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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

* * * *

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

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

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

* * * *

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

Remember when you crimped your hair? I said.

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

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

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

 

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

Stones My Mother Carved from the Mountain by Noa Covo

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Making It by Cate McGowan

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Opossum by Michael Czyzniejewski

The day my dad moved in, he befriended the opossum that lived in our back yard. After he unpacked, he sat on the back deck while Marla and I watched TV, one fuck too many for his sensitive ears. Bedtime, I found Dad in a patio chair, an opossum the size of a lunchbox cradled in his lap. He said the opossum’s name was Benjamin. He asked if he could keep him.

Mom had just died.

Dad said he would feed his opossum, play with it, pay for inoculations. There was a kiosk at Walmart where he could get a tag made. He showed us five links on Google proving opossums couldn’t carry rabies, three videos on YouTube, families with opossums as pets. He said please. He sounded like me when I was in high school and I wanted a Gila monster. He told me no Gila monster. I told him no opossum.

* * *

Dad kept on us. He spent his nights in the yard, petting Benjamin, feeding him table scraps, talking baby talk. He said Benjamin lived under the bricks we had piled behind the shed. Benjamin ate a lot of ticks, Dad claimed. It was going to get cold soon, he hinted. We wouldn’t budge.

One day, Marla called me at work. She’d come home early, a gas leak at her office. She found Dad sleeping on the couch, the opossum twirled on his chest like soft-serve ice cream. I told her I’d deal with it when I got home. She replied, firmly, Now. I told my boss I was taking a half day. When she asked why, I said my house was on fire.

Dad and I had a talk. Benjamin had been living inside his room, he admitted. He showed me the bed he’d built in his closet from egg cartons and yarn. A stench smacked me in the face as he slid open the door. Dad put Benjamin outside, promised to leave him there.

Later, we heard Dad through the wall, bawling, all night long.

My mom had just died, Marla reminded me.

* * *

Dad’d had to move in after he burnt out his kitchen. It was the night of Mom’s funeral. He was heating a can of soup, the can, with the label, right on the burner. He’d never lived alone, never fended for himself. He’d blow himself up within a week.

* * *

Dad died three days after Marla found him and Benjamin sleeping on the couch.

He’d driven his car through a guardrail, off an overpass, into the river. No body, the police explained. Dad was heading downstream, downstate. He’d be found, sooner or later, maybe post-thaw. We held a funeral. A picture of Dad and Mom, sitting on their front stoop, rested on an easel in the place of a coffin. The mortician donated the time, no body to prepare, just use of the parlor for the wake. He considered it a two-for-one deal after we’d spent so much on Mom. He expressed genuine sorrow.

* * *

The night of Dad’s funeral, I sat on the back deck. I waited two hours for the opossum to waddle up. I offered chicken bones and a dish of rigatoni as bait. The opossum didn’t show.

The next night, the same, using better scraps, bacon and eggs. Nothing.

The third night, when the opossum didn’t come, Marla suggested Benjamin had been in the car with Dad. Wherever Dad’d been heading, he took his friend with him. It was a plausible explanation.

Still, I checked behind the shed. I used my phone flashlight to scan the bricks. I moved one brick, then another, then another, tossing them behind me. Twenty bricks in, I saw my father’s face, squinting in the light. There was a hole in the ground, a big one, sleeping bags lining the bottom. I moved more bricks and helped my father out of the burrow. Benjamin followed, curling at Dad’s feet. Inside the hole I saw protein bars, water bottles, and dad’s prescriptions. A black-and-white photo of Mom in her wedding dress leaned against an unlit lantern.

Dad looked well, considering, but smelled like his closet.

“You were dead,” I said. “That was upsetting.”

Dad said, “Sorry.”

“Mom’s not in there, too, is she?”

He shook his head. He began to cry. I joined in.

I ushered Dad back toward the house. He carried Benjamin in his arms. When Marla protested, I’d explain that my mom had just died. It was true: She had.

 

Michael Czyzniejewski is the author of three collections of stories, Elephants in Our Bedroom (Dzanc Books, 2009), Chicago Stories: 40 Dramatic Fictions (Curbside Splendor, 2012), and I Will Love You For the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories (Curbside Splendor, 2015). He is an associate professor at Missouri State University, where he serves as Editor for Moon City Review and Moon City Press. In 2010, he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Eating Dandelions by Luz Rosales

The new girl can take her eyeball out.

The first time she does it, everyone is sitting on the carpet while Ms. Perry reads aloud from a book. The first one to notice is Benji, who never pays attention in class, but notices everything else, including her, in the back with her head down. He exclaims, “Look at Sharon!” even though her name is Shannon.

Her eye dangles out of its socket, attached to the nerve. She plays with it, batting it like a cat with string, twirling the nerve around her finger. When Benji shouts, she looks up, confused, and when she sees everyone staring back at her, she realizes what’s wrong.

“Oh,” she says as everyone jumps up and moves away from her. “I’m sorry.”

Even Ms. Perry looks sick. “You need to go to the nurse—”

“No, I don’t,” Shannon replies. “I’m fine.”

And just like that, she pulls her eyelid up and shoves the eye back into place. It pops into her socket perfectly.

To describe her classmates as bewildered would be an understatement. They are disgusted. Only Jake, who has pet roaches and once brought one to class, only for it to escape and end up in Ms. Perry’s coat, has anything positive to say: “That’s pretty cool.”

Bianca says nothing, but she keeps thinking about Shannon’s eye, wondering what it would feel like.

* * *

Shannon still takes her eye out. She says she has to do it. She can’t help it. No one wants to sit next to her, and even Ms. Perry doesn’t want to get too close, so Shannon sits alone, at a small desk in the corner, and keeps entirely to herself. Bianca watches her and draws her in the margins of her notebook.

The eye-popping is just one of Shannon’s many eccentricities.

Once, during lunch, Shannon reaches down her throat and pulls out a small, black slug, alive and squirming. She leaves it on the ground, and after everyone else has left, Bianca cradles it in her palm. She thinks it’s beautiful. She kisses the slug and pretends it’s Shannon’s forehead.

About lunch: Shannon never eats. Not a bite of her mac and cheese, not a sip of her milk. Martha says she once saw Shannon hiding behind a shrub, shoveling leaves and grass and flowers into her mouth.

But the really weird thing is how nonchalant Shannon is about everything. She doesn’t seem to notice the distaste everyone has for her. When she’s left on her own during group projects or field trips, she has no reaction. She never speaks unless spoken to, which in itself is rare, and never approaches anyone. Bianca isn’t sure if Shannon is naturally withdrawn, or if she’s just accepted that no one wants to be around her.

Bianca is the exception. She wants to be around her.

***

During recess, Bianca finds Shannon in the narrow space between one of the portable classrooms and the surrounding gate. There are four more slugs crawling on her legs.

“Hi,” Bianca says, the first word she’s spoken to her.

Shannon doesn’t respond. She plucks a dandelion growing from the cracks in the concrete and eats it.

Bianca squeezes in and sits next to her. Shannon doesn’t object, so she assumes it’s okay.

Neither of them talk. Shannon keeps eating dandelions. Bianca’s fingers itch with the urge to draw her. She’s pretty, Bianca thinks. Her eyes are a deep brown. Her black hair is always styled in two long pigtails and looks soft.

“Don’t you have any friends?” Bianca asks.

“I can make my own friends.” Shannon gestures to the slugs. These are thicker than the one from before. She pets one: a light touch, the kind of touch you give someone you truly love.

“What about people friends?”

Shannon looks at Bianca like this is the most preposterous idea she’s ever heard.

“I mean,” Bianca says, “slugs don’t talk. You can’t have sleepovers with them and stay up all night talking.”

Shannon shakes her head. Her pigtails sway. “That doesn’t matter. I like it that way.”

That’s when she does it: her left eye bulges far out. Even Bianca, who has seen Shannon do this many times, is surprised when she sees it up close, shocked by how suddenly it happens. Bianca leans back a little.

Shannon grasps her eyeball and eases it further out of the socket, until once again it’s dangling against her cheek.

“Doesn’t it hurt?” Bianca asks.

“Not at all.”

Bianca lifts her hand. “Can I…?”

A nod.

Shannon’s eyeball is firmer than Bianca expected. It’s moist and rubbery. The cornea squishes when she pokes it. Shannon doesn’t flinch or voice any complaints. Bianca is honored that she’s letting her do this. That has to be a sign of trust, right?

The bell rings.

Before Shannon can get up, Bianca says, “Wait,” and kisses her eyeball.

***

A few days later, Shannon moves away. The rest of the class is relieved. Bianca doesn’t mention what happened between them to anyone. She never sees Shannon again, and never finds out where she is, or how she’s doing. But Bianca treasures that memory, long after she’s grown up, and remembers Shannon whenever she sees a slug or a dandelion.

 

Luz Rosales is a nonbinary Mexican-American fiction writer fascinated by the dark and morbid. They are a Los Angeles native and are currently attending Mount Saint Mary’s University, where they are pursuing a degree in History. They can be found on Twitter @TERRORCORES.

Tradition by Benjamin Woodard

The hopeful boyfriend watches in confusion as his partner, the puzzle master’s daughter, excuses herself and walks down the hallway, leaving him alone, on one knee, holding the engagement ring aloft. When she returns to their living room, she carries a lidded wooden box, nine inches in length, which she offers in lieu of a yes or no.

She tells him that he must pass a test in order to earn her hand. The hopeful boyfriend rises; his knees crack as he straightens. He stuffs the ring into his hip pocket, takes the box from her, and asks if she is serious. After all, they have lived together for three years. They purchased furniture and a television together. Earlier this evening, they shared a romantic dinner of chicken marsala, the final notes of which still cling to the air. Surely she must know whether or not she wants to be his companion in marriage. But she says the box is a family tradition dating back generations, and that her grandparents would roll over in their graves if she did not follow through with the task.

She explains the rules: the box contains a rebus puzzle. When the boyfriend figures out the correct solution, she will gladly be his bride. She assures him the whole affair is merely a formality, and to stave off a potential argument in the near distance, the boyfriend acquiesces. What does it mean that it is a rebus puzzle? The hopeful boyfriend isn’t sure, though he refrains from asking.

She leads him to the couch. They sit and he places the box on their scratched coffee table. He removes the lid, and inside, the hopeful boyfriend finds four objects: one white square of paper, one ceramic bumble bee, one marble eye, and a black and white photograph of a pair of boat oars. They are all old, weathered by time, the piece of paper more ivory than white, the photograph bent at the corners, and the boyfriend questions if he has seen any of the items before. If these are the original pieces created by her ancestors. But none look familiar. He examines the piece of paper. In faded ink, he reads the words, I hereby leave the following items to my living heirs.

“You know I’m a rookie at puzzles,” he says. “Puzzles are your specialty. That’s why we’re a good couple.”

The hopeful boyfriend stares at the array. He feels around inside the box to see if there’s a hidden compartment. But it’s empty. He returns to the items. Shuffles the arrangement. Tries to stack them atop each other. He clears his throat. Swallows. Hums. After five minutes of contemplation, he can sense an impatience growing in his partner. She sighs when he places the marble to the right of the bee, and she groans when he holds the piece of paper up to the light to inspect it closely.

The hopeful boyfriend wonders if his partner called the puzzle a formality because she assumed he could solve it with ease. Maybe to some the puzzle is simple. Maybe the word “rebus” makes sense to these people. If only he could take out his phone for help, but he’s sure his partner would consider this cheating. The truth is, the hopeful boyfriend hates puzzles. He loves his partner, yet he cannot stand her family’s forte. Moreover, he has lied to her on numerous occasions when asked about word games. After she gifted him one of her father’s books, he leafed through it once before tossing it on the shelf. Whenever she mentions acrostics or cryptics, he nods or lets out a small laugh. He pretends to understand, feigns curiosity, much like his partner responds when he talks about fly-fishing. They love each other despite their different interests. But nodding will not aid him now. He cannot laugh this puzzle into a solution. He reorders the items once more and adds a pensive look to his face. What might her family think if he cannot complete this seemingly simple task? What kind of family forces people to pass tests in order to earn trust? He can understand adapting to traditions, sure. Splitting holidays. Tolerating birthday parties and other events. But a test? The hopeful boyfriend imagines placing his partner in front of his workbench in the basement. “Here, tie a minnow fly,” he’d say. “Tie a minnow fly and then we can get married.”

No, he wouldn’t do such a thing. He wouldn’t make her sweat the way he’s sweating now, the beads forming along his brow. But why is he getting angry at his partner? She is merely following through with tradition. Perhaps she thinks this is pointless, too, despite her being the daughter of a puzzle master. Still, her parents will ask about this moment after they see the ring on her finger, and the hopeful boyfriend knows that his partner is a terrible liar when directly confronted. Her ears heat up and she can’t look you in the eye. He has witnessed this several times: when he asked her if she liked hiking, when she told him about her sexual history, when she tried to compliment him on a new pair of waders.

Another ten minutes pass. The hopeful boyfriend holds each piece in his hand, hoping for osmosis to lead the way. The ceramic bee is smooth. It feels nice in his palm, but he gains no insight while rubbing it along his fingers. The hopeful boyfriend remembers the saying “If you give a thousand monkeys a thousand typewriters, they will eventually write Shakespeare.” There is a finite number of possibilities in front of him, and if he keeps track of his attempts, he will solve the puzzle in due time. But it is now past their usual bedtime, and he can tell by his partner’s audible yawns that she is tired. She stands to stretch and quietly paces the room. Then, at the twenty-five minute mark, she finally tells him he doesn’t have to solve the puzzle. It’s just a silly tradition, anyway. It really is nothing compared to their love, which is all that should matter at this moment. She sits next to the hopeful boyfriend and arranges the four objects in the correct order: marble eye, paper, ceramic bee, photograph. Pointing at each, she says, “I. Will. Be. Yours.” The answer is so obvious that the hopeful boyfriend feels immediate shame in his lack of imagination and logic.

His partner scoops the pieces and drops them in the box. She leaves the room, most likely to return the box to its secret chamber, and the hopeful boyfriend stares at the now bare coffee table. The pressure over, he looks up the word “rebus” on his phone. He sees an alternative term, “pictogram,” which to him makes much more sense. Why use “rebus,” which sounds like a name, when you could use “pictogram,” which essentially describes the puzzle’s objective? He remains in this position, staring at the screen in his hand, until he hears the sound of his partner brushing her teeth in the bathroom. He joins her, and when they finish, they change into pajamas, lock the front door, kill the lights, and retire to bed. His partner kisses him. “I love you,” she says.

“I love you, too,” the hopeful boyfriend answers, forever in the dark.

 

Benjamin Woodard is Editor in Chief at Atlas and Alice. His recent fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Joyland, SmokeLong Quarterly, F(r)iction, and others. Find him online at benjaminjwoodard.com or @woodardwriter.

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.