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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Choices by Anna Hundert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

Soft Bundles by Meghan Lousie Wagner

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

* * * *

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

If, if, if…

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

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

“And what if I don’t eat that?”

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

“They bring more anyway.”

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

* * * *

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you help me get home?” I ask.

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

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

“Only their dreams.”

“But I have to have children?”

“We offer alternative plans.”

“How can I get back to the mountains?”

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

* * * *

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

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

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

I leave the kitchen and go to feed the town.

 

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

This Isn’t Anything by Francine Witte

When Burley comes home late every night, I tell myself he’s busy. He tells me that, too, but I believe it more when I say it.

Now, I do understand. He’s been busy before, but this is a busy with a smell on it.

This particular night, it’s 9 p.m. exactly. He comes in all fed even though I made pot roast. The pot roast that burned while I waited for him, the flat char of it still coating the air. Burley whooshes himself into the shower. Careful to take off his jeans and shirt and ball them into a wad. “Best to leave those,” he says. “I stopped for gas, and some jerk spilled coffee all over me.”

I wait till the shower is running to give his shirt a good sniff. Not a hint of coffee anywhere. Nothing is wet. And then I go for his jeans – in the pocket, a matchbook. Red with the black outline of two lovers, two cocktail glasses about to clink.

After the shower and him toweling himself off. “Whatta day” and “I shoulda called.”

I hold up the matchbook. “Oh this,” he says. “This isn’t anything. Guy at work was passing them out. New place opened up down the street.”

Burley says, work’s gonna be a bear this week, just so I know. He likes to compare everything to animals. Guys at work are a bunch of donkeys. Me, I’m a cute little cat.

And I am. Curled up and patient, like my mother taught me to be. This is what men like, she said. And really, I didn’t mind. Although Burley forgets sometimes that a cat needs attention. A tickle on the back of its neck. A rake of fingers through the hair. Later, in bed, I nuzzle up, kitten-like. He turns on his side. “Tired,” is all he says.

I whisper, “hey I’d love to go to that matchbook place with you. Have drinks like we used to.” I say this as his breath becomes even with sleep. I wobble his shoulder, and say it again, but he doesn’t move. He is a lost mountain to me now.

Something that isn’t hunger exactly gets me up on my feet and into the fridge. I pull out the leftover pot roast, burnt as it is. I kitten my face into it. Nuzzle and nibble and suck. Soon I go from tame little cat to feral. I crouch down to the floor and start gnawing like a lion on one of the nature shows I watch when Burley isn’t home. And then, without a sound, Burley just like that in the doorway. The swell of the fluorescent light overhead, sudden and sharp.

Burley leans over and struggles the pot roast away from my mouth. A look on his face like he caught me kissing another man. He lifts me to my feet. He flinches as my fingernails dig into his shoulders. Any harder and there would be blood. “What’s wrong with you,” he says with a look on his face like one of those animal trainers who realize they’ve gone too far. “I told you,” he says, “none of this is anything,” He grabs a dishtowel, wipes the grease off my chin and kisses me down to the floor.

Next morning, the mess from last night all over the kitchen and Burley humming from the bathroom. The pot roast, the dishtowel, the spot on the floor with naked us rubbed into it. I think about asking Burley now to tell me about the gas station. What was the feel of it, I want to say. Who was this guy? Was he bigger than you? Was the coffee hot? Why weren’t you burned? I clean everything up and put on a pot of coffee, the smell of it filling the room. The same smell that wasn’t anywhere on Burley’s shirt, and when Burley comes in and kisses me on the cheek, pulls back and winks at me, I feel a million questions on my tongue, a lion’s growl forming in my throat…

 

Francine Witte’s poetry and fiction have appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Mid-American Review, and Passages North. Her latest books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press,) The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction,) and The Theory of Flesh (Kelsay Books.) Her chapbook, The Cake, The Smoke, The Moon (flash fiction) will be published by ELJ in Fall 2021. She is flash fiction editor for Flash Boulevard and The South Florida Poetry Journal. She lives in NYC.

Big Head Syndrome by Hannah Whiteoak

George is proud of his oversized head, but the girls in the office keep laughing at it when they think he can’t hear. Arriving in the office one Monday morning, he hears them giggling in the break room and catches a snippet of their conversation. “I wonder how he fits through the door…” When he stomps in to heat up his morning mackerel, they give him the briefest of greetings and scuttle back to their desks.

At home, George has a specially made door, which is wider at the top, so he has no trouble fitting through it. Of course, he doesn’t tell the girls that. Instead, he grinds his teeth and writes an angry email to human resources.

The reply assures him that the company takes bullying very seriously. However, it points out, having an oversized head isn’t a protected characteristic. Unless he would describe it as a disability?

George most certainly would not describe the head as a disability. It’s inconvenient from time to time, but it’s also where he keeps his gigantic brain. George knows that his superior intellect is what makes him so good at his job. His spreadsheets never have errors. He doesn’t make basic spelling mistakes in emails, unlike his manager, Karen, who doesn’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its,” and yet still tries to tone-edit his written communications with junior staff.

* * * *

At St. Matthew’s Independent School for Boys, George’s extra-large head was considered an asset. It did most of its growing during his boarding years, swelling from an average-sized noggin to the impressively bulbous specimen it is today. Every time he reduced an opponent to tears in a debate, it grew a little more. His parents praised the growth at the end of every term, and put him on a special diet that they hoped would make it grow faster.

He’d been bullied back then, too. Some of the stupider boys pretended to be overwhelmed by the smell of the brain-boosting fish he ate at every meal. George, who took great pleasure in sitting in front of them in class so they had to lean into the aisle to see past him, knew they were jealous. His big head would take him places, while they, with their macaroni cheese and pin-prick skulls, would never amount to anything beyond these ivy-covered walls.

* * * *

Molly from HR taps her pen against the side of her cheek and stares across the desk at George with a look of pity that makes his fists clench.

She tips her head to the side, mimicking the simpering dog in the calendar on her wall, and says, “I don’t suppose there’s any way you could get it treated?”

George splutters with rage. Do they ask Marcus to suppress his tics? Do they expect Maria to magic away her photosensitivity so they don’t have to hold meetings in rooms so gloomy several of the older managers — himself included, though he hasn’t liked to mention it — struggle to read their notes? No? Then why should he get rid of his extra-large head?

Molly smiles. “Karen says that sometimes it shrinks a little when you’re absorbed in a task. I wonder if that’s something we could cultivate.”

George storms out, grazing his ear on the door frame. All he wants are some reasonable adjustments. Someone to do his copying, because it’s… well, not impossible, but unpleasant, certainly, for him to squeeze into the photocopier room. Someone to fetch him coffee, so he can keep his great mind focused on his work, rather than being waylaid by chit-chat. And an end to the head-focused bullying.

As he returns to his desk, Karen shouts a cheery hello from the neighboring cubicle. Of course, she can see the crown of his head, showing off its bald spot over the top of the divider. Will they never give him any peace?

But even though it attracts attention, he wouldn’t give up his head for anything. When that evening he lays down to sleep, blood rushes to his brain, bathing him in a soothing wooziness. If other people’s minds are like televisions, replaying memories whenever they close their eyes, then his is an entire multiplex cinema. He selects a film from his school days and basks in the glory of himself.

 

Hannah Whiteoak’s work has recently appeared in publications such as Flash Fiction Online, Reflex Fiction, TSS, and Brilliant Flash Fiction. Connect online at www.hannahwhiteoak.me or on Twitter @hannahwhiteoak.

The Roadrunner by Brianne M. Kohl

Holly lays in bed, one leg bent over the edge, the other bare foot resting on the cool creased pillow. Pink toes. Avon Pink Minx. She idles the morning away, watching cartoons and smoking cigarette after cigarette. Charlie would not approve but Charlie is not here.

Holly throws an arm behind her head and stares at the television. Sly coyote – he’s painting a road on a desert floor that leads to a stone wall. He adds trees and a guard rail. Leaves no detail undone. He waits behind a dusty boulder for the Roadrunner to hit the wall. But the Roadrunner has a secret: she can turn paint into pavement, pavement into horizon, horizon into escape.

Holly pulls smoke into her lungs. Charlie is a doctor – a radiologist but still. He likes to tell Holly all the horrible things cigarettes can do to the human body. But Holly has decided: she will not die from cancer. Not any sickness, actually. Not fire, not gunshot – KAPOW! Not from Charlie’s fists that fall like anvils from the sky.

Her death will only be activated when (A) she lifts a soup spoon to her mouth, (B) pulling a string that (C) jerks a ladle which (D) chucks a bag of blue marbles at a bucket, tipping it and (E) spilling bird seed onto the table. The extra weight in the pail (F) pulls a cord which (G) opens and ignites a Zippo (H) setting off a rocket which (I) causes a sickle to cut the string (J) releasing a pendulum attached to (K) a blade that swings back and forth, across her throat.

The bird seed though? For the Roadrunner – who, let’s be honest, needs the calories.

A slip of greenish paper blows past her window, flush against the glass for a moment before catching the wind. And her funeral? Will Charlie come? Does a restraining order last after death? Will he send a bouquet of Daisies and a card that says, I’m sorry, sorry, so sorry, I love you, please? Baby, please. I’ll do anything.

Within moments of that first sheet of paper, a flurry of pamphlets rains down outside like ticker tape in a war parade.

Holly stamps out her cigarette and jogs to the front door of her apartment. The world outside is silent but for the shuttering of paper as it hits roof tops and slides down. She looks up but cannot see sky. Hundreds of thousands of sickly yellow-green papers fall.

Reaching out her door, she grabs one.

WE WERE HAPPY.

She opens the tri-folded pamphlet to find a watermark of an atomic bomb in the background. It is crudely drawn like a child’s rendering, ACME written on the side.

Come home.

You have nine days.

Holly steps out into the storm of paper, letting them slap past her face. People stand on porches and beneath awnings, pointing up.

“What the hell is this?” her next-door neighbor asks. Holly doesn’t know the woman’s name. She only knows the woman has a small, annoying terrier named Lemon Drop who barks constantly. The woman pushes against a drift of paper to open her door.

“I don’t know,” Holly says and hands the woman a flier. Lemon Drop bolts out into the lawn, yipping and chasing paper.

“This is some Heaven’s Gate bull shit,” the woman says. “Nine days. What’s in nine days?”

Air sirens go off and the two women stand together for several minutes, unsure what to say.

“You had problems recently,” the woman says. “Police were at your place a couple times. That guy wouldn’t leave you alone.”

Holly looks over in surprise. The papers taper off slowly until the last few fall and blue-skies return.

“I’m not sayin’ he’s doin’ this,” her neighbor says when Holly doesn’t respond. “But someone is. Probably the government. Russia, maybe. They gave us that virus through the chem-trails, you know.”

“Do you hear airplanes?” Holly looks up. Fliers pile up like snow drifts, clinging to trees and shrubbery, papering the entire neighborhood in sickening yellow-green.

“I didn’t hear nothing,” the woman says, grabbing Lemon Drop and slinking back into her apartment.

The woman reminds Holly of her mother. Chem-trails, Pizza-gate, there isn’t any awful thing her mother isn’t eager to believe.

Never about Charlie, though.

Back in her apartment, Holly checks her phone. The pamphlets fell not just on her neighborhood but the whole town. On the whole state. Reports come in quickly. Every state. Everywhere. Every country. Nine days, the pamphlets say, in every language. We were happy and now we are not.

Her wedding anniversary is in nine days. Holly sinks to the beige carpet. It smells like old, musty dog. She’s scrubbed it a dozen times and it doesn’t matter; she could scrub it a dozen more. The apartment walls are beige, neutral like sand. She was going to paint them but what’s the point?

Stupid Coyote – he’ll blanket the world in paper just to see her run. He’ll strap a rocket to his back and light his own tail on fire. He’ll paint a tunnel on a stone wall but she’s already on the other side of it. His schemes fail because it’s the Roadrunner who bends the laws of physics not the Coyote. She who can turn paint into pavement, pavement into horizon, horizon into escape.

 

Brianne M. Kohl’s work has been featured in various publications including Catapult, The Masters Review, and Jellyfish Review. She won first place in the 2018 Wigleaf Short Fiction Contest and second place in the 2020 Atticus Review CNF Flash Contest. She has work forthcoming from River Teeth.

No Running by Taylor Clarke

No one could tell him what to do, not anymore, so he went to the pool. The end of the world had happened overnight, and so everyone else remained tucked in their beds. The front desk staff slumped over their computers. Colin had the run of the place.

The resort pool was small, which was disappointing. It was designed for adults to sit around, a uniform four feet deep—which he could stand in, on his tiptoes —and without the fancy accessories one might expect from a resort: no slide, no diving board, no water features or zero entry. Colin had been to a pool with all of the above once, at Disney World. His parents had been upset because he enjoyed the pool more than waiting in line for hours to ride a lazy boat past some old robots from the Pirates of the Caribbean, and with only one pirate from the movie. He would have preferred to stay in that pool forever.

This pool was a subpar substitute, but it could have been worse. The pool could have been inside, humid and without a view of the sky. There could have been no pool at all.

So he decided to be grateful and strapped his goggles to his head. They were polarized, a word he’d learned from the packaging, dark lenses that made him feel like a spy, hiding the blistering sun behind sparkling blue. Through them, the water was a lurid cerulean. He kept his rash guard on, not because his mother had told him to, which she had, but because he was fat, and even now, with no one to see, no one at all, the existence of other people a total impossibility, he worried about his tummy extending over his board shorts, which he preferred to knot securely under the protrusion of his gut.

He jumped. Colin heard the splash and knew it was a big one, but there were no onlookers to confirm that his cannonball was a 10 out of 10. When he surfaced, the sun had already begun baking away the water he’d displaced. He floated on his back.

He flipped onto his stomach. He doggy-paddled back to the wall, a true doggy-paddle, pretending he was one of the fancy yippy dogs at the resort, some still closed in rooms, barking when he walked past to go to the pool. He sank beneath the surface, braced both feet on the wall, and was disappointed to find that the momentum of a single push was enough to get him to the other side, surfacing easily just before the opposite wall.

He decided on a tea party, with the goal not of a perfect mimicked tea party, beverages poured for friends, but of the longest tea party. Tea brought to his lips, pinky raised, for the longest time anyone had ever held an underwater tea party. He breathed deeply, the way his mother told him to do when he was upset, one hand on his tummy, trying to fill every inch of his insides. When he felt full, he gulped his last bit of air, filling the space at the very top of his lungs and throat, and sunk beneath the surface.

Sitting on the floor of the pool was easy. He always sank quickly—his swim instructors at the community pool back home had said, like a stone. He sat cross-legged on the concrete, bubbles escaping his nose even as he tried to hold his air in, and counted. Seven Mississippi, eight Mississippi, nine Mississippi. He poured himself tea. He didn’t pour any for imaginary friends. He knew they were all gone. He was eight, and no longer an idiot. He didn’t wonder what would come next, what would happen to the bodies in the hotel, or after he’d eaten all the food in the room’s mini fridge. He didn’t think about how he would feel when the dog down the hall from his parents’ room grew quiet. Twenty-six Mississippi, twenty-seven Mississippi. Counting left room for nothing else.

He sipped tea. The pressure in Colin’s chest was building, and he was in pain, but the record for the world’s longest underwater tea party couldn’t be less than forty-five seconds. He himself had hosted a thirty-five seconder, before.

At forty-nine seconds, he pushed off the concrete with his hands. The second or two before he reached the surface were awful, end of the world awful. He thought he wouldn’t make it; the pressure in his head would explode and he would simply be floating boy-pulp, like when someone vomits in the pool and the lifeguard has to fish out the offensive mass with a skimmer. He would be the offensive mass. Except there would be no one to use the skimmer. He would just float on the surface, forever, his brain food for gulls, if there were still gulls.

But Colin emerged, and he inhaled. The pool deck was empty. He wanted to knock the silence out of his ears like water. In the brief rise from pool floor to surface, he had imagined that his mother might suddenly appear on a lounger, a stopwatch counting up on her phone. She would have collected all the trapped dogs, and she would congratulate him on the longest tea party held by anyone left alive. She would be clapping.

 

Taylor Clarke is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Brooklyn College. Her fiction has appeared in Grimoire and The Nottingham Review. She is currently at work on a story collection about the end of the world.

Beauty is Only… by Jessica June Rowe

Or, How to Get Over Your Shitty Ex: A 10 Step Skincare Routine.

Step 1: Cleanser. You’ve got to start with a clean slate. Apply to damp skin in slow, circular motions. This is your chance to wipe away the past. Wipe until the long-lasting makeup you applied this morning lasts no more. It all breaks down: dark circles around your eyes, a red smear around your lips. Rinse. Watch the colors bleed from your face to your fingers to the sink.

Step 2: Exfoliator. You missed a spot. Scour your skin with a sugar-based scrub. Like your ex, who called you sweet and said you liked it rough. Exfoliate every molecule, spare no tender place. Rub your eye sockets, bruise your jawline, wring your hands around your throat until your muscles give way. Rinse.

Step 3: Toner. Restore the acid in your skin. You’re getting older, losing your edge. You wanted to leave him for ages, but you didn’t until it was him leaving you. But you don’t miss him. You shouldn’t miss him. Balance yourself every night with an alcohol-based toner. Feel the light burn of chemical stability, feel your tolerance build, feel better about your choices.

Step 4: Essence. What exactly is an essence? It doesn’t matter. Your skin is as dull as single life. Slap a hydrating essence onto your skin. When fully absorbed, slap on some more. You always need more hydration. Didn’t work? Are you drinking enough water? Are your showers too hot? Too long? Stop crying in those showers. Stop letting the tears and steam drain your sinuses, letting the water run until your skin shrivels. You’re always falling short. Drink more, cry less, slap more until your skin is drowning. Think it’s enough? It’s not enough.

Step 5: Roller. Take your routine to the next level with a jade roller. Start at the center of your face and roll outwards until you reach your hairline. Use the roller’s edge to work under the top layers of your skin and peel them off in a single motion. Set your face-skin somewhere flat to dry. No wrinkles here.

Pro-tip: Use the roller on your exposed superficial fascia. Fascia massage is all the rage, after all, and you know how to deal with rage. Be sure to wash your roller with warm water and gentle soap afterward; leftover blood can lead to bacteria build-up. You know how to deal with blood.

Step 6: Sheet Mask. Without your skin, you’re so sensitive. A sheet mask is soothing, revitalizing, reinventing. For 15-20 minutes, you can pretend that you’re someone else entirely, that you’re applying their skin. You pretend you’re the girl your ex is now dating. You watch the makeup tutorials she cross-posts on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok. You analyze every new video, searching for bruises lurking under all those layers of foundation. All you find is flawless skin. You wonder if your ex is the one taking all her staged poolside photos. You hate her. You envy her skill with liquid eyeliner. You love her skincare tips, her gentle voice, her #glow.

Step 7: Serum. God, you’re pathetic. Didn’t we go through this already? You need a serum, a punch of perfection. Active ingredients will actively eradicate your shame, your spite, your ugliness, your inability to let go. Use a high concentration, enough to erase any skin-memory that makes you you. No one wants that. For the best results, tear away the fascia, the subcutaneous fat, the retaining ligaments. Make it all the way down to your thick skull. Smear the serum across your cranial bones; let it soak into your marrow. If you experience soreness, irritation, instability, despair—ignore it. Dig deeper with a pair of metal tweezers. Chip away at your forehead; twist the sharpened points until you trepane your way to your frontal lobe.

Step 8: Spot Treatment. Through your skull-hole, it’s so much easier to see those hard-to-reach spots. Tweeze away the tricky blood vessels, the wrinkles in your brain, the scar tissue that keeps forming from overthinking, not thinking, stupid thinking. Trauma isn’t cute. You don’t want him back. You don’t. You do. You don’t. Apply a strong spot cream to the places, spaces, memories, emotions you want stripped away; apply at night so you can let it penetrate your imperfections all night long.

Step 9: Moisturizer. Doesn’t that feel better? Time for more hydration. A moisturizer will create a nourishing barrier to prevent all your efforts from going in vain—and it’s a great adhesive. Slather generously to both sides of your skull-bones and face-skin and press gently to re-adhere.

Pro tip: Follow up with a facial oil for true resilience. Feel your pores, your sweat glands, your nerves seal shut. Trap in everything from before. Your face should be as smooth as a mirror: reflecting everything, absorbing nothing. You are bright, immaculate, beautiful. The pain you felt, you feel, is nothing.

Step 10: Rinse, Repeat. This is the rest of your life. You will care for your skin until it dies, and you with it. Probably alone, but who knows. New skin, new you, maybe even new love. You deserve love, even when you don’t. You do. You don’t. You do. If you ever forget, just add more steps. You always need more hydration. Try creams, peels, correctors, removers. Mask your face, your hands, your feet, your hurt. Remember: you can’t break out if you never break.

 

Jessica June Rowe is an author, playwright, editor, and perpetual daydreamer. She is on the Editorial Board of Exposition Review and has served as both the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor. A Best of the Net nominee, her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Atlas and Alice, Pidgeonholes, Timber Journal, and Noble/Gas Qtrly, while her short plays have been featured on multiple stages in Los Angeles. One of her poems is stamped into a sidewalk in Valencia, CA, where she currently lives. She also really loves chai lattes. Find her on Twitter @willwrite4chai.

A Universe Waiting to Be Born by Cathy Ulrich

In this universe, time is on a rewind, time is in reverse, and the girl detective gets unkidnapped, gets set back down on the sidewalk beside the gaping Thomas from chemistry class. He is thinking apples like smells hair her, and his smile goes and comes, white-toothed. The girl detective becomes unaware of the long black car turning round the corner, her head dips down and up as she listens to Thomas’s backward talk, as they go backward into the school, as they grow younger imperceptibly, as Thomas’s hand nearly brushes the girl detective’s, as it pulls away.

The sun falls back into its rise, birds migrate north for the summer, the spools unwind and unwind, and the girl detective sits at her bedroom window and thinks alone not am I. Universes and universes and universes are there.

The girl detective walks backward home, her mother plays Billie Holiday backwards, her father returns from a trip he hasn’t yet left for. They uneat their dinner at the long dining table, empty forks becoming full, tipping back down to their plates. There is a silence of unspoken words that surrounds them.

The girl detective heads backward to her birth, she will be unborn, she will be part of the fabric of everything, small and new in this reversing place, she looks out across a sea of universes and a sea of girl detectives going forward and away from her, and she wants to tell them, I know how it ends, I know how it all ends, but she is swallowed up in her beginning and carried with everything into a universe waiting to be born.

 

Cathy Ulrich always sets her clocks at least 10 minutes ahead, which is kind of the opposite of going backwards in time. Or something. Her work has been published in various journals, including Quarter After Eight, Ecotone, and Flash Frog.