Dorothy Grows a Beard by Joy Guo

Dorothy decides to grow a beard. If she doesn’t do it now, she never will.

Not just a wispy mustache, or a goatee that traps sweater fuzz and cat hair. She goes for the full Bandholz, as depicted in the top right corner of the CDC beard and mask infographic.

It doesn’t take long to fully materialize. Dorothy drinks plenty of water, takes her vitamins, makes sure to get 10,000 steps in every day, activates the meditation app on her phone, cuts out alcohol and smoking, slips into bed at 10 PM sharp. She tracks the rate of hair growth closely, proud of the lush plumage her face is acquiring. Certainly makes putting on makeup a whole lot simpler – now she only needs to worry about the upper half.

As soon as she wakes up, she runs her fingers through it, amazed at how bristly it is, how rubbing against it produces friction, like she is touching someone else. She tends to it as if it were a finicky plant, snipping at the edges every two days. If left to its own devices, the beard could turn her into Gandalf.

Her colleagues don’t seem to discern what’s going on or, if they do, don’t care. Working remotely from home makes it so that a certain level of frivolity is tolerated and even appreciated. Like the green-screened backgrounds of various movie landscapes or the toddler that pops up randomly in the corner, her beard prompts a few chuckles, at most a joke that every day is Halloween for Dorothy, and then the focus of attention shifts to matters more important.

At the store, where shoppers scrounge for the last reserves of flour and toilet paper, Dorothy goes completely unnoticed. 

“You have a CVS card? Cash or credit?” The cashier flicks his gaze up at her, sees nothing out of the ordinary compared to the maelstrom of bizarre things he sees on a daily basis, and hands the bag over.

On the weekends, Dorothy sinks into a lawn chair facing her mother’s living room window. Ellen prattles on and on about the extinction of cruise ships, how the local elementary school keeps opening and closing every two weeks like clockwork, the neighbor’s teenage son who wanders around with his nose and mouth fully exposed.  

“Wait just a minute,” Ellen says, squinting through the screen.

Out of habit, Dorothy props her hand over her jaw. She used to do this all the time, in meetings, on dates, sitting alone on her couch, until the beard showed her a different way. She braces herself. 

“Is that a new scarf you’re wearing? Where’d you get it?”

Her father, God rest his soul, would have noticed as soon as Dorothy got out of the car.

One morning, on a jog, Dorothy spots another woman with a beard. Dorothy flags her down. Standing a few feet apart, they take off their masks, revel in each other’s visage, and exchange tips on grooming and eating without looking like a total mess.

“I have to say,” the woman enthuses, “I’m so glad I took the plunge. I’ve always wanted to know what it feels like.”

“Me, too.”

The beard lends a hand with various aspects of Dorothy’s life. She thinks, I can do this, so what else? She throws out clothes that are too big, too small, too otherwise different from how she is at that very moment. She reaches out to acquaintances to whom she has not spoken in years. She lets the scale under her bed grow furry with dust. She bakes loaves and loaves of banana and sourdough bread, eats them joyfully. She starts the first sentence of the novel she’s always wanted to write. She meets leering gazes head-on. She feels big and magnanimous, even towards the twenty-somethings huddled together at makeshift bars on sidewalks, their masks askew or tucked under their chins, poor imitations of her beard.  

Her boss announces a tentative end to working from home for April 2021. “Folks, that date could certainly end up being pushed back. We’re not ruling that out. But we wanted to let you know as soon as possible so you can start making the appropriate plans.”

Dorothy shudders. She can picture it. That first day back in the office – stumbling through all the hugs and high-fives, throwing out all the dead plants on her ledge, strapping the headset back into place. She’ll be clean-shaven, of course.

By this point, Dorothy can’t remember what she looks like without a beard. She has nightmares where it crawls right off her face and scuttles away on tiny legs, never to be seen again. “Bye!” It screams over its shoulder. “It’s been nice and all, but I’ve really got to get going before you throw me away.”

I won’t, Dorothy mutters herself awake. I won’t.

She throws out the trimmers, clippers, scissors, even the comb, instead. She decides to let the beard unfold according to its own seasons. Will it eventually fall all the way to her knees? Will she have to tie it back? Will it turn grey? She pictures herself hunched over and grizzled. The image puddles like hot honey in her chest.

Dorothy closes her eyes and pets herself, lulled by the tactile feel. She leaves those questions for another day.

 

Joy Guo lives in Manhattan with her husband. She is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and a white collar and regulatory defense attorney. Her work is forthcoming in Failbetter

break/through by Cara Waterfall

“And see how the flesh grows back / across a wound, with a great vehemence, / more strong than the simple, untested surface before.”
                        ~ Jane Hirshfield, What Binds Us

call it unlovely,
a wanton blotch,
an undone stitch

call it a raw blossom
garish as a flare

call it the reef’s
clamour seething
to the surface

a scorched line,
heat clawing its way
out of my body

call it reptilian,
webbed & thickening —
a mottled seam

call it my
skin’s frayed hymn,
my body’s scripture

what’s left,
but the gnarled root of memory,
raking its debris,
with metal teeth
over me

what dark wounds
we are made of,
how they wreck & remake

I eulogize my younger skin
& all things young, but
I will never disown this —
revision, souvenir, script,
seal? — this gilded asymmetry,
of what was.

We heal ragged
even on the inside, pain inlaid
like an everlasting nacre.

Still,
praise what was salvaged:
the self, ravaged
now rising.

 

Ottawa-born and Costa Rica-based, Cara Waterfall’s work has been featured or is forthcoming in Best Canadian Poetry, SWWIM, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and The Fiddlehead, among others. She won Room’s 2018 Short Forms contest and second place in Frontier Poetry’s 2018 Award for New Poets. In 2019, she was a finalist for Radar Poetry’s The Coniston Prize and shortlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. Most recently, she won the Editors’ Prize for the 2020 Magpie Award for Poetry. She has a Poetry & Lyric Discourse diploma from The Writer’s Studio at SFU, and a diploma from the London School of Journalism.

My heart has given me the slip again by B. Tyler Lee

But if you’re searching for real, you’ll likely find him by the railroad tracks south of Settlement Road. Don’t tell the other organs. He’ll have his breakfast—which is also his lunch—wrapped in a handkerchief and tethered to the tea towel he uses as a bedroll. (Dinner is moonshine, always moonshine.) He’ll have his scruffy little dog with him. He named her after Daisy Buchanan: “Her bark is full of money,” he said. But it isn’t, and that’s swell, too. She’s made of tenacity and wire hair and lays down next to him like an ace girl should.

You probably haven’t heard over there in your land where amber waves and Washington’s cherry tree and equality all smell kinda genuine, but my heart’s a goddamned folk hero now. He’s the Johnny Appleseed of affection, the Doc Holliday of delight. He’s hard-boiled Casey Jones—he breaks instead of brakes. They say he doesn’t shy from donnybrooks, but that’s only because my heart seeks out injustice, and sometimes words can’t right a wrong. But he’s never bloodied a body who didn’t earn it.

My heart’s a true American. But not American like Babe Ruth and frankfurters. American like he won’t visit a doctor until his aorta practically smells of gangrene. American like he’d rather amputate his vena cava than admit he couldn’t find due west in the dark.

My heart has never read a Steinbeck novel because he’s the paradigm. (Also, he doesn’t have eyes.)

By day, my heart harvests blueberries three at a go, or he wields doll-sized picket signs and pummels the toes of anti-union goons. It’s all the same, in the end. By night, he sings Woody Guthrie ballads around a campfire to a different half-dozen hobo colons in every Hooverville. And when the bathtub bourbon surges inside him, he rubs an artery across his thimble-cup and thinks of you. No one knows but Daisy, but she’s always there, aware of how his months spent on Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway are really just the warp and weft of him running from you.

Even the ocean is treacherous, though: sometimes the Pacific will waft toward him, and he’ll remember the time you kissed us under the water in Atlantic City, how we rose after and felt you surface and dive, surface and dive, over and over like a mermaid, luring us toward that false realm of yours—bursting with stripes and stars, bootstraps and melting pots—we can never inhabit. This you know. This you knew. And sometimes he can’t tell one ocean’s perfume from another, the way you can’t tell an organ who loves you from one who doesn’t—but maybe he needs that reminder now and then, too.

Look, it’s true. My heart’s been avoiding you and me both. But you should also know that he’s only stolen once his whole life—the Widow Barker’s pocket pies, off her windowsill outside Duluth. Daisy lay starving, her fur patched away by an empty belly and the wind. Ravaged himself, he took two pumps and fed the rest to Daisy, ventricle to dying mouth, until she could roam and fight once more. And even after all this time, everywhere your beliefs have taken you, he’d still shatter his internal compass again like that if it meant he could save you, too.

 

B. Tyler Lee is the author of one poetry collection, With Our Lungs in Our Hands (Redbird Chapbooks, 2016). Her hybrid essay “●A large volume of small nonsenses” won the 2020 Talking Writing contest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Puerto del SolJet Fuel Review, HAD, Acting Up: Queer in the New Century (Jacar Press), and elsewhere. She teaches in the Midwest.

sorry sorry (sorry) by Kora Schultz

sorry i can’t come to the phone right now,
my body is 1000 hedgehogs in a trenchcoat

& loud noises make them nervous.
            & soft noises make them nervous.

i pay my carcass rent with stillness.
even the life rafts make thunder of
my limbs.             the critters know this.

they keep score when my muscles can’t.
baby,                 i’ll have to call you back.

 

Kora Schultz (they/them) is a queer Wisconsin-based poet, writing student, and assistant editor with Juke Joint Magazine. By day, they work with folks experiencing homelessness. Their work has appeared in various literary magazines, poetry journals, and on their partner’s fridge. You can find them on Instagram and Twitter at @oatmilkmom.

Night Feeding by Lindy Biller

I unbutton my nightshirt and discover them: tiny fire ants tracing the rosary around my nipple, each goosebumped pore and coarse dark hair a prayer bead. 

I don’t have any offerings to give. No crumbs, no crust of sugar for their squirming, hungering children. Mandibles pinch and release, testing ripeness. I brush them off and stomp the ones I can reach. The rest of the colony melts into hiding places: the cracks in the headboard, the chasm between wall and baseboard, the open-mouthed sockets. Do ants notice when fewer of them return? I touch my breast with one finger. Round and hard as a bowling ball, skin stretched tight. Your father is asleep in bed and there are no bites on his face, no dark pixels crisscrossing his skin. 

In the hallway, my hand misses the light switch a few times. The pump waits in the closet, top shelf. I grab all the parts and force them together. There is dried milk on the plastic shield, air bubbles in the tubing. There is mold growing in the first bottle I grab, and I can’t find another one. No time. I am moments from bursting, like the parable I was supposed to teach for Sunday school. New wine, old wineskins. If you mix them, both the wine and the skins will be lost. Isn’t that how the story goes? Your father, still snoring, would know. I’m not sure. I skipped church and took the stale communion bread down to the river and tore off pieces for the ducks, and even they knew better than to eat it. 

My skin prickles beneath the plastic shield. I pump the handle as though I’m spraying Windex on grimy windows. Nothing comes out and my breast is on fire and the rhythmic mechanical gasps make me think of heroic measures in intensive care units, though I’ve never been inside one. No time. The paramedics thought you were probably gone within half an hour of when I laid you down. I didn’t kiss you before I tiptoed out—you were in a deep, warm sleep and it seemed too risky. When we found you in the morning, your father did chest compressions: two fingers pressing straight down, dead center between your nipples. I sealed my mouth over your face and sent small puffs of air inside, inflating you like a balloon. If I could’ve blown my own life into you, I would have.

One drop falls in the plastic bottle. Two. Then the milk gushes. Everloving fuck. Soon I am past the one-ounce line. Soon I’m past two and three and four and I need to switch to a new bottle, except there isn’t one. I fill two cereal bowls and a confetti-glazed mug and the glass pitcher my mom filled with lemonade when she stayed over, doing laundry and cooking dinner and sitting next to my bed, rubbing my back until I fell asleep. She did the same thing the week you were born, except it was your back she was rubbing. Her visits like bookends. 

I break the seal with my pinky and set the pump aside. I am empty. Deflated. Fire ants emerge from the darkness, probing the sides of my mismatched vessels for something to grip.

I should donate my milk to someone who needs it. Next time I will. But for now, I carry the mug and bowls and pitcher outside, milk sloshing over. There are ant mounds sprawling along the back step, bathed in moonlight. I empty the pitcher into their tiny, gaping mouths. Maybe they’ll be satisfied and stop biting me awake. Maybe they’ll drown. Either way, an improvement. There are poppies growing along the fence, buds closed like small fists, and I pour the rest of the milk over them. Maybe when they open they’ll smell like your skin, that yeasty maple syrup sweetness, maybe I’ll hold the blooms close to my face and whisper your name to the soft, milky petals.

 

Lindy Biller is a writer who hails from Metro Detroit and now lives in Wisconsin. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at SmokeLong Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, Pithead Chapel, and Apparition Lit. She works at a small game design studio, crafting stories and concepts for online learning games.

Tendrils by Rachel Brown

I have a kidney bean blooming beneath my jeans.
As a child I feared watermelon seeds, but never kidney beans.

I can feel new growth, leaves entangling between my vertebrae
tender sprouting between by ribs,
a lattice of light green climbing up
my skeletal walls, coaxing the sunlight
out of my skin, glowing beneath my fingernails,
turning me green.

There is a delicate balance, as it
grows brighter, stronger,
larger, and I grow tired feeding
relentless nature with joy and self-made sunlight.

I never wanted to grow kidney beans between my breasts
and beneath my nerves. I do not know how
to remove roots, repot or nurture to maturity
the glowing inside me.

But now I have a kidney bean whose tendrils
caress my neck and help me find sunshine
and relief.

 

Rachel Brown holds Bachelor’s degrees in Creative Writing and English Literature, as well as a forthcoming Master’s degree in English Literature from Central Washington University, where she also teaches composition. Her creative work has appeared in Northwest Boulevard. She is currently reading, writing, teaching, and running in Eastern Washington.

What is Possible in This, Our Year 2021 by Kendra Fortmeyer

What is possible is loving. What is possible is not loving every person, but loving at least one thing about every person. What is possible is to remind yourself of this thing in traffic, in the grocery store, scrolling.

What is possible is to tell the people you love, and the people you almost love, and the people you love one thing about what it is you love about them. What is possible is to write it on postcards, on sidewalks, whispered into the pennies you press into their palms. What is possible is to linger a moment to see if they smile. If they turn the other cheek, and to what end. 

What is possible, though difficult, is to share the small gem of your love you have polished from the rock, and to have it tossed back through your window. To see your postcards and forests burned, your sidewalks flooded. What is possible is to watch the sun setting earlier and weaker, shadows collecting in the corners of your rooms as your love is returned with nothing at all.

What is possible is to save your love, lock it up in a small wooden box that still smells like the breath of its maker. What is possible, though not without copyright permission, is to hey, hide your love away. What is possible is to overthink, to retreat, to spinout complex calculi: whiteboards and footnotes and string theories of who is deserving of your love. What is possible to retreat to the internet! To publicly declaim, I offered the world my love and all I got was this lousy _____. What is possible to fill in that blank with anything, and preferably something that will get a lot of likes.

What is possible is to tell yourself that you are owed something on the merit of your love.

What is possible is to believe it.

What is possible — and, in fact, certain, according to the unmasked woman sitting in a pile of bags in front of the post office, gripping a tattered copy of the Farmer’s Almanac, and talking, talking — is that the winter ahead will be long, and hard.

The winter ahead will be long and hard.

The winter ahead will be long and hard.

* * * *

What is possible is that you will seal your house up tight. Treat yourself with wool and fleece, with clove and amber candles. Breathe clouds onto the chill windowpanes, and trace tiny hearts through which you glimpse, outside, the gray skeletons of the trees.

What is possible is that you could stay this way a long, long time.

What is also possible is this.

One day, when the shadows in your corners mass dark and deep, lapping at your toes, you’ll spy a girl moving down the street toward your house. She stops, bending on the sidewalk. Comes closer. Stops, bending. Now she’s at the house two doors down from yours. Now your neighbor’s. It is possible that a strange heat will rise in your chest. Hey, you think. They’d better not. Whoever it is. They’d better not. Not in my yard, they’d better — whirling tighter and tighter, until the heat and the pitch send you sweaty, reeling, toward the door. Mask and hat in your numb fingers.

And look — what is possible is that the girl is doing any number of things. Casing the neighborhood. Looking for her lost keys. Collecting acorns. 

It is, in fact, wonderful how many things are possible. And what is most wonderful of all is this:

The girl will be several houses down already by the time you come outside. It is possible is that, in her wake, the weak winter sun gleams on a bright copper penny shining right before your mailbox. As you watch, the girl pulls another penny from her pocket, brings it to her lips. Then stoops, planting it in front of the Ramirezes’ house.

What is possible is that you pick up the penny at your feet. All around you, the air sounds different than you remembered, unbounded. All that space.

What is possible is that, well, now you have a penny.

But this is also possible. What is possible is this: As you rub the coin between your fingers, the sharp smell of copper springs up sweet and strong. As if you can hear a whisper: Hello, and here is what I love about you.

What is possible is that tomorrow morning you’ll wake up, see the penny on your night table, and remember, fiercely, that there is a person in the world who believes in your beauty. Remember that you are loved. And you will rise, and try again.

Or maybe, the most wonderful of all possible things: You won’t wait. You won’t sleep on this love. What is possible is that standing there, penny in your fist, you’ll remember the same you accepted the embrace of a person you loved just one thing about. You’ll remember the gladness with which you both whispered, we are okay, we are okay, we will be okay. And what is possible, though it seems impossible now, is that you’ll take off running. You’ll fly down the sidewalk, past the Joneses and the Ramirezes and the Puris, pennies and whispers and wishes flashing beneath your feet. In your heart, you’ll be singing, It’s possible, it’s possible, it’s possible.

 

Kendra Fortmeyer is a Pushcart Prize-winning writer whose fiction has appeared in LeVar Burton Reads, Best American Nonrequired Reading, One Story, The Toast, Lightspeed, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and New Writers Project MFA program at UT Austin. Her debut young adult novel, Hole in the Middle, has been published in the US, UK, and Germany. Currently, she is the Visiting Fiction Writer at the University of Texas at Austin. She drinks too much tea, probably.

The world will end tonight… by Austin Davis

the weatherman says,
when the flower heads twist down
at a quarter past 6.

Remember that summer of hot breath,
open windows, and making love
to the sound of bicycles passing by?

Kiss me soft
as the clouds peel away
from the sun like dark yellow apple skins.

Let me hold you,
run my hands through your hair,
these last few minutes.

 

Austin Davis is a poet and student activist currently studying creative writing at ASU. Austin is the author of The World Isn’t the Size of Our Neighborhood Anymore (Weasel Press, 2020) and Celestial Night Light (Ghost City Press, 2020). You can find Austin on Twitter @Austin_Davis17 and on Instagram @austinwdavis1.

Second Life by Chelsea Stickle

The nutcrackers had gone rabid. At night they worked each other’s back levers to chew the acorn candles on the mantle. Little nibbles at first, on the side facing the wall. Then rivulets down the back once they discovered the wax was softer after the family lit fires. Emboldened by their success, they dreamed bigger. They were face down in the triple chocolate cake with peanut butter buttercream when Sandy came downstairs on Christmas Eve to perform her Santa duties. They lolled side to side in the dim light of the Christmas tree. She armed herself with the fireplace poker. “The fuck is happening?” she asked, holding it like a baseball bat.

“We’re starving,” said the first nutcracker. It didn’t turn to face her. The buttercream was smeared like a bad spray-on tan.

“This is your fault,” said the second nutcracker. It didn’t face her either. “You didn’t feed us this year.”

Sandy lowered the poker. “Feed you?”

“You have to use us,” the first one said.

“This was never a problem with your mother,” the second one said. “She always fed us.”

“My mother’s dead.” And if Sandy had been on her own, she would’ve gotten rid of the creepy crackers with their bulging eyes and the mammoth teeth, but her children had fallen in love with them. Her son made the soldiers reenact famous duels, and their hideous oversized teeth made her daughter feel less self-conscious about what would eventually cause an orthodontia bill from hell. “So you need nuts?”

“Yes,” the first one replied.

The second one lifted its head. “Was that unclear?”

Sandy hid the poker behind her back. “That buttercream is made from peanuts, and it’s mostly butter and sugar. I think we have some walnuts in the pantry.”

The nutcrackers looked at her in unison like twins in a horror movie. Their faces covered in her Christmas dessert. Their eyes lifeless and painted on. The glass dome lay on the counter with a large hole in it, like they’d eaten their way through.

“Come look.”

When they were in range, she swung the poker back and knocked the first one into the fireplace. An arm shattered off when it hit the stone backing. The second one swiveled and leaped away unsteadily, but Sandy slapshotted it in. The nutcrackers bucked and rolled. The fire didn’t stop them. They tried to maneuver themselves upright in the thick black smoke. Their voices became faint. The flames burned high and fast. She nudged them back with the poker after they flailed off. Silence.

It had been upsetting to find them ruining her cake, but there was some satisfaction in using a tool her mother would’ve gotten rid of immediately once they’d switched to gas. But Sandy hadn’t hurried. Sometimes objects found a second life if you kept them around, and that unexpected life could be even more rewarding. As the clock struck midnight, she watched the flames lick the nutcrackers like lollipops.

 

Chelsea Stickle lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Her flash fiction appears in Monkeybicycle, The Molotov Cocktail, matchbook, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. She’s a reader for Pidgeonholes. Her debut chapbook, Breaking Points, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press (fall 2021). Read more at www.chelseastickle.com, or find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.

Christmas Plainsong, or Several Near Apologies to My Son by David Wright

Not for the morning when my foot slipped a stair and you, infant boy, and I were in the air only long enough for me to crook your sweet skull in my elbow. We came down, together, on the hardwood. The tiny fissures in your head healed, they said. Not mine.

Not for the year in Disney when you and your mother could not breathe, though in the photos we look pleased, enough, catching sharp breaths together.

Not for the night-slide on glare ice when, somehow, we found ourselves facing forward and drove home. And not that other night when, below zero, we turned around and stayed inside all weekend with people we barely knew. Eventually, you went outside. I heard you singing in the shoulder-deep snow.

For this sweater, yes, I am sorry. Also, for the hawk I hit with my car and how you thought I’d killed an angel. I have never killed one, as I would be sore afraid.

But, no, I am not sorry for the year we made a tree of green construction paper and taped it to the sliding glass doors. My landlord was sorry, but forgive him. He was a small green grinch even a god could love.

And never for last year when our friend prowled us through the hushed streets of this little half-brick town and the college women threw you down a hill on a garbage bag sled and you broke no arms for a change and then did it again and I lied and said you had asked for a grown woman for Christmas. I was wrong. Also, I love you.

What I am, son, is oddly sorry for the hymns, Veni, Veni, and Stille Nacht and The Bleak Midwinter. How many I have made you listen to each year, even in your sleep, and how I make you sing along until candle wax burns your knuckles. It is not the singed skin I regret.

I am instead sorry for the branch, the rose blooming, the rod of Jesse, how deep they root and gnarl themselves through a boy’s chest, rise up in his throat even when he is a middle-aged man. Go ahead. Try and forget them when they also live in your mouth. Ask your sister, too, about this plain song she cannot lose.

And the story, the one about an infant god in the dark and the straw, how he keeps returning like a star. This will come to you when you righteously ball your fist and feel in your palm a thorn.

Listen, or don’t. Sing along or stay quiet. But once you have been in a room of voices like this, the lush hush right before the Pacem, the last Noel, the final Alleluia which has to be sung, you will find those little cracks at the base of your brain still contain a song much truer than you, or I, or anyone we know can sing alone.

 

David Wright’s poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in 32 Poems, Image, Poetry East, and Another Chicago Magazine, among others. His most recent poetry collection is Local Talent (Purple Flag/Virtual Artists Collective, 2019). He can be found on Twitter @sweatervestboy.