Missing Link by Mike Keller-Wilson

It was the memories that did it: My nap-heavy head on an impossibly wide chest. Dark curls—thick as fur—my toddler hand tangled in their sleepy heat. A wild, lumbering voice—a real voice, not a growl or a grunt—almost human. Fresh shampoo—lilac and lavender—and, below that, creek mud and wet leaves. Denim overalls—soft with wear—a poor, if durable, disguise. A steadying palm and a tickle of hair blanketing my back.

I’m not interested in finding Bigfoot; I want him to come back on his own. I want him to come back because he misses me, misses Mom. Isn’t that what any kid would want from their dad? That’s what brought me out here in the middle of the night.

Even if Mom won’t say it right out, I know he’s my dad. She doesn’t want me blabbing, attracting attention. I know better now. I learned my lesson last year—when I was only ten. I told Seth, my (former) best friend. Six months of answering to “Wookie Boy” was more than enough to teach me silence.

I’ve grown up since then: Mom’s doctor visits, selling the house, moving to an apartment across town. We’ve had a hard year. Lately, I can’t stop wondering what would happen if I let something slip and some scientist got to Dad first? What if I was the reason he got caught and caged? Stuck with needles and turned into some experiment? I’d never say anything now. I wouldn’t be able to stand it.

In the first place, I don’t think Mom meant for me to find out about Dad at all. When I asked her, it was supposed to be a joke. I’d gone to the basement for a Freeze Pop and caught her crying on the couch. It was those little choke-sobs, the ones that force their way out no matter how hard you hold them. She was watching “Bigfoot: The Missing Link” (a History Channel miniseries that I’ve now seen nine and a half times, mostly by sneaking the iPad after bedtime). I’d forced a grin, pointed at the screen. “Is that Dad?” Cheering her from her funks was my little-kid job, as I saw it then. I thought she’d laugh—snort through her tears and tell me to quit being a goober.

Instead, she kept wringing the edge of the knit blanket across her lap. She looked away and shut her eyes as if she was afraid of what might spill out. She didn’t make room or pat the open cushion at her side. She turned back to the TV—opened her eyes and fixed them to the screen without saying a word—I realized I’d found what hurt and I knew I’d never have the heart to ask again.

Still, I had to be sure. This wasn’t Santa or the Easter Bunny. I had to do my research. Ms. Knowles let me use the library computer, though I think she knew it wasn’t really for a school project. I found half a dozen sasquatch sightings reported to The Chronicle right around when I was born. One of them was just up the street from our house—in the woods behind Dollar General.

In the end, the research wasn’t what convinced me, what finally brought me out here, clutching my stack of handmade posters in the backwoods moonlight an hour’s walk from the nearest county road.

You can argue facts, but there’s no use arguing with memory. They’re clearest on the restless nights. The ones when Mom goes to bed early, sleeps late. Those nights, it’s like I can grip each memory by the edge, hold it to catch the starry light framed by my bedroom window.

It was the memories on those long nights that got me thinking: What if he’s still out there? What if he had to leave so I didn’t blow his cover? What if I let him know his secret’s safe with me? What if he came back?

“Dad, come home.” That’s what the posters say. It took a whole library afternoon to make them all. By the end, I was dizzy from the fumes off Ms. Knowles’s fat-tipped sharpie. At home, I spent half an hour looking for a staple gun, finally tucked the junk-drawer hammer and half a pack of nails under my pillow.

The night is colder than I thought, too cold for just jeans and my Mothman hoodie. Somewhere along the way, I walked through a burr patch. One pant leg has a string of them scratching through the denim. Still, it’s the quiet that’s most uncomfortable. That country quiet: silence filled with cicada screams and a barn owl in the distance. Son of Bigfoot, I whisper like it’ll help me feel at home. While hammering the first poster, I nearly drop the rest before tucking the stack under one arm. I do drop them when a wide swing misses the nail entirely and bashes my thumb against the pine bark.  From then on, the pages all have one muddy corner.

By the time I finish, the sun is nearly up. I tuck the hammer’s head in a pocket and wrap cold fingers around my still-throbbing thumb. Between the trees, I can glimpse my handiwork: white paper, corners curling over in the damp. I should’ve brought more nails, should’ve used two per poster. Still, it’s something. I think of Mom, tired in her bones. She’ll still be proud of what I’ve done. For a moment, I think it almost doesn’t matter if he sees them, almost doesn’t matter if he comes back.

 

Mike Keller-Wilson lives, writes, and teaches in Iowa City, Iowa. He is a founder & co-editor-in-chief of the newly-launched Vast Chasm Magazine. In his day job, he teaches writing and dad jokes to a captive audience of 7th graders. Find him on Twitter @Mike3Stars or at mikekellerwilson.com.

Untrue Things by Cezarija Abartis

Agnes thought Sherisse was the smartest person in her eighth-grade class. The prettiest too, with her shiny yellow hair. Agnes’s own hair was mouse-brown. When she grew older, she figured she would dye it, maybe red, but her mother wouldn’t allow it now, “You’re not a slut.”

“Girls who dye their hair aren’t automatically sluts.”

“The next thing they want is tattoos of hearts and motorcycles and skulls. They want their tongues tattooed.”

Agnes swallowed hard. “I’ve never heard of that.”

“Oh, yes. It’s a fact. Now go wash the dinner dishes.”

Agnes slumped to the sink. Outside the window, as the sun was setting, she could see all the signs on the lawns for Nixon and on one lawn a sign for Hubert Humphrey. She wasn’t much for politics.

“Your father and I raised you to be a good girl, a lady, and someday a scientist, or an artist.”

“I don’t even like art.” But she sort of did. She rinsed the plate under the faucet, which hissed when she first turned it on. The remnants of the pigs-in-the-blanket had some of the colors of an Andy Warhol painting. Her mother used Campbell’s tomato soup for the sauce. The cabbage strips slipped off into the strainer. She’d have to clean that later when it became yucky sludge.

“Or a musician.”

“I hate practicing piano.” The lady across the street bent down to pet her dog. “Woof,” Agnes imagined him saying. The trees had lost most of their leaves.

“Look what happened to Mrs. McDonald’s Roxane.”

“What?”

“She broke her arm.”

“So?”

“She won’t be able to play until it heals. But you’re lucky. You can practice right now.”

Agnes glanced toward the living room, where the upright spinet with its battered and peeling veneer sat. “I hate the piano. Hate it. Hate it.”

“People that play the piano live longer. Look at Liberace — he died at the age of one hundred and five.”

“He’s still alive.”

“And Picasso, too, the artist.”

“I would hate to do something I hated for one hundred and five years.”

Her mother put a chipped plate into the dishpan. “Your father works in a factory. Would you like to do that? Breathe hot fumes all day long? He loves you and works hard for you, so you don’t have to work in a factory. You’re lucky you’re a girl. You won’t be sent to Vietnam.”

“And here I thought they needed piano players.”

“Don’t be such a smart-off.”

Agnes smoothed her hair, but her hand was wet. “Someday, I would like to have red hair, or blond hair. Like Sherisse.”

“That girl is not who you want to be.”

“She is, she is.”

“Her mother had an abortion. I heard the baby wasn’t the husband’s.”

“You don’t know that. How do you know that?”

“Mrs. Nilson told me.”

Agnes waved her wet hand. “Mrs. Nilson also believes the world is flat.”

“Even so, she could still be right about some things. A person isn’t one hundred percent one thing. One hundred percent stupid about everything.”

“I wish people wore signs that said what percent they are. Fifty percent honest, twenty-five percent kind, twenty-five percent hardworking.” Agnes rinsed a plate.

“Honey, you’re all those things.”

“But nobody asked me to the Halloween Dance. Some of us girls had to dance with each other. No boy danced with me.”

“They’re shy. They will. You wait and see.”

“Jimmy asked Sherisse to dance.”

“When I was your age…”

“I don’t want to hear about how you didn’t have a car, you cleaned out the stalls, you twisted the heads off the chickens.”

“That’s not what I was going to say. I was going to say I dreamed about having a family, falling in love, and having a baby girl, just like you. Someone kind, pretty, smart.”

“I’m none of those things. I hate myself. Sherisse is beautiful and smart.”

“You are too, honey. You’ll be a famous journalist, or lawyer and deal with facts. You’ll see I was right. You’re our Cinderella.”

A dish slipped from her fingers in the lukewarm water. “I should have never been born.”

“Don’t you dare say that.” Her mother leaned into Agnes and put her cheek on her cheek. “What would your father and I do without you? How could we live?”

“You could get a dog.” Across the street, the neighbor lady walked ahead of her schnauzer.

“Untrue things can be true sometimes.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“The world is flat. But, of course, it’s not. And yet it is. We don’t fly off the planet. But we do fly above it. Although I’ve never been in a plane.” Her mother said this wistfully, took off her apron. “I know you will. Children go farther than their parents. And that’s good.”

“I’ll live here forever in this kitchen. I’ll be an ugly old maid.”

“I’m telling you truths to live by. Someday you’ll be thankful.”

“Someday. Someday.” Agnes dried her hands on the towel, patted her damp skirt. Across the street, the schnauzer trotted joyfully. “Someday.”

 

Cezarija Abartis has published a collection, Nice Girls and Other Stories (New Rivers Press) and stories in Bennington Review, FRiGG, matchbook, and New York Tyrant, among others. Her flash, “The Writer,” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012 and “To Kiss a Bear” was selected for Wigleaf’s Longlist 2016. Her flash “Sisters” was selected by Amber Sparks for Best Microfiction 2021. Recently she completed a crime novel.

The Scab of the Family by Mialise Carney

The scab of the family doesn’t say much, so everyone thinks she’s trouble. In high school, she gets grounded twice a week but only for things she should’ve done rather than things she shouldn’t have. When the scab of the family stays out too late and comes home quiet and jumpy, the mother calls her awful things—traitor, trouble, rat. At holidays, the scab of the family is second in line to hug the grandmother and tell her she loves her, but the only one to really mean it. When the scab leaves for college, she doesn’t pack anything sentimental, but cries on her first night in the dorms when her roommate requests a room change.

The scab of the family only goes to some classes and doesn’t get invited to parties or accepted to any sororities, though she goes through all the hazing. She tries to talk to the warm slouching boys that sit beside her in class, but they turn up their headphones before she can finish saying hello. The scab only flies home for funerals, so the mother marks her “deceased/missing” in the family registry in the back of her black crumbling bible. When the scab graduates, she walks the stage but doesn’t invite anyone to watch. That night she burns her sociology degree over the little tin trashcan she keeps beside her bed—she doesn’t understand people any better now than she did before.

The scab of the family remains in her college town and finds a job in data entry. She buys a whole new wardrobe, pencil skirts and warm sweaters and thin heels that accentuate the sharp bones of her feet. She sits in a cold, blank office besides much older, much colder people who listen to audio books on two-times speed and eat tepid lunches at their desks under the bright glow of their monitors. The scab asks her cubical mate out for drinks who refuses: she already has plans that night to cry in the shower. The scab adds it to the end of her hourly planner, right underneath “bus home” and before “brush teeth,” and likes it so much that she does it every night.

The scab of the family lives and works and never goes home, not even for funerals. She calls the arthritic ornery mother only on days when it hails and tries not to cry as the mother says she is selfish and traitorous and unlovable. On her thirtieth birthday, the scab decides she wants to know what trouble really tastes like so she gets rebel tattooed on the wet inside of her bottom lip. It tastes sweeter than she expected, and she chews it off while she sleeps.

The scab of the family adopts a pet rat, not a fancy rat all fluffy and sweet but a gnarly one, gray and twitchy. She names it Pebbles and after work holds its struggling warm body against her chest while sniffling along to K-Dramas. When she grows bored of subtitles, the scab goes to bars to find someone to take her home. So used to the cubical, she sits in the darkest corner, hides in her hair, and potential suitors miss her when they glance around looking for lonely, frightened women. She drinks Bloody Mary after Bloody Mary until her mouth tingles and her throat scratches and she can’t sleep for the bubbling acidic pain. By thirty-two she has invasive emergency surgery to remove all the horseradish-induced ulcers.

The scab of the family is the only child to return home to take care of the mother when she gets too crotchety to be left alone with waiters and too fragile to walk up stairs. She bathes her and dresses her and sings her lullabies all while the mother spits and calls her awful things, traitor, ungrateful, defector, scab. When the mother dies alone in her bed, the scab notes it in the family registry but tells no one. She carefully leaves the bible where it belongs on the mother’s clean mantelpiece between graying family photos and baby pictures and fake sprigs of fir. She flies back home to her college town and her itchy rat greets her sleepily by the door. While she sits on the cool kitchen tile, she lets her rat lap warm gravy from her finger and feels almost loved. She is not so much like a scab anymore, but the shiny newly woven skin underneath.

 

Mialise Carney (@mialisec) is a writer and MFA student at California State University, Fresno. She is an editor at The Normal School, and her writing has appeared in Hobart, Maudlin House, and The Boiler, among others. Read more of her work at mialisecarney.com.

things you’ve shared with the ghost in your dorm room (in no particular order) by shelby rice

xii.
you’re lonely and the only thing you’ve felt the touch of is the gutter-water splashing off a car’s michelin tires. one star. you wonder if the mona lisa would be as beautiful if she had a double chin. you’re empty and not displeased about it, but you know you’re going to put the frozen strawberry jam you made with your aunt last summer over cold rice instead of eating a real meal. you’ll feel bad about it later.

xi.
your roommate is doing n+60 jumping jacks a day for lent, and you wonder if she knows by the end that she’ll have to do more than 2000. it takes fifteen days before she folds. you’re not surprised, but something that burns suspiciously of envy crawls up your esophagus. you wonder how long you would have made it. the bass guitar you haven’t played in a month sprouts a mouth and tells you the wicked truth. you can’t sleep that night.

x.
you start to wonder if you were a changeling. somewhere between infancy and now, you stopped thinking about what you wanted to do tomorrow and started to wish it never comes.

ix.
you think the perfect place to work is probably in an aquarium. it’s probably not as glamorous as you make it out to be (if that’s even the proper word) but the darkness and the gurgle of the tanks and the flying floating swilling creatures which drift lackadaisical twilling in the currents. the funny way toddlers walk, little penguins tottering back and forth would be the cherry on top. but maybe that’s just the withdrawal speaking.

viii.
you have a boyfriend who lives off high street. he roosts with two other boys, both faceless entities who come and go as they please. you’re not sure you’ve ever fully met. they seem to exist in a transient state, sort of ever-unpresent, at the grocery or the bar or kicking back at a friend’s house, but never at work. you’re more interested in these boys than your demure, kind-faced boyfriend, but more out of curiosity than libido; you want to know how they live such fluid, ever varying but still listless lives. you wonder if you ever meet if they’ll sweep you up in their unending on-the-go living until you rush on autopilot for as long as they’ll keep you.

vii.
you wonder if you should pierce your own septum. it would do you good to see if you still bleed red like everyone else.

vi.
your godmother is a nun. she doesn’t wear a habit anymore and has licorice gumdrops at her house year-round. they used to burn your mouth but now you find the taste of them keeps you up at night. you buy them at the drugstore but they don’t quite hit the same. the sugar dusting isn’t grainy enough, the taste doesn’t quite clog your mouth the way it used to. maybe it’s because your cousins aren’t egging you on, your brother isn’t trying to outdo you with three more stuffed in his mouth. maybe it’s that he isn’t rushing to the green-tiled bathroom to throw up afterwards. after a fetid few, you let the bag go fallow; it takes root in your pantry and refuses to be disposed of.

v.
the scar on your arm reminds you of a fat leech, if the leech were purplish-pink and created by a miserable idiot and not billions of years of evolution. you tattoo over it, which bolsters you an embarrassing amount, but it hacks away at the quickly dwindling list of things in common you have with your mother. never mind the fact that folks have been tattooing for thousands of years, that it’s not a rash decision, that you’ve been thinking about it almost as long as you could breathe—you think she might have cried when you told her. you schedule a second appointment as soon as possible and wonder if you’re welcome at home anymore.

iv.
your mother and aunt don’t talk anymore, and your grandmother and her sister didn’t either. you wonder if you’re doomed to the same fate.

iii.
you receive a save-the-date and spiral something awful. buried for your own well-being under stacks of junk mail, you send your congratulations and regrets in one run-on message, unable to explain why the thought of a marriage guts you this way. just two people deciding they’re interested in living together for the rest of forever* or whatever it is folks tell themselves. she elbows her way to the back of your mind and you staunchly refuse to acknowledge it. the message you receive back is kind but you can tell there’s a pursed-lip edge to it. you’re glad you won’t have to defrost the summer romper in the back of your closet and try to look happy for six hours. you drink alone the night of the ceremony and shudder to think of what the you in an alternate universe is going through. you wonder if there’s an alternate universe you whose wedding this belongs to.

ii.
you take better care of your plants than you do yourself. you have a meticulously planned spreadsheet which tells you when to water, fertilize, repot; each leaf is examined daily to check for discoloration or spotting. the plethora of pill bottles scattered over your room go unorganized.

i.
you’ve developed a pavlovian response to playing pokemon go. you can’t smoke without it anymore.

 

shelby rice is trying to reach you regarding your car’s extended warranty. they won the Montaine Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2020 and have been published in Rejection Letters, Existere Literary Magazine, Thirty West, and more. originally from Dayton, Ohio, they recently acquired a cane with a sword inside and will tell anyone who will listen. follow them on twitter @orcmischief (if you dare).

Choices by Anna Hundert

1.    In the beginning, there is the sea. There are no choices in the beginning, because I always begin in the sea. I breathe the tides and the tides breathe me. And who would choose the dry, tasteless air over this sun-soaked dwelling of saltwater breath? I wish to stay here always, to never trade my shimmering fins for grasping fingers and toes. But something out there is calling out to me with a fierce and joyful song. What is calling to me?
        –> The rivers that run through the land like so many veins (go to part 2)
        –> The mountains that rise out of the land like so much adolescent acne (go to part 3) (If you are reading this aloud, omit the following sentence. The third choice is a secret: if you wish to abide by her wishes and allow her to remain in the sea, stop reading here.)

2.    The rivers ask me to become one of them, and I enthusiastically consent. River-spirits can undertake many wonders with our freshwater flow, with our roiling river run of cosmic commotion in our high-fabled rapids and such peace in our quieter bends. Over on the land, I see a young woman running from a pursuer and she calls out to me for help. I —
        –> Pull the pursuer into my currents and drown him inside of me (go to part 4)
        –> Transform her into a tree so that she cannot be violated (go to part 5)

3.    In the mountains, I befriend a great clan of ravens who bestow upon me the secret knowledge of flight. My wings emerge from my shoulder blades and they remind me of my days in the sea. When I begin to lay eggs, I —
        –> Find a sexual partner who might make the eggs into something more (go to part 4)
        –> Scramble them with chopped onions (if you are reading this aloud, bring along the necessary supplies to chop some onions, and then allow yourself to cry in front of your audience; when everyone is sufficiently uncomfortable, you may proceed to part 5)

4.    For a time I think that maybe he can stay inside of me forever, moving with my rhythms, touching each groove and turn and the rim bones of my earthly skeleton. I think I might love him, somehow. But I tell him too soon, speak the love into its own undoing, and he says he must go. I grieve this loss for —
        –> Exactly one hundred years, and my tears create new river tributaries (go to part 6)
        –> The amount of time it takes to press the tip of a thread though the eye of a needle (if you are reading this aloud, you must bring along a needle and thread to demonstrate, and then go to part 7)

5.    I deeply regret that I have done this, and —
        –> My body twists itself into a weeping willow upon the riverbank (go to part 8)
        –> I vow that I shall someday have a daughter and make it so that she can be always wild and free (go to part 9)

6.    A man comes along and sees the rivers of my tears and tells me that I am being melodramatic. I say to him, Nobody asked you. And then I say to him, Let me tell you a story about a young woman who only ever wanted to —
        –> Learn the secret language of trees (go to part 10)
        –> Be able to touch her toes without bending her knees (if you are reading this aloud, demonstrate according to your own abilities, without judgment or fear of judgment, and then proceed to part 11)

7.    I say to myself: If I ever have a daughter, I will make sure that she will —
        –> Respect all rivers as holy places of movement and change (go to part 10)
        –> Always cover her mouth when she sneezes and never dare to grow wings from her shoulder blades (go to part 11)

8.    Life as a weeping willow is not terribly exciting, but one day an oracle comes along the path. In exchange for the shelter that I offer her from the rain, she tells me a story from the future about a young woman who will —
        –> Carve her own self-portrait into the face on the moon (go to part 12)
        –> Conduct a research study in pursuit of a more precise identity for Mitochondrial Eve (if you are reading this aloud, ask your audience if they are familiar with the theory of Mitochondrial Eve; if necessary, attempt to explain mitochondrial genetics and matrilineal descent, dispelling common misconceptions as you are able, and then go to part 13)

9.    She will not cry often, but she will never hold back tears when she feels that they are coming. She will —
        –> Learn how to swim at a young age (go to part 12)
        –> Study to become an engineer and someday design bridges to connect all those castles in the air (go to part 13)

10.    She will study the secret language of trees and will find a way to transcribe that poetry which, over the ages, all of the women who have ever been changed into trees have been composing in their photosynthetic minds, with no way to write it all down, making it difficult for them to keep all the line breaks straight, with their style relatively spare yet overusing commas, and never employing the liberating device of multiple choice; after all, they did not choose to become trees (go to part 14)

11.    She will compose melodies so beautiful that her listeners fall in love with their own breath and never think about dying again (go to part 15)

12.    She will paint another self-portrait using her own menstrual blood and critics will call it a little too on the nose and she will point to the nose in the portrait and say, Yes, blood on the nose, blood everywhere. She will insist that her true home is a place where it is always Christmas and never winter. Meanwhile, the hurt changes from day to day but some essential quality of it remains the same. She will continue to feel this mysterious hurt and wonder about its shape, its size, its texture (go to part 14)

13.    She will wear golden eyeliner and carry a flaming sword. She will enjoy speaking with split infinitives and always find opportunities to use phrases like put that in your pipe and smoke it and how do you like them apples (go to part 15)

14.    She will wash her hands frequently and will always say bless you when she hears somebody sneeze. And she will return to the sea someday; I am sure of it. When the light hits the horizon just right, she will watch the glints on the hairs on her legs as they become the scales of a mermaid’s tail. She may still take human lovers if she chooses to, but she will always make sure that they do not drown.

15.    (If you are reading this out loud, softly hum a song that makes you feel safe. If not everyone in your audience can hear it, that’s okay. And if you sneezed while reading this, bless you.)

 

Anna Hundert is a fiction and nonfiction writer currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and elsewhere both online and in print. She is also a regular contributor to the Ploughshares blog. You can find her on Twitter @anna_hundert.

So Much an Outlaw I Belong on a Wanted Poster by Holly Pelesky

My first bull ride was like my first orgasm: mechanical. It was one of those nights when headlights reflect off the wet streets and everything is slick and shiny. Us girls found ourselves where 1st Avenue meets King Street, at Cowgirls Inc. A bar with bras strewn over clothesline, where the bartenders wore shirts cut high enough to show off their belly button rings and the air hanged hot and thick like breath. We had grown up in split-levels, on cul-de-sacs, but that night we wore cowboy boots, bought earlier that day from Renton Western Wear, price tags still affixed to the soles.

I wasn’t going to climb onto that bucking machine so the boys could watch my tits bounce. I was still a virgin barely, but nonetheless. I mean the shyness of me was still intact. I wasn’t going to, but my new boots with the fringe, the music beating in my ears, the beer, that bootstrap, that saddle. The buzz of the crowd electric as I swung my leg over the automatic beast, squeezed it between my thighs. On my revolving perch I learned what the other girls already knew, what I was after: forty-five seconds of being watched like that.

 

Holly Pelesky writes essays, fiction and poetry. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska. Her prose can be found in Roanoke Review, The Nasiona, and Jellyfish Review. She recently released her first collection of poems, Quiver. She works, coaches slam poetry, and raises boys in Omaha.

Soft Bundles by Meghan Lousie Wagner

At night, mother feeds me hair. I slurp it down like spaghetti. She rolls me into bed and locks the door. Only after I begin to dream, a mountain girl comes to unspool it from my throat. In the moonlight, I watch her twist it into tight spindles around her knuckles. Golden flecks sparkle off her skin. Her head is bald and smooth and when I to reach up and touch her—to feel if she is real the same way I am real—she swipes a sharp hand across my neck.

Each morning, I find glitter on the floor. It pricks my bare feet as I walk to the mirror to check my throat.

In the kitchen, mother makes bread. I show her my scars. She punches dough against the counter.

“Did they get it all this time?” she asks.

* * * *

Our town is small and we are not the only ones in debt to the mountain girls. Every telephone pole has a yellow sign, CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE MOUNTAIN GIRLS. I pass them on the way to school but never stop to read the fine print. It’s bad luck to know about the deals your mothers make. Everyone has heard stories about curious kids who sneak letters out of mailboxes and then, the next day, are found drowned in their bathtubs. Or impaled by tree branches in their sleep. Or, worse, they wake up toothless, without tonsils—no good to anyone.

* * * *

Some mothers tell stories to help their children swallow hair. They say it’s made from magic sugar cane. That it’s been spun into caramel. They promise if you eat it all, then you’ll grow into the prettiest woman in town (no matter how you look now), you’ll be the richest man (no matter how poor you are now), you’ll have the happiest life (no matter how miserable you are now).

If, if, if…

My mother never lies. Not like that. After dinner, she takes hair from the fridge and combs it across the counter. Some nights it’s brown, some nights black, some nights it’s as soft and silver as the snow on the mountain tops. Her forearms are tight from pounding bread all day, but her fingers are delicate. She twirls it into soft bundles of noodles.

“If you don’t eat it all,” she says, “they’ll only bring more tomorrow.”

“And what if I don’t eat that?”

“They’ll bring more,” she says, shrugging.

“They bring more anyway.”

“Exactly,” Mother says, pushing a bowl toward me.

* * * *

The mountain girls come to my school’s graduation. Their golden heads cast a glare in the stadium. None of us will admit we know them. On our way to pick up diplomas, they wave their yellow signs. They cheer the loudest.

* * * *

Years later, when I am grown, I am neither beautiful nor rich nor happy. My throat is too old for swallowing hair and now my mother wanders town, tacking the yellow signs to telephone poles. At night, we eat melon dipped in salt. She tells me I should get married and have children of my own.

“Then,” she says, spitting out a seed, “we can get back in with the mountain girls.”

The next day, I take a train headed to the coast, far from the mountains. There’s another town on the shore that smells of sand and seaweed. I walk past telephone poles with blue signs, CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE GROTTO GIRLS. The clouds hang low. I stop inside a salt water taffy shop and buy a box to bring home for mother. The girl who sells it to me has crosshatches on her neck. She pretends not to notice mine.

I take another train going north, further from the mountains. When I arrive in the city, I have eaten most of the taffy. The sky is dark, but the lights are bright. Electronic billboards line the streets. Images flicker on their screens. CASH FOR DREAMS: CALL THE CONCRETE GIRLS.

I stay up all night, drifting past neon lit bars and storefronts until I am back at the train station. I have no more money for a ticket back to the mountains. Inside the terminal, I see a booth. CASH FOR DREAMS.

“Tell us about your dreams,” says a bald, golden headed girl.

Since I don’t dream, I tell her about the mountain girls. She offers me a clipboard and pen. I sit on a cushioned chair.

“Can you help me get home?” I ask.

“We can arrange a deal,” she says, showing me the fine print. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen it myself. My instinct is to look away. But I want to know. To finally know what it is they take.

“Oh,” I say, disappointed by the obviousness of it. “I’ll have to give you children.”

“Only their dreams.”

“But I have to have children?”

“We offer alternative plans.”

“How can I get back to the mountains?”

She flips a page in the clipboard. “We have plans for that, too.”

* * * *

In the morning, as promised, I awake in my bed. I look out the window and see mountains. There is no glitter on the floor.

In the kitchen, I find Mother at the table. I take out a blade and shear her head. She stands still, but winces when I move too close to her ear. Her crinkled, silver hairs fall onto the floor. I sweep them up and carefully twirl them into bundles. Once I wrap them in plastic, I pack them into my basket, crooked beneath my arm.

“It’d be easier if you had children,” she says, shaking her bald head.

I leave the kitchen and go to feed the town.

 

Meghan Louise Wagner is a writer from Cleveland, OH. Her work has appeared in places such as AGNI, Shirley Magazine, matchbook, Hobart, and X-R-A-Y.

Yes, You Can Eat Your Goldfish by Susan Rukeyser

Yes, you can eat your darling goldfish. He is most likely a form of ornamental carp, and he will taste as you expect: muddy and full of bones.

You can eat all your darlings, once you kill them. Although why you killed Prince Harry the goldfish I cannot understand. Was it all the staring, his bulging eyes? Was it his flashy orange scales, so out of place in your dark, dusty cabin full of your ancestors’ ghosts? Or was it that his beauty faded by the day, in your care, and you could not bear to watch it—how his scales grew dull and his swimming listless, until he mostly stayed put in the middle of the small, round, glass bowl that was his world since you brought him home from that Memorial Day carnival? His translucent fins fanned like the scarves of an old burlesque dancer still going through the motions.

You sure looked like you wanted him when you paid $3.00, six times in a row, tossing rings onto a pole. Prince Harry watched you from the table full of glass goldfish bowls and saw how you labored for him, how you fought against your own shortcomings to win him as a prize. But now it’s August, and you should have set him up with a proper tank by now, some plastic plants and aquarium gravel, at least.

Prince Harry was an $18.00 goldfish, which makes him as expensive as any other freshwater fish on the menu at your local upscale seafood place. But you should know that the diet you fed him of dehydrated fish flakes won’t please your palate, nor your conscience. (Maybe you could have treated him better?)

What’s done is done, I get it. I just hope you killed him with kindness.

Because, you know, Prince Harry the goldfish was miserable in that little glass bowl. He was never going to become the best fish he could be, trapped in there. In the wild—if you had released him, an invasive species—he could have grown far beyond your expectations. (Seriously, he could’ve grown to be a foot long!) But at what cost to the other fish in the lake that butts up to your cabin? Prince Harry would crowd out the others that belong there.

Your darlings can be eaten, and they should be, if they fail to thrive. If you fail them.

But Prince Harry the goldfish will leave a bad taste in your mouth. He watched you toss all those rings at the carnival. For him. He thought you loved him. He thought he was home.

 

Susan Rukeyser writes and reads in Joshua Tree, California. Her debut novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying, was released by Twisted Road Publications and she recently completed her new novel, The Worst Kind of Girl. In 2018, Susan founded World Split Open Press to publish feminist books, including The Feckless Cunt Anthology. She also hosts the Desert Split Open Mic, Joshua Tree’s feminist, queer, and otherwise radical open mic and occasionally interviews local and visiting authors. Susan’s short fiction, creative nonfiction, and multimedia work appear in numerous places, both online and in print. linktree.com/susanrukeyser

Transfiguration by Nancy Hightower

You aren’t scared the night he creeps into your room. You know you should be scared, as he stands in front of your bed—hands on hips as if sizing you up—but there are too many things competing for your terror right now. You have to choose wisely.

I heard you crying, he says.

How’d you hear that? you ask because you’re sure he’s lying. You know how to sob quietly into your pillow so your Daddy can’t hear, how to quit early, so Mum won’t ask the next day why your eyes are puffy. Good girls don’t get puffy eyes or nighttime visitors.

You know how to lie, too, now that you’re turning thirteen. This was the week Mum said you could no longer run outside with your brothers. This was the week your hair was pulled tight and tied back in blue ribbons, while a chemise and corset imprisoned your chest and cinched your waist. This is the week you were to learn how to be a lady.

I heard you, Peter says again while his shadow nods in agreement. You don’t think much of that trick. What good is a delinquent boy and his shadow when doomed to a life you don’t want? Tomorrow you are to be fitted with new shoes that includes a little heel. It will angle your back and shoulders for a more ladylike posture, Mum explained.

Come with me, instead, Peter interjects, as if he had overheard the conversation.

Where? you ask, as if there are safe options for a thirteen-year-old girl whose room has been invaded by a boy and his shadow.

The Island, another voice answers. Or possibly many voices, as it does not sound like just one. You look at the shadow, which scratches its head. And then you see someone though a dust red haze standing by the window. If anyone says fairies like pink, know they’re lying because Tink hates pastels. Even leaning against the wall, hands in pockets and head tilted to one side, they are taller than Peter who scarcely seems taller than you. You take in their mass of black ringlets that frame a wide jaw and high cheekbones. You envy their maroon pinstripe suit. You can be anyone you want to be there, Tink adds. Not a girl’s voice, yet not a boy’s either. You can’t tell if they’re sixteen or sixty, and don’t care. Your palms are wet and your heart beats so loud you are worried Peter can hear it, but he just smiles as if he understands everything and says, we leave tonight.

 You want to pack your dresses and shoes and ribbons, but Peter keeps asking what for until you leave it all on your bed. Tink keeps close to the window, as if your room were a prison and to venture too far in might jeopardize their own freedom. When they hold out their hand, you lace your fingers through theirs, watch as they fold the moon into a smooth bright road calling you to another place.

Everyone is still up by the time you arrive. Young and old alike wear whatever they want: off the shoulder dress, slitted skirt, breeches with waistcoat and rainbow tie; their hair in braids or cropped short, while others sport wigs in cotton candy colors as if they were crowns. We’ve been waiting for you, Tia says, pointing to a large table filled with food. You and Tink sit side by side, your nightdress hiked up so that your thigh rests against theirs. Mum would never have approved, but you can’t quite remember her face or voice now. Even your old room disappears in the mist. Where can I get a suit like that? you whisper, but Peter overhears you. Hook will take care of it, he says. He can tailor anything.

Peter started the tradition, I help with the transition, Tink explains, as they take off their jacket to reveal a pair of razor-sharp diamond wings. Hook can sew, but no one cuts a pattern as well as I do. A shiver of fear and joy runs through you as Tink leans in, puts their hand on your lower back. Don’t worry. I can wait

You change your name from Wendy to Wen to Wendell, as Tink shears off your hair little by little, and the wind at the back of your neck feels like freedom. Peter gives all his future grown-up selves to keep the island invisible. Some days he can’t fly, because magic like that demands balance, courses through his muscles and joints like lightning. Tink makes a special tea to help him sleep through the night. Sometimes he takes too much and pretends he’s Queen Victoria. These are your favorite nights, even though the next morning is rough. Peter remains young and weary and welcomes all those cast out of their houses. Year after year they come to find a banquet awaiting them. Some weep at the sight. Others are surprised into laughter at such tenderness. Hook gives a fashion show every Spring to show his new line and you take up woodworking, surprising Tink with a rocking chair made for two.

One day Peter doesn’t wake up.

You feel the shift in the wind, watch the tides grow stronger and wonder what ships might accidentally find this harbor now. Some take a boat with Hook in hopes of finding a similar haven. Others travel deeper into the forest where Peter said there were caves to build a fortress, if ever the need came for it. Everyone knew Neverland was made on borrowed time. You and Tink remain in the house you built together, a stone’s throw from the green mound where Peter sleeps. Tink’s wings, beating back the tide each night, shrink with each new moon. Their glorious ringlets have started turning gray and shed with each new rain. Every evening you ease Tink out of their clothes, massage each sore muscle with hands, lips, and tongue. They moan with exhausted pleasure and lay curled up between you and Peter’s shadow, sleeping. You take turns holding them as a new storm moves in and the nightmares descend. One day we won’t need an imaginary island, Tink whispers. They kiss you for a second, an hour, an entire year, extending your life with each breath until you are an old man sitting with his shadow on a white sandy beach, dreaming it all true.

 

Nancy Hightower has had work published in Joyland, Gargoyle, Entropy, Washington Post, HuffPo, NBC News Think, and elsewhere. She is the author of Elementari Rising (2013) and The Acolyte (2015).

Not a Lump by Greta Hayer

I would have known what to do if it had been a lump; instead, in the mound of my left breast was a hole. At first, it was hardly more than a dark pore, like a pinprick, but after a few days, it was big enough to hide a button in.

I called my brother’s husband. “Honestly,” he said. “I don’t know that much about breasts.”

“You’re a surgeon.”

“I’m a foot surgeon.” He sighed, breathing into the mouthpiece. “Besides, I’m usually the one making the holes.”

Not what I wanted to hear. “How’s Mike?”

“Tell me you’ll get that looked at by an oncologist or something.”

“It’s not a lump. Cancer is a lump.”

When we hung up, I looked at my chest in the yellow light of the bathroom. The hole looked up at me, as wide as a dime. Inside, I only saw blackness, maybe a pinkish tone to it. I leaned closer to the light, shoving my chest over the sink and pressing hard against the cold porcelain. Inside, I saw a shiver of movement. Had something burrowed deep within me, or was I merely seeing my own heart?

I called my doctor, who asked if it hurt. It didn’t. Since it didn’t hurt, and it wasn’t a lump, he figured what was there to worry about? I nodded, though we were on the phone, and he couldn’t see my assent.

I went out. I started the night with a trio of friends. Not good ones, not friends who discussed something a precious as our own mortality. Besides, they were perfect, flawless versions of the female form, and certainly, none of them bore a hole in their chest.

I lifted a glass of wine to my lips, and for a moment, the world was only a pungent red sea and a clear sky. When I lowered the glass, my friends were gone, easing their way into the crowded bar, fitting into circles of conversation and pockets of secrets.

The bartender waved at my empty glass.“Another one?” 

“I guess. It’s not a lump.”

His face broke into a grin. “Then, you’re celebrating.” He poured a pair of shots. “My mom’s a survivor.”

His mom? How old was he? Not so much younger than me. Or maybe a lot younger. I couldn’t tell the ages of people younger than me anymore; maybe that was a symptom.

I grinned shallowly, but threw back the whiskey. The heat of it traveled down my neck, pooling like liquid fire in my chest.

My shirt dampened. A dark pool gathered above the hole, leaking whiskey onto my top.

The bartender noticed, pointing with an elbow as he poured another patron a drink. “Looks like you spilled.”

I shook my head and tried to cover the seeping wetness with a hand. I felt the eyes of everyone in the bar, gawking. My friends were nowhere, or maybe they were among the strangers staring. The liquor trickled down my chest, under my bra, past the waistline of my pants. I was dying. I had to be.

In the ER, the doctor checked my breathing and shook his head. He pressed the stethoscope to my whole breast and shook his head. “Your vitals are fine. Bloodwork is negative.”

I covered myself as best I could with the papery hospital gown. “What’s wrong with me?”

“I suggest you go home, sleep it off.” The doctor was already moving toward the door. “At least it’s not a lump.”

I touched the edge of skin around the hole, sticky with the remnants of the alcohol. It was big enough that I could probably insert my pointer finger. “Yes,” I said, nodding and smiling vacantly. “So lucky it’s not a lump.” 

 

Greta Hayer received her MFA at the University of New Orleans and her bachelor’s degree in history at the College of Wooster, where she studied fairy tales and medieval medicine. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Luna Station Quarterly, and Maudlin House and her nonfiction has appeared in Booth and Flint Hills Review. Her column, “In Search of the Dream World,” can also be found in Luna Station Quarterly.