L’Humaine Condition by Lily Wang

When one person is chosen everyone is chosen. Each life is random and must be taken as a whole, thus illuminating life from all directions, thus there can be no darkness.

Montaigne pulls out an alien. He knows his life is over.

He pulls out the alien from the hole in the ground and they both lay panting on the grass. Montaigne panting for the both of them, Montaigne panting for the world. He is disappointed. He trails the fleshy-pad of his fingertip along the surface of the alien, so brave already, waiting for the nick. It never happens. The alien is smooth and rectangular, not opal but quartz, with mirror flecks. He has seen counter-tops like it, he is awed.

Augustine is the next to arrive. Montaigne and Augustine do not know each other, or if they know each other they have never mentioned each other. Augustine is penetrated by his own seeing of the alien and loses his appetite immediately. He takes his position some five feet away and begins to speak at an even tone. His English is plain and intermediate. The feeling he arouses in the alien is a kind of compromised purity.

Stepping back for a moment to fix the viewpoint on—a squirrel, who adventures to the farthest end of a branch and paws at its own head, then lays flat on its stomach beneath the sun, then, maybe a fluff floats past.

No one is interested in the squirrel because that would be too easy.

The alien asks to be held. Montaigne replies, I am already holding you. Augustine stops speaking. The alien wants to know where the baseball game is. You have it all wrong, Montaigne continues, looking to Augustine for the first time. They notice blood in each other’s left eye, but for some reason neither man informs the other of this symptom. Perhaps there is no point. There are no doctors around and there are no tissues.

Augustine makes a lunge for the alien. I am only thinking of her, he says. Montaigne has no interest in fighting and gives up the alien at once. Look at yourself, Montaigne says. His sound is modest and ironical. You are dull and round, he says to Augustine, who is dull and round next to the alien. My only daughter is sick, Augustine says. You can save her, you can do something, can you not? Montaigne hears this and changes his mind. He grabs at the alien, causing it to slip from Augustine’s arms. You are not thinking, he whispers to Augustine. Their eyes are quickly filling with blood.

The two men glance around. They miss the resting squirrel entirely, but so does time, and so the earth. There is no net for the squirrel. There is no language for its history. They look down at the alien who is writhing in the grass.

Am I wrong?

Am I right?

It is no longer clear who is saying what.

The encounter is anticlimactic for everyone, and together the two men return the alien back to its hole. Go back to where you came from, they say in unison. The alien whimpers and makes suckling noises, a long tentacle lashes out and seizes Montaigne’s neck. GO BACK, Augustine says, and the alien asks, where? Where?

There is only here, there is only this, there is only me, there is only you.

The three fall to the ground. An hour has passed.

I can see my blood, Montaigne says.

Yes, says the alien.

I can see my blood, Augustine says.

It is the same blood as your daughter’s, says the alien.

Augustine stands up, then Montaigne follows. They walk off together, keeping a safe distance between each other, like strangers. Awaking from its nap the squirrel falls and lands on the alien, and begins to eat.

 

Lily Wang is the author of the poetry chapbooks Everyone In Your Dream Is You (Anstruther Press, 2018) and Oh(!) (Dancing Girl Press, 2019). She is the founder of Half a Grapefruit Magazine and you can read more of her work in Peach Mag and Cosmonauts Avenue.

A Quick Word About My Life by Tiger Blair

Ever since they opened up a falling club in our town, there’s little else that Theresa will do. After her daily shift at the ball bearing plant, she drives to the large, lime-stained building that used to be a Toys R Us, where she falls into foam pits, backwards, as though she’s a concertgoer in a mosh pit or a toppled statue of a despot. Like a gym, it has its members and regulars and Theresa remembers everyone’s names. Over dinner, she tells me about Dan who falls because he has a stressful job as a 911 operator or Janet who has three children to feed and thinks that any day her husband will get fired. I hear about Becki who sleeps with night terrors and Greg who can’t sleep at all. And while she’s telling me that if she falls enough she will one day earn a spot in the platinum level, which is the old stock room, and get to step off backwards from an even greater height, I wonder what she tells Dan and Janet and Becki and Greg about her own life or about me, or why, for example, when she leaves work to drive to the falling club, she passes our house without stopping, without looking up at the window to see her husband standing there.

 

Tiger Blair is a Boston-based writer, and this is his first published short story. You can find him on Twitter at @yestigerblair.

Drink Like a Bird by Meg Pokrass

John and I watched their lights behind us. When we broke down, the others were invisible.

“Take a walk with me,” said John, getting off the snowmobile, telling me to use my legs. And so we went back and forth, trying not to act helpless and pitiful. We were trying to move. It was fifty below.

* * *

Ma once said: “Good men do not make good lovers.”

She always said what a mother should not.

Even when he was sleeping, he let me hold him. He snored like the dogs – gently whistled.

“Keep moving,” he said, persuading me, lifting snow from the ground, saying that I must drink snowy water from his lips.

“Be like a bird,” he said.

I remembered the dogs at home, someone would probably hear them.
So we spent the night like this, paying attention to what was not true, me drinking from my husband’s mouth. Worrying about dogs.

* * *

On the second night, I saw lights approaching, a man waving his greeting, breaking through silence. John’s eyes were still open, but he looked like a child’s drawing — dark holes for a nose and a white, straight mouth.

“Hi!” I shouted. “Here!”

I remember John’s strange ideas that kept me alive, and I think about what my mother said, and why she could say that. I think about why John insisted on living here in a frozen world and how I might have said no so long ago.

Sometimes I dream that I am feeding him just as he fed me like a bird. In that dream, he still does push-ups, closing his eyes with his hands, freeing the dogs to love me as only dogs can do.

 

Meg Pokrass is the author of four collections of flash fiction, and one award-winning collection of prose poetry, Cellulose Pajamas, which received the Blue Light Book Award in 2016. Her writing has been widely anthologized, most recently in the forthcoming Best Small Fictions 2018, edited by Aimee Bender (Braddock Avenue Books) and two Norton Anthologies of flash fiction: Flash Fiction International and New Micro–Exceptionally Short Fiction. A new flash fiction collection, Alligators At Night will be released in 2018 (Ad Hoc Fiction). Meg is the founder of New Flash Fiction Review.

The Giant by Joaquin Fernandez

I am not a giant.”

She used to say it to herself in the mirror after it became clear that she would not stop growing. She mouthed the words to herself in the mirror as her chambermaids stretched corsets and snapped whalebone at her mother’s vanity.

I am not a monster.”

After she outgrew her bed and slumped overnights in the den, she would whisper into the night. She frowned in the dark on her mothers fainting couch, all stretch marks and grumbling stomach, an embarrassment behind the partition. Late night shuffles into the pantry for biscuits and jam and bacon grease. She was, after all, a growing young lady. She lay, worried and drowsy, watching the mice play till dawn. One night, the sweet bitterness of her father’s bourbon taught her again to sleep and she learned to love it, stiff neck mornings and all.

But I’m still a girl.”

She was 14 when her mother told her she would no longer attend school. She had taken to wearing two quilts sewn together, a patchwork Goliath with shy eyes and the audacity of bare arms. Her size had become an issue of decency. At seven feet, she slouched, towering over her parents and brothers. No one followed when she stormed out. No one argued when she wrapped her big hand over her father’s favorite bottle. The good china rattled as she stomped away. Every room in the house had become a cage, built to hold the smallest of mice, but the barn felt like it was hers. She yelled at the moon and scared the horses.

When the lights of the main house went dark, she knew that this was where she belonged. Half-drunk and desperate, she wept. Face in her hands, elbows in the dirt, she sobbed mercilessly. She stopped, puzzled and sopping wet. She looked down and saw her own face, bleary-eyed, massive, and beautiful. She stood and she smiled when she realized it. She had wept a flood. The horses sputtered and chuffed in curious protest, splashing about in their newly ponded stalls. The Giant laughed at their confusion, a low wry chuckle, but regretted it when she saw the fear in their eyes. Without warning, their world had ceased to make sense.

The horses used to scare her as a child, all galloping kicks, teeth and sinew. But now they demurred to her with downcast eyes. She unlatched the first stall and heard it squeak open behind her as she walked to the next one. In the horses eyes, she saw her father’s fear. Her mother’s. Her own. One by one, the horses trotted out, nervous at their own freedom. The last one waited for her, clever eyes flashing in the moonlight. She reached for the horse tenuously.

Invited, the horse dipped her head and nuzzled The Giant’s belly with a doggish playfulness. The Giant ran her fingers through the horse’s mane while the other horses sprinted into the night with a graceful thunder. By the time the lights came on in the main house, the horses were gone, and The Giant with them, just another wild thing running free in the moonlight.

 

Joaquin Fernandez has appeared in Rhythm & Bones, AFTERMATH, and Chaleur Magazine among others. He is a recovering filmmaker and Miami native perpetually tinkering with his first novel.

The Fount of Destruction by Julie Zuckerman

By 8:30 pm, the line snaked three times around The Fount of Destruction, and Pete’s manager came by to give him the Jersey Joyland “keep it moving” signal, meaning: be ruthless and weed out anyone too young or too small. Pete forced anyone licking their soft serves or pinching tufts of cotton candy when they reached the front to move aside. If the kids grumbled or tried to hand off snacks to their parents, he pointed to the simulated smoke seeping out of The Fount’s interior, the lava-breathing monsters on the posters, the fake flames lapping the opening, and barked, “This is no ride for whiners!” Sometimes the fathers argued, got in Pete’s face, but he’d learned from his own dad how to stand up to that kind of aggression. The mothers of the rejected riders looked relieved; as kids disappeared through the entrance they could hear the booming voice of The Fount proclaim, “You will not return the same.”

Pete narrowed his eyes and surveyed the next load for kiddies to reject: a girl around 12 whose green pallor boded poorly, a little dude in a Carson Wentz jersey trying to puff himself up like the star quarterback, identical twin brothers shoving each other. He wouldn’t be sorry to leave Joyland behind at the end of the summer; by this time next year he’d have his degree and hopefully a real job in New York City.

At the exit, Pete’s coworker helped the kids unbuckle their safety belts, and then wiped down the seats of the ones who’d been so frightened they’d wet their pants. This kind of thing happened on other rides too – all Joyland exit greeters were given packages of wet wipes – but The Fount was known to be the most pee-inducing.

Joyland was 100 feet from the Atlantic, a boardwalk in between, but the nights were too black and the music too loud to see or hear the waves. The seagulls that snatched sunbathers’ snacks during the day – Shoobies from Philly who didn’t know how to guard their sandwiches or soft pretzels – stayed away in the evenings. Pete’s mom had sailed away on those waves, but unlike those exiting The Fount, she’d never returned.

The kid in the Carson Wentz t-shirt neared the front. Maybe 10, but short for his age. Pete’s gaze darted from the top of the boy’s head to the height chart. He was about to make the universal “you’re out” gesture with his thumb when a man whose forearms were as thick as the rotting beams holding up the boardwalk elbowed his way towards the front, a Coors in each hand. The kid’s eyes told Pete he’d already seen plenty of destruction. If he squinted, the boy’s missing inch and a half became less visible.

“You don’t look like the type to wet your pants. Am I right?” Pete leaned down, his voice not unkind. He’d been about the kid’s age when his mother had left.

The boy smirked, a tough guy. But Pete felt a kinship with these kids, the ones whose fathers spent most nights at the bars along Atlantic Avenue or sometimes in a holding cell until they could sober up. Who came home sowing strife, full of liquor, mean and snarly, like his old man.

“Go ahead,” he said to the boy, taking the requisite four tickets. He pointed to the next empty compartment, a few yards away from the fake flames at the Fount’s mouth.

The kid rushed past but then wavered when he got to his seat. Pete called: “Get in. You’ll make it.”

 

Julie Zuckerman’s debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, will be published by Press 53 in 2019. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Salt Hill, The SFWP Quarterly, Ellipsis, formercactus, Sixfold, descant, and The MacGuffin, among others. A native of Connecticut, she now lives in Israel with her husband and four children.

Outline for an Eco-Romance by Ori Fienberg

Opening Scene:

Joe and Cindy are talking. They are both very beautiful and young, in love, and about to graduate from college. Joe has been promised a job by his reclusive and highly successful grandfather. Joe is bringing Cindy to meet his parents, at their yearly family retreat to Montauk. Cindy is worried because she does not think Joe’s conservative parents will like her, and also because she has a deep-rooted fear of bonfires, which are an important family tradition.

Inciting Incident:

Cindy meets Joe’s parents, but they are taken aback because Cindy is actually an oak tree. Joe’s parents are not into inter-Kingdom partnerships, but they agree that they will try to get to know her. Only Joe’s grandmother is unfazed, declaring that Cindy seems to be a lovely young tree.

Decisive Moment:

Cindy agrees to go to the bonfire, to show Joe’s family that she can have a good time with them, despite being an oak tree.

Mishap Scene:

When Cindy sees the bonfire, and determines that in fact a large amount of the wood being used on it is oak, she begins to cry, dropping leaves everywhere. She runs into the forest, and Joe follows her. Cindy wants Joe to come live in the forest with her. Joe does not want to live in the forest because he is not sure how he will be able to take the corporate job his grandfather offered him in his multinational landscaping business. Joe convinces Cindy that his family didn’t have the oak wood in the woodpile out of spite.

Climax:

Cindy tells Joe that she’s worried about losing him, and that she will not leave the forest until they are married. They find the tallest tree in the forest, an old white pine to marry them, and then they consummate their relationship.

Falling Action:

Cindy invites the children of Joe’s family to climb her. When Joe’s parents see the children having a good time with Cindy, they feel better about their relationship.

External Challenge:

Joe’s parents inform them that Joe’s grandfather, the reclusive millionaire who sponsors the family retreat, has decided to join them. Joe’s grandmother is very nervous.

Dénouement:

It is revealed that Joe’s grandfather is actually a highly successful shrub. He has stayed hidden out of embarrassment, but now, since it’s become clear that Joe is deeply in love with Cindy, he comes to give his blessing. Joe and Cindy admit that they have already married according to an ancient tradition, and they learn that it was the same way for Joe’s grandshrub and grandmother. A tear of joy comes to Joe’s mother’s eye when she spots a budding acorn on one of Cindy’s branches.

 

Ori Fienberg’s poetry, essays, and short stories appear in many venues including Always Crashing, Cincinnati Review, Essay Daily, Pank, Subtropics, and ZiN Daily. A graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, Ori works for Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies and lives in Evanston, IL. This piece was completed at a Sundress Academy for the Arts Writers Coop Residency. Read more at http://www.orifienberg.com.

The Redwood Table by Kaylie Saidin

I was eating cereal when Elon Musk launched a car into space. The milk was going bad soon, three days past expiration, so I shoveled spoonfuls of lucky charms and sweet and vaguely curdled liquid into my open mouth. On the television across from the redwood table, I watched the event being discussed by a grinning anchor and a gray-haired scientist who did not look like my father but could have been.

I couldn’t hear them over the sound of the cereal fragments and marshmallows squeaking over my molars. I was sure I had cavities. I had asked my mother for braces a year earlier and she had said no, my teeth were fine. And my teeth were fine, but I wanted braces anyway, to pretend I wasn’t born with straight teeth, to pretend I was born with enough money to pay for a full set of braces, to pretend I wasn’t born lucky.

My mother and I lived in the woods below San Francisco when this aeronautical miracle happened. The television cut to Him, the man who put the car in space who looked a little more like my father but could not have been, I told myself. His face was square, lips thin and pursed, and he said,

I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.

The cereal slid off my spoon and onto the redwood table. The table was my great grandfather’s, who’d lived in the tail end of the Old West, who’d been one of California’s first park rangers, who’d helped build the now-historic county store. Redwood was the only kind of wood that didn’t get eaten by termites, my mother said. Sometimes I counted the rings, the looping pattern that expanded beneath he finish, trying to see how old the trees were here, how ancient the land was.

Later that day my mother came home after sitting in her office way up on Nob Hill, the highest hill I’d ever been on. From her office you can see the businessmen scurrying around clutching briefcases, the tourists clamoring on the cable cars, the junkies and their dogs laughing, young men who just got hired at Google smoking legal weed in the park. Once, I went to her office, and that was what I saw. But my mother told me most of the time it was foggy, and she never saw anything but the tops of skyscrapers, pointed and flat, and sometimes the glisten of the Bay far away. I had just gotten lucky that day I visited.

She put her coat on the coat rack and saw I’d left the cereal spilled on the table. She asked me how I could treat an old thing with such disrespect, and my teeth, ridden with sugar, ached.

Then she talked about her day at work, and all I could think of was ancient redwoods.

I thought of men in overalls hauling lumber, laying down railroad tracks, rust and gold dust, earthquakes and bank robberies, ruins of a burned down bathhouse on the unforgiving coast, Janis Joplin and Grateful Dead and skinny houses that go farther back than you think. And then hills and valleys of silicon, buildings with every wall and floor and ceiling made of clear glass. The house I lived in, the house Elon Musk lived in, the hands that built them, and how different were they than the hands that built the redwood table?

As I fell asleep that night, I saw the high-pixelated image burned into my skull, the sleek spaceship of a cherry-red vehicle rotating around the planet, floating in perfect suspense. Space was a vacuum, they said. I wondered if I cut open the earth’s core, could I count the rings? If I didn’t think any more about the way the land had changed, about the way the people had changed, would I be happy? Change was progress, they said. That was why the rest of our family had moved away so they could afford braces, that was why they stopped building houses out of redwood. But none of that mattered – the future was here.

 

Kaylie Saidin grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and now lives in New Orleans. She is an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Her work has won the 2018 Dawson Gaillard Award for Fiction and has been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. You can read more of her in Atlas and Alice, Jellyfish Review, Every Pigeon, and others at http://www.kayliesaidin.weebly.com.

Uprooted by Brianna McNish

The hair refuses to pull free from Fran’s flesh. It shivers and recoils against her razor blade, fearful of what fate awaits after being discarded into a trash heap among other equally long black hairs. It wants attachment, flesh, sweat. Seeing other hairs collected in her sink, in her tub, in her trash, only compels the single armpit hair to stay here longer, to remember a time when there were more of them. To Fran, its insistence is cause for concern.

Days later, she will receive a wax underneath her pits, above her lip, below her crotch. By the time it is all over, she is pink and cold and filled with ache. The hair, dejected and irresolute, still remains. In her apartment, she will lie in bed, her arms and legs splayed like a starfish while she tries to pluck the hair free between her fingers. Later, she will get her girlfriend to try, and though the hair finally relents under her touch, it’s still there and craves attachment.

“I don’t know why you need it off so badly,” says her girlfriend. “If a person can’t comprehend that women grow hair, then they seriously need to grow the fuck up.” She is fuzzy like a peach and soft. Tiny hairs sprout from her legs like weeds, waiting to be uprooted. Among other things about her, this is what Fran likes: feeling her girlfriend’s hair stand on end as their arms and legs brush against each other in bed. Feeling the hairs on the nape of her neck as she draws her into a kiss.

“You don’t get it,” Fran says. And she knows just by the look her girlfriend makes Fran disappointed her somehow, disappointed to find the woman she believed to be careless and inventive and all the things she is not, is in fact just as acutely aware of her existence as everyone else. “I can’t have the kids seeing me with this. They’ll eat me alive.”

“It’ll be a good learning experience for them,” her girlfriend explains. “They’re, what, like, eight or nine? They should understand, and if they don’t, then they’ll understand now.”

Fran wants to be the kind of teacher the kids find pretty and affable and memorable. She wants them to tug on her skirt, throw their arms around her, and cry, “We love you, Miss Fran!” Something about their affection, so open and unified, strikes her as the most authentic. Even now, weeks before she begins her position as an art teacher, she can envision her students returning back to her years later in high school, their voices several octaves deeper, stubble amassing under their chins, and arms long enough to wrap her into a familiar embrace. The potential memory is sweet, welcoming. A single hair, even tucked beneath her armpit, somehow disrupts the possibility.

She finds herself in a doctor’s office, lying against the paper-lined cot with her arms raised and pits exposed. Her doctor is a bespectacled man and forever sniffling, as if he is trying to exhale the world in a single breath. He is too old to be a doctor, she thinks. His trembling finger curls around the hair, testing its viability, its strength. Under his breath, he says, “Mmm,” and “Interesting,” and, “That’s nice.” Fran doesn’t say a word, even as his ink pen glides across his notepad.

“I’m referring you to a specialist,” says the doctor. “A good one. Laser hair removal. You’ll like her.” Teasingly, he pulls at the hair. “It’s nothing but a little growth,” he says. Then, his eyes narrow. This is the first flicker of expression passing over his face since she entered his office.

A little growth. That’s all, that’s it. Growths are simple, extractable. Later, in bed, as her girlfriend fingers the single hair, she tells her, “Later, there won’t be anything.”

“You’re making a mistake,” her girlfriend says. She goes on about how if kids can’t understand she grows hair, then they have to deal it with regardless. They’ll grow up to actually hate hair on women. They’ll grow up to skirt away at the site of fur, to question the presence of imperfection on a woman’s skin. All the while, she kisses underneath her pits and keeps the hair curled around her finger. Fran fears her girlfriend loves her body hair more than she loves her.

Later, when Fran finally finds herself sprawled on the surgical table, she admires the stinging sensation as the laser glides across her flesh, each zap bringing a dull ache and discomfort, each flicker of pain sending her whole body humming with life. She feels as if bees are sinking into her flesh only to remove their stingers and inject it again and again. She feels as though fingers are plucking weeds from her flesh, desperate to find flowers there.

When it is all over, she thanks the surgeon and studies the pink, blistered flesh. In this way, she is reborn. She is all naked and hairless and shivering. When it is all over, she goes to her girlfriend who sits in the waiting room flipping through Marie Claire, points at the smoothness of her flesh that no longer feels like her own, and says, “Do you like it?”

Together, they ride home in silence. Neither mention how there is one week before school starts, one week before Fran encounters her first classroom of eager, wide-eyed eight-year-olds who may or may not know what grows from flesh.

Fran tells herself she wants to be the teacher everyone likes, the teacher who allows children to dump entire containers of glitter onto their creations. After her first day of teaching, she is uncertain whether anyone fully likes her yet, but she remembers when she placed popsicle sticks onto the table for their latest activity, one pig-tailed girl deeply inhaled the sweetness of her grapefruit-scented deodorant and smiled at her. Normally, a moment like this would’ve made her buzz with validation. But Fran only wished she had something underneath to keep her warm.

 

Brianna McNish writes from Connecticut. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Moon City Review, Jellyfish Review, Pidgeonholes, Hobart, and elsewhere, including a Pushcart nomination and recognition on Wigleaf’s Top 50 longlist.

Breast Roulette in Utero by Jennifer Todhunter

At 3am, two nights before her double mastectomy, my twin sister dances on a table at the only bar in town. She twists like the straws we sucked chocolate shakes through when we were young, slips down, down, down, like she did when she showed me how to give a guy a blowjob. There is a sweetness woven into the filth of this bar, and I wonder if she’s holding onto that. Holding onto it before everything becomes antiseptic and bleach.

Last call isn’t a thing here. Booze is served until you leave or pass out. My sister and I slouch against a jukebox that’s been fed so many quarters it’ll play AC/DC well into next week. A disco ball casts glitter across my sister’s chest. She is exhausted, has been exhausted for months, but we are having a night. That’s what she said when I said it’d be better to stay in and rest: fuck that, let’s go and have a night, goddammit.

When I was born, a deep hemangioma protruded from my chest like a third breast. Its center was the same color as the beets our dad canned every summer. I used to worry my sister would grow only one breast, that I had stolen the other from her in the womb. Now I am torn between guilt and relief that we split the breasts the way we did.

Tonight, my sister pokes at her left breast with the olive pick from my half-drained martini. Softly at first, then harder.

She’s wearing a low-cut shirt and the pick depresses her skin in a matching deep vee before piercing through. We both inhale when her blood pools at its point. I’m taken with how it resembles the blood that spilled from her knees when we were kids, by the thought that her disease may have made her blood different somehow. Darker, maybe. Thicker. Rancid.

She thrusts the pick with force again and it sinks much deeper this time.

Stop, I say, grabbing her hand. It’s shaking. Her whole body is shaking.

Do you remember the time you fell out of the tree and bit a hole through your tongue? she asks.

I nod.

Do you remember how mum ran out and thought you were dying because you were winded and couldn’t tell her where the blood was coming from?

I nod again.

Do you remember what that was like?

Being winded? I ask.

Looking at someone who thought you were dying.

I shake my head.

It’s the worst, she says. The absolute worst.

I look at her and she smiles.

Yup, just like that.

For the record, I don’t think you’re dying, I say, but part of me knows that’s not true.

Did you think you were dying? she asks.

I shake my head. I just wanted to get back up that goddamn tree.

Exactly, she says.

 

Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. She was named to Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2018, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes. Find her at http://www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.

Clapping by Sarah Salway

It started where it shouldn’t but it always does, with his lips fastened on home, the sweetness filling him and all he has to do is be a baby.

“You’re too old for that.” A sharp slap followed by spoonful of mashed potato he’s not allowed to spit out, the spoon waving towards him like an aeroplane. He’s no longer mummy’s boy. He’s a good boy, a hungry boy.

Other things form in his mouth, called words, the way sounds began to fit together to bring him everything he wants now he’s a talker.

Playing in the garden, when, shhh, a cousin calls him over to a hole in the hedge. Stay silent as he watches the couple moving like music, like a waltz, or was it war? He watches open and dry mouthed as they form words between them that he knows he’ll understand too if only he can stay there a little longer. Voyeur, they call out, and it sounds so pretty, so sweet, a peeping tom.

The world’s a pantry cupboard left open and he’s a scavenger on the spice shelf, putting tastes together just because he can. He’s working his way from Aniseed to Zatar until one day, he unscrews a top open without thinking, stops thinking as he loses sense, fills with every sense.

The splinters in his heart means to hold his body a certain way increases the sharpness of the pain, to let his mind wander causes a dull throb. He leaves people behind to concentrate on art, allows the stream of invoices to plug his gaps, and he listens, fingers steepled, as others call him a connoisseur.

External is all. He cheers up the drabness he feels with potted plants, builds bridges around his world so no one is sure whether he is coming or going, he calls everyone darling, and although he reserves his fondest strokes for the wine bottle – a drinker? Not him.

She’s dabbing his forehead when he wakes up. “Can I call you nurse?” he jokes, but she doesn’t smile but says yes, it’s her name. He shouts it out across wards, and corridors, and theaters. Rings bells to get her to come running. She’s a hole in the hedge, sweetness and words waltzing, she’s bottles knocked over and treasures hunted down, she’s bunches of grapes and everything he wants. “Your name, your name?” He wants to taste it in his mouth to see how they fit together. Now she’s his darling, he’s happy to be patient.

 

Sarah Salway is a writer based in Kent, England, and has just completed her fourth novel. Her previous novels have been published by Ballantine Books, Bloomsbury, and Harper Collins. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry London, PEN International, Financial Times, and many other magazines.