Now We’re Getting Somewhere by Claire Hopple

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

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

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

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

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

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

She leads us up to the third floor.

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

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

The woman gets a phone call.

“How’s school?” I ask.

You look startled.

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

I oblige.

We move into a bedroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

to grasp by Tyler Barton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Jackalope in Economy Class by Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Growth by Ben Segal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

How I Learned About Evolution by Michelle Ross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said, “You believe in dinosaurs?”

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

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

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

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

 

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

Stranger Disconnected by Darren Nuzzo

The banner atop the webpage says you’ll be paired with seven F’s for every two M’s – that’s how they get you. The ratio is actually much different. I’ve only seen one F. She was thirteen and from the Philippines. I asked her Buttigieg or Biden and she thought I was talking about laundry detergent. When she lived in Quezon City, her family used Ariel. In Manila, they switched to Zonrox. Then the conversation moved to dish soap until we ran out of opinions on the matter. That was my one experience with an F. Mostly, it goes like this: M 22, M 27, Stranger disconnected. It’s a good idea for a website, linking one stranger to another. It’s just that the math doesn’t add up. M’s want F’s and F’s are smarter than that. For me, I just want someone to talk to. So I’ve changed letters, fixed the problem for most everyone. Things have been going much better ever since. Are you tall? is one of my favorite things to ask. You sound tall, I like to assure them. That always makes the M feel big and strong, and I know that’s important. I like to ask what they do for work. If M says he does construction, I say, “Like an architect.” If M says he hasn’t read a book in eleven years, I say, “There’s nothing found between pages a smart guy like you can’t find on Earth.” When M says he has insomnia, I say, “The brightest minds always do.” And when M tells me all the good things about his penis, I let him know that I really believe him. They never want me to leave. But I say goodnight and move to the next, well aware of this unique opportunity I’ve been given, the chance to put the most good into the world at the cost of the least evil, sinning to the smallest degree possible, telling man everything he needs to hear, lying by just a single letter.

 

Darren Nuzzo is the author of I’ll Give You a Dollar If You Consider This Art—a collection of stories, essays, poems, and comics.

Concerning the Power Cord by Lyndsie Manusos

You are what you watch. Every few years, my schedule fills up with requests for separation. I can sense the onslaught of demands before it happens, the sizzle of static permeating off the screens. The air changes. The tiny hairs on my neck and arms stand to attention, as if lightning is about to strike.

I have plenty of TVs to go around now, from all the separations. My basement is full of them from people coming to me and pointing to their heads, a big screen blinking in an out where their face should be. Sometimes the screen bursts into static and the shape of a face peeks out through the grey.

“Help me,” they beg.

I promise them to try.

They seek to be separated, to become themselves again. Screens made flesh. It’s dirty work, and to be honest, it isn’t always successful, but someone has to do it–it–it–

 

heard it through the grave vine. California grapes from the California vineyards.–

 

Like I said, it’s dirty work. I’d separate from my screen, too, but separating requires knowing who you were before the screen. I don’t know who I was before this. There are scars on my neck and shoulders, as if someone scratched away trying to find where blood and bone ended, and the wires and plastic began. An amateur move. Of course, at some point I know I must have been the amateur. But years of practice and research have taught me that the point of separation is through the TV itself. Through connection. The power supply. I ask patients to bring their power cords. I plug them in and find the channel that fused them. Then we go through the act of separating from there.

Lately, with the people coming to me for help, it’s almost always a news channel that connects them. People are often yelling at each other . Occasionally it’s an old game show network, or reruns of sitcoms where there’s so much clapping–clapping­–clap–clap–

 

Clap on! *clap-clap* Clap off! *clap-clap*–

 

My screen is a tabletop Trinitron, and my phosphor bars are freaking the fuck out. Plugging myself in doesn’t help. My screen is fading. My signals are jumbled. I have to smack the side to get it to stop. My old self is trying to tell me something. Clues of who I was, where I’ve been. Now, I’m the only one, at least that I know of, who can separate people from their screens, who knows the steps. I could teach someone, but then I’d have to ask them to give up their old life, to become the screen. Become this–this–this–

 

This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.

 

Did I used to like eggs? When I get these hiccups, I like to daydream about images that stay with me. Maybe I used to cook eggs in the morning. Maybe I used to stir cocoa powder in a glass of milk and suck the clumps of chocolatiness over my tongue.

Maybe I’d been in love.

The most intimate I’ve been in this life was when a person came to me for help with their small screen stuck on a reality show. The scene kept playing on repeat. The screen showed a crying woman reaching for someone just off camera, begging, “But you don’t understand! I love you for God’s sake!” She was keening with passion. The person clutched my hand as I separated the screen. It was a hell of a screen too, an early 90s plasma. After I was finished, it clunked to the ground. Without the screen, a man sat up on the table, the angles of his face perfectly arched and beautiful. Long eyelashes. Curly hair. Like someone straight out of a soap opera. He leaned in and took my old Trinitron between his hands and kissed the plane of glass where my lips would’ve… should’ve… been.

“Thank you,” he whispered, pressing his forehead to the glass. He took big gulps of air and then kissed me again.

I usually store these TVs in the basement until they’re covered in dust, but I keep that 90s plasma close to me. When I plug it in, the scene still shows: “But you don’t understand!” Her lips are full, glossy. I wonder what the man’s lips would’ve tasted like if I had lips again. I wonder whether it would tasted like–tasted–taste–taste–

 

tastes great, less filling!–

 

Listen, I don’t have much time.

The feeling has come again, a resurgence leaving thick ozone tickle along my skin. Everyone is watching, and everyone is angry. Soon, there will be too many TVs to separate, and I will be long gone. I’ll clear out the basement and leave them on front lawn of my house like some zombie MTV cemetery. A Panasonic for you. A Sony for you. A Zenith for you.

And with the amount of separation demands rising, the world better take note, better change the fucking channel. Better clutch their beating hearts, their fleshy heads. My heart and head are still in there, somewhere, buried beneath the wires and phosphor bars, beneath the knobs and power button. My–my heart–no, no, my–my–

 

my buddy, my buddy, my buddy and me

 

maybe she’s born with it

 

­–loving it–

 

Please check the power control settings. The power supply may be interrupted.

 

Lyndsie Manusos’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, CHEAP POP, Passages North, and other publications. She lives in Indianapolis with her family, and writes for Book Riot and Publishers Weekly.

Careful by Dan Sanders

If there’s anything I know about, it’s being careful. I don’t like the idea that anything could happen by accident. I like a schedule. I like clocks. I like a list. I like to bake. I like method and precision and avoiding anything that would disrupt this, like other people, animals, I don’t own anything fragile. I don’t like to own anything that might break or would be difficult to reacquire if I misplaced it, though I don’t misplace things. Everything has a place, and I will put it there. I am careful of who I speak to and why. I don’t wear shoes in the house. I have house shoes but mostly for show, in case someone asks. I don’t sleep with socks on so my feet can breathe. I read an article about gangrene that set me straight about feet.

I don’t take any medicines, before you ask. If you go to the doctor and ask for medicine your name gets put on a list, and then the police see the list if anything out of order ever happens. Even if you’re not involved, even if something just near you happens, they’ll ask about that list. It’ll say you’re on drugs and then they throw you in some dark hole. Medicine? No. No, absolutely not.

I live alone and quietly. I keep the radio down. I don’t have any hobbies that make noise, or require me to make nose. I avoid calling attention to myself. Noise gets in my chest, seizes me solid, tries to break me apart. I drum with the pads of my fingers against my temples sometimes to make sure I can still hear, that I am still there, that I am in perfect working order. Three taps, each side, all clear.

I keep myself busy. I have projects and hobbies because I don’t want to go crazy. I collected stamps until I heard some of the glue was poison, switched to puzzles. I put the stamps in the fireplace, burned them, reconsidered my fireplace, bricked it over. Bricks are made of cancer dust, compressed. I covered my house in plastic sheeting, left it up for weeks to catch the particulate when I wasn’t around to vacuum, sealed in a containment suit of my own design, trash bags and scotch tape, holes for my arms and legs.

I bought a computer, but I try not to use it. It was a good distraction but potentially addicting and dangerous, a kind of mind control. Even though I stopped using it, I don’t bring liquid of any kind into the room where I keep the computer which I’ve dubbed “The Computer Room.” I also, as general practice, don’t leave glasses half full of liquid near anything. I’m careful about liquid and I know a lot about stains.

I speak to my landlord as little as possible and my neighbors even less. I’m considering moving to the woods or the desert, I wonder about why I don’t live there already, and it’s mostly to do with ordering in. Ordering food in is expensive, though I am particular about saving. I invest. I am risk averse. I get 30 minutes of exercise a day and will soon enough money to sustain me in this room until I am 120 years old, not that I want to live that long or even much longer, but I could, it’s been done. I do yoga, I stretch. I drink bright purple juices and eat dark leafy greens. I order them in, like I said, repeating myself, making sure it’s clear, I am to be understood.

Food is tricky. I try not to cook because the stove has a spot of rust and the vent rattles when it’s on. It’s broken. The landlord said it still works. But broken is broken, broken is a degree of not working, I can see it still works but it rattles so it’s broken. Rattling is step one of a larger problem that will lead to total failure and eventually that thing is going to snap off and send a blade flying into my head or bring the vent crashing through the ceiling and down on top of my head, destroying my kitchen and dinner.

In a pinch I’ll leave the vent off but keep an eye on it. Cook staring straight up, blindly burn my hands, season my food with tears and curse words. I try to be quick about it. Mies en plas. You’ll get cancer if you stand in the chicken and vegetable fumes, whichever fumes, doesn’t have to be chicken. Whatever you cook has fumes. I’m mostly white meat and vegetables. Maybe a tofu. Press that down for a week or two though, I don’t trust that tofu water.

This vent is criminal. I have a carbon monoxide detector in every room of the house. I test them three times a week, along with the smoke detectors. I do not smoke. Of course I do not smoke. I go to the deli when I check the mail. I check the mail a lot. Just in case. I wear gloves when I open the mail in case it’s full of poison. I’m wearing gloves right now.

I was considering buying plastic sheeting for the door handles until I heard that the metal in door handles is anti-microbic or antibiotic or something. Germs hate stainless steel for some reason; they touch it and break apart. I looked into getting more stainless-steel surfaces, tables, chairs, anything that could kill simply by existing. I could sleep strapped down to an operating table or standing up in steel tube like an iron maiden. Something to contain me, keep me right in line and hidden, somewhere I could breathe for once, somewhere I could go to just scream and scream and scream.

 

Dan Sanders is a writer of short fiction, essays, and vending machine repair guides. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Hong Kong Review, Coffin Bell, Bridge Eight, and wherever fine vending equipment is sold. His novella The Loop will be published this Fall by Anvil Press. Bad drawings of his writing can be found at dan-sanders.com.

Diets by Lucy Zhang

1. Pescatarian

This girl doesn’t eat meat. But she eats eggs, lobster, mussels, cod, and Bronzini. Sometimes she’ll even buy pork bones to make broth for pho but she won’t eat the meat. She might give the bones to the albino dog she’s babysitting. Her dad asks her how she’s going to get any complete proteins and she wonders how to explain to a research chemist that eggs and seafood are sources of all essential amino acids. Amazing what stubbornness does to science, she thinks when she hears another “meat is not the same” blanket statement argument. Instead of responding, she thinks of the turtle and the rabbit she had when she was eleven. The rabbit stayed in a cage in their backyard while the turtle stayed in a bucket. Both were fed plain short-grain white rice–everything eats rice, her dad had said. One weekend she left the turtle out on the patio, thinking it was too slow to get anywhere so it at least deserved to be free of its confines of the bucket. The next day, the turtle was gone and the rabbit was still there and she thought it might get lonely so she set the rabbit free too, hoping both animals would survive the winter. She found a dead turtle with its head sunken into its shell three days later. It’s always three days. One day of searching, one day of worrying, one day to settle the uncertain dread in an unexpected discovery on the walk back from the school bus stop. She carried the carcass with her bare hands and buried the turtle in the front yard with a gardening spade. In retrospect, she shouldn’t have felt too guilty: it would’ve died anyway; rice didn’t have enough nutrients to sustain it.

 

2. Vegetarian

The girl doesn’t eat meat or seafood. She eats eggs though. Eggs are cheap and versatile. She can buy a dozen for slightly over one dollar. She poaches them, stirs them into soup, scrambles them with chives. When her boyfriend climbs through her window to visit, she makes them omelets with cheese and onion because even though dairy gives her a stomach ache and her parents find cheese stinky, she wants it as much as she wants it to be ok for her boyfriend’s skin color to contrast her own. To have sweet potato and marshmallows casserole on Thanksgiving. To watch the Super Bowl while eating guacamole with tortilla chips. But her parents look over her shoulder, see her graduated and married with a baby of the same hair color and eye color, so she tells them she’s still single and it’s too early to worry.

 

3. Vegan

This one is tricky. She’s vegan but in secret. A best effort sort of thing. It’s easier now since her mom went through chemotherapy and they’ve stopped drinking milk, cut down on meat, ditched the butter. They take walks around the neighborhood five days a week and her mother’s hair grows back. The girl didn’t find out about her mother’s breast cancer until the night of the operation. It would distract you from your studies, they said. It sure would, she thought. But then again, the tendency to latch onto secrets, bury them so deep you no longer remember it’s a secret but rather an unspoken truth, runs in the family. This is how she stays vegan–at the dinner table when she avoids meat by talking about her belly flop into the pool after a poorly executed forward dive, at school when she hides in the library with the guise that is not entirely a guise of work and study.

 

4. Keto

Her coworker lost twenty pounds eating avocados and chicken. That much fat makes her nauseous. Also, fat only makes her hungrier. She needs volume to be full: a bowl of boiled cabbage, an enormous Granny Smith apple, a pot of miso soup. She doesn’t like the idea of pouring cups of oil into dumpling filling or mixing butter with coffee.

But she tries it.

Before her dad moved to the United States, he and his siblings ate congee: clouded water with a few specks of rice. More water if they needed to fill their stomachs without spending all of the money.

When they were poor, her parents’ income meant she qualified for free peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at school. She’d never had peanut butter before. It was almost the most delicious thing she’d tasted so far in America, right behind the ice cream that she tried to microwave because grandma said you’re only supposed to eat foods warm.

She needs to buy coconut oil and grass-fed beef and free-range eggs. She needs to give away half her pantry that she can no longer eat. Maybe her parents will take it even though they’re only cooking for two now.

 

5. Something in between

The girl loves her family very much and will eat whatever they put on the table.

 

Lucy Zhang is a writer masquerading around as a software engineer. She watches anime and sleeps in on weekends like a normal human being. Her work appears in TIMBER, Ghost Parachute, Scoundrel Time, and elsewhere. She can be found at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

Wetted Appetites by Molly Gabriel

We date for three months before I agree to go the farm to meet his family. I hesitate because he calls his parents by their first names. He says, “Grey and Judy want to meet you.”

I agree because he cooks for me. Well, dehydrates. Elijah dehydrates vegetables, presses and pulverizes until they almost pass for pasta.

* * *

We arrive at their front door after noon. The air is warm and thick with precipitation. He rings the bell then kicks the door. A teenaged boy wearing a bandana and muslin shorts answers.

“Judy is counting the seconds,” the boy says.

“Blame it on her—she got her period on the way here and had to stop. Twice.”

Elijah moves through the door. My face pinks in embarrassment.

“You’re Amelia?”

“Yes.” I try to collect myself.

“My brother calls you?”

“Lemon.”

“Bo,” he says. He reaches, takes my overnight bag from my hand. “Don’t call me Bowie.”

“Okay.” I follow them through the hall to the living room.

Elijah calls, “Ready?” And throws open the double doors to the farm.

 

An enormous tent flanks the house, looms over their garden. Grey and Judy lounge at a cast iron table at its center. On the table, a tea set stands on a large, handcrafted wooden tray. They’re each beautiful. Serene. Butterflies land and launch from Judy’s hair. Grey’s face is lined from effort and intellect. I believe he seduced many women in his heyday.

Judy rises and rushes to us. She puts her palms at his face. Squeezes.

“The prodigal son,” she says. His eyes drift to me.

“Lem.” He says, still in her grasp, “This is Judy.”

Her hands drop. She turns to me. “Amelia. I understand I have you to thank for the visit.”

“I can’t take credit,” I say. Her glance moves to Grey. He stands to greet me, turns first to his son.

“I thought we agreed you’d call when you got close.”

“No, sir,” he says. “You agreed.”

Bo appears again at the door to the house. “I’m ready.” Grey turns again to me.

“I think it’s time we all ate.”

 

Judy produces a plate of leaves I’ve never seen. No one moves to touch or eat them right away.

“We hear you’re a poet.” Grey says to me. Bo watches hungrily, as if preparing for a hunt.

Judy rearranges the leaves into geometric patterns. The plate takes new life with each configuration.

“She writes hybrid forms,” Elijah corrects. I grab his leg.

“Oh. What about?” Grey asks me.

“My tongue,” Elijah says. He laughs. Grey’s eyes move to me.

I let my hand fall from his leg. “I actually just wrote a series about containment.”

“Containment?” Judy’s eyebrows raise.

“Responses to entrapment—the physical, the self, the soul.”

“How interesting,” Grey says.

“Lem likes to examine feelings of suffering at the hands of others,” Elijah adds.

His parents’ gazes slide to me like sighs.

“That’s true,” I say.

Though, I almost hate him now.

 

A purple and yellow butterfly—a species I’ve never seen with wings the size of hands—flutters softly to the plate. Lazes on the leaves. Blinks its wings open, closed, open.

Judy puts her fingers to its wings. She works her hand over, carefully, then quickly crumples the wings. She lifts the destroyed life to her mouth. She bites. The purple wings stain the open hole of her mouth as she chews. She closes her eyes. Savors. She wipes her lips with a napkin, smiles, reveals teeth stained the color of a bruise.

Below the table, I grab his hand.

Grey continues, “Have you always wanted to study poetry?”

Another large, yellow-purple butterfly hovers around us. Bo snatches it from the air and rushes it into his mouth. He chews vigorously, crunching and snapping.

“Poetry,” I clear my throat. I watch two more butterflies drop onto the leaves, “always excited me.”

Grey picks up a butterfly by the wing, works it into his mouth. Judy plucks another, pinches its wings between her fingers. The body resists, flails. Then it’s gone.

“You two must be famished,” she says. She holds it to us—to him.

Elijah hesitates. His eyes linger on mine before moving away.

“Mom,” he says.

“It’s one.” She holds it closer. Softens. She whispers, “I know you’ve missed us.”

He looks away from me. Opens his mouth, allows her to press it in. He chews slowly.

I let him go.

“Amelia?” Grey says. “Can we get you anything?”

“No. Thank you,” I say. Butterflies descend and drift towards us from the bushes like music notes. “I’ve brought my own snacks.”

I pull the book from my purse. I tear out the first page. I rip pieces the size of butterfly’s wings. “I’m vegan,” I say.

I lay a piece on my tongue. I can feel the acid of the page dissolving. And I shiver.

 

Molly Gabriel is a writer and poet from Cleveland, Ohio. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Hobart, and Barren Magazine. She is the recipient of the Robert Fox Award for Young Writers. She has been selected for flash readings with Bridge Eight Literary Magazine and the Jax by Jax Literary Festival. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida with her husband and toddler. She’s on Twitter at @m_ollygabriel.