop, listened to his circular saw whine as it chewed through two thin railroad planks he then painted sea-foam green, the color of lunchrooms from the 80s.

For days, I used all my free time learning how to walk on those stilts. I gripped the splintery handles, planted my heels on the wedge footholds, hoisted myself up. My first attempts were a disaster. I’d invariably lose my balance and tumble ass over teakettle onto our driveway, raspberrying my knees and elbows. But I persisted. Soon, I rose nimbly in one swoop, and my new appendages became extensions of my stubby legs. That season of slanting shadows, folks in the neighborhood stood in their front lawns and cheered me as I scuttled up and down the street. Sometimes, I even moonwalked or braved a herkie jump. Wow, would you look at that!

But when it got cold, I abandoned my precious stilts down by the creek. Kids are like that, I guess, leaving important things behind, moving on to master something new. Anyway, no matter how many jokes I made, no matter how many tricks I learned or how tall I was on those stilts, Liz, all the adults liked you, not me. They were stupid.

Years of ballet and tap followed at the Fleetwood School of Dance. But Mom loathed the other stage mothers and stopped paying for my lessons. My dreams of sugarplum fairies were dashed, so I aimed my sights on the school talent show instead. I made do with what I had. For my costume, I dusted off the old stilts I pulled from the basement. Then, I blacked out a tooth with a crayon, plopped on a hat like some Minnie Pearl hick. Donned a red gingham shirt. Overalls.

I was the last to take the stage. The velvet curtain parted, and the first notes of “Mr. Bojangles” crackled through the speakers, and from center-left, I romped to the song’s banjos, the spotlight following me. All the Sacred Heart of Mary School kids, first to eighth grades, egged me on. Go, Annie! Go, Annie! GO!  They clapped at the chorus, and I transitioned from boring shuffle-ball-changes to wild antics, slapstick, strategic slips. A herkie jump. A moonwalk. Go, Annie! Go, Annie! GO!  On the front row, Ryan Richards, perfect like a comet in that dark auditorium, laughed. He thought I was funny. They all thought I was funny.

Later, after college, I didn’t move home. You got Mom’s adoration; I got stand-up and bus tours and TV appearances. Last year, after your funeral, my manager, Mike, and I went to clean out your house, and I ventured out back behind the porch. Under the eaves, I found my old stilts tucked in a veil of cobwebs. With the clouds speeding above me, I hopped on, the plunkety-plunk of wood on the walk. I sang and danced to “Mr. Bojangles,” hamming it up, and Mike hooted—You’re a carnival freak, Miss Thang! We laughed and laughed, though there’s nothing funny about me.

 

Cate McGowan is the author of the short story collection True Places Never Are (2015), which won the 2014 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her debut novel These Lowly Objects is forthcoming from Gold Wake Press, and her writing has appeared in Flash Fiction InternationalGlimmer TrainCrab Orchard ReviewTahoma Literary Review, and numerous other outlets. Find out more about her at www.catemcgowan.com.