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.

Holiday Party Etiquette for Insects Recently Transformed Into People by Ashley Memory

Greet your host enthusiastically. Rather than flick your eyebrows —they are not antenna—extend one of your hands and gently shake the hand of your host. Offer a small gift, preferably something you have bought or made, rather than foraged from the Burger King dumpster. Put on the reindeer ears that she gives you  the little bells and flashing lights will remind you that you are now a mammal.

If there is a buffet, do not whirl your head around constantly for fear that anyone behind you is going to squash you or steal food from your plate. It is okay to silently curse the loss of your compound eye, but don’t obsess about it. No zigzagging through the room. You now have only two legs and you must master the bipedal gait while holding a plate of food. Practice at home beforehand.

If there are poinsettias at your table, fight the urge to hold them up to your nose and taste them. Ingesting the blossoms might make you sick. And you are too big to bury yourself inside the petals and gather nectar. Unfold your napkin, put it on your lap, and use it to wipe your mouth during the meal, rather than continually licking your lips with your tongue.

If someone waves to you from across the room, do not assume they are from your former colony with a special message and start shaking your body. Just smile and ask: “How is the family?”

While eating, chew slowly and do not gorge. In your new life, there is no need to eat as if you might not ever see food again. And it’s best to avoid the eggnog. A tipsy former insect could be unpredictable. Instead, turn your attention to getting to know the others at your table through polite conversation. Safe subjects: Books. Warning! Try not to talk only of Kafka and how he got it wrong in The Metamorphosis. Movies: Ant-Man or The Fly would be acceptable films to discuss, but do not express a secret desire for a remake of Killer Bees where the bees actually win. Music: Great choice! Everyone loves music. If the subject turns to opera, however, don’t denounce Madame Butterfly for not featuring a real butterfly.

If talk at your table turns to New Year’s Resolutions, don’t share the goals you set during your support group about remembering that you can’t really fly or trying to wean yourself from your addiction to carrion. Instead, it’s better to just repeat what others say, such as “I hope to lose a few pounds next year,” or “Spend less time at the office.”

If, on your way back to the buffet for seconds, someone corners you by the mistletoe and tries to kiss you, turn your head to the side demurely, as if you are shy. Your instinct to bite is still too powerful to engage in kissing. Maybe next year.

Congratulations! If you make it to the Yule Log cake, you have survived your first holiday party as a human! Before you leave, be sure and thank your host. You might even offer to stay and help with the dishes. If nothing else, ask if you may take out the trash. You could stash it in your car, drive home, and just for old time’s sake, rifle through it later for a delicious midnight snack.

 

Ashley Memory is a former blue orchard bee living in the ancient Uwharrie mountains of Randolph County, N.C. She has finally accepted that she can no longer fly, but she confesses to gathering nectar wherever she can. Her poetry and prose have recently appeared in The Birds We Piled Loosely, Gyroscope Review, The Ginger Collect, and numerous other literary journals and anthologies. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she is a two-time recipient of the Doris Betts Fiction Prize sponsored by the N.C. Writers’ Network. She is currently over the moon that in January 2019, Coffin Bell will publish “Orchard #9,” her narrative poem about a haunted cherry orchard.

Star of Wonder by Kathryn McMahon

Down the street comes a trio of carolers, hymns swirling with snow. They leave each twinkling house and tip-toe up the next set of steps to wait. One song. Two songs. However long it takes. The door opens and out wafts the tang of chestnuts and rude bursts of log fire. Apologizing, the carolers push into the foyer where they stomp away slush. None remove their gloves. Eyelashes glitter with white as they smile at the daughter.

A caroler waggles her thermos at the girl. Go get some mugs, hon.

Her parents laugh nervously and protest, but the carolers say, No, no we insist.

Could there be a safer night to accept the generosity of strangers? Polite, the family take the mugs and sip eggnog spiced with cardamom and something more difficult to place. In divine sopranos and one transcendent tenor, the carolers’ mouthparts pull back and the trio begins to sing.

The eggnog is blissful; the music, serene. The family teeters on their heels. Won’t you come into the living room?

The carolers each take a hand. Well, yes, it has been a long journey, but one more song won’t hurt. They lead the family to the couch. Gloves gripping gloves, the carolers stand while the family sits in matching ugly sweaters, listening. Drinking.

Heads nod. Droop. Empty mugs tumble between the cushions. The logs are minor, popping volcanoes when the carolers refresh the chorus of We Three Kings, their favorite. Discreetly, they scratch the chapped scales under their gloves.

Lulled by the gravity of their bodies, the parents stretch out on the floor. The husband’s sweater rides up and the hair on his stomach mashes into the carpet. The wife slips off her heels, no longer self-conscious about the rich funk that leaks from the sweaty soles of her stockings. The daughter, meanwhile, sinks down and, even though she is not a baby, she crawls, making it as far as the Christmas tree where she grasps a green and silver box with her name on the tag.

In the warm room, the carolers’ eyelashes are still caked with white. They blink and clumps of roe drip to the floor. For a moment, nothing stirs. Melting, the eggs sacs glisten, and under the Christmas lights, the larvae shine blue and orange, pink and gold. Then, between pine needles and runaway tinsel, feelers rise from the carpet. They sense the heartbeats of larger bodies. With a hungry whine, their tiny jaws inch closer, closer towards a stomach, a leg, a small fist.

The carolers watch, proud, their cheeks ruddy with the success of the births. Satisfied, but quashing a sniffle or two, they shut the door behind them. As they select a hymn and tramp towards the next house, their eyebuds already trickle new yolk-jelly that crystallizes in the cold.

Hovering above, other eyes watch. Human. Venison. Boots and hooves test-tap the roof to make sure that none will fall through. The boot-wearer, a man roly-poly in red, squeezes down the chimney, and with a grunt and black puff of dust, he hops over the flames. From his sack, he extracts a bottle and spritzes the larvae with a potion of reindeer musk mingled with orange and clove. In death throes, the small, hungry bodies jingle like bells.

The girl rolls over and snuffles. Both parents sigh, and the one who would be most embarrassed to, farts. The man-in-red parkours up the chimney, chuckling at how very much like an orifice it is.

The family sleeps off the eggnog, and in the morning, the daughter wakes first. She winces as something pierces her sock. A pine needle? She pinches it. Maybe not. Stiff, it is old and dead. She flings it away, shouting for her parents to wake up, it’s Christmas! They groan and pull each other upright. Vacuum as they will, they’ll complain how the pine needles linger for weeks, how they should’ve bought a fake tree, how isn’t it a good thing Christmas comes only once a year?

 

Kathryn McMahon is an American writer living abroad with her British wife and dog. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Booth, Passages North, The Cincinnati Review, Jellyfish Review, Split Lip, FLAPPERHOUSE, Third Point Press, Atticus Review, and others. Her work has received nominations for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net and the Pushcart, and has been selected for Wigleaf’s Top 50. She was recently a finalist for the first-ever SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction. On Twitter, she is @katoscope. Find more of her writing at http://www.darkandsparklystories.com.

Twenty-First Century Life by Sarah Freligh

We smoke out back on breaks because Mr. B. says it doesn’t look nice for a flock of angels to be smoking too close to the live creche or the people who line up to pay a buck to witness the miracle of Christmas. We smoke within whiffing distance of three sheep, two donkeys and the one spavined camel Mr. B bought for cheap off a him-and-her circus act that was divorcing. Everyone but Lydia, that is, who sits a ways from the rest of us and swats at the bad air. She’s barely two weeks late but claims she’s already sick as a dog, morning, noon and night. Today she actually pulls the pee stick from her purse for a little show and tell. Says she might tie a blue ribbon around it and present it to her boyfriend, Brett, but what do we all think.

“I had to pee in a jar, take it with me to the doctor’s,” Cherise says.

“You pissed in a jar?” Samantha says. “Jesus.”

Cherise blows a perfect smoke ring. “Peanut butter jar.”

“So, ribbon or no ribbon?” Lydia says.

We all look at each other. Personally I think it’s a bad idea to dress up a mistake and pass it off like it’s something you’re proud of, especially when you’re dealing with a here today/gone tomorrow kind of guy. Take it from me, I know the type.

“Seriously,” Jill says. “You really going to have the kid?”

We all look at her. In three weeks, Jill hasn’t said much beyond hello or nice day. Mostly she humps up her shoulders, slouches over to cover up how big she is.

“I cannot believe you said that,” Samantha says. “Seriously.”

“Why? We’re 21st century women,” Jill says. “We got options. Choices. You know.”

“It’s a baby,” Samantha says. “Not a menu item from the drive-up.”

Jill flicks the ash off her cigarette. “It’s a blob of cells. The size of a sweet pea.”

Lydia’s caged her hands over her stomach like she’s afraid Jill’s going to break and enter at any moment. “I swear I felt it move. Like the flutter of butterfly wings.”

Cherise laughs. “That’s probably gas, honey.”

Samantha tosses her cigarette on the ground and stomps it. “It’s a baby,” she says.

I have seen faces like Samantha’s on a sidewalk, crazy-eyed men and women with twisted mouths out of which fell the ugliest stuff: Murderer. God will judge you. Burn in hell.

The abortion was the easy part.

Some folks would say being single at forty with nothing but a couple of cats for company is a judgment of sort, but then I look around me. At women with wrung-out faces, the occasional black eye. At their men in the bars downtown flirting with girls just out of high school.

I got a life, though not the one I planned. Still, it’s a life. A twenty-first century life.

I check my watch. “Break’s over, kids.”

We stand and shoulder our wings, arrange ourselves in a wedge of angels, tallest to shortest. I reach out with an aim to straighten Jill’s wings, but she’s standing shoulders-back tall for once.

Only then do we fold our hands. Like we’re praying. Like we’re angels. Like we really might believe in miracles.

 

Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Sun Magazine, Hotel Amerika, BOAAT Journal, diode, SmokeLong Quarterly and in the anthology New Microfiction: Exceptionally Short Stories (W.W. Norton, 2018). Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.

To Repel Ghosts by Ran Walker

My mother used to tell me about a ghost that haunted the house across the street from where she grew up. The ghost was a little boy, who, according to legend, was shot by his stepfather. It was the kind of story that was difficult to determine the truth of, but the kind of story that would sneak into my consciousness, just as I was preparing for bed.

The story felt like one of those tales spun to scare kids around campfires or during sleepovers. It probably wasn’t real at all, but that didn’t stop me from imagining a kid of no more than ten, standing face-to-face with his stepfather, a twelve gauge pressed against his forehead.

I had no explanation for why my mother would tell me a story like that, except that maybe it had something to do with my father choosing to leave us after his girlfriend became pregnant. My mother never talked about him, and because I didn’t want to upset her, I never brought him up either.

Maybe the ghost was supposed to represent my father, although I couldn’t see how. Or maybe this bit of the macabre was my mother’s way of exorcizing some other demon. Then again, knowing my mother, she could very well have been talking about an actual ghost.

When she grew particularly melancholy, I would ask her to tell me about the ghost. For some strange reason, she enjoyed recounting the story, as if it provided some relief to her keeping the darkness bottled up inside.

One day, I built up the courage to press her more about the ghost, wondering if there was any greater specificity to her usual anecdote.

“Did you ever see it with your own eyes?”

“Yes. Twice.”

“What did it look like?”

“Everything above his chin had been blown completely apart. His entire head kind of folded in on itself. It was the kind of thing you kept looking at just to see if you could make sense of it.”

I hadn’t expected that level of detail from her, and my stomach tightened. My mother was carrying this around in her head like loose change in her pocketbook. She had told the story so nonchalantly that I wondered if she even knew what she was saying to her sixteen-year-old son. My imagination had never constructed so graphic an image of the ghost and now I found myself unable to think of anything else.

After that revelation, whenever I prepared for bed, I found myself unable to lie down without the aid of a nightlight. I was afraid the ghost might appear in my bedroom, the nearly headless figure creeping closer to me with each child-like step.

One night my fear-induced insomnia led me to seek protection in my mother’s bedroom. I found her asleep, upright against several pillows in her bed, a cocked twelve gauge resting in the corner, not even a full arms length away.

I backed away slowly, careful not to make a sound. Until that moment, I was not aware my mother even owned a shotgun, especially one identical to the gun in her story.

As I tiptoed back into my bedroom, I locked the door behind myself. I didn’t know who or what my mother feared, but I immediately feared it, too.

With darkness encroaching on my nightlight, I buried my head beneath the covers. It was all I could think to do to repel the ghosts.

 

Ran Walker is the author of sixteen books. He currently serves on the creative writing faculty for Hampton University in Virginia. He can be reached via his website, http://www.ranwalker.com.

Natural Resources by Anita Goveas

The shelves are half-empty, an improvement. Too many options cut down on foraging time, and time is finite. We know this now.

Mongooses are too soft, dormice don’t cover enough, hedgehogs fight back. Trial and error, word of mouth indicate armadillos are the most effective.

Rocks, sharp flints, wood shaved into spears. These are among the products we still have. In the After, protecting the head is essential during hunting and/or gathering. What we don’t eat isn’t wasted. Unlike Before.

 

Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Spelk, Lost Balloon, and Terse. She is part of the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, is a reader for Bare Fiction, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer.

When It’s Time to Go by Neil Clark

This time, you just wanted a simple life. Go to work. Watch kitten videos and food vlogs before bed. Over-order Chinese food at weekends when the hangovers bite.

But wherever you go, there’s always something.

Your first ever room had rising damp. The next had moths that ate your clothes.

Your last place had a switch in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, with “NOT IN USE” written above it in red pen. Your head would constantly be in that cupboard, oblivious to your phone pinging in your pocket with concerned texts from family, stern voicemails from work. You’d stroke the switch for days on end, applying tiny and tinier amounts of pressure. You’d trace the letters with your fingernails and wonder if you’d discovered the reset button for the universe.

When it was time to go from there, you flicked the switch, put the keys on the table and left the flat for the first time since the day you moved in. As your plane took off, you saw an earthquake below, just how you’d imagined.

The new house smelt of fresh carpet and just-dried paint. It felt efficiently put together, like it wasn’t passive aggressively wired to the fault lines of the universe.

But you couldn’t figure out how to turn the power to the shower on. Your first morning, you had to wash yourself over the sink. It was cold, and the floor got sudsy and wet. Your shivering made you late for your new job.

Then later.

Later still.

Too late.

Absent.

You put a towel over the puddle and spent the next year sat in the bathroom, watching rings of mold circle the loops of fabric, witnessing ecosystems turn from green to light brown, dark brown to black.

You wondered if this was what God was doing. Sitting naked on His bathroom floor instead of turning up to His day job. Shivering. Watching the hues of the globe shift a little each time we loop round the sun.

You found out about your nickname at work. “Jesus.” You thought it might be because everyone was waiting for you to turn up. That wasn’t it. It was because the suit you bought for your first day was getting holier and holier.

You’d never seen a single moth in the flat. You asked the internet if moths can lay eggs underneath human skin. Took the year off to read all 365,000 results.

After you finished reading each article, you inspected your skin so closely, looked so deeply into every pore that every pore became a black hole. Your body became a network of rifts in the space-time continuum, through which the moths were travelling via the ice age and the space age and the stone age, only emerging into the present day to feast on your suit when you were asleep.

Today, you got a letter from the bosses, asking if you owned any other suits. “The holes are getting ridiculous,” they said. “They leave you exposed in places that shouldn’t be exposed. We see red marks all over your body, like a toddler went mad with a permanent marker.”

“We can see right through you,” they said.

You knew it was time to go when the earthquake caught up. Shook your flat so hard the towel crinkled on the floor, sent ecosystem crashing into ecosystem. Shook the moths out your pores. Shook open the cupboard doors. Revealed a switch under the bathroom sink that said “SHOWER.”

You flicked it and left the keys on the table.

Outside, low black clouds touched the tops of derelict buildings. People ran naked in tight circles, bumping into one another.

As you fled on a stolen scooter, the heavens opened behind you. Flooded the town. Swept your towel into the sea like a magic carpet in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

Your next place will be at the summit of the highest mountain on Earth. The locals will worship the roar and smell of your battered scooter. Feed you. Paint red patterns on your chest and forehead.

You’ll be above the clouds, where you can watch the rains wash away the world underneath until you feel your sense of scale float out of your skull. Until you’re standing over a sink, tap running.

You’ll see a plane on the horizon, with red writing on the side that says, “NOT IN USE.” There’ll be a glint in the window of the cockpit.

Raise a finger, see if you can beckon it over. The locals will love it if you can.

 

Neil Clark is a writer from Edinburgh. Where he lives, there is a strange switch. He thinks about it. All the time. His work has been published by 404Ink, The Open Pen, formercactus, Memoir Mixtapes, and other cool places. Find him on Twitter @NeilRClark or at neilclarkwrites.wordpress.com.

Tea Kettles by Michelle Ross

I was at the mall to replace a broken tea kettle when I saw one of the dads from my kid’s school, the one who’s a cop. He looks exactly like what he is. Honest, I call that. The way a good tea kettle looks like a tea kettle, whereas some are designed these days to masquerade as other things—flamingos, giraffes, UFOs. For no good reason at all, other than that people in the world collect such shit. This department store, in fact, sells a tea kettle that resembles a toilet. It doesn’t even make sense.

This cop, his name is Donny, keeps his head shaved. His irises look like discs of ice, like if you were to put your finger to his eyeballs, your finger would freeze to them. At a school spaghetti dinner he showed everyone at our table the raised bump on his bicep where he’d been bitten by a police dog. The word “bump” does not do the scar justice unless you think on the scale of the protuberance and hardness of a baby bump. Or like how a tree oozes out its own liquid bandage when you prune it, only the liquid bandage hardens into an impenetrable barrier. Not that I touched his scar. I mean I’d wanted to, because I’m a curious person. But how would that have looked? Me reaching out to place my hand on Donny’s bicep?

Anyway, I spot Donny in the women’s lingerie department, staring absent-mindedly at a rack of animal-print bras. Again with the animals.

I think he must be purchasing a gift for his wife, Kate. That woman is on the board of a charity for dogs and is always asking people to attend this or that fundraiser or purchase this or that expensive raffle ticket for makeovers and computer repair certificates and what have you, but then when the middle school kids are having their bake sales, she’s all oh-I-can’t-buy-any-of-that-or-I’ll-end-up-eating-it-all.

Or maybe since he doesn’t seem to be so much considering the animal-print bras as to be resting his focus on them, he’s just waiting on Kate while she tries on lingerie. Kate runs with that dog of hers, I know, because I’ve seen her, and even if I hadn’t seen her, I’d know because of those calf muscles. Only runners have calves like that, calves so meaty they make you think of drumsticks, like the way predators in cartoons picture their prey as cuts of meat. What I mean is Kate is probably the type of woman who actually enjoys trying on lingerie.

But the person who comes out of the dressing room isn’t Kate but Allison, the mom of that girl in my son’s class who he says lives in a shelter. My son, barely seven, told me the girl, Reilly, isn’t allowed to see her father or rather he isn’t allowed to see her and her mother. Because he threw something at Reilly’s mother. Because glass shattered all over the kitchen floor. Because Reilly’s mother’s cheek turned purple. My son tells me this, and I’m thinking he’s too young to know about stuff like this, but then I think about Reilly and all the other kids who know-know stuff like this, and then I just shake my head. My son told me that Reilly both misses her father and doesn’t. He said, “I understand that, Mom,” and I said, “You do?” “Not about Dad,” he said. “Oh,” I said. “I mean,” he said, “feeling two ways at once. I feel that way a lot, like when I want to go swimming but also I don’t because then I have to have a bath after to get the chlorine out, plus the chlorine always makes my penis sting.”

I realize I’m not so surprised to see Allison. This Donny guy looks like the kind of guy who would cheat on his wife. Like I said, he looks like what he is.

So Allison walks out of the dressing room in this summery white dress. It’s an eyelet fabric, falls to just below her knees. I think of photographs of Woodstock, only she’s a clean, bleached version of that time. And she doesn’t have flowers in her hair, though she looks like she could pull that off, like she should be running barefoot through a meadow in that dress. What is it that bear used to say in that laundry detergent (or was it softener?) commercial? Fresh like a summer’s breeze? Something like that. Scratch and sniff Allison, and she’d smell like daisies and fresh-cut grass and pot.

What I’ve wanted to know ever since my son told me about Reilly and Allison in that shelter is what is her ex like out in the world? Like if he were sitting across from me at a school spaghetti dinner, would he give off a creep vibe? Would I think there’s something not right about that guy? Like Donny over there. Not the most charming man I’ve ever met. Doesn’t smile much. Has that steely stare you expect from a cop, particularly if one is pulling you over for speeding. Or was he more like my Carver? Smiling across the table at Donny at that spaghetti dinner. Offering to refill my lemonade. But then later that night, after our son was asleep, he was all everyone-saw-you-staring-at-his-bicep and don’t-you-fucking-embarrass-me-like-that-again. Carver is like a tea kettle disguised as a sheep.

 

Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, CRAFT Literary, New World Writing, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, Tahoma Literary Review, TriQuarterly, and other venues.

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.