Brackish by Eshani Surya

On a catamaran, I think. At twelve, I knew nothing of boats, but I knew my father’s new wife minded being my new mother. Shoving off from shore, we ordered goldenrods of French fries, rimmed with salt and served with pillowy mayonnaise. I ate a full plastic basket while, on an open sea stop, the family snorkeled among the silver fish shoals. The family: my father, his new wife, and a friend’s daughter they’d brought along too. She deserved a trip, my father’s new wife said, this gapped tooth, vivacious girl, smarting from her mother’s newest love affair. My father’s wife didn’t mind playing mother to her.

The captain brought me another basket of French fries out of pity. I ate one after another, trying to dull my cramps with fats and salts like I’d heard helped. My pad chafed, wet against my baby pubic hair, but no one had taught me much of tampons. My father’s new wife said I could use one if I wanted. It was an option. But mine slid in and then out, slick with remorseless blood. So I would not swim, even for the sea turtles and the stingrays in ominous drift and the fields of defiant coral, because I imagined the blood from my pad dissolving into the water and into shark nostrils. I imagined myself bitten and sinking, my pad an anchor in my suit, dragging to me the sand to be embalmed. It frightened me.

On their return, my father and his new wife shared a beer with a lime stuffed into the top. My father’s new wife’s new daughter dabbed salt off her lips once she’d stolen one of my fries. I wondered who’d taught her to be a woman already, as she tanned expertly with my father’s new wife and complained about a chipped manicure and commanded my father’s attention with her complimentary jokes. Seeing the empty fry basket, my father ordered another one, but somehow it didn’t feel like it was for me.

After the catamaran my father was sullen with me for being sullen all day and all night. In bed, I stuffed the blanket in my mouth and cried. The salt stung my skin. The blood in me stung the way only resentment can, with the pounding recognition that a person’s suspicions were right the whole time. My father’s wife left the room, but my father dragged the blanket from between my teeth, the spittle leaving long silver tentacles of grief in the air. He said, I don’t know what’s wrong with you, and then said the same for years afterwards.

 

Eshani Surya is a writer from Connecticut. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in [PANK], Catapult, Paper Darts, Joyland, and Literary Hub, among others. Eshani is a Co-Flash Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona in Tucson. Find her @__eshani or at www.eshani-surya.com.

Ornithology by Jocelyn Royalty

I saw the Yellow-crowned Night Heron for the first time when I was on bedrest. I’d come down the stairs too fast because Cupcake had been pulling me like she always does, and I fell hard on my leg. My knees aren’t what they used to be. The doctor gave me a big brace and told me to lie down for a week, and the girl next door had to come walk Cupcake for me. She’s real nice—all “good afternoon Ms. Davis,” and “is there anything I can get for you?” But there is nothing she can get for me.

When the night heron first tapped on my window, I thought I was dreaming. I’d never seen a bird that big up close, and never a heron this far into the city. He had a ragged mess of feathers, kind of like an ugly mop. He wasn’t pretty like he should’ve been. He knocked his beak against the glass, his head turned to the side to get a better look at me. I thought about opening the window, maybe letting him fly in but I’d heard about bird-borne illnesses, so I just laid there until he flew away. His wild and ancient body dissolved into the flashing lights of some pizzeria on Wooster Street.

As soon as the girl came to walk Cupcake the next day, I had her bring me the phone. It was a landline, because I won’t get a cell no matter what the service companies say, so she had to stretch the cord from the upstairs den to my bedroom. It just barely reached. I couldn’t breathe for a second when I finally got the receiver in my hand; when I realized there was no one that I could call. My mother was dead. My daughter was in Rhode Island with her new wife, and she didn’t want to hear from me. I had never had a husband. The apartment felt like a church that no one had gone to in a very long time.

I called Mara from book club. “Mara,” I said, “You won’t believe what I saw last night.” Mara didn’t know me all that well, but she came over right away. She brought her laptop and sat on my bed, and we researched herons together. That’s how I found out I’d seen a Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

“Huh,” Mara said, pointing to an article from the Audubon Association. “That’s funny. It says they nest way up in trees. Over water, too. Not a lot of trees in downtown New Haven.” I heard a little doubt creep into her voice. Don’t say it, I begged silently, but the words were already coming out of her mouth: “Are you sure that’s what you saw?” I made her leave after that. I knew what I’d seen. It was impossible and that was why it mattered.

He visited me again that night. I put my hand up to the window and he craned his neck slightly to meet my palm. We were only a few millimeters of glass away. “I’m not crazy,” I told the Yellow-crowned Night Heron. He shivered in the smog. “You’re far from home, aren’t you?” I asked. I told him about when my daughter was in fourth grade, and she read only field guides. She could identify any plant or animal. We would walk in the park, and she’d pull me to where the knotweed lined gravel. “Persicaria,” she’d say. I remembered that one. It sounded like “precarious.”

The Yellow-crowned Night Heron visited me for the last time on the Fourth of July. I worried about him all day, about how the fireworks might scare him or set fire to whatever high-up nest he’d built in a storefront. But he was unscathed when he appeared at my window, his throat pulsing with the same mild anxiety it always did. The house was empty and I opened the window. Cupcake was still on the foot of the bed as the night heron stepped inside. The night heron laid down under my arm like my daughter did when she was very small and we watched TV together.

When I met my daughter’s father, I was only sixteen. He was a basketball player at the high school, and he knew every state capital and could hawk a loogie farther than any of his friends. He liked to throw stones at my window like we were in a movie, but it always woke up my parents. We snuck out a few times anyway and had a lukewarm summer fling before he left for college.

The night heron stood up. He took long, wide steps off my bed and towards the bedroom door. My bedrest had ended the day before, so I followed him, hobbling a little on my bad knee. He turned his head quizzically at the knob, and I opened it for him. We then walked downstairs to the front door together.

He stayed at my side, as we stumbled out the front door and into the heat-black night. The sky was red-white-blue chaos. I followed the night heron to Union Station, careful to keep my eye on him amongst the cyclone of mini-skirted girls and drunk men waving sparklers. He led me down the escalator, into the cool underground where a few people waited in line for coffees. There were no windows here. That had always scared my daughter. She said the domed metal ceiling made it her feel like the inside of a Xiphius gladius. I thought it was strange that he would want to go there, somewhere dark and subterranean. I followed him anyway.

He and I found the back corner the station, behind the caution-taped entryway to platform 10. All my life, platform 10 had been closed for maintenance. At some point, maybe, the staff had forgotten about it entirely, or they’d given up on it, and now it was in limbo: not demolished, not repaired. The Yellow-crowned Night Heron flapped his wings a few times. He glided upwards a foot or two, and I saw what must have been his nest. It was wedged haphazardly into the railing, a salad of telephone wires and newspaper bags and scraps of cardboard. I sat down under it, and he perched on my shoulder.

From here, we could just make out the shape of a girl who could have been my daughter. She was talking angrily into her iPhone as she climbed the stairs to platform 8. “It’s not that you didn’t listen just this once,” I heard her say through the fog of the robotic voice announcing the next train to Boston. “It’s that you never do. It’s like I’m walking through this world shouting and shouting, and you’re somewhere underwater or something. But calm down. I’m coming home.”

I stroked the night heron as I watched the woman’s patent leather boots click up the stairs, watched her depart into the mouth of the station. The heron wrapped his neck around my head, and I knew his eyes were closing. I could feel his feathered chest slow against my face. We were falling asleep.

 

Jocelyn Royalty is a junior in the creative writing program at the University of Maine at Farmington. Previously, she attended the ACES Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, Connecticut where she focused on creative writing and interned at The Yale Alumni Magazine. Her work has recently been published in The Oyster River Pages, The Rockvale Review, Club Plum, and The Allegheny Review, and she currently interns for the Burlington Writers Workshop. You can find out more about her publications and awards at jocelynroyalty.blogspot.com.

When Everyone is President by Maryann Aita

What if everyone is president except for one guy named Steve? And all the presidents would make executive orders and veto each other, and they’d spend so much time debating each other that Steve would get to live his life and eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches whenever he wants? All the presidents would be in charge of things like debt and healthcare and equal rights, and Steve could watch all the movies that were made before everyone became president. Then when he gets bored of those, he could make more movies. While all the presidents are busy arguing about being the most president, they’d approve his Arts grant so he could buy equipment and write a script and hire some of the lesser presidents to act in the movie for him. His landlord would be president now, and so would all the farmers, and grocery store managers, and people who trucked the food to the stores, so he wouldn’t need any money. But Steve is starting to realize he would have to convince some of the lesser presidents to go back to farming or he’d have to learn to farm, which really would get in the way of his peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich-eating. That’s not a life change Steve wants to make. All Steve wants is to not have to make so many choices all the time and maybe to not have to pretend to be happy all the time. But all the presidents wouldn’t make Steve happy either, and eventually they’d have to ask Steve about things like elections and that’s everything Steve doesn’t want: choices. Maybe what Steve really wants is a little bit less responsibility and places to be and reasons to wake up and reasons to shower. Maybe all Steve really wants is to just disappear.

 

Maryann Aita (sounds like ATE-uh) is a writer and performer in Brooklyn, NY. Little Astronaut, her debut essay collection, is forthcoming from ELJ Editions in Spring 2022. Her writing has appeared in PANK, which earned a Best of the Net Nomination, as well as The Porter House Review, The Exposition Review, and perhappened mag, among others. Maryann is the nonfiction editor for Press Pause, a journal with zero social media presence. She has an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College and lives with three cats.

Never Again by Kate Maxwell

You know either you or your household vermin have a drinking problem when your first waking sight and smell is the almost empty wine glass on the bedside table. You stare at the fat, drunk cockroach, belly up, in the crimson sediment debris. There’s half a salami sandwich next to the glass. Stench of stale red wine, luncheon meat, and cigarette smoke, triggers your gag reflex as you lie still and wait for stomach acids to settle. Then you run a nervous palm across the other half of the double bed. Just in case. Oh, thank God. It’s empty.

Underwear, shoes, pants, and a blue silky garment you can’t recognize, are scattered across the room. You raise up to elbows in slow motion. Swing your legs out gently to the floor. Maybe you got away with it. But when you stand up the room spins. Dizzy, probably still drunk, you take one tentative step after another to the bathroom. A mantra starts repeating in your head, Never again. Never again. The same words you chant every morning, after somebody asks the night before, “One more?” and you’re having a laugh, having fun, and figure one more can’t hurt. Or two. Or four.

You’re always shocked that skin turns grey so quickly. Prodding your lumpy face at the mirror, you notice the pink ribbon tied to your wrist, dragging the remnants of a burst pink balloon. Flashes of dancing, toasting champagne to the bride with a laughing blonde, a raucous best man speech, and possibly a swim in the fountain. The last bit’s blurry. It could have been a movie you’d seen.

That’s when you notice her in the reflection. She’s on the toilet. Mascara-smeared face, hair standing up in all directions, like an electrocuted raccoon. She’s shy now apparently, and holds her arms about her naked body as she raises eyebrows and a weak smile. Stupidly, you give her a little wave, glance down at your own flaccid form and catch her embarrassment. Sarah? Sharon? Susan! It’s Susan. Cousin of the bride, same freckles, and blonde hair. You vaguely remember that she’s funny and works at the bank. Surely, that can’t be right. One of those facts must be wrong. So now you’ve had the bride and the bridesmaid. Just as you’re berating yourself for the thought of collecting women like a suit of cards, you cringe at another sudden playback scene: on your knees, snot drivelling undying love for the bride while she and her mother extricate her white gauzy veil you’re trying to use as a handkerchief, from your drunken hands. Oh, Fuck.

After a few awkward laughs and fumbling apologies, you, and the cousin both decide the morning cannot be faced. There’s no use even trying to be coherent or cool. You bring two glasses of water back to the bedroom, hand her the paracetamol box, as you both lie down, groaning. She’s found her pants but no bra. Semi naked woman beside you, and you just can’t be bothered. You both sleep.

Later, while you’re waiting for the cousin’s Uber, you share a tender moment: releasing the now thoroughly inebriated roach from its glass pleasure house into the courtyard. It’s dead. No wait, it’s managed to get a few legs working and zigzags into the weeds. You can almost hear it hiccupping and muttering, Never again.

 

Kate Maxwell is yet another teacher with writing aspirations. She’s been published and awarded in Australian and International literary magazines such as Cordite, Hecate, fourW, Meniscus, Blood and Bourbon, and Fiction Kitchen Berlin. Kate’s interests include film, wine, and sleeping. Her first poetry anthology, Never Good at Maths is published with Interactive Publications, Brisbane, 2021. She can be found at kateswritingplace.com.

Folding by Emma Smith-Stevens

Extra women were brought into the gift-wrap department for the holiday rush. Although they’d be gone after New Year’s, Mrs. Kay showed them the ins and outs just as meticulously as she had with us—the year-round staff, bustling in a stuffy rectangular booth in the back of Bloomingdale’s first floor, inside a mall in Boca Raton, Florida. She scratched her French manicure over the white underbelly of the colorful paper hanging from reels on the wall, demonstrating necessary lengths for various boxes. The crucial role of double-sided tape was divulged in a tense whisper, and the seamlessness of the wrap-job could not be emphasized enough. “You want it to look,” she’d say, “like it was dipped. Dipped like a caramel apple.” Mrs. Kay was generally loathed, but she seemed not to care. She’d twice been a finalist in The Orange Blossom, Florida’s most prestigious origami competition.

It was a few days before Christmas, and someone had brought in pastries. They were too sweet, glistening with a wet sugary glaze. The craters at their centers held fruit-filling the color and consistency of congealing blood. By 11:00 a.m., there’d been countless arguments, a customer had fainted, and we were running dangerously low on tape. At noon, I quickly ate my bagged lunch in the breakroom. With a few minutes to spare, I went back to my station to finish my gifts.

I wrapped a leather wallet I could see in my father’s back pocket, a plush white robe for my mother, a jersey with my 15-year-old brother’s favorite basketball player—at least, last I’d known—stamped on the back. I hadn’t seen my family in almost two years. The gifts were the kind you give to people whose tastes you don’t know anymore, people who have become more like ideas. The truth is that all my life in New York, up until age 19, I just hadn’t been paying much attention—to a lot of things, including my family. Two years ago, I’d bombed out of college my second semester and gotten arrested for driving under the influence of Xanax and cocaine. I voluntarily attended a rehab in Delray Beach, Florida, a city I hated, yet in which I remained as my parents had cut me off financially, waiting, it seemed, for me to become something better than a young woman who no longer does drugs. I was creasing the edges of stiff, holographic red paper with my thumbnail when Mrs. Kay emerged from the back.

“This is a personal wrap-job?” Her voice smacked the air, and customers turned to look. “You don’t see this line? We’ve got lines all the way to kitchenware. No personal wrapping today.”

Mrs. Kay didn’t seem bothered that none of us shared her reverence for what she had clearly elevated to an art, probably because she didn’t want any of us to be artists. She wanted us to be soldier ants, anonymous and durable.

During the week before Christmas, our store stayed open until midnight. Only once I’d been waiting outside for fifteen minutes did I realize that I’d missed the last bus. The other employees had already left with their clear, plastic theft-protection purses slung over their shoulders. The metal gates were being lowered when I got back to the entrance. A security guard let me duck under.

I was surprised to find Mrs. Kay still at gift-wrap, standing at the counter eating string bean salad out of Tupperware. She speared one bean at a time with a plastic fork, slowly, under the dim red glow of the exit sign. She bristled and glared at me, still chewing. She chewed for a long time before she swallowed. “You should go home.”

“The buses stopped running.”

“I’ll finish my dinner,” she said. “Then I’ll take you.”

Mrs. Kay drove a small tan hatchback. The inside smelled like astringent and potpourri. Although she didn’t smoke, there were cigarette burn marks in the fabric above the driver’s side window. Hanging from the rearview mirror was an origami crane, weightless on its thread.

I told her my address and we drove across the empty parking lot, out onto Federal Highway. We passed gas stations and apartment complexes, grocery stores and drive-thrus. Sex workers lingered by strip-malls like flightless tropical birds. Fast cars pulled long shadows across the road. At a red light, Mrs. Kay and I watched an SUV pull to the curb by a carwash. A tall, broad-shouldered woman lifted her leg like a flamingo. She lowered it into the SUV, pulling the other leg in by the thigh with her hands. “I share this car with my husband,” said Mrs. Kay. “One percent his, ninety-nine percent mine.”

We turned off Federal Highway and began traveling numbered streets. I was used to bus routes, but I could tell by the clotted, sour air that we were driving towards the ocean. I was about to say that we were going the wrong way when she spoke again.

“In our old house,” she said, “I had an origami room. Perfect for folding.”

The streets narrowed as the houses got larger, all of them decorated with Christmas lights. The primary colors of festivity gnashed against the Floridian pastels. Her face was slack, chalky under the streetlights.

“It was a simple house,” she continued. “Not like these. But in my room, there was a skylight, true natural light. Deep drawers for paper that slid right into the wall.”

The car slowed to a crawl. We were now passing mansions. House after house, there was clearly a competition being played out. Oversized nativity scenes towered over spot-lit lawns. Shrubbery was carved into snowmen. Palm trees glowed white, wrapped in crystalline illumination. “If a man loves you enough to buy a whole house, just because of one perfect room, wouldn’t you trust him?” she asked.

She turned a corner, pulled to the curb, and shifted into park. In front of us was a four-story mansion, awash in the light of halogen bulbs, surrounded by trimmed, black grass. The lights speared diagonally upward, through the mist. They projected harshly upon the massive home, which was exactly square. From top to bottom, it was encased seamlessly in pale blue fabric. Hugging the entire width of the building, between the second and third floor, was a broad yellow ribbon. At the center of the house, probably stiffened with hidden wires, the ribbon arched into a bow.

Mrs. Kay fingered one of the burn holes in the car roof. She took my hand out of my lap and laid it on the center console. Then she placed her hand over mine, intertwining our fingers with a firmness that hurt. The smell of astringent grew stronger and I breathed through my mouth. Our sweat mingled, the bones in my hand shifting under the pressure.

I could have been anyone. Anyone’s hand would have been good enough.

Finally, Mrs. Kay released her grip. She removed a tissue packet from her purse, wiped her eyes and blew her nose. Clearing her throat, she shifted the car into drive. The ocean got farther away, the distance thinning the air. When we arrived at my apartment complex, she reminded me to be early on December 26th. “Sales day,” she said. “Fifteen percent, whole store.” The origami crane quivered on its string, swayed by our breathing. “You’re the best of all my gift-wrappers,” she said.

I opened the car-door and stepped onto the pavement. In the darkness, a lizard flitted across my shoe. My fingers dragged along the bottom of my purse, searching for keys. As the wheels of Mrs. Kay’s car rolled over the gritty asphalt, I realized that I’d forgotten my gifts at work, the ones she’d scolded me for wrapping. After she’d reprimanded me, I’d stowed them beneath the counter. Between the seasonal employees and the security guards, they might already be gone. They were unlabeled and just anyone could lay claim to them.

 

Emma Smith-Stevens is the author of The Australian (Dzanc Books). She lives with her husband and two dogs in Brooklyn, NY. For more of her writing visit her author website and subscribe to her tiny letter, Notes From the Wonderground.

One Night in November by Kathryn Atwood

Alice sits cross legged on the hardwood floor and lays out another game of solitaire. It is already dark outside. November is like that. The night drops earlier and earlier. The air is cooler; leaves start to turn. If she looks to the side, she can see her reflection in the sliding glass door that leads out to the pool. It makes her feel like she is being watched. She tries to see beyond her reflection, out into the night, but she only sees herself staring back. She bends back over the cards.

Lately, she can play for hours, losing track of time. Winning a game goes unnoticed. She will simply gather the cards up into a pile, swiftly arrange them and shuffle. Deal them out again. Alice likes the rhythm of the shuffling, the sound of the cards as they fall into order in her hands. Sometimes she realizes that she has shuffled the cards at least a dozen times and forgotten to lay them out. The movement distracts her.

Tonight, though, she cannot be distracted. Something that had been lingering just at the edge of her mind touches her on the back of her shoulder, brushes the small of her back, whispers against her ear. She picks up the phone and searches for his number. Dials it. He answers.

“Hello?”

She hadn’t expected him to answer. She hesitates.

“Hi.”

“It’s you,” he says. She can’t tell anything from his voice. Is he pleased that it’s her? Surprised?

“I shouldn’t have called.”

“But you did.”

“Yes,” she says. “I didn’t think you’d be home. You said you were going out of town.”

“I changed my mind.”

“Ah.” Alice says, as if that explained everything.

“So, if you thought I would be gone, why did you call?”

“Honestly? I thought I’d get your voicemail. I wanted to hear your voice.” Alice swears softly under her breath and rolls her eyes at her reflection. So stupid, she thinks. So pathetic. She needs to learn how to lie, how to think fast on her feet, cover her tracks. Her reflection stares back at her.

“Hmm,” he says, and his voice resonates through the phone. It’s true, she thinks. She loves the sound of his voice. It’s deep and comes from a secret place inside of him, a place so very male. This man is all male. He is so different from her husband, who is small and wiry. Her husband moves quickly. If she were to stumble, he would be right there, at her elbow, before she even knew she was going to fall. This man moves slowly. He would watch her fall. She has never noticed other men since getting married. Not really. Not the way she notices this one. This is dangerous, she thinks.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“Painting. I had an idea.”

“Ah,” she says again. He’s an artist. A beautiful artist. His work is thick paint and bold brush strokes. He would never paint her, she thinks.

“And what are you doing?”

She looks at her reflection, frowning. She thinks of her husband. How much she loves him. How true that is. She shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

“Well,” he asks, “what is your husband doing?”

“He’s on a night shoot.”

“So,” – and she can hear everything in his voice, his arrogance, his humor, his thinking he has her all figured out – “he’s out for the night and you’re bored.”

“No,” she says. “I’m not bored.”

He is silent for a moment. “Don’t come over here,” he says. “Stay at home. Wait for him to come back. You’re not the type of girl who can have an affair. I know. I’ve had affairs with lots of married women. They always go back to their husbands. It’s understood from the beginning. That’s what they are supposed to do. But you. You’re different. You won’t know how to go back. And whatever you’re looking for, you won’t find it here.”

Alice doesn’t answer. She holds the phone to her ear as she gets up and goes over to the sliding glass door. The door is heavy and yet slides easily open. She walks out onto the deck. The first cool breeze of fall swirls through the trees overhead. The water in the pool ripples gently. It’s a November evening, already dark, and for the rest of her life she will feel restless on nights like these, like anything could happen.

“Well,” he finally asks, “are you coming?”

Alice looks back through the glass into the house. From outside, she can see everything so clearly, the cards, abandoned mid-game, in disarray on the floor of the living room, and behind that the black leather Wassily chairs that her husband loves, but she finds too uncomfortable to sit in, lined up just so facing the black leather sofa, a glass coffee table between them.

Alice raises her phone and the screen lights up. She can see that the man is still on the line. She clears her throat.

 

Kathryn Atwood grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and graduated from Cornell with an English degree. She lives in the Hollywood Hills, and if she hangs out far enough over her balcony, just to the point where she thinks she might fall, she can see the “OOD” of the Hollywood sign. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Sycamore Review and Chautauqua, and one of her stories was long-listed for Smokelong Quarterly‘s Award for Flash Fiction.

Wasp Dreams by Molly Andrea-Ryan

She’d taken to entering her home through the garage door even when she wasn’t traveling by car. The nest, greyish like wet cardboard, was growing. They were taking over the underside of the gutter and she watched them work from the windows flanking the front door. It was impressive, the way their jaws worked all the time, spitting and building clusters of combs.

Her next-door neighbor, an older man from the south (Alabama or Louisiana, she could never remember which) kept telling her to exterminate. “They’ll attack you,” he would say, staring at the hanging nest. “Soon’s you disturb them in the slightest, they’ll attack you, all of ‘em together.” She knew that he was probably right, but she also knew that moving quietly, undetected, was a strength of hers.

She put a sign in her front yard. Do NOT approach front door, it read. Go around back.

They were, she would learn from dated field books of Virginia wildlife, some type of paper wasp. Hers (and this is how she thought of them by now) were a reddish color. Their wings were darker, such a deep brown that they were almost black. There were no show-offy stripes, no traffic violation yellows, as though they had evolved to anticipate fear from predators, rather than demand it.

When the wasps came, she stopped having nightmares. There was the one she’d had for decades: a stranger entered the home she grew up in without permission and followed her from room to room until she wound up in spaces she’d never seen before. The architecture in her dreams never stayed still. Hallways never converged the way they ought to. Stairs never led up or down as one would expect. In the dream she’d had for decades, she would wander and wander, trying to escape the stranger, trying to get back to the part of her house she recognized, but neither relief ever came. There was no gruesome outcome. It just went on and on. And finally, it stopped for good.

Just after Thanksgiving, she noticed that her paper wasps were thinning out. Quietly, she searched the yard for bodies, finding none. They were simply leaving her.

By the first week of December, the nest was still and silent. There were no mouths chewing up dead wood and spitting up paper walls. No life cycles for her to observe from behind the protection of windows. The nightmare was coming back in pieces: first the house from her childhood but with windows in the wrong place; then the stairs started climbing up walls and snaking down drains; then the stranger arrived.

Finally, the woman pulled the nest down from the gutter. She turned it over in her hands, sensing the life that was once contained within, discovering the single life that remained. It took mere seconds to recognize this wasp for who she was: the queen.

The woman set the nest on the mantle. The queen was in a sort of daze, preparing for a long sleep before tasked once again with birthing a colony. The woman placed a mesh colander over the nest and waited until the ground thawed.

In late March, the woman woke to the sound of humming coming from the colander and the nest beneath it. It was soothing at first, as if the queen were singing a lullaby to the eggs she was surely beginning to lay inside each comb. By the time the woman was cleaning up her breakfast dishes, the humming had changed into an angry droning. Soon, a rattling joined in with the humming, and the woman abandoned her plate and bowl in the soapy sink.

Fifty paper wasps, perhaps even a hundred, swarmed furiously around the nest, battering against the colander that trapped them. The woman found herself frozen in space as the colander tipped to the floor. The swarm moved like a cyclone, like a single gust of wind, flying straight toward her and encapsulating her in their whirl. She closed her eyes.

The first few wasps landed on her cheeks and hair and the sound of buzzing filled her head. She felt the grazing of stingers against her flesh and clenched her jaw to keep from screaming. The thought of dying from wasp stings passed wildly through her mind but she remained still, afraid to anger them further.

Then, they started to back off. She felt the whispers of air from their beating wings grow softer. The thread-like feet on her skin slipped away. She opened her eyes and realized that the entire swarm was filing, one by one, back to the nest. The queen hovered inches from her nose and the woman understood: the queen had ordered her offspring to leave the woman alone.

Wearing thick rubber kitchen gloves, the woman picked up the nest. It vibrated softly in her hands as she, following the queen’s lead, took it out back and placed it at the foot of a tall tree. Once the woman was at a safe distance, the queen returned to her offspring to direct the construction of a new nest. Her young worked quickly, fanning out in search of materials, chewing and spitting and forming new walls along the bottom of a tree branch.

The nightmare returned to the woman each night, transformed into something far less frightening. Just as the stranger entered through the front door, the queen wasp appeared, inches from her nose, guiding her to the back of the house and into a grove of trees. The queen tucked the woman into a large comb at the heart of her nest, building a cocoon around her body. The woman would rest and wake to discover that she’d shed her human form.

Her body was a reddish color, her wings darker, almost black, and her jaw worked and worked, occupied with the single responsibility of protecting her queen. She no longer moved in fear or became lost. She was fearsome. She was home.

 

Molly Andrea-Ryan is a poet and prose writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has recently appeared in Barren Magazine, Glassworks Magazine, and elsewhere.

A Hole Widens Slightly by Hanan Farouk (translated from the Arabic by Essam M. Al-Jassim)

My vacation had come to an end, and my return to the office was a reluctant one. I harbored no desire to resume work. Indeed, the thought of falling once more into the monotonous routine, weighed on me like a thick, unshakeable fog.

Conversely, part of me longed for the warmth and familiarity of my office. When I opened the door on that first morning back, I felt a sense of belonging, even a welcoming vibe. I then became content to occupy myself with the same old administrative tasks before heading out, as usual, for a cup of tea with my colleagues.

In the foyer, I met a workmate—a good friend—and we quickly fell into comfortable conversation. While we were talking, her gaze lingered on my dress, and my eyes veered instinctively toward that part of my attire. There was a small, irregular hole near the hem of the skirt. Surprised, my friend asked what could have caused such a hole; it hadn’t been there that morning when we’d punched our time cards.

Genuinely clueless, I didn’t know what to say and began to dread the rest of the day ahead. My face flushed with potential embarrassment. She reassured me it was hardly visible and advised me to ignore it; until it was time to go home.

Thoroughly preoccupied, I returned to my office, reluctant to spend any more time with anyone. A while later, the phone rang, snapping me back to reality. The manager was asking for me, so I forced myself to stand again and took a deep breath as I headed her way.

The manager greeted me with a warm smile and requested that I perform an urgent task. I agreed and was ready to leave when her eyes zeroed in on the very direction I feared. When she brought the hole to my attention, I feigned confusion, as if I’d been taken by surprise. I pretended to look for it—an endeavor that didn’t take long.  My jaw dropped in dismay, embarrassment seeping into the core of my being.

The hole had become considerably larger since I’d last looked. The manager shrugged and gave me a questioning look I couldn’t decipher. Beet red and beyond mortified, I went back to my office next door, hugging the wall so no one would notice me, and decided not to leave my desk again until the end of the working day. I kept myself busy within my four walls and tried to soothe the distress that was rapidly overwhelming me.

Engrossed in a mountain of paperwork, I was startled when I heard my colleagues’ voices outside, announcing the end of the day had arrived. Quickly but carefully, I stacked my scattered papers, placed them in my bag, and turned off the lights.

Impatient with my delay, my co-workers raised their voices in a great chorus, calling out for me.

“I’m coming!” I answered.

Their voices rose higher still, and I could hear accelerated footsteps heading toward my office.

What is wrong with them?

“I’m coming!” I repeated.

Faces appeared at the door of my office as I took my keys from my purse, ready to lock up and leave.

Suddenly, their calls faded to a stunned silence. My friend pushed past the others and reached out to hug me, her tears wetting my face.

“What’s the matter with all of you?” I asked, taken aback.

Without saying a word, my friend took off her coat and wrapped it around me.

 

Hanan Farouk is an Egyptian poet and short-story writer. She is a doctor by profession. Hanan earned her master’s degree in internal medicine from Alexandria University. Her poems and short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics. She has published a collection of poetry and three collections of short stories. Hanan lives with her family in Saudi Arabia.

 

Essam M. Al-Jassim is a writer and translator based in Hofuf, Saudi Arabia. He’s taught English for many years at Royal Commission schools in Jubail. Mr. Al-Jassim received his bachelor’s degree in foreign languages and education from King Faisal University, Hofuf. His translations have appeared in a variety of print and online literary Arabic and English-language journals.

Leftovers by Brenda Wolfenbarger

Julianne Perkins stared at the contents of her refrigerator. Leftover turkey, leftover stuffing. Leftover mashed potatoes and gravy. Lots of leftover homemade cranberry sauce with chopped pecans. There was even still leftover pumpkin pie with real whipped cream. She didn’t know what inspired her to make an entire Thanksgiving dinner for herself, but she was regretting the impulse now. How was she going to eat an entire turkey? Goodness, she still felt full from yesterday!

Some of it could be frozen, she guessed. She would put it into partitioned glass containers and make little microwave or oven re-heatable “TV dinners.” Or maybe she’d take some leftovers to her neighbors. That guy in 2C – what was his name? – looked like he could use a turkey dinner or three. Mmm, she’d like to watch him eat it, too. He was delicious looking all on his own, dark wavy hair, pale skin, slender hands. She guessed he didn’t work with his hands; they were so delicate looking. Perhaps he played an instrument, although she’d never heard it.

Julianne wasted a couple of minutes imagining Mr. 2C picking up a piece of pumpkin pie topped with whipped cream and eating it slowly, enjoying every morsel. His eyes would meet hers over the pie and he’d lick the whipped cream off the top with clever curls of his tongue, like a cat. “Good pie,” he’d say, in a husky, rumbling voice. He’d open the door to his apartment and invite her in for a cup of coffee as thanks. Fade to black…

She shook her head to rid it of the fantasy. More likely he’d look at the plate she’d brought, look at her like she was crazy, and inform her that he was a vegetarian, thank you very much. In fact, that might be why he was so pale and slender, he was a malnourished vegetarian! She regretfully decided that Mr. 2C – Andrew, that was it! – would probably not appreciate a plate of leftovers, in that case.

Having settled that she thought of the older couple across the hall. Mr. and Mrs. Stillman. They might like some food; it would save Mrs. Stillman some trouble. They were a bit old fashioned. Mrs. Stillman still cooked every meal except for weekend breakfasts. Often dinner was a tin of fish and crackers eaten while watching Jeopardy! But it was still Mrs. Stillman who brought it to Mr. Stillman while he sat in his recliner with a TV tray. Julianne knew this because she had strategically brought the Stillman’s misdelivered mail at different times of day and had glimpsed their apartment through the door. She found their flocked wallpaper hideous, but it wouldn’t do to say so. Once Mrs. Stillman even invited her in for a late afternoon glass of iced tea, which was nice. Julianne appreciated hospitality; it was sorely lacking these days.

Julianne set about making plates of leftovers for her immediate neighbors. She didn’t use her good plates, of course, but the cheap plastic ones she’d bought for serving burgers on the patio of her apartment. She covered each plate carefully with Saran wrap, which naturally stuck to everything but the plates. She tried to decide which neighbor would receive her largesse first. Her careful decision-making was interrupted by a knock at the door.

Peering out the peephole cautiously, Julianne saw her neighbor from 2A fidgeting in the hallway. What could she possibly want? Did she have mail? Could she want to chat? Miss 2A – Ashley, she thought, but wasn’t sure – never stopped to talk. She always bustled by in the hallway, busy as only the young can be, on her way to Very Important Things.

“Yes?” Julianne opened the door, curious.

“Hi, Julianne, sorry if I’m bothering you. My parents sent me home with so much food yesterday I really don’t know how I’m going to eat it all. I thought you might appreciate some. My mom’s a really good cook.” Miss 2A thrust a large, foil-wrapped plate at Julianne proudly.

 

Brenda Wolfenbarger is a 53-year-old returning student studying English at the Central New Mexico Community College. She enjoys writing and has had her previous work published in the CNM Literary Arts Magazine, Leonardo. She lives in Central New Mexico with her family and pets.

How to Escape a Time Loop by Sara Davis

Wake up to the guttural static of your clock radio. One night—you’ve lost track of how many nights ago—there was a power outage, and when the lights came on you reset all your clocks but neglected to set the tuner. Now the alarm clock bursts into a keening whine every morning, sputtering the frequency for a station that doesn’t exist.

Get up. Feed your cat. Open your laptop and shoot off a few emails; you could do this in your sleep. Once again it is a tentative spring morning. Decide to invite your neighbor for a walk. Tell her you think you may be stuck in a time loop. “Girl, me too,” she says. “Is it only Tuesday?” Across the park, a man in a yellow hoodie walks his terrier.

Wake up to the crackling wheeze of your clock radio. Once again it is a fresh spring morning. The orange pixels on the clock face blink TUESDAY. You’ve woken up on Tuesday eight times this week, or so you think. There is nothing special about this Tuesday—it is not a holiday or your birthday, and no one has died that you know of—so if there’s a lesson to be learned, you haven’t. You’ve attempted the following methods to reach Wednesday: repeating everything you did the first Tuesday, in the same way; repeating everything in a different way; repeating everything, but nicer; giving away all your money (this didn’t take long); going as far away from your apartment as you can get (you fell asleep on the train); falling in love (your neighbor did not take this kindly); and now, you simply get on with it. It’s not such a bad day to repeat. There could have been rain.

Wake up to the seething hiss of your clock radio. Notice that wherever and whenever you end the day, you always end up back here: 7:30 a.m., Tuesday, in bed with the cat curled in the crook of your arm. Consider how strange this is. The 24-hour day is a construct: from the perspective of your bed, perched on a planet whirling in space, 7:30 Tuesday does not describe a time but a relationship between celestial bodies. Wonder what would happen if you stayed awake until 7:30 a.m. Wednesday. Text your neighbor and invite her to get coffee this evening; you’re going to need a lot of it.

Wake up to the gasping drone of your clock radio. 7:30 a.m., Tuesday. Consider the bright side. Do you even want to resume the normal flow of time? Your friends and loved ones will never grow old. Your cat will never grow old. You aren’t growing old, at least externally, although your soul might as well have aged a thousand years. How many days has it been? Ten?

Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.

Or don’t wake up. Whatever. Stay in bed forever. Ignore your cat when she mews piteously to be fed—she has an entire bowl of kibble downstairs, same as every morning. Spend a few days, or what passes for days, burrowed under blankets and scrolling on your phone, emerging only to refill the kibble and your water glass. Make online purchases that will never arrive. Watch movies that don’t hold your attention. Google “how to escape a time loop.”

Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, you find an online forum frequented by people who are currently or have previously been stuck in time loops. Mostly the latter: as the moderators explain in a pinned post, threads published within a time loop tend to disappear after a day or so. The moderators go by PhilConnors2 and RedNadia; their names appear frequently throughout numerous threads philosophizing how time gets tangled up and how to loose oneself from its knots. The moderators often have to break up strongly worded disagreements; there is nowhere near consensus.

Spend all the sunlit hours of your one wild and precious day scrolling this forum. Wake up and dive back in, feeling found and excluded at the same time. Many erstwhile loopers repeated the best or the worst day of their lives: a career turning point, a milestone birthday, a wedding, a murder. Those survivors believe wholly in the power of making good choices; they do not have much insight for navigating an ordinary day in an unremarkable life. So make it remarkable, your new time-companions type. Save a failing family business. Take risks. Travel. No money, you protest. No debt, they reply. You’re unsure: any day now, you might wake up tomorrow. Who would feed your cat if you didn’t come back?

A small but vocal subset of the forum extols the pleasures of vice without consequence: wine and dine and crime, indulge in brutal honesty, refuse compromise. Infinite resets, no hangover. You can’t quite countenance this. Newly alerted to the existence of other loopers, you realize it’s possible that the supporting cast of your infinitely repeating Tuesday might reset with you, and remember.

Wake up. Check your phone. Your last post is gone; you haven’t posted it yet. Put your phone away.

It’s an agreeable spring morning; you and your neighbor get iced coffee. “I think I’m stuck in a time loop,” you remark. “Me too, girl,” she says, trying and failing to jab her straw through the lid. You glance away and notice a child reading quietly on a bench. Ask your neighbor, “Is it only Tuesday?” It is, it always is, and yet this Tuesday seems different—or possibly you are? No, the yellow hoodie and his terrier are not in the park. But you’re hopeful: in this arc of infinite Tuesdays, variations are emerging.

Wake up to the warm hum of electromagnetic signals from space. You, too, are buzzing with potential. Decide to live this Tuesday as though it is Wednesday. Decide to live every Tuesday as if it is merely a snarl in the thread that binds you to conventional time. You must be gentle but you cannot let go.

 

Sara Davis (@LiterarySara) is a recovering academic and marketing writer who lives in Philadelphia. Her PhD in American literature is from Temple University. She has recently published flash in Cleaver Magazine, Toho Journal, and CRAFT Literary. She currently blogs about books and climate anxiety at literarysara.net.