The Circus Comes to Town When You Die by Liz Wride

The last drops were squeezed from my childhood on a sun-drenched afternoon, when my Mother decided to tell me the honest truth about death. I was at that odd sort of age, where adults were constantly pulling at the corners of the world, unsure of how much to reveal to me. With her face and apron creased, she crouched down to my level.

The previous Summer, I had taken the Santa revelation well. I had just been glad that the Naughty List wasn’t real. Now, as my Mother’s brown eyes met mine, I got the feeling that she was about to tell me something she believed in wasn’t real.

“Your Uncle Joe will come stay with us for a while. He should get here tomorrow, but he’ll look a little different.”

“Will he have his beard?”

I remembered my Uncle Joe, a bear of a man all checked-shirts and bushy beard. He taught me how to juggle with oranges in the grocery store and watched the Super Bowl with me, shouting “Touchdown!” He’d share his nachos and dip with me during half-time.

My Mother hesitated. “You know how when people die, they are in the cemetery… the way Grandpa is?” She screwed her face up, like she’d been sucking on a lemon. “That’s not true. When people die… they become animals.”

My brain was citrus-sharp with questions: Did Uncle Joe get to pick what animal he’d be? What animal would I be when I died?

“Who did Bucky used to be?” I asked.

“Nobody – Bucky’s just a dog.”

“Your Uncle will be with us tomorrow, I’m told…” There were tears in her eyes.

* * *

With tomorrow, came animal control and a huge truck. For a moment, I thought the circus had come to town when I saw a crane haul the huge cage, covered in a huge sheet, out of the back of the truck. There was a deep, low growl.

“Who gets to decide what we’ll be once we’re dead?” I asked my Mother. She looked to my Father for answers, but he had none.

“I think it’s decided already.” She said, quietly. “I think we are that animal, deep down inside, even when we are alive.”

The crane dumped the cage in the backyard. What was surprising, was that folks never came out to look.

Men in high-vis vests and animal control officers with darts did a strange sort of dance. They moved their arms and stopped, they circled the cage…

There was another low growl.

“Please don’t dart him, officer. He’s had enough needles stuck in him when he was alive…,” my Mother said.

Eventually, they ripped the covering off the cage, and there, on it’s hind legs, stood a huge, brown grizzly bear. It’s jaws were open and it looked like it wanted to eat me.

I hid behind my Mother, even though I thought I was too old to hide behind anyone.

“Uncle Joe?” I asked, to nobody in particular. My Mother was already encircling my head with her arms. I didn’t see, as our neighbors twitched their curtains and peeked out from behind their blinds.

There was talk of diet. My Mother mentioned grasses, honey. My Father mentioned baby deer. The Animal Control guy mentioned the salmon in the National Parks. He had a jovial sort of sadness about him. I didn’t realize as a kid, but it’s the same sort of day-in-day out stoicism that people in the Emergency Room have.

My Mother said something along the lines of “We’ll think about it,” and the circus of animal control, with their high-vis and their trucks left with no fanfare.

Now, it was just us and the bear.

* * *

Once, when I was quite young, my Uncle Joe had been watching the Super Bowl with me. He’d lifted me up and then dumped me on the sofa, shouting “Touchdown!” along with the game. I laughed – but my Mother got angry and said he was being too rough.

They had their argument behind the closed door, and all I heard was the odd word, about blame and who was wrong.

I wondered now if Uncle Joe and I could still play our touchdown game, but I saw his big bear claws, and I knew we couldn’t. I was too scared.

That night, when I heard the sounds through my open window: critters going through bins, or owls hooting, I wondered whose Mom or Grampa or Dad they used to be. Mainly I thought about Bucky, at the foot of my bed, and what would happen to him when he died, being just a dog.

* * *

I woke up in the middle of the night, to the sound of a sudden scream and Bucky barking. My father’s frantic footsteps on the stairs. The sound of something scraping against metal.

He had mauled her.

In the darkness, I couldn’t see, but I knew Uncle Joe had killed my Mother. There was that odd sort of stillness that happened when I was in the house with my Father, and she was at the grocery store. The bated breath where we all just sat and waited for her to return.

In the dead of night, my Father called animal control. They had their argument behind the closed door, and all I heard was the odd word, about blame and who was wrong.

* * *

The next day the truck turned up again. The neighbors lined the street this time in a quiet sort of reverence. The only words I remember hearing were “Yellowstone.”

* * *

My Father told me that when people die, we want to keep them with us. But really, we have to let them go. He said all this, while preparing straw bedding for my Mother’s cage, trying to make the grey rabbit she’d become comfortable. As he spoke, he passed me handfuls and handfuls of straw. He didn’t want to put his hand back into the cage, because he’d tried to pet her but she’d bitten him.

 

Liz Wride writes short fiction and plays. Her work has appeared in The Ginger Collect, Empwr, and Mantle Arts Anthology’s Beneath the Waves. Her work has been shortlisted for the ELLE U.K. Talent Awards and Liar’s League. She is an administrator by day and a writer by night.

Sales Call by James Gapinski

I arrive bright and too-early for my new sales gig. Turns out I’m selling cubes. Slick, black cubes that are warm to the touch. I think they have something to do with next-gen technology. Something cutting edge. Brand new. Everybody in the call center has the latest smartphones. Post-iPhone prototype stuff, with peripherals and floating screens like in a sci-fi flick. There is a training seminar set up. But there are no other new employees, so it’s just me and Training-Guy in a large conference room. He says business-jargon things like synergize and innovate. He smiles at me with these big fake teeth the whole time. Super white teeth. Practically glowing. He probably goes to the dentist twice a month.

I ask a few questions, but each reply includes inter-dynamic-matrix-accessory-code or some shit like that. It’s all gibberish, and I worry that any follow-up might cost me the gig. I need money. The mortgage is past-due.

Training-Guy brings out a product sample. He touches the slick cube, and it turns blue for a second. He plays a confusing video that shows people laughing and drinking Coca Cola around a cube, and I still have no idea what the cube does. The company also sells black spheres. I think the spheres are premium products, because Training-Guy makes a point of telling me that I won’t be selling spheres for at least six months.

Training-Guy points toward my workstation and sends me a call list. The list is an attachment that my flip-phone cannot open. I ask Training-Guy to e-mail it to me. “Old school! I love it. No worries,” he says. My workstation makes a high-pitched chime. It takes me a minute to figure out that the computer activates via voice command. Training-Guy’s e-mail contains a few dozen names, a few dozen phone numbers, and one sexually explicit gif—at least I know that I can count on a hostile workplace lawsuit if my commissions don’t add up.

I call the first number. “Hello, is Mr. Gavin available?”

“Speaking.”

“I’d like to tell you about an exciting new product.” I stare at the sample cube on my desk, wondering how I’ll sell something that I don’t understand. Mr. Gavin hangs up before my anti-knowledge becomes an issue. I slide my finger along the edge of my cube. Red lines shoot across the black surface.

I dial the second number. There is no answer this time. The third number connects me to a police dispatch center. I think that this number is intentionally near the top of my list, and maybe the cube is something that local law enforcement could use. The cube could be for surveillance. High-tech stuff is often used for surveillance, I think. I check my yellowed teeth in my computer monitor’s reflective surface, making sure there is no spinach and my gums aren’t bleeding—I want to look good for the Big Brother onlookers. A few minutes into the conversation and the dispatcher says “So this isn’t an emergency?”

“Not unless you consider missing out on the best deal of the century an emergency,” I say. I smile in the general direction of the sample cube, hoping that the police/F.B.I./C.I.A. can see me even though they haven’t purchased the cube yet.

“This line is for official police business only.” She hangs up.

I call the fourth number, and my daughter answers. “Dad? It’s early here. Why are you calling? Is Mom okay?”

“Yeah, Mom’s fine.”

“Well, what’s up?”

“I was just wondering if you needed a cube.”

“What? You’re not making any sense.”

“I mean money. Do you need money? How are you doing in L.A.? Are your classes difficult?”

“Dad, I’ve been done with school for almost a year now. And this isn’t a good time.”

I want to say It’s never a good time anymore, but I don’t. Instead, I declare “I’ll send you a check tomorrow.”

“Sure, whatever Dad. But I really don’t need it. You know that, right? I have a full-time job.”

“Okay, goodnight sweetie,” I say, but the line is already dead.

I take off my headset and wander the office. I find Training-Guy, and I say “Hey, where did you get this call list?”

“It’s all personalized to your unique sales profile. Trust me, the algorithm knows what it’s doing,” Training-Guy pats an oversized sphere sitting near a sleek, expensive-looking copy machine breezing through something like a hundred copies.

“Okay, thanks,” I say.

“Wait,” Training-Guy says. “Before you go, check this out.” He hands me one of the photocopies. It’s somebody’s ass cheeks pressed against the copy machine.

I don’t respond. Instead, I fold the photocopy neatly and go to the supply closet. I grab an empty manila folder. At least I think it’s a folder. But given the other next-gen items in the supply closet, it could just as easily be manila-colored LCD film. I write Lawsuit on the folder in big bold letters. I put the photocopy inside.

Training-Guy relocates to the watercooler area. He polishes his Rolex and eats a heap of caviar from a Tupperware container. He winks at me. In reply, I offer a slight wave.

Back at my workstation, a woman hovers over my desk. She’s doing something with the black cube.

“Excuse me,” I say.

She turns around. She’s beautiful. She looks like my wife, except different. There’s just something about her that’s wife-like without quite being my wife. As if my wife’s face has been copied, then run through some Photoshop filters and repurposed on this woman’s face. “Sorry, I was just doing some calibrations.”

“What does the cube do?” I ask. Perhaps her similarity to my wife has disarmed me. I don’t feel as sheepish about exposing my ignorance.

She laughs and says, “You’re funny.” She touches my arm like my wife used to. She writes a phone number on an LED tablet the size of a sticky note.

“I’m married,” I say.

“So am I,” she says. “This is for your call list.” She saunters over to Training-Guy and kisses him. He gives me a thumbs up and then makes a gesture that I do not recognize. I make a mental note of it because I’m sure the gesture is obscene—I must remember to research it for my lawsuit folder.

I call the number. I recognize the voice, but I can’t place it. “Hello?” the person repeats, over and over. “Is somebody there?” I touch the cube again. It’s no longer warm.

“Yeah, it’s me,” I say. I can hear the person crying on the other end.

“Really? It’s really you?” the person says through sniffles.

“Yeah,” I say. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry.”

“Don’t bother. I’ll buy whatever you’re selling.”

 

James R. Gapinski is the author of the novella Edge of the Known Bus Line (Etchings Press, 2018) and the flash collection Messiah Tortoise (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2018). His short fiction has appeared in The Collapsar, Hobart, Juked, Monkeybicycle, Paper Darts, and other publications. James is managing editor of The Conium Review and an instructional specialist at Chemeketa Community College. He lives with his partner in Portland, Oregon.

Segmented Moments by Hannah Gordon

The day they announce the draft, Mom starts humming again.

She used to do that a lot—a lingering habit from her musical theatre days. Soft, almost imperceptible tunes and melodies through pursed lips. A low vibration that followed her through the halls, into the kitchen, out the front door, like a perfume or a shadow.

I used to love to hear her hum; now, I hate it.

I know it means she’s entering the draft.

It’s unlikely she’ll be chosen, Dad reminds her. A lot of people are entering, volunteering, to be sent away—wherever they want. Whenever they want.

“Crazier things have happened,” she reminds him. As if we need to be reminded. As if our life isn’t a constant reminder. As if the sudden reappearance of her humming hasn’t already segmented our lives into before and after.

Before: when he was gone.

After: when—if—her name is chosen. He’ll be back with us as soon as she gets the chance to go through.

The announcement of the machine—the flurry of news articles declaring MAJOR SCIENTIFIC BREAKTHROUGH – MONUMENTAL LEAP FOR MANKIND, the ribbon cutting ceremony, the human trials, the inevitable backlash from the religious groups—had stirred something within her that we were all sure had died long ago. Yet, there it was—a spark, a smile, and a simple melody lingering behind.

With the promise of the draft looming in front of her, she becomes the mom I knew from years ago. Before the swirl of police lights lulled me to sleep, before the MISSING posters, before the kids at school all knew my name and whispered it like a curse word in the hallways. Before the endless onslaught of nightly news stories about us—about the family left in the wake of tragedy, about a missing boy.

She’d only gone inside for a minute.

That’s what she swore to the police. She never left us outside alone, especially not him—the youngest, only three-years-old. But she’d heard the phone ring, and, thinking it to be my school, or maybe her mother, she ran inside to answer it. She couldn’t have been gone more than a minute. She was sure. She hadn’t wanted to disturb his play. She hadn’t wanted to drag him inside, on such a beautiful day, for nothing.

Life is segmented by moments. Some small. Some not so small.

All—since the invention of this machine—changeable.

When she came back outside, he was gone. Vanished. I’m so fucking sick of hearing the words into thin air.

“When I get chosen,” she tells me late one night, brushing wet hair away from my face. “I won’t go inside. I won’t answer that fucking phone.”

I wonder what it will be like: one moment he won’t be here, the next he will. I wonder if I’ll remember the before.

We will be a family unscarred by the side effects of time, of moments. Of before and after.

But we will be a family again because of time. Because of the mutability of it.

Mom begins to hum again. She drags her fingers through my hair. It hurts, but I don’t tell her. I imagine her nails drawing blood from my scalp. I imagine her tearing me apart.

 

Hannah Gordon is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Hypertrophic Literary, Jellyfish Review, WhiskeyPaper, and more. She is the managing editor of CHEAP POP. When she’s not writing, she’s reading or hanging out with her two cats, Luna and Neville. If she could time travel, she’d go back and warn herself about the consequences of waxing your own eyebrows.

Bingo by Josh Denslow

My future wife and I sit in adjacent booths in a coffee shop when the internet crashes and we look up from our dating apps like groundhogs discovering our shadows. She lifts her delicate hand, her arched finger like a stamen, and pushes an imaginary button between us. “Bingo,” she says.

Behind her, two people jump up and hurry through the front door, their coffee forgotten on the table.

“I’m Lily,” she says from the seat across from me. In all the commotion, I hadn’t seen her move. She has a face so beautiful it seems almost impossible for her to exist. After the way things ended with my ex, it’s easy to feel like I’d never be able to hold on to that kind of beauty again.

“Tell me something that isn’t on your Bingo profile,” she says.

“I’m not as funny as I think I am,” I say.

“No one is.”

“I guess I’m pretty lonely.”

“The human condition.”

I suddenly want to tell her something she can’t render mundane. “I got a boner once when I was petting a cat.”

She laughs so hard that her dark eyes narrow and her nose wrinkles, and I want to be the only person in the world to ever cause that to happen again.

“Will you marry me?” I ask.

“Let’s start smaller,” she says.

“How about a scone?”

“Deal.”

I go to the counter, but it appears all the employees have walked away. The coffee machine gurgles and the refrigerator whirrs. Then they both stop at the same time. The electricity has gone out.

I turn and watch the ceiling fan above Lily slowly come to a rest. The small group sitting at the back booth begin stuffing croissants and bagels into their bags and then push out into the street.

Lily and I are alone.

“Everyone’s gone,” I say. A dozen people run past the front window, car horns blaring at them. “Should we go?”

Lily glances around the empty coffee shop. “I want to finish my coffee first. I’m tired of running away.”

I return to my chair. “I don’t want this moment to end either,” I say.

She laughs again, but this one is different. It’s a defense mechanism. “Here’s something I don’t write on my profile,” she says. “I’m uncomfortable outside the noise of the world. If I’m seen in any way, I run.”

And in that moment, I feel I can truly see her in a way I hadn’t before. She’s a bird, wings extending, testing the wind before launching into the air.

“If it makes you feel any better, no one ever notices me,” I say.

She nods. “Not until all the distractions are gone. And then…”

We lapse into a perfect silence where we drink coffee and spiritually lean into each other. The coffee shop is so quiet now that I can hear my nervous system buzzing in my ears.

“Why did your last girlfriend leave you?” she asks.

“Who said she left me?”

“You did. When you said you were lonely and you weren’t funny. Like you’d been spending a lot of time wondering what went wrong.”

I can’t argue. “My ex left me because she said I didn’t fight for her. Which I didn’t. But I would’ve also had to fight this really huge guy from her work.”

“You have to choose your battles.”

Plates rattle in the kitchen and silverware clatters to the floor. I look to the counter hoping an employee has returned, and maybe I’ll be able to order more coffee and drag this moment out for as long as possible. No one is there.

“I haven’t given a Bingo to anyone in the app for weeks,” she says. “But I keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. And I never look up.”

“I Bingo everyone,” I say.

She shakes her head with a smile. “Sounds pathetic.”

“Didn’t I mention that? I’m pathetic too.”

We lock eyes as she takes her last sip of coffee. “Yes,” she says.

“What?”

“I’ll marry you.”

“I don’t think I was kidding,” I say.

Her eyes close and her lips part enough for me to catch a glimpse of her top teeth. “I don’t think I am either. Life is a risk, and I stopped taking risks for some reason.”

Then someone rams into my back and I lunge forward, my coffee spilling across the table. A guy moves toward Lily in a shirt that says DON’T HAVE A COW across the back.

The guy staggers and then falls onto her lap. She tries to push him away, but he clutches her around the waist. I grab a fistful of his hair and it peels off, scalp and all, and ends up as a clump of goo in my hand.

The man lifts himself up until he and Lily are face to face and takes a hold of the back of her chair with both hands.

“That’s my fiancée!” I yell and it feels good to say it. Then the man gurgles a wet inhuman sound and Lily punches him in the forehead.

That’s when it becomes clear. Something has shut down the internet and all the power, and with it, the zombie alarm must have been disabled too. Here I am with most interesting girl I’ve ever met, probably will ever meet, and she is about to be eaten right in front of me while my ex and her massive bald protector are still alive and well somewhere across town.

I leap forward and grab the zombie’s shoulders. His flesh bunches in my hands like slices of bologna, but I hold tight as Lily lifts her knees and pushes against his chest with her feet. He has an iron grip on the back of her chair, his mouth spitting and spraying as he snaps at her face. I widen my stance and yank, but even combined with the pressure Lily is exerting, we are all locked in this position.

I look over the zombie’s shoulder and there is Lily looking back at me.

“Bingo!” I yell.

“Bingo!” she yells back.

I have chosen my battle.

 

Josh Denslow’s debut collection NOT EVERYONE IS SPECIAL will be published in 2019 by 7.13 Books. He plays the drums in the band Borrisokane and edits at SmokeLong Quarterly.

Song of the Dart Frogs by Diana Clark

Zarina was as gold as the Colombian sun and intended on staying that way. Her body like wax, shining hot beneath the heat. Beetles and ants trembled in her wake, long tongue unsheathed at her command. Princess. Warrior. Black eyes like the moon at totality. The floor of the rainforest damp and sweet beneath her toes.

When it was announced that King Midas was in search of his true love, taken from him by the curse of some Warlock, the amphibians of the forest gathered in panicked whispers. They always think it’s us, one said, black speckled body shimmering with moisture, blue skin sharp against the deep brown of the rainforest’s earth. I am not waiting to be changed. There is no better body to be had. The red-bodied frog with blue limbs raised herself in agreement. I do not want to be handled, she said. I do not want to be kissed by human men.

Zarina sat inside her new flesh. Listened. The most poisonous of all the dart frogs, the Warlock had told her. He had not hesitated when she called for him, came quickly without question to her aid. Your new body will have enough toxins to kill up to twenty men. She had not intended on putting that power to use, planned only to stay deep within the rainforest, surrounded by her new people. But it was time, that much had made itself clear. It was her duty. It was justice. It was the only way she knew how to end it. If and when King Midas arrives, Zarina said, let him think I am his lost lover. I will handle it from there. They argued for a while. Protested. They didn’t want to see Zarina hurt. But she reminded them of her poison, the toxins flowing inside her like small rivers, and so they eventually agreed.

When King Midas came, it was all show. Charm. Thick blonde hair combed back in waves. White pants, white jacket, white cape, white steed: gold harness, gold belt, gold buttons, gold hungry. Zarina felt her tongue curl back inside her throat at the sight of him, felt his open palm cover her once human mouth, his teeth clenched together in anger as he thrust forcefully inside of her, hissing, Be quiet, someone will hear. Zarina’s cries not of pleasure but of pleading, of her wanting him off her, of his refusal. The cold and the dark. The immediate end to everything Zarina thought she knew.

Now, Zarina sat at six centimeters in length. Waited. King Midas noticed her almost immediately, a nugget of gold in the forest. “Zarina?” he asked. He propelled himself off his horse with a flourish so practiced it almost made her laugh. “Zarina my angel, my porcelain dove. What has he done to you? That Warlock. There were rumors, Zarina, horrible rumors in the castle, rumors that you asked for this, rumors that you summoned him. But I told them, I told them my perfect girl wouldn’t do that, not to me.” Then his eyes dripped from panicked to dark, simmering cauldrons beneath the surface. “I told them Zarina knows better, knows what would happen if she ever tried to leave me again.”

King Midas moved forward. Reached down. Pushed Zarina onto his open palm. It took everything in her not to turn away, but she could feel it—sweet, sweet poison, the curdling of her new flesh—knew that she would never find another moment of peace if she didn’t do this now.

Zarina sat, landlocked on his skin, as his lips came crashing into hers. “In order to save you,” he said, and, “You’ll respect me now, won’t you, Zarina?” When his lips pulled away—puckered and chapped—Zarina felt herself smile, could hear only the Warlock’s voice in the back of her head: They will die, those who touch you. They will die in three minutes flat.

Zarina watched, eyes black and unmoving, as the body of King Midas began to tremble, turned cold, dropped Zarina when the shaking became too much. She landed perfectly on padded feet, stayed quiet in the cool earth as King Midas thrashed and kicked, his skin pale then blue then pale again. He reached out to her, fingernails scraping and clawing the dirt, until finally he exhaled one last time. Zarina had been counting: two minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Oh, Warlock, she thought. The only human being I will miss.

Around her, the soft hum of her sisters, the song of the dart frogs. Zarina’s body shimmered. The only gold she ever wanted. The only gold she’d ever need.

 

Diana Clark is an elephant enthusiast and an MFA fiction candidate at UNCW, with a special love for LGBTQIA+ literature, magical realism, and sci-fi. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Fat Magazine, Peach Mag, The Passed Note, Heavy Feather Review, Longleaf Review, and more. In 2015, her piece “Singed” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can find her reading about pirates in Wilmington, North Carolina with her cat, Emily D.

Big Bad by Mary Hamilton

There’s this wolf outside my house. He’s tearing up trees. Throwing them over his shoulder. Making a mess.

He’s banging on the door. When I don’t answer, he pulls the sidewalk up like it’s tape on a cardboard box. He uses the mailbox post like a toothpick. He’s tearing this house apart piece by piece. From the right angle, it still has the façade of something whole, but there are holes. The roof is collapsing, the stairs are gone, rubble where there used to be flowers, music, a home. And now, I don’t know where I’d even begin rebuilding. My neighbors have all moved away. He ate their roofs, their lawns, their porches. It’s just the two of us now. Me and him.

He’s pressed up against the front door, his tongue licking the lock. I’m pressed up against the other side, holding everything together. I listen to him breathe. Listen to his dripping teeth and gums. The slurping saliva. The wheezing breath. I can smell it. Then he starts the scraping. That one claw at the door. Scraping in the same space over and over. Going deeper. Never speeding up, never slowing down. Just a consistent, slow scrape at the wood between us. I can hear his breath, his hair, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. I manage enough breath to say, “What do you want?”

“I just want you to be okay,” he says, as that one claw breaks through the last of it.

 

Mary Hamilton’s work has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and the Indiana Review. She lives in Minnesota.

 

 

Plan Exclusion by J. Bradley

The magician died before he could put me back together again and my health insurance wouldn’t cover “acts of god” (their words). The woman skewered with swords who leads our support group reminds us that we should count our blessings, but the boy who lost his nose and index finger disagrees, always.

J. Bradley is a two time winner of Wigleaf‘s Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions. He’s the author of Neil & Other Stories (WhiskeyTit Books, 2018). He lives at http://www.jbradleywrites.com.

Madlib by Kim Magowan

Mom, when you were at the FERRIS WHEEL Saturday, Ron BENT the CLOCK, so I couldn’t HICCUP. He put his KNEECAP over my EYEBROW, so I couldn’t even GIGGLE. Then he stuck his ELBOWS inside my EAR. I JUGGLED and JUGGLED. Remember, you asked why my TEETH were so TURQUOISE? I know you MIX Ron is FIZZY, but really, he’s a KANGAROO. Mom, I don’t SNORT you, I know how SUGARY you’ve been, but I fucking CARTWHEEL him. Ron said if I KNITTED you, he would FLY me, and besides, you would never WHISPER me. So, do you SNIFF me?

 

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and was published in March 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Sixfold, and many other journals. She is Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.

Outline by Darrin Doyle

“Please lie down,” the man said. He gestured at the pale sidewalk pocked with divots.

“What for?” asked the boy. Could he trust this man? This stranger?

“I can’t draw your outline unless you’re on the ground, can I?” The man’s lips smiled. His eyes sparkled.

He was younger than the boy’s father. Better looking, slim and athletic. Carried himself with a bright and bouncy step. Dressed in khaki shorts and a blue shirt the color of the afternoon sky. The boy had been reading on a bench in front of the library, waiting for his father to get out of his doctor’s appointment down the block.

“Jack London,” the man said, nodding at the book. “Man versus nature, am I right?”

The boy closed the book, embarrassed. Reading was his own private experience, and he didn’t like talking about it. Not to anyone, not even his parents.

“Man doesn’t usually come out on top in that battle.” The man threw back his head and gave a robust chuckle, as if he’d made a great joke. His blond hair was as bouncy as his step.

“Like I said,” the man continued, “I’m doing an art project. Kind of an experiment, actually. What kid doesn’t like experiments?”

He set his case on the sidewalk. It looked like a suitcase, rectangular, bound in dark leather the color of a storm cloud. The man unsnapped a button. Kneeling, he spread his wares, revealing an extensive collection of chalk. Each piece was strapped individually to the inside of the case.

“My own personal rainbow,” the man said. “Pretty much every color you can think of.”

The boy’s curiosity was piqued. He’d been warned not to talk to strangers, but this man seemed kind. Other people – families – strolled along the sidewalks on this sunny warm day, peering into shops, licking ice cream cones. The boy felt safe and he was enjoying the attention from the man. He didn’t have any close friends. When your parents were both ill, kids didn’t like to play with you.

“Take one,” the man said. “Whichever one you want, it’s yours.”

The boy selected a piece the color of blood. It was nearly as thick as his wrist and as long as a pencil. “I can have this?”

Seeing the boy admire it, the man said, “You won’t find this at the local art supply store. This is special chalk, the only kind like it in the world.”

“Where did you get it?”

The man’s expression was thoughtful but guarded, as if remembering an event he wasn’t sure he wanted to share. “I’ve had it for a long time, put it that way. Got it when I was around your age.”

The man said they needed to relocate so nobody would step on the boy, or bump him while he was tracing. Around the back of the library the two found a square of pavement close to the dumpsters. From this vantage the boy could no longer see the sidewalk.

“Don’t worry,” the man said, noticing the boy’s concern. “Won’t take long.” He opened his case again and slid on a pair of gloves. “Were you waiting for someone?”

“My dad. He’ll be back soon.”

“He left you at the library?”

“He’s at the doctor’s,” the boy said. “Should I lie down here?”

“Looks like a good spot. Nice and clean.”

“I can’t think of a pose.” The boy was sitting on the pavement, suddenly at a loss, suddenly weighted by the inevitabilities and possibilities of life, which he was only now beginning to recognize.

“When someone walks past your outline, what should people think about? Anything you want to be, we’ll make you come alive.”

“Flying, I guess.”

“Wonderful. A common request.”

The boy lay on his stomach. He extended his hands and tried to imagine he was soaring through the sky. But the ungiving cement, rough against his bare arms, made him terribly aware that he was stuck to the earth.

“You thinking about your dad?”

“I don’t know.”

“He sick?”

For the past few months the father had been having dizzy spells. It was hard for him to take deep breaths. The boy’s mother had an advanced case of M.S. and couldn’t walk or move well. She’d been suffering for years, since the boy could remember. The boy tried not to think about what would happen if he lost his dad.

The man began chalking. The boy could feel the pressure of the man’s hand against his ribs, wiggling back and forth as he drew a thick line. The raw scraping of the chalk sounded small and lonely. The concrete was cool against the boy’s cheek. He imagined the man cutting a hole in the world. The boy would drop through it, leaving a space in the shape of him. He wanted to experience falling. He wanted to be pulled toward something terrible and permanent where bodies didn’t exist. “To Build a Fire” was the story he had just finished. The man froze at the end. It was sad, but everybody dies.

That’s what the boy read.

The man worked without speaking, a steady pace, as if completing the outline was both necessary and urgent. It was a strange and unfamiliar sensation, someone working so diligently for him. It gave the boy a feeling in his stomach he’d never had before. The man progressed around the boy, doing the arms, hands, and head. The boy breathed in the man’s body: rich, salty sweat mixed with the dust of the chalk. Pressed against the pavement, the boy became aroused. Before long the man’s hands were positioned inside the boy’s thighs: back and forth, back and forth, jiggling the boy slightly but persistently. His erection strained. A powerful surge rushed through him. He gasped, feeling his own hot breath as he kissed the pavement.

“All done,” the man said. “Let me help you up.” He extended a hand.

The boy stood on his own. Wetness on his belly. He hoped the man hadn’t seen, didn’t know. The man’s face gave no indication. The boy slid the gifted chalk into his pocket.

The man stepped back a few feet and looked hard at the outline, as if searching deep water for something he was certain lay just beyond his vision. “What do you think?”

The boy was shocked by what he saw: “It’s me.”

The man had used vibrant colors, lines weaving through each other, intertwining in a braid. The effect was of a pulsing energy, like a force field in the boy’s shape. The boy couldn’t believe how big he’d gotten.

A faraway voice called his name. The boy ran to his father without looking back, the blood-red chalk nestled firmly against his thigh.

 

After graduating from Western Michigan University with an MFA in fiction, Darrin Doyle taught English in Japan for a year. He then earned his PhD from the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of the novels Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet: A Love Story and The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, and the short story collection The Dark Will End the Dark. His short stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Harpur Palate, Redivider, BULL, and Puerto del Sol, among others. Currently, Darrin teaches at Central Michigan University and lives in Mount Pleasant, Michigan with his wife and two sons.

On the Point Between You and Infinity by Chloe N. Clark

I had a dream that you submerged my body in the lake. My husband told me this, as he washed dishes after breakfast. He was so careful with the plates, slowly turning them in his hands as he washed away the remnants of French toast and syrup. I almost didn’t hear him, he spoke soft as he stared out the window. I wondered for a moment if he meant to speak aloud at all. His gaze was out the window, focused on a distant point—maybe the tree that grew on the hill behind our house, he was always looking at that tree. But then he turned to me, looked me directly in the eye, and asked, why the fuck would you do that?

In dreams, when I was a child, I’d get lost for days, weeks, once even for my entire lifetime. My mother called me “her good dreamer” and other mothers marveled at the way I would nap anywhere—the limbs of trees, the backs of cars, under tables at neighborhood birthday parties. In my dreams, I’d always be going somewhere else, I could never stay in one place. Sometimes my legs ached when I woke up, from all the trudging through forests, the swimming through oceans, the walking through cities I’d never been in before. But I’d never submerged anyone in a lake. So I turned to my husband, what are you talking about?

I don’t mean you, like in reality, I mean the dream you. Why would you push me under the water? He turned back to look out the window, hands returning to the work of dishes. His back turned to me reminded me of the first time we’d met. I’d been lying on the river bank, elbows spread wide so my hands could clasp behind my head, staring at the sky to watch clouds. I liked to find the shapes that I knew weren’t there—it was easy to say what a cloud might look like, much harder to figure out what it could never look like. I heard a splash and turned my gaze earthward, to a man at the river, who was trying in vain to skip a rock across the surface. As if you could do that on such a moving surface, there was something so hopeful in his foolishness. I’d yelled out, I don’t think they’ll skip. He’d turned to me, one hand going to shield his eyes so he could see me through the sunlight. I’m not trying to skip them, he said. I’m just throwing them.

Maybe I was mad at you? I ask him. I tried to imagine the stream of dream events that would lead to me wanting to sink him like a stone. He shrugged, I don’t think I’d done anything. He has moved on to drying the dishes, to the slow movement of towel across plates. Well, what happened before the submersion? I stood up from the table, walked to him, put my hands around his waist, tucked my head into the crook between his head and shoulder. That was the beginning, he said.

About a month after we were married, he’d told me that when he was a child he had used to sleep walk. His mother would find him halfway across town, some nights. His parents had rigged up bells, alarms, ways to make sure they heard him or he walked up. He told me that the strange thing was that he never dreamed of movement, he was always still in his dreams, removed as if he was watching a movie of someone else’s life. And then one day he stopped doing it, he started dreaming as himself. He never woke up again, outside, staring up at the night sky peppered with sharp stars.

Well, what was the end then? I asked. He stopped drying the plate in his hands, set it down, turned so we faced one another, his hands now on my waist, my hands again on his. Outside the birds in the trees were singing, the crickets were chirping, such sounds. He pulled me a little closer, let our bodies sway together to the sounds. Our hearts beating to the same tune for a moment, and then he spun me out into a single twirl. He said, I think you pulled me back out.

 

Chloe N. Clark’s poems and fiction appear in Apex, Future Fire, Little Fiction, Uncanny, and more. She is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph, writes for Nerds of a Feather, and teaches at Iowa State University. Her debut chapbook, The Science of Unvanishing Objects, is out now and she can be found on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.