The Lure by Gretchen Rockwell

The first lander on Venus lasted fifty-three minutes.
It survived long enough to send pictures back and verify
the world was waterless—that humans could not survive
there. The strange yellow images look like something
from a fever dream, cloudy and corrosive. Venus
flytraps are brightly colored, the better to attract prey.
Their sensitive tendrils stroke the air, know when
to clamp down and when to stay agape. They smell
sweet, surely—the better to draw smaller life in.
The flies don’t know any better, misstep, and then
it’s over. The snap of the trap moves too fast for us
to understand. We know the plant can remember
when it has been touched, that it holds the memory
of motion for more than a few seconds. They evolved
from sticky traps. Some theorize life on our planet
came from Venus ages ago, carried on an asteroid,
contributing to the rapid rise and fall of so many species.
Some believe there may still be life in the Venusian atmosphere,
hidden high in the sulfurous clouds. We still don’t know
what the dark streaks mean, whether they could be
microorganisms or simply swirling greenhouse gases.
As I nudge a struggling bug towards my flytrap, I remember
Venus is the brightest thing in the sky besides the Moon,
it is our sister sphere. We won’t be able to resist going there,
to consider building cities in the clouds. Even if we know
it will kill us. We can never leave the unknown alone for long.

 

Gretchen Rockwell (xe/xer/xers) is a queer poet who can frequently be found writing about gender, science, space, and unusual connections. Xe is the author of the chapbooks body in motion (perhappened press) and Lexicon of Future Selves (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press) and two micro chapbooks; xer work has appeared in AGNI, Cotton Xenomorph, Whale Road Review, Palette Poetry, and elsewhere. Find xer at www.gretchenrockwell.com, or on Twitter at @daft_rockwell.

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

Take care

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

No vacancy

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

Ways to fall in love

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

Transit

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

Bean counter

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

 

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

Pelt by Brittney Corrigan

The drape of your body-not-body
across my arm brings death so close
I don’t notice, feel only the rush
of my blood against soft-creature
skin. How the patterns in your fur
are so still, so un-fleeing, I can
marvel at the single white stripe
that divides your dark brow,
the way it rivers down your back,
disappears into gray-mottled sea.
In your face, I see only empties—
not sockets, not eyes—hook
my finger through absence, stroke
the clean, unburrowed slope
of your toothless snout. Where
once strong paws moved earth,
turned worms into the light,
now there is only the ghost
of your long-clawed digging:
tanned hide smooth against
my living skin. Entrail-less,
your death has charmed me
with its novelty. I press
my nose to yours, imagine
the animal stink that does not
rise as I turn your pelt over, offer
your not-heart to what draws near,
stalks at the edge of the knife.

 

Brittney Corrigan is the author of the poetry collections Daughters, Breaking, Navigation, and 40 Weeks. Solastalgia, a collection of poems about climate change, extinction, and the Anthropocene Age, is forthcoming from JackLeg Press in 2023. Brittney was raised in Colorado and has lived in Portland, Oregon for the past three decades, where she is an alumna and employee of Reed College. She is currently at work on her first short story collection. For more information, visit http://brittneycorrigan.com.

Superposition by Josh Denslow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I found your dog,” the man says.

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

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

 

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

 

Working for an Oil Company Conglomerate Will Get You Perks Like This by Cheryl Pappas

On a world-class submarine headed to what was left of the Azores, I had just taken one delirious sip of a 1929 Beychevelle Bordeaux when a drop of water plopped on my left shoulder; I watched the crisp cream linen of my shirt morph to gray and looked up: a leak.

The ceiling was 30 feet high, impossible to spot the source. I glanced at the others, drinking their wine and sloe gin fizz. No one had noticed. Alice twirled her shiny black hair while chatting with Rich from finance, her eyes droopy with dopamine. I knew she was sleeping with him now. Days later, Rich’s silken black tie would wash up on a distant shore, but in that moment his teeth held a lively shine, like they were plastic, which in truth they might have been. Another plop. The fairy lights on the upper balconies twinkled like Christmas; violins swooned their way into sleepy hearts; red, white, and blue streamers snowed down from the sub ceiling; children flush with sugar ran up and down metallic stairs. The girls’ dresses fluttered amid giggles and stomping, amid Mozart and a wine glass shattering on the marble floor. It was all very Titanic. I was the only one with the knowledge of what was to come. My vision blurred. I was drunk. I looked long at Alice’s parched lips remembering how soft, how deliriously soft they were when I kissed them under a cherry tree in the dark as I felt two more drops on my shoulder, then three. All the while, as some would find out later, two great whites were a mile away, their noses pointed toward the source of a steady, mellifluous hum.

 

Cheryl Pappas is an American writer living outside Boston. Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Juked, The Chattahoochee Review, HAD, and elsewhere. She is the author of a flash fiction collection, The Clarity of Hunger, published by word west press (2021).

The Man I Killed… by Corey Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need to press on.”

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

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

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

 

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

Old Man in the Kitchen by Audrey Hall

Take up your tricorn hat
and sweep the ghastly corners
of your waistcoat from my kitchen,
great-great-and-so-on-grandfather.

Take the soggy reins dangling
from your veiny hands
away from Sunday breakfast.
I do not need you to split
this egg on the pan’s edge
or slice this banana into circles.

Stop telling me the story
of how you died–headfirst
off your horse into a fence, splinters
and brambles crowning your corpse.
You were heroically old,
Tiresias in the saddle, going blind
on your proud gelding.

Stop with your tantrums.
No more tossing my keys onto the floor
in a pale fit of pique. Every time I retrieve
my driver’s license, I feel the urge
to check my temples for gray.

 

Audrey Hall is a recent graduate from the University of Florida’s MFA program and is earning her MA in English at the University of Alabama. She is a 2021 recipient of a scholarship from the NYS Summer Writers Institute and reads for Black Warrior Review and Five South. Her poems appear in Crab Creek Review, Saw Palm, Hunger Mountain, and Alaska Quarterly Review, among others.

Tongue Depressors by Emily Behnke

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

 

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

Vestiges by Maggie Wang

I evolved to hold you
with all the tenderness of rain

filling a dried spring basin
after a century of drought,

washing the sand from the bones
of the not-yet-fossil fish

and drumming resurrection spells
into the cracks in the earth.

I evolved to carry you
in the curve between my five

lumbar vertebrae, sheltered
under the same roof

as a piece of sky tipped
out of balance by drunken birds

and dead moths pressed dry
under the desert sun.

I evolved to hide you
between two strata of the

unmarked cave where those
last fish sought futile refuge

from oblivion and where my
mother left me lying, ear pressed

to the ground, listening
for the vestiges of the aquifer.

 

Maggie Wang (she/her) studies at the University of Oxford. Her poetry and criticism have appeared in Poetry Wales, bath magg, Versopolis Review, and others. She is a Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic and a Barbican Young Poet.

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

 

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