New Forever by Rebekah Morgan

I watched as she moved around the kitchen, arms filling up with fruit. She’d been sick for so long, I’d been the one making us breakfast. Toast usually, all that she could stomach, sometimes pancakes, plain, not even buttered.

But, the day before, we’d seen the elderly man with his banged up farm truck on the side of the road selling oranges when we were heading home from another bad appointment. He’d cut one in half right there in front of us and when he opened it up, the insides looked like the sun, they were almost perfect. “In the morning,” she’d said “I’ll make us some juice.”

I pulled the step stool from behind the trashcan and took the thick green glass juicer down from its perch. She sat at the wooden table, still wrapped in her white robe, and started slicing the oranges, digging her nails into the skin, little drops of juice running down the palms of her hands. Her nail polish was chipped a bit, little red flakes.

I watched her cut and twist the halves upon the juicer, the juice gathering in the cup below. I breathed in deep, smelling the memory of eating oranges on the beach in Georgia last summer. The wind mixed the scent of citrus and salted air as the storm came in and we’d run so fast back to our shitty hotel. I exhaled slowly, feeling my heart pound in my chest, my feet still bare on the floor.

She moved so slowly now. I handed her two purple glasses and she filled them with the freshly squeezed juice. “I’m tired,” she said “I need to lay down.” I followed her to the couch with our glasses, setting hers on the coffee table.

I stared out the window and watched the mountains evaporate and turn to oceans of blue. All the birds fell out of the sky, diving beneath the sea and reappearing at the surface with a small fish. I thought about her swimming. Her beautiful arms moving through the water, her body, so gracefully being carried out to sea, her strength bringing her back to land against all the currents. When she got to shore, her nose was bleeding. “I’m gonna shut my eyes, just for a few minutes,” she said. I took a sip of the juice she had used so much of her energy to make. It tasted like some kind of new forever.

It’s been so long since I’ve had something good to drink. I can’t drink orange juice anymore and I can’t eat oranges either. Just the thought makes tears come out of my eyes and people tell me I look like I’m crying. Sometimes at night I can hear a man sobbing, but when I look around he is gone.

I watch for the elderly man with the banged up farm truck. I miss her so much, I want the old farm man to cut one in half for me and I want it to look like the sun and I just wanna say they’re almost perfect.

 

Rebekah Morgan is a writer living in good ol’ Eastern Tennessee. Previous work can be found in Fence, Hobart, Joyland, Maudlin House, and Tyrant Books, among others places.

Mr. Worldwide by Megan Robinson

One night my father turns to me and says, Son, you should strike out on your own and become a man of the world. Yeehaw!

He says this from his ergonomic chair in the den, in front of his Westerns, among his closest companions, his council of mounted deer heads. I don’t believe in ergonomics. But someday you will, he says to me and goes back to his shows, which he does not remember he has been watching for hours.

He says these things and I half-believe him half the time and the other half I don’t believe him at all, because I was born a girl. My parents even had a lady-stripper pop out of a pink cake. (They used to be fun, before the world and age and the recession and I, their precious one, sent them downhill.) That morning when I asked my mother, finally, that she call me by my real name, she cried and yelled and took a walk around a whole neighborhood block. Dad would’ve yelled, too. He is of that old guard who still believes in intangible things. Freedom. Marriage. Capital gains. Though he is not himself anymore—not enough to believe in much at all.

These days, he does Sudoku. Mom stopped giving him the crossword when its references started to confuse him. He used to do them in red pen with the confidence of a man with a house, a family, a career, and everything to lose.

What my father might’ve meant when he said man of the world, was more like the world was my oyster, or Café du Monde, or Mr. Worldwide. Or perhaps he meant that I should set the world on fire, stop sitting around with him, and go chase a career in something that will make me wildly rich and famous. Carve a road of slim and uncertain success. Acting. Writing. Hip hop. Fireball.

It’s also possible what he meant was, Son, though he’d never say that in his right mind, in this dog-eat-dog world, you should be a man. You should be a mensch of a man, a man who eats not on the ground with the dogs, but at the table with the board of directors. I was on the board, he might say, of a prestigious university. And what have you done?

You know, I have struck out, Dad. If I could, I’d tell you it’s my last night in the house. In a time out of time, you would know that by morning I will be asleep on a friend’s couch on the other end of this cramped, rotten suburb.

But I could say anything. I could say: Hi Dad, you don’t know me, but I was your daughter once. There’s proof, and it’s on tape. A three-year-old that puts on your robe and slippers and glasses and clip-clops down the hallway, then clambers into a chair and pretends to read your newspaper, pretends to drink your coffee. Mom calls them “little dad.” They scribble red lines all over your crossword. You laugh. You ask them for clues, and they tell you all the words they know so far. You call them a baby genius, but all their answers are wrong.

Sometimes I put this on for you, though your eyes glaze over and you don’t laugh like you used to. I try not to unsettle you.

Sometimes you turn to me and say, You should meet my daughter. She’s away at school, but she’ll be back at Christmas. That’s when you unsettle me.

You sit with your father for the night, the first night you’ve come home in years, a prodigal, and your mother might slaughter the fatted calf, prime rib you will not eat, and ask you questions about your mopped hair, your half-sleeve, your girlfriend. Your mother might rise silently from the dinner table, a storm cloud, a spotted napkin falling from her lap, her body and lips tight before she tells you to go. Then there will be your father, who you’ve sat with in the den all day, and you will both hunger and fear for his spark of recognition. He might say anything, he might babble like a baby. He might call you Son, and you might even smile. And whatever sounds he makes will have no rational meaning or origin you can discern. But he is your father, one of your first models of how to be in the world, and there are only so many hours left to tell him where you are going and where you have been.

I never did make it back home that December.

 

Megan Robinson is a writer, designer, and an MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, WA. You can find them on Twitter at @mrobwrites.

Spectral Analysis by Marc Vincenz

Down at the port where the ribbons flow on a Friday night the pubs are crowded at five, the old skippers congregate, drifting greedily into their odd banter: who caught the most frightening fish, who came face to face with the deep in the eye of a giant squid, or barely escaped that battering from an angry blue whale. Imagine what else they go on about. Long time coming, storm cloud on the horizon, beneath the weather, then above it. Here come the mackerel, the herring, the scores of transatlantic cod. Once this place was loaded with sardines in wooden barrels and sailed from here across the world. The fish could be scooped up by almost any hand—they came from as far as Siberia followed by all the seagulls and one hundred years of frostbite. Take this very can, over one hundred years old, dented and rusted, the metals seep in, but the oil (imported from the Cretan islands) is still a thick emulsion and when you bite in, the salt crystals crackle on your tongue; and the sardines are soft yet firm, their skins have quietly braised in history, touched by cosmic background radiation.

All’s well with you, you say. I would hand you some fragments, some cold evidence, how they were herded onto the boats, searing in pain from cable burns, or those who died with a wire across their eyes, or the cut and scrape of their gills against cold steel; how they came from the other side of the planet to mate and spawn and breed where the most vital and vibrant river finds its source.

 

Marc Vincenz is an American-Swiss poet, fiction writer, translator, editor, and musician. He has published 20 collections of poetry, including more recently, The Little Book of Earthly Delights, A Brief Conversation with Consciousness, There Might Be a Moon or a Dog, and forthcoming in 2022, The Pearl Diver of Irunami (White Pine Press). His work has been published in The Nation, Ploughshares, Raritan, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, 3 AM, and World Literature Today. He is publisher and editor of MadHat Press and publisher of New American Writing.

Exposure Therapy by Jamie Logan

When her eighty-nine-year-old grandmother calls on Arlene’s twenty-first birthday, it is to celebrate another year spent exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. Few things give Arlene comfort these days, and neither her birthday nor this congratulatory call is among them. The passage of time reminds both women of Arlene’s mother. Lately, they speak of little else.

Arlene spends hours walking in suburban circles listening to podcasts on mountaineering disasters. She starts her day with YouTube content from a friendly neighborhood mortician and ends with exposes on wreck diving. These she finds reassuring. They remind her that there are other kinds of deaths. It’s not all cancer or car crashes, at least not all the time.

She is fascinated by death’s proximity. She places acorn circles around every car-flattened frog she finds. She worries about her cat and what will happen to him when she is gone. Shackleton is a fat boy, whose favorite activity is eating spiderwebs in hidden corners. She reads a book called Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? and is comforted to discover the answer is yes.

Arlene does not want to die, but more importantly, she does not want to die without reason. Her therapist Janet suggests cognitive behavioral therapy. “You are clinging to false beliefs,” Janet says. “You don’t need to quantify your contribution to the world, in death or in life, to justify existing.”

Arlene likes to quantify contributions.

For example, Shackleton is named after the Antarctic explorer. The cat squeezes himself into nooks and crooks in search of camouflaged bugs and forgotten hair ties. He has charted every room and continues to do so on the off chance the topography has changed.

Shackleton’s contributions are small, but so is his scale; Arlene’s scale is slightly larger. She creates memorials for her mother—worn clothes stacked on a cheap folding table, a hand-me-down necklace warmed by her own skin. She imagines these against her mother’s thin, sallow frame. Bodies hold memories and so does she. If Arlene can bear witness, she can continue.

Her grandmother suggests Squid Game, Game of Thrones, and other heavy fictions. “Stop dwelling,” she says. “Do something fun.”

“Like you’re not dwelling, too.”

Arlene’s comment goes unnoticed, as does its implication. Her grandmother admires a handsome actor who lost his hand in Season 3.

“That show aired years ago,” Arlene says. “I already know how it ends.”

She hangs up. She waits, but her grandmother doesn’t call back. If she did, Arlene might admit that she doesn’t know how the show ends.

At night, Shackleton finds her crying on the bathroom floor as her phone narrates the deaths of eleven climbers on the world’s second highest mountain thirteen years ago. Shackleton purrs and she rubs him until he starts crying too. She knows what he wants: to watch the bathwater run. She twists the knob and sits beside him. She starts to feel okay.

“Why do you do this to yourself?” Janet asks. “You listened to three separate podcasts about the deaths of the same eleven people, laid on the floor, and cried. It’s a twisted kind of punishment, substituting this new obsession for the old self-harm.”

It isn’t.

Arlene tells Janet that even though eleven people died, only eleven people died. Sixteen came back. It’s their stories she lives for, their grief she cannibalizes. She watches them scramble for purchase and breath. They reunite with husbands and wives and children, and most of them continue to climb. They pull the past into their bodies, refusing to relinquish it at the cost of frostbitten fingers and friends. Arlene envisions all those bodies on the mountain and all those people who returned.

Those on the mountain remain preserved, along with their memories. Already, though, Arlene feels her mother slipping away. She pictures her mother—burned to ashes, spread in her grandmother’s garden, lost in the wind. The stretch marks on her mother’s abdomen and the scar on her chin are gone and so are the stories of how they came to be. Arlene fingers her own, more recent, scars and fights the impulse to add to her collection. Eventually, she will clean the piles of clothes and jewelry, rid them of her mother’s lingering cells. For now, she stares at these remains. Shackleton joins her. He presses his cheek into hers, and together, they mourn.

The next time Arlene walks, she imagines herself as a stranger might. She sees a girl, barely more than a child, wandering in circles, looking for bodies.

 

Jamie Logan holds a BA from Tulane University in English & Classical Studies and an MFA from the University of Memphis in Creative Writing. She has served as Managing Editor at The Pinch and Product Magazine and now holds the same position with BreakBread. She is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she is an Associate Editor for the Mississippi Review. Her work can be found in the New Ohio Review, Rougarou, Palette Poetry, Variety Pack, and elsewhere.

Togetherland by Amy Stuber

With dark coats to our shoe-tops, we were glorious on sidewalks, heads floating, bobbing above concrete, walking, walking, 72nd, 71st, 70th. Stopped at the light, cigarettes going. Big sunglasses, big bags. We had zero interest in pleasantries. We carried Marlboro Lights in Marlboro Reds boxes. We weren’t total masochists.

We were 33, and we had been so many things: regular babies, child actors, regular actors, moguls.

A man stood behind window glass staring out at the morning. A boy yelled, “shit, shit, shit” at his mother. The light changed. We crossed, rounded the corner, and the smooth cake of a sidewalk square yawned open.

It was October 2019, and we had no idea what we were doing. Of course, we felt the fear and gloom of climate and Trump, but not even my sister, someone who might constantly think of the car flipping over ice, the foot catching on carpeting on the stairs, the plane slashing through air to tank on a highway, would have anticipated a sinkhole sighing in a sidewalk. 

We’d seen pictures of sinkholes, sure, but they were generally in fields or gaping in the middle of a street with cars right up to the edges. This one, small, on an untraveled block, seemed made for us, which was strange, though we’d had lives to that point where people did make things for us and send them with notes like, “I made this with the two of you in mind.”

We could do nothing but fall. Our coats ballooned around our mid-sections in ways that would, on film, look artful. Our narrow ankles in thick-soled shoes braced for who knew what. My sister, if she thought anything then, thought, what if there isn’t a bottom, what if we just keep falling. What shocked me most was that she didn’t scream.

The rats were as stunned as we were. While we reacted by standing still, they reacted with frenzy. They writhed, ran, screeched, scattered. They were aghast. Is this a dream, I knew my sister was thinking.

Firemen came as they do in emergencies. I want to say for the drama of it that when they pulled us out, rats the size of puppies clung to our coats as decoration, but that was not the case. Rather, the firemen lowered a rope ladder, and my sister steadied her thick shoes on each rung. “Wait,” I yelled up. Items pulsed around me. Chunks of asphalt. All manner of trash. Improbably, a paperback so old the cover image was only a smear of washed color. I grabbed from the hole before climbing a silvery pop-top from a soda can that I hoped some queen rat had secreted away for herself, for the lovely shininess of it. 

Back on the sidewalk, we didn’t wait to talk to anyone. We didn’t have that police moment like in crime shows where they ask you to tell them the story. Instead, we ran, our coats storm clouds behind us, for once not worrying about the spectacle of it. 

Bottom line, if she was doing it, I was doing it, too. Our coats took on air, not in the way of that Willy Wonka girl but like a coasting bird who knew it didn’t need to beat wings to keep flying.

We didn’t call the car service; we opted for an old-school taxi. The driver looked in the mirror, said, “Aren’t you…?” We didn’t need to look at each other to roll our eyes; it was enough to, in unison, think, eye roll.

In the morning, the hole was surrounded by cones and police tape. We were back, in big coats, big shoes, filled suddenly with purpose, aloft with it almost.

I held the silver tab so tight my index finger bled a thin line. We walked all the way down Madison and back up Park. We filled our pockets with bottle caps, downed leaves, shredded coffee cups and penned on each a time/date/place (charger cord, 10/11/2019, 68th & Park).

We filled our bags and then the cloth bags we carried folded in our regular bags. We hauled up to our apartment a stack of canvases painted with neon landscapes from where someone had left them on the sidewalk alongside an entire suite of oak office furniture.

We didn’t sleep. My sister turned on vintage metal that shook the window glass, and we worked as ants or rodents. By morning, our fingers were leathery with dried glue, and the canvases were splotched over with things and things and things. What the fuck are these, I knew my sister wanted to say. Still, her cheeks were pink, and she looked, for once, happy.

It was only a few weeks before they were hanging on the walls of a small gallery three blocks from our apartment. To the opening, we wore gauzy charcoal dresses to the floor and lined our eyes all the way around.

“I didn’t take you for artists,” someone said to us while we stood in front of the largest assemblage. Eye roll. Sigh.

“Tell us how this started,” someone else said while he squinted to read the time/date/place on a piece of paperboard that had held a hot dog. “The rats,” we said, “were mid-shin, that’s how tall they were.” The person said, “I doubt that,” and my sister said, eyes big, “Were you there?” 

The music wasn’t loud enough for us. The drinks weren’t the drinks we wanted. The people had too much to say. We rotated in our gauze dresses to look out the window where the dark city was everything. We walked outside and breathed and listened. We closed our eyes so we were one creature and tried not to think about the future because what was the future but a locked box that could contain either scorpions or crystals. Don’t open it, I almost said out loud, and my sister touched my hand. We loved it all. 

 

Amy Stuber’s fiction has appeared in Witness, West Branch, Ploughshares, New England Review, and elsewhere. She’s been writing since the 1990s, but she’s still very much emerging. She’s an editor for Split Lip Magazine. She’s on Twitter @amy_stuber_ and online at www.amystuber.com.

Betty by Didi Wood

They probably didn’t say why they were hiring but the girl who was here before you died, she died here at work, right in the breakroom, but nobody talks about it. Don’t say I told you. Don’t say anything.

Here’s a uniform. I think it was Lexie’s. She’s not here anymore, either. Obviously. If it doesn’t fit, you can try this one—it was Molly’s. That’s just a stain, sometimes they don’t come out but it’s clean, I promise. You can pin a nametag over that.

Pick one of these—do you want Hailey? Ginny? Emily? It’ll be a while before yours comes. I guess there’s a problem with the supplier or something.

Oh, my god, you really thought my name was Betty? That’s so funny! It must be left over from the 1950s, it’s so retro, right? No, I’m not going to tell you my real name—you have to guess! Here are some more nametags for you—Tammy? Libby? Ashley? No?

You’ll need to pull back your hair super tight—see mine? Just like that. Nothing escaping or you’ll get written up. I did ballet for nine years, that’s why I’m so good at it. You can use gel or spray to keep the wispy pieces in place. Make sure you take it down when you get home, though, or you’ll get traction alopecia. This one girl I knew, Sophie, she lost all the hair in front, her hairline started way back here, at the top of her head, and she had all these sores and infections where it used to be. I think she died.

Not from that, probably. I don’t think so.

Don’t worry about the smell—it’s part of the process, off-gassing or emissions or something, it’s not toxic or anything. It says so in the handbook. You won’t even notice after a while. Which is good because it’s a lot stronger in there. You’ll see.

This is your timecard. When it’s time for your shift, just stick it in here, like this—hear the sound, that little punch?—and then put it back on the rack. Try to put it in the same place every time so you can find it fast, in case you’re running late or something. But don’t be late, okay? Don’t. Here, we’ll put it—wait, let me pull some of the old ones, these girls aren’t here anymore. Abby, Chloe, Lucy… Annie? Wow, she—I—

No, I’m fine, I’m fine. Really. I just get a little, like, Whoa sometimes. Everybody does, it’s all the time on your feet, the blood gets stuck down there and then your brain’s all, Um, help? When it happens, just punch out and take a break. There are chairs in the breakroom, you can sit and put your head between your knees until you feel better. Not more than five minutes, though.

Here’s the breakroom. You don’t punch in for ten minutes so maybe we’ll just hang here and then I’ll show you where the gloves are and we can get started for real. There should be more nametags in this drawer.

Wow, check it out—Trudy! Elsie! These must be ancient. Hey, look, you can be Laurie—like in Halloween? Better start practicing your scream. I’ll just sit for a bit while you decide. Seriously, I’m fine. Maybe I’ll be Laurie next week. No, I told you, you have to guess. Just call me Betty until you guess. Did you pick one yet? Well, keep looking. We’re almost out of time.

 

Didi Wood’s stories have appeared in WigleafSmokeLong QuarterlyJellyfish Review, and elsewhere. Her story “Rattle & Rue,” originally published in Cotton Xenomorph, was chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2019. You can find her on Twitter @DidiWood and online at www.didiwood.com

Everything Works Differently in Darkness by Kaj Tanaka

Sometimes when I get sad, I think about how Raven created this world from a pebble for his convenience. He’d been flying through the eternal night carrying a pebble and he needed somewhere to land, so he dropped the pebble into the water and—boom—the world. It doesn’t need to make sense. Everything works differently in darkness.

It’s sort of like: there’s a jacket, okay, and pretty soon someone comes along and picks it up and now there are two people—the original space inside the jacket and the person who came along to notice it. I guess I’m saying even if you seem to be alone, you probably aren’t.

Most of my friends are parasocial friends. By that I mean my friends are social media people who I watch on my phone. I know all kinds of things about them, but they know nothing about me. Like this one woman—she smiles a lot and puts things into her backpack. Or this other couple—they clean up messy houses and talk about movies they have watched together. Or this other person—they go on long and aimless and mostly silent walks through a city on the other side of this planet, a city I will probably never visit.

Raven was hungry—that is Raven’s deal. Raven wanted something to eat, so he dropped a pebble and pretty soon boom he was chilling in a hot tub and the room was filled with casseroles and eclairs—AKA the world. Raven created the world out of necessity. Lots of people don’t get that creation isn’t about beauty or truth or whatever, it’s about an urgent need to exist.

Recently, my neighborhood experienced a major power outage because the wind has been unusually high this year. When the power goes out, my internet also goes out, my parasocial relationships disappear, and I am thrown into aloneness not unlike the dark Raven flew through before he created the world.

When I get very very sad, I remember the Raven thing is only a story. You can’t drop a pebble and make the world. You can’t call the disembodied space within a jacket a person. And a person you watch on the internet isn’t really your friend. These lies are cousins, which is why I grouped them together here.

I once had a real friend who tried to live only on packets of ramen noodles. She succeeded for a while, but then she ended up with a serious case of the shakes—her entire body, she said, seemed to be trying to vibrate itself into its constituent parts. This happened for seven days. During that time, she disappeared, and when she finally came back she told us she said, “shaking uncontrollably alone in my apartment,” which is what I think about when my power goes out because I have been going through a version of the same thing, maybe for years.

I think: I am shaking myself apart into my constituent parts.

For my friend, her case of the shakes was just the wake-up call she needed, and after that, she went back to eating other foods besides packets of ramen noodles.

During the power outage, there was a knock on my door. I waited in the darkness, listening, and when I pulled back the locks, outside in the night a disembodied space hovered in the hallway outside my apartment, looking at me expectantly.

The emptiness in my hallway resembled somehow the dark space you find inside a jacket. But now, lacking a form to contain it, it spread its wings as far as I could see, swallowing up everything. The disembodied space looked hungry and tired. I opened my mouth, and—boom—the world. I know it doesn’t make sense, but everything works differently in darkness.

It never occurred to me that in this version of the story I might not be Raven, I might be the pebble. Imagine my surprise.

 

Kaj Tanaka’s fiction has appeared in New South, The New Ohio Review, and Tin House. His stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and Wigleaf’s Top 50. Kaj lives in New Mexico. You can find him online at kajtanaka.com.

1000 by Rob Roensch

I have been as tall as I will ever be for one whole year. I will never be as tall as my father.

This spring is no surprise and, for the first time, barely a relief. Our flooded, muddy bank of the Far River and the new green leaves mean the return of life; they prove the strength of the circle that cages us.

In our first summer, touching the skin of the mother of my son was like seeing lightning through closed eyes. Now she is in the earth, with my son, who never saw a storm, or a morning. The stories say I will see them after I die; I will never see them again.

The night before my father died, he talked in his sleep, which he did not do. The words he spoke were nonsense.

Or they were in an older language, from the other world.

The stories say that on the far slopes of the mountains beyond the Far River are black forests and lakes of ice. There live men with lines burned into their faces and long-staffed axes, and women beautiful as snakes, all banished from this fertile valley by God.

The mountains are real. From anywhere in our valley, I can see them. The rest of the stories is only as real as the monsters that haunted my dreams as a child.

Prayer, the acknowledgment of the presence of God, used to be my mother’s voice singing in the dark. But there is only one world: smoke, torn grass, a handful of cold water. Fog, first dawn-light. The only path is to work and, later, try to sleep.

And yet, this one blank morning, I do not follow the men to the fields.

I stand on our bank of the Far River and watch the mountains carve themselves visible against the day. I cannot find the prayer.

I had been told by my father, with the threat of a fist to the temple, never to attempt to cross the Far River until I was as tall as he was. He knew I would never be as tall as he was.

So I enter the Far River.

The hand of the current sweeps me up and for a moment I am lifted and carried, a child. But then I’m pulled down, wrong, hands squeezing my lungs, the river pressing against my mouth, and I’m smashed into stones, and I could let go.

I do not let go.

When I open my eyes I am lying in the mud of the far bank of the Far River. I hear the cry of my son’s mother wishing to die, and the cry of our son wishing to live; it is the same cry. It is my voice.

But I am in the other world.

I lift myself, part by heavy part, to my feet. My head rings, but I am whole. I am as close to the mountains as I have ever been. I know I will reach them. I will know if the stories are true.

Before I have taken the first step I see, in the near distance, massed like too many birds in a tree, men with lines burned into their faces and long-staffed axes, watching me, my death in their eyes.

But if monsters are real, then so is God.

 

Rob Roensch is the author of the story collection The Wildflowers of Baltimore (Salt) and the novella The World and the Zoo (Outpost19). He lives and teaches in Oklahoma City.

We Thought It Was Lost Forever by Eileen Frankel Tomarchio

The rewind button, remember? Popped off the remote when you threw it at the TV that time? I was rubbing the nubs where your toes had been while you watched a nature show. All those sea walruses crowded on stony cliffs, tumbling in slow motion into an Arctic sea, their writhing hulks like bodies in a bag. Bellows so loud that next-door pounded the wall. It was telling, the way you curled your hands into yourself after the throw. I know you wanted me to think it was a neighborly fuck off! that missed the wall, or a shot at me for not rubbing hard enough. (I never could rub hard enough to relieve the numbness one minute, choke the stabbing sensation the next). But it was those walruses, wasn’t it? Their odd cave noises in open air. They must have sounded to you as if your own pain were being fed through a landline a thousand miles long, across a continent, coming out on those cliffs a garbled, whiskered lament. 

I remember thinking this was a perfect chance for a big-picture talk. The kind you couldn’t stand and that I hated hearing myself say. Some facile link from the panicked beasts to melting sea ice to forest loss to palm plantations to the processed oil on the list of ingredients in the Fig Newtons and Tombstone Frozen Pizza you loved to high A1C levels to neuropathy to gangrene to amputation to stuck in a chair watching nature shows. Except I could imagine your side-eye too well, hear your You learn that stretch in yoga? Then something about how I’d rather dump the world’s problems on you than, say, get together with my sweet, funny cousin with MS, or make a donation to the local Catholic Charities, or bake you a tray of dream bars for the freezer, just to have on hand, the only pleasure left to you, so why would I deny you unless I were the cruelest sort of daughter?

It was easier to spare you the talk and go hunting for the remote behind the TV. I lingered in a crouch back there, feeling weak from the surround-sound of walruses and sad violins. For months afterwards, you controlled the rewind with blunted toothpicks until it got too hard to finesse. You resorted to the pause button a lot, just to absorb, catch up. You’d always been a mindful viewer, doubting everything you saw and heard that you couldn’t go back and watch again, see right, hear for sure. But in the end, you stopped bothering even with the pause and kept the TV running live, believing too easily the things you barely caught or filled in wrong or just wanted to believe.

I’ve got it in my hand now, the rewind button. I found it at the edgelands of the carpet with some mouse droppings and a cracked Metformin pill. It snaps right back into the remote. I press it a bunch of times. A reversed Lester Holt un-reports the wildfires out west, scrolled script pages in his downturned prayer hands, the straining flames sucked back into the ground. When I release my thumb, the rewind stays stuck at triple-speed, the backward programming a slapstick blur. But I don’t fix the jam with a toothpick, a ballpoint pen, my teeth. I leave it alone. I hang here in your chair and close my eyes and let rewind send me back to before you had to go into nursing care. Back further to before your amputations. Further still to the days I rubbed your toes with your favorite palm oil-laden Gold Bond. To you and the neighbor chatting over tea, trading door wreath tips. To you pushing your cart through the grocery aisles in sunny flip flops, before the mobility scooters. To you making me vow never to move back home, no matter how sick you ever got, and me lying when I said I promise. To my last summer before college and a Sunday afternoon we watched TV together, me breaking off half a still-warm dream bar to share, both of us making happy eating noises while walrus families lolled on plentiful ice floes in healthy seas, before they were forever lost.

 

Eileen Frankel Tomarchio works as a librarian in a small New Jersey suburb. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Forge Lit Mag, Longleaf Review, Pithead Chapel, X-R-A-Y, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from NYU Film. She’s on Twitter at @eileentomarchio.

Starburst: A Dispatch of 100-Word Stories by Julia Halprin Jackson

Take care

After the cicadas stop humming, after the moon flushes the sky clean of stars, we hear it. A thrashing, a clanging, a hurtling, is whirling towards us from below the campground. You pace on the pulsing soil. “Don’t worry,” you call. “I’ll take care of it.” The earth is loud. Insects gather at my feet. Then I notice it: the ground has seams. Stick your finger in and up it rips, soil and roots and worms, concrete foundations, wooden beams, gravestones. “Don’t!” you say. But my fingers are hungry. I pull back the earth beneath your feet. I take care.

No vacancy

Night falls over Crater Lake, that blue gully with its mouth open to the heavens. The man and woman approach the summit as the rain drops like marbles. The campgrounds are full, as are the chalets; there aren’t any hotel rooms this close to the crater’s rim. What if we could make it to the island? she says. It’s probably vacant. When he doesn’t answer, she puts the car in reverse, aims for the rim’s biggest lip. Floor it, he says. Rain steers them down, down. The sky has never been more vacant. They push the stars aside. They land.

Ways to fall in love

One bought me glucose tablets. Another held my hand while we biked. Another took me to see the seals in the snow. One left a birthday gift outside my parents’ gate, close to midnight on a day I thought he’d forgotten. These are all the ways I’ve fallen in love. But this one unrolled the country and we hiked right through it. He vacuums. He lets me drive his ATV. This one woke me that night I’d fallen off the bed, wet and shaking, and didn’t mind that I’d broken his glasses. This one is afraid of the right things.

Transit

We park my bike next to yours in the shed overnight. The next morning, three small tricycles lurk under my back wheel. The tricycles have my curvy handlebars and your racer stripes. My bike looks tired, her tires deflated. Your bike’s pedals spin midair. You reach for a trike, but it rolls out of view. Someday these might come in handy, you say, patting my belly. You reach for the door but I stop you, saying, Let’s leave it open. We’re not gone long, but when we come back, the bikes are gone, a trail of grease staining the floor.

Bean counter

It’s a tireless game, all this imagining. You want a universe and so you must invent it. You want a popsicle and so you must make it drip down your chin. You want a man with a Frisbee for a head, so you draw him. Etcetera. Other people—PhDs, MBAs, MDs, JDs, CFOs, UFOs—other people perform real services, create real goods. Other people can weigh what they’ve created in two hands. Other people chat you up at cocktail parties, say, What you do sounds so fun. You smile, but inside you know. Your hands are dirty from counting words.

 

Julia Halprin Jackson’s work has appeared in Cutleaf, West Branch Wired, Oracle Fine Arts Review, Fourteen Hills, California Northern, and elsewhere. A graduate of U.C. Davis’s Master’s in Creative Writing program, Julia is the co-founder and publicity director of Play On Words, San Jose’s collaborative literary performance series, and a 2021-2023 Lighthouse Book Projecteer.