The Reality Star Gets Her Start on a Dating Show by Kyra Kondis

Season 34, Episode 1

The Reality Star gets out of a limo at a mansion where the ground is so polished it looks wet. All she’s eaten is a banana, but still the producers make her suck in her stomach and her sides. Her suitors introduce themselves like marching ants, and three of them are named Matt: Matt F., Matt C., Matt R.

When the Reality Star was in second grade, a boy named Matt wrote the word “crap” on her arm and threw her homework in the trash. Her teacher said, “He just likes you.” Or actually, had his name been something else? David, Trent, Greg?

 

Season 34, Episode 2

The Reality Star sends Jared home because Paul tells her that he knows Jared from before—before this show, this place, this life—and that he’s a womanizer. In her talking head, the Reality Star quips, “I need a man like that as much as I need a house fire!” which makes some tabloids call her sassy sweetheart and others call her bitch.

At the end of the episode, she sends Paul home too, because she doesn’t really like him either.

 

Season 34, Episode 5

The Reality Star was halfway through a master’s degree in archaeology before trying out for the dating show. She liked uncovering things, hidden truths buried underneath transformed earth. She accompanied her professors on digs in the Southwest, where she brushed dust away from parts of past lives, cookware and jewelry and animal bones, fragile like butterfly wings.

She tells this to her suitors on a group date to Las Vegas, but they forget it; instead, they ask her about the summer when she nannied after college. They say, “You must be so good with kids.”

 

Season 34, Episode 7

The Reality Star takes Cal on a one-on-one date skiing in the Swiss Alps. The view of the town from the mountain reminds her of the pictures of Christmas villages on the advent calendars her mother used to buy. There was a rush in the discovery of what was behind every door, even though it was always the same—one foil-wrapped milk chocolate, often stale.

When they’re done skiing, a producer hands Cal a mug of hot cocoa and Cal hands it to the Reality Star. “Be vulnerable,” the producer says. The Reality Star explains to Cal that she dropped out of grad school for this; what she means is that she feels lost.

“I like that you were brave enough to try something new,” says Cal; what he means is that he thinks archaeology is stupid.

 

Season 34, Episode 9

The Reality Star trends on Twitter when she eliminates Cal for saying he wants a stay-at-home wife and two kids before she’s thirty. Twitter says, get him, girl, and you’re so strong!

“This is why we picked you,” the producers tell her. “You’re no-nonsense. You’re not a career TV star. You’re different.”

The Reality Star thinks about all the women who have been on the dating show before her, mostly white and blond, like her, mostly thin, like her, and young and American and well-off, like her. The Reality Star looks out at the mountains—they are still in the Alps—and wonders what it would be like to disappear into them.

 

Season 34, Episode 11

The Reality Star, somehow, has narrowed her suitors down to Alan and Fitz. When she thinks about them, they sort of just blend together into one single, unidentifiable man. They both have strong arms and square jaws and they tell her they love how feisty she is.

Feisty is a word the Reality Star is familiar with; feisty is like no-nonsense and sassy sweetheart and bitch in that it’s what people call women who aren’t quiet. Feisty is what the Reality Star was when she yelled at Matt-David-Trent-or-Greg for getting trashcan peanut butter on her homework. Feisty is what she was when she told her professor that her classmate Wendell had grabbed her ass at a dig site when they went one evening to collect the professor’s toolkit. Feisty is what Wendell called her when no one did anything about the ass-grab so she told him to fuck off; then he texted her, it was an accident lol, and then, can’t lie tho, I think about it a lot.

I love this journey for us,” the Reality Star practices saying, in front of her mansion-room’s mirror, in a floor-length red gown.

 

Season 34, Episode 12 (finale)

The Reality Star chooses herself, but because she is contractually obligated to choose a man, she chooses Fitz. He presents her with a ring and she accepts it, already planning how she will give it back in three months when she’s allowed to.

The Internet celebrates. They have deemed Fitz the hottest. “You’re my forever,” says Fitz. Forever feels like such an artificial word, to the Reality Star. Do all forevers not become relics eventually?

“You’re my present,” the Reality Star says back, and when she says present she means now, now as in not always, as in temporary, like everything is. She means now as in until, as in pending, as in waiting. Waiting, like she is, for this all to one day be just a single piece of a far-off past.

 

Kyra Kondis is an MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University, where she is also the editor in chief of So to Speak Journal. More of her work can be found in Wigleaf, Pithead Chapel, and Necessary Fiction.

One Fist Holding by Dustin M. Hoffman

Matthew presented his fist to us. His small fingers curled into a promise. Here, each knuckle teased, right here, inside, awaits a witnessing. So, we huddled around Matthew in the back of Mrs. Lowe’s fourth-grade classroom, back by the duct-taped beanbag chair and the class guinea pig who dozed so as not to break our covenant.

I’ll show you, Matthew said, but you can’t ever tell no one.

It felt like church, the waiting, the forthcoming ritual, like communion, like prayer, as we bowed our heads around his fist. Our selfish prayers remained just as secret, just as fist clenched: new bike, G.I. Joe USS Flagg Aircraft Carrier, just one page from one nudie mag, just one kiss from any girl, a house we didn’t have to leave every twelve months.

Unlike church, his ceremony would not lead to letdown. Dry breadcrumb cube, bitter grape juice, parting gifts to compensate for God’s silence. For when Matthew unlocked his fist, gold shimmered. There, gleaming wreath branches arced over a multi-colored shield, a code written in reds and whites and blues and chrome. A hood ornament, Matthew explained, but we already knew how our parents foolishly flaunted their most precious treasures.

Who could be so stupid, to bait our hands, Matthew’s hands, to bend back the golden crest and expose the delicate rubber binding that could be so easily snipped with Father’s knife? In a micro-second slice, we could dismember our parents’ pride. But, of course, we couldn’t. Only Matthew could, and he stowed the hood ornament in the front pocket of his denim cutoffs and lined up for recess, like it was so easy, nothing, like miracles happened every day.

 

Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. His second collection No Good for Digging and chapbook Secrets of the Wild were published by Word West Press. He painted houses for ten years in Michigan and now is an associate professor of creative writing at Winthrop University in South Carolina. His stories have recently appeared in The Masters Review, Wigleaf, Bull: Men’s Fiction, Redivider, and Juked. You can visit his site here: dustinmhoffman.com

Call It My Signature Kill by Kristina Ten

When did I start leaving “Best,” off my emails?

Best, Greg. All the best, Greg. Thanks and best, Greg.

It wasn’t always a lie, though by the end I couldn’t type the word without the tips of my fingers starting to burn. Imagine wishing Jay MacArthur in global sales the best and actually meaning it. Or Johanna Wrigley with her long list of demands, every one of them tagged, impossibly, priority number one. Or Brian Warner from HR, who once told me to my face that I might improve my rapport with the team by including more friendly exclamation points in my emails.

How we say something is as important as what we say.

All my best to you and yours! Greg.

Hard to imagine, but it’s true: when I started at the firm, I harbored no ill feelings toward any of them. I was there to do the work and collect the checks, and I wasn’t closed off to the idea of making a friend or two, having drinks at our local, watching the game back at mine.

But then you get to know someone. And it’s Jay with the Bluetooth headset always in one ear, taking loud calls in the shared bathroom, closing the deal in the stall next to mine while I debate whether to relieve myself or hold it in, whether I want whoever’s on the other end of the line to hear or not. Not in the best interest of the firm, sure, but could that foul sound be my weapon in finally bringing Jay MacArthur down a peg?

I chicken out, of course. Sit and wait, tense from the waist down. Wonder if he sleeps with the headset in. Wonder if he wears it with his wife.

So what came first: realizing I didn’t wish good things for these people or realizing that it was working—the wishing, I mean? Now, I’m not ordinarily one for delusions of grandeur. But you can’t argue with the facts. I joined the firm, I sent the emails—best this, best that—and by all accounts, they all seemed to be doing really, really well.

Don’t get me wrong. When we met, they were doing all right. Brian Warner with his shiny new son and homemade baby food. Once he accidentally packed a jar of it into his own lunch and when he pulled it out in the break room, everyone laughed and awwed like, new dad, endearingly frazzled, and makes his own baby food, too. Goes the extra mile. Sweet potatoes and wet banana mashed lovingly by hand.

Like I said, doing all right. But then I join up, fire off a few bests in his direction, and Brian gets a promotion and starts rolling an Alfa Romeo into the company parking lot.

And get this—get this!—Johanna signs a publishing deal for a goddamn memoir. I watch her empty three packets of instant oatmeal into a bowl every morning and stare at the microwave as the seconds count down. What could possibly have happened in her life that’s worth paying to read about? I wonder if her manuscript editor, like her colleague, will suggest more exclamation points.

Don’t believe me yet? How about this: IT guy, Alan something, nice enough actually. Haven’t exchanged more than a few quick words since he got me set up on my first day. We get into a long email thread about a glitching office printer and hours later I find out he’s put in his two weeks’ notice. Why? Huge inheritance. From? A dead great-aunt he didn’t even know.

Best, Greg. Very best, Greg. Really, why don’t you just win the lottery already? Greg.

So here’s what I did: I stopped. Call it a test, to confirm or deny my suspicions. Call me a man of inquiry. It’s not a crime. Show me a single piece of documentation inside or outside the firm that requires me to sign off with “Best.” You can’t. It doesn’t exist.

Hi Johanna,

Please find attached the files you requested.

Greg

Greg. Greg. Greg, Greg, Greg! And just like that, the spells I had unknowingly cast over the employees of Centurion International began to wear off.

And it was satisfying. It was what I wanted. More than that, it was what they deserved.

Suddenly, Johanna starts talking less and less about her writing deadlines—of which everyone has been so supportive, by the way: “Two hundred pages by Monday? Well, you’ve simply got to cut out early! The firm will understand.”—and come to find out the publisher dropped her.

One day, I pull into work and see Jay’s truck parked in the spot furthest from the building doors. That ridiculous oversize luxury pickup, invariably gleaming, no matter the weather, as if under hot, bright studio lights. As I drive by, I see he’s shirtless and shaving, the driver-side mirror flipped down, his heavy chest pushed up against the steering wheel.

Me, I’m not heartless. I was just about to feel sorry for the guy when I saw the Bluetooth headset already lodged in his ear.

Yes, satisfying seeing them get put in their place. At first. But the mind is amazing in its ability to recover from minor setbacks, and sure enough, everyone was back to their regularly scheduled programming within the week.

Then there’s this new hire, Paul Pritzker. “Call me PP,” he says and makes no indication of joking, displays not a molecule of self-consciousness. And the worst part is: people do it! Out loud, in person, straight faced, on the phone. When a difficult client shows up on the roster, they say with confidence, “Don’t worry. PP’s the lead on that one. He’s got it under control.”

But I consider myself a measured man. Level headed, not prone to overreaction. Hey, let him be called what he wants, right? Who’s it hurting? It wasn’t until this PP sat on the corner of my desk—sat, his full body weight, on the corner of my desk—to carry on a bit of mid-afternoon small talk with Rachel, who sits at the desk next to mine, that I made the decision. Straw, meet camel’s back.

So what goes in my emails now? Not “Best,” and not nothing, either. That wide white nothing after the body of the email and before my name, Greg? Well, you know what they say: empty spaces yearn to be filled.

What we say is as important as how we say it.

Use your words.

Granted, I have to be smart about it. I can’t be so obvious. It takes a certain finesse, an understanding of human psychology, multiple meanings: something our friend Paul Pritzker clearly doesn’t have.

Let them think you’re wishing them luck:

Break a leg,

Greg

Or celebrating their successes:

You’re on fire,

Greg

Or hoping they enjoy that conference in Vegas you never get to go to, no matter how long you’ve been with Centurion or how many times you apply for a spot:

Have a hell of a time,

Greg

Yeah, a real hell of a time. Let them think what they want.

Then watch them pack up for the day, every employee, no matter who they are, grabbing the same assortment of objects: two things they’re addicted to (smokes, phone) and two things they think they’ll need later (keys, wallet).

Watch them pull out of the parking lot.

And watch it come true.

 

Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer of short fiction and poetry, and a 2019 graduate of Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in LightspeedBlack StaticAE Science Fiction, and elsewhere. Find her at kristinaten.com and on Twitter as @kristina_ten.

The Prognosticators by Matthew Burnside

It occurred to all of us about the same time that our little brother could see the truth at the bottom of the well: how all fates entwined, triple-knotted and gleaming in their misery, held together by a wise but stubborn old snake named Mister Misty McRattly Tail, Esquire.

In those days we took turns dangling him by his dusk-colored ankles when we weren’t busy picking at scabs on the porch, or catching too-low clouds scudding overhead toward a big pink horizon of demise.

While it was my turn my sister Witch Hazel counted her splinters gleefully while Buck Owen tore apart a rocking chair and Salinger packed an ant pile into an old pie tin. “Look how big the peppercorns panic!” he hooly-hawed, before pouring it down the back of Zipperboy’s overalls.

“What’s baby see now?” yelled one of em again. I don’t know which.

“Getting closer” I reported, lowering the rope cinched round baby’s ankles as he giggled furiously into the void. “Good baby. Go go go!”

The game of it was just so: Noose up thine soft baby ankles and let descend. Get baby close enough to catch snake in mouth. Pull up for a prize. Most days it wasn’t about winning—just giving a name to our madness.

Soda bottle chimes clanked together strung from their limbs now. An owl peered out from a knothole. “What’s baby see?”

“Not quite yet” I reported, feeling sludgeblooded and starved for action. “First one to brick a bird gets to pet the spider!” one of em announced. I don’t know which.

Next thing I know the sky is thick with salmon dust and breathing is a chore. “Cut it” a neighbor hollered. They must had been burning; I could smell it in the air. Disinfected suds and gristle.

Then all were out wide in the yard equidistantly posed: one burning up the kiddy pool, one blowing black bubbles, one pinching mushrooms, one picking for nose coal. Deep diving.

“What’s baby see?”

“Almost almost,” I reported. Flung my attention down the hole and heard a rising whistle. Like fishhooks swirling around in a bowl made of molars. Glass clicking through its crooked lips.

Someone yodeled. Another yelled out a word we were taught never to say aloud.

Everyone fell down at once, crashing through the grass itch-riddled and red.

“What’s baby see?”

“Nigh coming up” I reported, feeling a sugar high. Sudden summer heat in my bones.

I could feel the future rumbling in my belly, like that pie tin full of ants. Could taste time and rain backwards. Throat full of dandelion parade…little baby bulbs and serpent skulls. Giddy and sad without knowing or caring to know the extent of my own edges.

“What are you children up to now?” said Mother, summoning us for dinner.

Inside, we dunked our heads, said grace, scraped our plates clean.

“So—” Father finally said, slurping his canteen. “How was your day?” In the distance hills were hiccupping; sirens sloshed around like wild bells drunk on panic. Our sheepheads tilted as night was coming on strong, guttering through the slanted board. Mother gnawed a cactus in the disposal.

“Everything is wonderful” I said as baby wriggled, laughing through the snake writhing round in its gummy maw. “Why do you ask?”

 

Matthew Burnside is the author of Postludes (KERNPUNKT), Rules to Win the Game (Spuyten Duyvil), and the hypertext novel series Dear Wolfmother (Heavy Feather Review). More work may be found at https://matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com.

Now We’re Getting Somewhere by Claire Hopple

We agree to liaise at the apartment building. I picture myself shepherding you through the tour and already feel perturbed before I’ve parked.

We surveille the vestibule and await developments. You hang your arms over the railing and momentarily drop your head.

“This cruelty-free deodorant has turned out to be anything but,” you say.

This three-story brick complex is barbarous and listless enough to suit you. A distant television is the only sound. There are bike tire tracks on the walls opposite the mailboxes. All the trappings of a dwelling you would consider renting. Or at least looting.

The landlord or property manager or whoever arrives. She sedates us with small talk and you politely avert your eyes.

Her precious schoolmarm demeanor has little effect on me and it’s difficult to determine whether I should be proud of this.

She leads us up to the third floor.

“This dining nook is large enough to host a dinner party, if I can muster enough friends to appear,” you notice once we’re inside.

She runs through the floor plan and the numbers with you while I test the plumbing. I go to wash my hands but can’t figure out how to turn on the sink. I pull at things and twist certain parts but nothing budges. I look underneath it, on its sides, flip the wall switches just to be sure. I walk out and remain quiet.

The woman gets a phone call.

“How’s school?” I ask.

You look startled.

“Let’s find somewhere we can discuss this.”

I oblige.

We move into a bedroom.

“First of all, your enthusiasm is becoming a problem. If you must know, school is going okay. I have this…semi-respected professor who’s very complimentary of my work. But it seems as if he’s becoming senile so I can’t really take him seriously. I have to question all of it.”

The woman ends the call and joins us, walking to the far side of the room to open a window. While she’s leaning over to lift one, you focus on my face and whisper “defenestration” like you want me to push her out into the gravel lot below.

“That abandoned car in the ravine down there should be towed by next week,” she says as she turns around.

She gets another call. I wonder if she is some kind of real estate magnate.

“And are your parents still in that, uh, rough patch?” I squint at you.

You tell me about running into your dad at the grocery store and him not recognizing you. How he blamed it on you wearing a hat. That he disclosed he’d kept a secret pet hidden in the garage. Your mom unearthed the ferret behind the bucket of badminton equipment and later hissed at your dad when he attempted to recuse himself. Then how your mother retaliated by purchasing a used lifeguard chair from the internet and planting it in their pool-less backyard to survey the neighborhood and whistleblow at behaviors she observed but didn’t take to.

“Melodrama” sounds like a caramel-based candy bar, not the highly emotive scenes it contains, though both are perhaps equally fabricated, I think.

When we’ve seen everything there is to see, you shake her hand while saying, “Please accept this symbolic gesture.”

I glance back to observe her wiping the hand she shook with on her skirt. She probably didn’t mean for me to see that.

I pick up what looks to be a Girl Scout badge from the grass and pocket it.

You sum things up by saying you haven’t been all too pleased with your own behavior lately, and so, acting as the only adult in your household, you have grounded yourself.

“It’s customary to stay home unless there are prearranged appointments such as these.”

You are learning that adulthood is basically a series of deciding things but never really getting to decide anything at all.

You’ve probably made it back by now and are reheating a bowl of some leguminous dish in your microwave.

I didn’t get a chance to tell you about the trap door at work. The door leads to what may or may not have once been a cellar. Employees regularly submerge their senses there after talking to clients (and each other) all day. The place seems ideal for a cigarette break, but no one smokes, so we end up bringing down lukewarm LaCroixs and standing around with those.

There isn’t a trap door anywhere in my house but I wanted a similar environment so I’ve created what might be a sensory deprivation closet. There’s nobody to escape from in this setting, only myself, and that is plenty.

You probably wouldn’t have a clue what to make of this news anyway, and you’re an adult who’s grounded herself, so what do you know?

 

Claire Hopple is the author of Tell Me How You Really Feel (forthcoming), Tired People Seeing America, and Too Much of the Wrong Thing. Her fiction has appeared in Hobart, Heavy Feather Review, People Holding, Timber, and others. More at clairehopple.com.

to grasp by Tyler Barton

Van could make this move easy: just pack the collection’s sixty-two thousand specimens into rubbermaid bins and rent a box truck. But instead he pitches a big museum shuffle.

“I smell local news!” Marianne, the CEO, says over the Panera she’s eating at her desk, the desk that Van will one day put his feet on, after he usurps her. “Vanny, pass me the dressing?”

Van assembles hundreds of museum volunteers—snake-handlers, taxidermists, ornithologists, the assholes with the loupes, community services students, cleaners, fundraisers, pencil sharpeners, bee-keepers, artists, ten year old boys obsessed with for some reason caves, and those purple-lensed planetarium operators. It’s Monday and they’ve formed a long, winding line of hands leading from the museum basement to the loading dock of the Ex-Salvation Army on Locust Street. The TV crews arrive as hoped, as do print media, and even the museum’s dormant Twitter springs to life as the minerals start swimming down the line of gloved hands.

“Remember your training!” Van says, holding a clipboard. It’s one of the great joys of his job, the clipboard—how he can grip and wrench it and nobody but Van sees the stress leaving his body. The new museum, Van remembers for motivation, will be air-conditioned.

Nine minutes in, an envelope-licker drops a cow skull and its long teeth scatter into the street. Furious, Van hurries over, smiling, and invites the man to head home early.

“It’s the sun,” he says. “Just keeps coming in and out of clouds. It won’t happen again.”

“Good,” Van says, no longer smiling, “bye.”

Luckily obsidian is so hard, because no damage is done when it slips from the botanist’s hands and slams the sidewalk. Regardless, Van asks her out of the line. And pretty soon Van stops asking, and it becomes: Go the hell home! This isn’t practice, people. This is the game!

Each time someone drops a specimen, or is seen chatting to their line partner, Van ejects them. He doles out Adderall illegally and screams at people who look distracted. In this way, the line stretches thinner and thinner, until Person 1 has to lean to reach the outstretched hands of Person 2, which results in more drops—until Person 1 has to lightly toss the item across to Person 2, who does not always have game-ready hands, and the line becomes less dotted with volunteers, and the camera crews have all gone home, and the sun is blinking out, and Marianne has stopped waving her support from her corner office window, and it’s just Van and a handful of others with nothing going on in their lives but this, throwing specimens to one another across empty, ten-yard gaps, until it’s midnight, and the drugs haven’t helped anything, and Marianne is home in bed with a novel, and Van rolls up all 20 feet of the anaconda skin, tucks it under his arm like a football, and mounts the back of the Parasaurolophus. “Take us to the Salvation Army,” he whispers to the life-size though not-alive Dino model. They go nowhere. Parasaurolophus doesn’t have ears. It picked up sound via vibrations in the air. Okay, fair enough, then why can’t it hear the amethyst sailing through the cool dark toward Van’s face?

This is what happens in the coma: Van lives and relives and re-relives his first day on the job, the first time he said his boss’s name out loud, when he did not say his boss’s name, but in fact called her, “Marinara.”

 

Tyler Barton is a cofounder of Fear No Lit, home of the Submerging Writer Fellowship. He’s the author of The Quiet Part Loud (Split Lip Press). His work has appeared in Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, NANO Fiction, Paper Darts, and elsewhere. “to grasp” is one part of his connected microfiction manuscript, To Work, which focuses on the absurdity and dread of modern work. He lives in Lancaster, PA, where he works in a Nature Museum and teaches free writing workshops to residents of assisted living facilities. Find him @goftyler or tsbarton.com.

The Jackalope in Economy Class by Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom

The jackalope couldn’t believe she’d gotten a middle seat again. She had tried to book her flights early, but the WiFi in her Wyoming bungalow was spotty at best, and it took so long to get tickets that almost all the seats were taken. If she had been a Pegasus, she wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of thing. She could’ve flown to Scotland herself.

But she was stuck being small and terrestrial, so she dragged her suitcase to join the herd of irritable passengers waiting at the international gate. When the line finally moved, the jet bridge stank of airplane fuel that rose in hot breaths from the gap between the platform and the door.

The jackalope found her seat in the last row between a teething baby and a Bigfoot who was already snoring at the volume of a small chainsaw. The overhead compartment was full, not that the jackalope was tall enough to reach it—why can’t Bigfeet ever be awake when you need them? A flight attendant wrestled the suitcase out of her paws and stashed it away. Defeated, the jackalope flopped into the middle seat and buckled her seatbelt. She tried vainly to smooth her rumpled whiskers.

It was a nine-hour flight to Scotland, and the baby would not stop screaming. Judging by its robust size and lung capacity, maybe it was the Bigfoot’s child, but the jackalope was not an expert on babies. Thank goodness she brought earplugs. After a series of garbled announcements over the intercom, the jackalope dozed off.

She woke to the sensation of the baby gumming her antlers and drooling onto her fur. At least it meant the screaming had stopped, so she resigned herself to being used as a teething ring. Her antlers had survived worse before.

All the jackalope really wanted from this trip was to take a picture with the Loch Ness Monster. Nessie was so popular you could book a whole vacation themed around her, stay in a charming cottage with lake views, ride a trolley painted with greenish-black scales, and go out on pleasure boats to hope for a sighting.

In comparison, what little fame the jackalope once had from tall tales had faded. She owned her bungalow in the Red Desert, but she could barely afford to pay the utilities with the dwindling royalties coming in from jackalope merch and the tell-all memoir she wrote in her thirties. She’d spent the last of her savings to book this trip.

What about other jackalopes? She was the last one, as far as she knew. The whole reproduction process for her species was pretty mysterious, something involving lightning strikes and clashing antlers, and she couldn’t remember ever having a mother or father. She had searched the internet, social media and message boards and dating apps, but every lead to find other living jackalopes turned out to be a fake. She’d stopped getting her hopes up.

But this time was different. It had to be. The jackalope fantasized that she and Nessie would hit it off. They probably had a lot of things in common besides being cryptids. For example, the jackalope’s favorite drink was whiskey, and Scotland was known for excellent Scotch. Maybe they would go out for drinks at a lakeside bar, someplace with a floating dock so Nessie would be comfortable. They would share stories about where they grew up, discover they were both bullied in high school, quibble over the best episodes of their favorite TV show. They would talk until they were a warm, euphoric kind of drunk. They would talk until last call. Maybe they would start to fall in love? No, that was the kind of thing that only happened in movies.

She hoped Nessie would invite her to crash for the night. They’d go out for brunch the next morning. Maybe, if things went really well, the lake monster would invite the jackalope to come on as a sidekick in the tourism gig. The jackalope would ride on the back of her neck so it looked like the serpent had a magnificent set of antlers. The visitors would eat it up. The documentarians would arrive in droves. The conspiracy theorists would flood their YouTube channels with annotated videos. She could see it all so clearly.

The jackalope didn’t know how to swim, but she could learn. She could learn anything if she tried hard enough. She would change herself to fit whatever the monster needed her to be.

 

Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom’s flash fiction appears in Jellyfish Review and CHEAP POP, and her other work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Juked, PANK, and elsewhere. She’s a queer, disabled writer who was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

Growth by Ben Segal

The tall guard who watches our building is growing. A few years ago he was unremarkable, but now he is enormous. He towers. Now he bends deeply just to shake hands or open a car door, as he often does for our building’s many guests

When I began to work here, the man was hardly memorable. He was a little gangly and his face was the kind of lean and acne-scarred that made one think, unfairly, of methamphetamines. His suits, already inexpensive, looked cheaper for draping his body. Yet there was something winning about him, a sweetness, a slight and almost pitiable magnetism.

He remains ungainly, but now he is impossible to miss. He grows perhaps an inch every three months and has just crossed to the other side of 8 feet.

I too am growing inexplicably. I gain almost a quarter-inch each year. It is not a noticeable phenomenon. Or, at least it’s not to most. I notice it. My mother thinks my posture has improved. For everyone else, the change is too slow to register.

But one day, when I am very old, I will be enormous. I will age into a stooped seven-footer and I will walk slowly past strangers who will imagine I was once a professional athlete. It will be nice, in that future, to lie about my feats of strength.

The guard, however, will not grow old. A body cannot grow like his and survive. His heart will swell and fail. He will die by nine feet, maybe a little past. This is a year away at most. He must know this, as we all do, but still there he is, opening doors, checking guests into the building. He is bending and smiling for pay.

We should not make him come any longer, I think. Surely it is a cruelty. Surely a building such as this – its teeming staff, its endless polished surfaces – can allow the man to stretch out peacefully on his own schedule.

Then again, why does the proximity to death make each hour worked that much more obscene? Perhaps it does not. Perhaps the entire bustle of this building is a slow atrocity. The same fraction of all our lives is wasted. The building is a stack of cruelty with clean bathrooms and packaged snacks.

I watch the giant pull open a glass door and can think only of a general strike. He holds the door open and we nod to one another. I ride the elevator to my office, and I am silent, and I am basically mostly good.

 

Ben Segal is the author Pool Party Trap Loop (Queen’s Ferry Press), co-author of The Wes Letters (Outpost 19), and co-editor of The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature (Lit Pub Books). His short fiction has been published by or is forthcoming from The Georgia Review, Tin House, The Collagist, Tarpaulin Sky, and Puerto del Sol, among others. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

How I Learned About Evolution by Michelle Ross

Dad wouldn’t let me go to school with the other kids in town. He said school was for people who couldn’t or wouldn’t think for themselves. Other things that were for such people: the internet, greeting cards, and breakfast cereal, to name a few.

Dad worked as an inspector for a sports sock manufacturer. His job was to check socks for imperfections—holes, loose threads, and whatever else went wrong with socks. He had an eye for flaws and took pride in finding more defective socks than any other inspector. Officially, Mom was my teacher. She didn’t have a job outside the house, though she did have laundry and dishes and a toilet to scrub. Unofficially, they split the curriculum pretty evenly. Mom taught me rain with a silver metal colander. “See how the water pours out of all those holes?” Dad taught me sun with a yellow flashlight. “It turns on for day. It turns off for night.” He flicked the flashlight’s chunky switch. Mom taught me Earth with a buttermilk pancake. “We’re about right here,” she said, pointing just off-center of the middle. Dad taught me birds with a helium balloon. “It’s filled with flying gas.”

Dad was an inventor when he wasn’t inspecting socks or overseeing my education. Perhaps he thought of himself as an artist. He didn’t apply a word to his tinkering in the shed with scraps of metal and wood and string. He built countless useless things. Over the years, these things proliferated in our yard and our home, crowding out everything else. Grass yellowed then crumbled because sunlight no longer touched it. Trees became stunted, gnarled. I bruised and scraped as I made my way to the bathroom in the dark of night.

Mom never spoke a disparaging word about Dad’s creations, but she navigated our house gingerly, as though any step could set off a booby trap. Sometimes I found her staring worriedly at one of his hunks of metal like she had at the trail of ants that had entered our house from a crack in the wall above the kitchen sink one dry summer or the lone earwig she’d once found wedged between bristles of her toothbrush. When she saw me, she’d return to her cleaning or cooking or mending. She’d smile, the worried look flicked away like a speck of grit from her eye.

Then one day, Dad erected a thing so enormous, so hulking, I said, “It looks like a dinosaur.”

We were out near the shed. It was dusk. He’d been teaching me fireflies. “Like the sun, only smaller, and on and off faster,” he said. “They have to blink off frequently or else they’d burn alive.”

When I glimpsed the shadowy, towering figure through the shed’s darkened doorway, my spine tingled.

Dad’s expression quickly sharpened. “Dinosaur? What do you know about dinosaurs?”

I told him Mom had taught me that humans were why the dinosaurs went extinct. We overhunted them.

“Extinct?” he said. “What do you know about extinction?”

When Mom emerged from the bathroom after taking her nightly bath, Dad and I were waiting for her in the hallway. He was squeezing my arm too hard, as though he were trying to crush whatever was inside.

He said, “You believe in dinosaurs?”

Mom’s hair was wrapped in a red towel that sat upon her head like a lampshade. She was silent for a long moment. Then she said, “I saw a footprint of one once. In Utah. When I was her age. It was the size of a toddler.”

Dad said, “A footprint? You mean a shape carved in dirt?” He shook his head in disgust.

Mom said nothing, but I saw with my eyes how her face shifted.

Another lesson I’d learned via pancakes, though this one I’d acquired without either of my parents’ instruction, was irreversible change—how some transformations, such as gooey, drippy pancake batter cooking on a hot griddle, can’t be undone. When a pancake wrinkles around the edges, a signal that it’s cooked on bottom, you better flip that pancake fast before it scorches, before it’s ruined. There isn’t any starting over again. Hardened batter is no longer and never will be batter again.

 

Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, The Pinch, and other venues. Her work has been selected for Best Microfictions 2020 and The Wigleaf Top 50 2019, as well as been a finalist for Best of the Net 2019, among other awards. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. You can find her at www.michellenross.com.

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.