Stranger Disconnected by Darren Nuzzo

The banner atop the webpage says you’ll be paired with seven F’s for every two M’s – that’s how they get you. The ratio is actually much different. I’ve only seen one F. She was thirteen and from the Philippines. I asked her Buttigieg or Biden and she thought I was talking about laundry detergent. When she lived in Quezon City, her family used Ariel. In Manila, they switched to Zonrox. Then the conversation moved to dish soap until we ran out of opinions on the matter. That was my one experience with an F. Mostly, it goes like this: M 22, M 27, Stranger disconnected. It’s a good idea for a website, linking one stranger to another. It’s just that the math doesn’t add up. M’s want F’s and F’s are smarter than that. For me, I just want someone to talk to. So I’ve changed letters, fixed the problem for most everyone. Things have been going much better ever since. Are you tall? is one of my favorite things to ask. You sound tall, I like to assure them. That always makes the M feel big and strong, and I know that’s important. I like to ask what they do for work. If M says he does construction, I say, “Like an architect.” If M says he hasn’t read a book in eleven years, I say, “There’s nothing found between pages a smart guy like you can’t find on Earth.” When M says he has insomnia, I say, “The brightest minds always do.” And when M tells me all the good things about his penis, I let him know that I really believe him. They never want me to leave. But I say goodnight and move to the next, well aware of this unique opportunity I’ve been given, the chance to put the most good into the world at the cost of the least evil, sinning to the smallest degree possible, telling man everything he needs to hear, lying by just a single letter.

 

Darren Nuzzo is the author of I’ll Give You a Dollar If You Consider This Art—a collection of stories, essays, poems, and comics.

Freckle (A Haibun) by Julia Gerhardt

The towel has moved from the innocent huddle over my shoulders to the firm knot between breasts. I want to drape the towel over my shoulders again, as if I am able to protect myself from strange and desirous things, but I won’t. I’m too big now & it would show too much of me. The bareness of my body reminds me of the emptiness in my belly & since I am hungry all the time now, I eat. I bite, crunch, lick, swallow. There is a spot on me I swear is a freckle until I lift my arm to my tongue & taste it. Something I thought was so very much a part of me is gone. When I realize its impermanence, I shower again. I bathe, clean, lather, suds. As I reach for the towel once more, I am no longer bothered by the way I position it, but instead

                                                                                        I am saddened by
                                                                                        the chocolate stain I mis-
                                                                                        took as a freckle.

 

Julia Gerhardt is a writer from Los Angeles, now living in Baltimore.  She was nominated for the Best Microfiction Anthology 2020 and Best Small Fictions Anthology 2020. She has previously been published in Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Umbrella Factory, The Airgonaut, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Cease, Cows, Literary Orphans, Rogue Agent, Flash Fiction Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and others.  Her work is forthcoming in the Eastern Iowa Review, fresh.ink, Moonpark Review, Sea Foam Mag, and Club Plum.  She is currently working on her first novel.  You can find her at https://juliagerhardtwriter.wordpress.com/

Concerning the Power Cord by Lyndsie Manusos

You are what you watch. Every few years, my schedule fills up with requests for separation. I can sense the onslaught of demands before it happens, the sizzle of static permeating off the screens. The air changes. The tiny hairs on my neck and arms stand to attention, as if lightning is about to strike.

I have plenty of TVs to go around now, from all the separations. My basement is full of them from people coming to me and pointing to their heads, a big screen blinking in an out where their face should be. Sometimes the screen bursts into static and the shape of a face peeks out through the grey.

“Help me,” they beg.

I promise them to try.

They seek to be separated, to become themselves again. Screens made flesh. It’s dirty work, and to be honest, it isn’t always successful, but someone has to do it–it–it–

 

heard it through the grave vine. California grapes from the California vineyards.–

 

Like I said, it’s dirty work. I’d separate from my screen, too, but separating requires knowing who you were before the screen. I don’t know who I was before this. There are scars on my neck and shoulders, as if someone scratched away trying to find where blood and bone ended, and the wires and plastic began. An amateur move. Of course, at some point I know I must have been the amateur. But years of practice and research have taught me that the point of separation is through the TV itself. Through connection. The power supply. I ask patients to bring their power cords. I plug them in and find the channel that fused them. Then we go through the act of separating from there.

Lately, with the people coming to me for help, it’s almost always a news channel that connects them. People are often yelling at each other . Occasionally it’s an old game show network, or reruns of sitcoms where there’s so much clapping–clapping­–clap–clap–

 

Clap on! *clap-clap* Clap off! *clap-clap*–

 

My screen is a tabletop Trinitron, and my phosphor bars are freaking the fuck out. Plugging myself in doesn’t help. My screen is fading. My signals are jumbled. I have to smack the side to get it to stop. My old self is trying to tell me something. Clues of who I was, where I’ve been. Now, I’m the only one, at least that I know of, who can separate people from their screens, who knows the steps. I could teach someone, but then I’d have to ask them to give up their old life, to become the screen. Become this–this–this–

 

This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.

 

Did I used to like eggs? When I get these hiccups, I like to daydream about images that stay with me. Maybe I used to cook eggs in the morning. Maybe I used to stir cocoa powder in a glass of milk and suck the clumps of chocolatiness over my tongue.

Maybe I’d been in love.

The most intimate I’ve been in this life was when a person came to me for help with their small screen stuck on a reality show. The scene kept playing on repeat. The screen showed a crying woman reaching for someone just off camera, begging, “But you don’t understand! I love you for God’s sake!” She was keening with passion. The person clutched my hand as I separated the screen. It was a hell of a screen too, an early 90s plasma. After I was finished, it clunked to the ground. Without the screen, a man sat up on the table, the angles of his face perfectly arched and beautiful. Long eyelashes. Curly hair. Like someone straight out of a soap opera. He leaned in and took my old Trinitron between his hands and kissed the plane of glass where my lips would’ve… should’ve… been.

“Thank you,” he whispered, pressing his forehead to the glass. He took big gulps of air and then kissed me again.

I usually store these TVs in the basement until they’re covered in dust, but I keep that 90s plasma close to me. When I plug it in, the scene still shows: “But you don’t understand!” Her lips are full, glossy. I wonder what the man’s lips would’ve tasted like if I had lips again. I wonder whether it would tasted like–tasted–taste–taste–

 

tastes great, less filling!–

 

Listen, I don’t have much time.

The feeling has come again, a resurgence leaving thick ozone tickle along my skin. Everyone is watching, and everyone is angry. Soon, there will be too many TVs to separate, and I will be long gone. I’ll clear out the basement and leave them on front lawn of my house like some zombie MTV cemetery. A Panasonic for you. A Sony for you. A Zenith for you.

And with the amount of separation demands rising, the world better take note, better change the fucking channel. Better clutch their beating hearts, their fleshy heads. My heart and head are still in there, somewhere, buried beneath the wires and phosphor bars, beneath the knobs and power button. My–my heart–no, no, my–my–

 

my buddy, my buddy, my buddy and me

 

maybe she’s born with it

 

­–loving it–

 

Please check the power control settings. The power supply may be interrupted.

 

Lyndsie Manusos’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, CHEAP POP, Passages North, and other publications. She lives in Indianapolis with her family, and writes for Book Riot and Publishers Weekly.

Instead of Heraldry by Matt Broaddus

When the bell tower chimes,
throw me off the roof.
Crocheted into my wool
cocoon. With all the almonds in Calaf
gathered illegally by peasants in the night.
To make pastries and carve them with little angels’
chainsaws. Breakneck death
strolls beside me, a lightning storm.
The wheat rolls off in gritty balls
like the ancient walls of the town.
Men with guns,
hired to live in the turrets of the villas
and shoot each other,
shoot each other.

 

Matt Broaddus is a Cave Canem fellow and author of a chapbook, Space Station (Letter [R] Press, 2018). His poems have appeared in Fence, Foundry, Sundog Lit, and Black Warrior Review. He lives in Lakewood, Colorado and works at a public library. Sometimes he tweets @mattbroaddus.

Careful by Dan Sanders

If there’s anything I know about, it’s being careful. I don’t like the idea that anything could happen by accident. I like a schedule. I like clocks. I like a list. I like to bake. I like method and precision and avoiding anything that would disrupt this, like other people, animals, I don’t own anything fragile. I don’t like to own anything that might break or would be difficult to reacquire if I misplaced it, though I don’t misplace things. Everything has a place, and I will put it there. I am careful of who I speak to and why. I don’t wear shoes in the house. I have house shoes but mostly for show, in case someone asks. I don’t sleep with socks on so my feet can breathe. I read an article about gangrene that set me straight about feet.

I don’t take any medicines, before you ask. If you go to the doctor and ask for medicine your name gets put on a list, and then the police see the list if anything out of order ever happens. Even if you’re not involved, even if something just near you happens, they’ll ask about that list. It’ll say you’re on drugs and then they throw you in some dark hole. Medicine? No. No, absolutely not.

I live alone and quietly. I keep the radio down. I don’t have any hobbies that make noise, or require me to make nose. I avoid calling attention to myself. Noise gets in my chest, seizes me solid, tries to break me apart. I drum with the pads of my fingers against my temples sometimes to make sure I can still hear, that I am still there, that I am in perfect working order. Three taps, each side, all clear.

I keep myself busy. I have projects and hobbies because I don’t want to go crazy. I collected stamps until I heard some of the glue was poison, switched to puzzles. I put the stamps in the fireplace, burned them, reconsidered my fireplace, bricked it over. Bricks are made of cancer dust, compressed. I covered my house in plastic sheeting, left it up for weeks to catch the particulate when I wasn’t around to vacuum, sealed in a containment suit of my own design, trash bags and scotch tape, holes for my arms and legs.

I bought a computer, but I try not to use it. It was a good distraction but potentially addicting and dangerous, a kind of mind control. Even though I stopped using it, I don’t bring liquid of any kind into the room where I keep the computer which I’ve dubbed “The Computer Room.” I also, as general practice, don’t leave glasses half full of liquid near anything. I’m careful about liquid and I know a lot about stains.

I speak to my landlord as little as possible and my neighbors even less. I’m considering moving to the woods or the desert, I wonder about why I don’t live there already, and it’s mostly to do with ordering in. Ordering food in is expensive, though I am particular about saving. I invest. I am risk averse. I get 30 minutes of exercise a day and will soon enough money to sustain me in this room until I am 120 years old, not that I want to live that long or even much longer, but I could, it’s been done. I do yoga, I stretch. I drink bright purple juices and eat dark leafy greens. I order them in, like I said, repeating myself, making sure it’s clear, I am to be understood.

Food is tricky. I try not to cook because the stove has a spot of rust and the vent rattles when it’s on. It’s broken. The landlord said it still works. But broken is broken, broken is a degree of not working, I can see it still works but it rattles so it’s broken. Rattling is step one of a larger problem that will lead to total failure and eventually that thing is going to snap off and send a blade flying into my head or bring the vent crashing through the ceiling and down on top of my head, destroying my kitchen and dinner.

In a pinch I’ll leave the vent off but keep an eye on it. Cook staring straight up, blindly burn my hands, season my food with tears and curse words. I try to be quick about it. Mies en plas. You’ll get cancer if you stand in the chicken and vegetable fumes, whichever fumes, doesn’t have to be chicken. Whatever you cook has fumes. I’m mostly white meat and vegetables. Maybe a tofu. Press that down for a week or two though, I don’t trust that tofu water.

This vent is criminal. I have a carbon monoxide detector in every room of the house. I test them three times a week, along with the smoke detectors. I do not smoke. Of course I do not smoke. I go to the deli when I check the mail. I check the mail a lot. Just in case. I wear gloves when I open the mail in case it’s full of poison. I’m wearing gloves right now.

I was considering buying plastic sheeting for the door handles until I heard that the metal in door handles is anti-microbic or antibiotic or something. Germs hate stainless steel for some reason; they touch it and break apart. I looked into getting more stainless-steel surfaces, tables, chairs, anything that could kill simply by existing. I could sleep strapped down to an operating table or standing up in steel tube like an iron maiden. Something to contain me, keep me right in line and hidden, somewhere I could breathe for once, somewhere I could go to just scream and scream and scream.

 

Dan Sanders is a writer of short fiction, essays, and vending machine repair guides. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Hong Kong Review, Coffin Bell, Bridge Eight, and wherever fine vending equipment is sold. His novella The Loop will be published this Fall by Anvil Press. Bad drawings of his writing can be found at dan-sanders.com.

In My Dreams, I Own a Laundromat by Elise Triplett

The Mother finds me washing my hands
with lavender detergent in the employees only room.
“The washer ate my dollar,” she explains lifting

the lint crown off my head and the lint veil
from my eyes. I follow her, and root my hands
through its intestines, pinching out each quarter:

“Do you want me to scrape the dirt off those
with my teeth?” She shakes her head, so I place
them in her palms. “Why is there a sea turtle

painted on your window?” I wanted to be constructive.
I say, “I feel unfurnished without it.” The Child watches
me from a metal cart. He’s not supposed to be in there.

“He’s not supposed to be in there.” The Mother hushes
me: “Be constructive.” I want to be. She gets another
washer going. I pick apart the crown, make gloves instead.

 

Elise Triplett is a writer from Dayton, Ohio. They have been published in Black Bough Poetry and interned with Mid-American Review. They can be found on Twitter @TriplettElise and elsewhere, probably.

Diets by Lucy Zhang

1. Pescatarian

This girl doesn’t eat meat. But she eats eggs, lobster, mussels, cod, and Bronzini. Sometimes she’ll even buy pork bones to make broth for pho but she won’t eat the meat. She might give the bones to the albino dog she’s babysitting. Her dad asks her how she’s going to get any complete proteins and she wonders how to explain to a research chemist that eggs and seafood are sources of all essential amino acids. Amazing what stubbornness does to science, she thinks when she hears another “meat is not the same” blanket statement argument. Instead of responding, she thinks of the turtle and the rabbit she had when she was eleven. The rabbit stayed in a cage in their backyard while the turtle stayed in a bucket. Both were fed plain short-grain white rice–everything eats rice, her dad had said. One weekend she left the turtle out on the patio, thinking it was too slow to get anywhere so it at least deserved to be free of its confines of the bucket. The next day, the turtle was gone and the rabbit was still there and she thought it might get lonely so she set the rabbit free too, hoping both animals would survive the winter. She found a dead turtle with its head sunken into its shell three days later. It’s always three days. One day of searching, one day of worrying, one day to settle the uncertain dread in an unexpected discovery on the walk back from the school bus stop. She carried the carcass with her bare hands and buried the turtle in the front yard with a gardening spade. In retrospect, she shouldn’t have felt too guilty: it would’ve died anyway; rice didn’t have enough nutrients to sustain it.

 

2. Vegetarian

The girl doesn’t eat meat or seafood. She eats eggs though. Eggs are cheap and versatile. She can buy a dozen for slightly over one dollar. She poaches them, stirs them into soup, scrambles them with chives. When her boyfriend climbs through her window to visit, she makes them omelets with cheese and onion because even though dairy gives her a stomach ache and her parents find cheese stinky, she wants it as much as she wants it to be ok for her boyfriend’s skin color to contrast her own. To have sweet potato and marshmallows casserole on Thanksgiving. To watch the Super Bowl while eating guacamole with tortilla chips. But her parents look over her shoulder, see her graduated and married with a baby of the same hair color and eye color, so she tells them she’s still single and it’s too early to worry.

 

3. Vegan

This one is tricky. She’s vegan but in secret. A best effort sort of thing. It’s easier now since her mom went through chemotherapy and they’ve stopped drinking milk, cut down on meat, ditched the butter. They take walks around the neighborhood five days a week and her mother’s hair grows back. The girl didn’t find out about her mother’s breast cancer until the night of the operation. It would distract you from your studies, they said. It sure would, she thought. But then again, the tendency to latch onto secrets, bury them so deep you no longer remember it’s a secret but rather an unspoken truth, runs in the family. This is how she stays vegan–at the dinner table when she avoids meat by talking about her belly flop into the pool after a poorly executed forward dive, at school when she hides in the library with the guise that is not entirely a guise of work and study.

 

4. Keto

Her coworker lost twenty pounds eating avocados and chicken. That much fat makes her nauseous. Also, fat only makes her hungrier. She needs volume to be full: a bowl of boiled cabbage, an enormous Granny Smith apple, a pot of miso soup. She doesn’t like the idea of pouring cups of oil into dumpling filling or mixing butter with coffee.

But she tries it.

Before her dad moved to the United States, he and his siblings ate congee: clouded water with a few specks of rice. More water if they needed to fill their stomachs without spending all of the money.

When they were poor, her parents’ income meant she qualified for free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at school. She’d never had peanut butter before. It was almost the most delicious thing she’d tasted so far in America, right behind the ice cream that she tried to microwave because grandma said you’re only supposed to eat foods warm.

She needs to buy coconut oil and grass-fed beef and free-range eggs. She needs to give away half her pantry that she can no longer eat. Maybe her parents will take it even though they’re only cooking for two now.

 

5. Something in between

The girl loves her family very much and will eat whatever they put on the table.

 

Lucy Zhang is a writer masquerading around as a software engineer. She watches anime and sleeps in on weekends like a normal human being. Her work appears in TIMBER, Ghost Parachute, Scoundrel Time, and elsewhere. She can be found at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

Jellyfish by Josh Sherman

Sorry I couldn’t stay any longer
Had to remove any sign that I had been there
That a misplaced can might upset you
I didn’t want a misplaced can to upset you

So I collected all the cans that might upset you
and straightened all the chairs and arranged them
to make sure everything was on right angles
I find comfort in 90 degrees and straight lines

Because after a hurricane you clean up
You emerge from a wood-planked place
and you set forth to collect the debris:
a chair wedged in the sand, a refrigerator in a ditch

But watch out for the jellyfish
thrown from the ocean by a cyclone
that traced an arbitrary path
like the one that led to you

 

Josh Sherman is a Toronto-based journalist whose poetry has appeared in Back Patio Press and Neutral Spaces Magazine. His fiction has been published online in Hobart and in print in the Great Lakes Review.

Wetted Appetites by Molly Gabriel

We date for three months before I agree to go the farm to meet his family. I hesitate because he calls his parents by their first names. He says, “Grey and Judy want to meet you.”

I agree because he cooks for me. Well, dehydrates. Elijah dehydrates vegetables, presses and pulverizes until they almost pass for pasta.

* * *

We arrive at their front door after noon. The air is warm and thick with precipitation. He rings the bell then kicks the door. A teenaged boy wearing a bandana and muslin shorts answers.

“Judy is counting the seconds,” the boy says.

“Blame it on her—she got her period on the way here and had to stop. Twice.”

Elijah moves through the door. My face pinks in embarrassment.

“You’re Amelia?”

“Yes.” I try to collect myself.

“My brother calls you?”

“Lemon.”

“Bo,” he says. He reaches, takes my overnight bag from my hand. “Don’t call me Bowie.”

“Okay.” I follow them through the hall to the living room.

Elijah calls, “Ready?” And throws open the double doors to the farm.

 

An enormous tent flanks the house, looms over their garden. Grey and Judy lounge at a cast iron table at its center. On the table, a tea set stands on a large, handcrafted wooden tray. They’re each beautiful. Serene. Butterflies land and launch from Judy’s hair. Grey’s face is lined from effort and intellect. I believe he seduced many women in his heyday.

Judy rises and rushes to us. She puts her palms at his face. Squeezes.

“The prodigal son,” she says. His eyes drift to me.

“Lem.” He says, still in her grasp, “This is Judy.”

Her hands drop. She turns to me. “Amelia. I understand I have you to thank for the visit.”

“I can’t take credit,” I say. Her glance moves to Grey. He stands to greet me, turns first to his son.

“I thought we agreed you’d call when you got close.”

“No, sir,” he says. “You agreed.”

Bo appears again at the door to the house. “I’m ready.” Grey turns again to me.

“I think it’s time we all ate.”

 

Judy produces a plate of leaves I’ve never seen. No one moves to touch or eat them right away.

“We hear you’re a poet.” Grey says to me. Bo watches hungrily, as if preparing for a hunt.

Judy rearranges the leaves into geometric patterns. The plate takes new life with each configuration.

“She writes hybrid forms,” Elijah corrects. I grab his leg.

“Oh. What about?” Grey asks me.

“My tongue,” Elijah says. He laughs. Grey’s eyes move to me.

I let my hand fall from his leg. “I actually just wrote a series about containment.”

“Containment?” Judy’s eyebrows raise.

“Responses to entrapment—the physical, the self, the soul.”

“How interesting,” Grey says.

“Lem likes to examine feelings of suffering at the hands of others,” Elijah adds.

His parents’ gazes slide to me like sighs.

“That’s true,” I say.

Though, I almost hate him now.

 

A purple and yellow butterfly—a species I’ve never seen with wings the size of hands—flutters softly to the plate. Lazes on the leaves. Blinks its wings open, closed, open.

Judy puts her fingers to its wings. She works her hand over, carefully, then quickly crumples the wings. She lifts the destroyed life to her mouth. She bites. The purple wings stain the open hole of her mouth as she chews. She closes her eyes. Savors. She wipes her lips with a napkin, smiles, reveals teeth stained the color of a bruise.

Below the table, I grab his hand.

Grey continues, “Have you always wanted to study poetry?”

Another large, yellow-purple butterfly hovers around us. Bo snatches it from the air and rushes it into his mouth. He chews vigorously, crunching and snapping.

“Poetry,” I clear my throat. I watch two more butterflies drop onto the leaves, “always excited me.”

Grey picks up a butterfly by the wing, works it into his mouth. Judy plucks another, pinches its wings between her fingers. The body resists, flails. Then it’s gone.

“You two must be famished,” she says. She holds it to us—to him.

Elijah hesitates. His eyes linger on mine before moving away.

“Mom,” he says.

“It’s one.” She holds it closer. Softens. She whispers, “I know you’ve missed us.”

He looks away from me. Opens his mouth, allows her to press it in. He chews slowly.

I let him go.

“Amelia?” Grey says. “Can we get you anything?”

“No. Thank you,” I say. Butterflies descend and drift towards us from the bushes like music notes. “I’ve brought my own snacks.”

I pull the book from my purse. I tear out the first page. I rip pieces the size of butterfly’s wings. “I’m vegan,” I say.

I lay a piece on my tongue. I can feel the acid of the page dissolving. And I shiver.

 

Molly Gabriel is a writer and poet from Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Hobart, and Barren Magazine. She is the recipient of the Robert Fox Award for Young Writers. She has been selected for flash readings with Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and the Jax by Jax Literary Festival. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida with her husband and toddler. She’s on Twitter at @m_ollygabriel.