Chickens by Harsimran Kaur

Before: I see grief speeding past my black Toyota Camry on the 29th intersection in the funny, stupid little town called Poppy. I have been living in Poppy for the past twenty-five years—this is where I met my chickens. There are twelve of them—all so ripe—I like them so much that I always want to adorn them. Neat. Put glitter under their eyes, pierce their strong hands (you’re supposed to pierce your hands, and not the softies on your body, left wasted like an ugly Christmas sweater, driven out of existence, lost into the cabaret.) The wolves in my backyard are in love with my chickens. I guess, everyone in Poppy is in love with my chickens—it’s as if their bodies are a magnet. It’s natural for anyone to fall in love with them. When I turn my neck back once again, I don’t see grief disappearing like a cloud of smoke, I don’t see it running in the opposite way anymore—not jolting itself into a corner. I see it turning back. When it’s eighty meters away, I sigh. My first thought is chickens. Perhaps grief is in love with them, too.

After: I come back home, and drop to my knees. The chickens are gone. All twelve of them. Not even a trace. I ask the wolves. I call the cops. I thought grief wouldn’t do anything. But it did. It took my chickens away, I say to Mr. Brad, the detective. A year goes by, I wait, wait, wait. I am so hungry… and they were so ripe. I wonder if they wouldn’t have disappeared without a trace if I fed them to the wolves in the backyard. At least I would have gotten something out of them—a ribcage, for example. A void in my living room—the ribcage. I am so sad. I wish they would come back to me. I would cut them into pieces. They were so ripe. They were like chemtrails over a country club. So present. I really would have eaten them—made them a part of me I would have always adored.

 

Harsimran Kaur (she/her) is a recent high school grad from Punjab, India. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, BULL, In Parenthesis, Big Windows Review, Milk Candy Review, JMWW, and elsewhere. An alumna of The Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, her work has been recognized by The New York Times. She loves clementines and Lana Del Rey, and works as an editor-in-chief for The Creative Zine. She tweets @harsimranwrites.

The Dar-Ron Motel by Julia Strayer

The doctor says I should spend the night nearby, just in case, and now I think I’m crazy for doing this so far from home. I find a cheap motel with free TV. It looks better at night when sunlight can’t get to it. Or in a fog when the edges are blurry. But by the light of day, it’s the kind of place I’d drive by without turning my head.

The sign says Dar-Ron Motel and I know a couple named Darla and Ron run it without even asking. Or maybe Darren and Ronda—without an H, because her mother wanted her to be special, the kind of person who wouldn’t grow up to own a rundown motel. Either way, Dar and Ron probably aren’t even together anymore. Maybe it’s just one of them—Darla with a new man who now helps her keep up the place, even though the sign still says some other guy’s name. Maybe the new man resents Ron. Maybe he’s grateful. Or maybe it’s just Darla because no man will stick around long enough to make changing the sign worthwhile.

The night clerk’s a gum chewing teen with red lipstick and hair that’s black on one side, white on the other. I wonder how much thought went into deciding which color would look best on which side. That’s the sort of thing that would prevent me from doing that sort of thing. I envy her. She’s probably the kind of person who’d never change herself for some guy making promises he’ll never keep just to get in her pants, eventually saddling her with a smaller, needier version of himself, unless she’s the one who finds a doctor far from home.

If I owned the motel, I’d name it The Francine because it’d be all mine. I wouldn’t cut up my name and share it with some guy, because that only leads to heartache and dead unicorns. At Halloween, I’d go all out decorating the place, and people would come from all over to see it. Halloween makes everyone equal—visible and invisible at the same time. I’m safe because I can see the masks. It’s easy to tell who’s pretending.

My motel would have a lounge where the lonely people who are missing persons from their own lives could feel like they’re part of something and like they have a home. Maybe they’d rent a room and maybe they’d even meet someone. And they wouldn’t care if the room came with free TV, at least not right away.

Julia Strayer has stories in Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review Online, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, Jellyfish Review, Wigleaf, and Atticus Review, among others, including the Best Small Fictions anthology. She teaches creative writing at New York University.

Spectral Analysis by Marc Vincenz

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

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

 

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

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

Take care

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

No vacancy

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

Ways to fall in love

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

Transit

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

Bean counter

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

 

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

Tongue Depressors by Emily Behnke

It’s murky, but at the bottom of Sadpond I think I see streaks of green and yellow. Mabel watches me from the window with worry winnowing across her face, so I cut my staring short and go inside. She asks if there’s something wrong with Sadpond. I don’t know, I tell her. Something’s growing in it. She looks at me, serious as she was as a little business-like infant. Ponds are habitats, she tells me. Okay, I say. Things will grow, she tells me. She walks away from me to let that sink in. I haven’t had it in me to tell her about the sunflowers, but she’s putting the pieces together quicker than I can stop her. I don’t go back out to Sadpond for the rest of the day, but I don’t talk to her either, not until she comes out of her bedroom red in the face and sweating. I have a fever, she says in a long yodel. My fingers are ice against her head. She sinks against me and I toss her to the couch. My daughter, I say. We are so easily taken out. Soon enough, her throat is crawling. She hacks up green and asks me to look at her throat so I get the tongue depressors, even though she’s too old for them. We both like the woody taste. I press down. Inside her: swaths of bright red patched with yellow and green, just like at the bottom of Sadpond. Did you drink the pond water, I say, and she pulls away from me in disgust. I’m not fucking stupid mom, she says. I roll my eyes. There isn’t time for this. She hacks again and something comes out like a silken petal. I made a mistake, I say all choked up, and hurt flashes across her face. For some reason, I think she assumes I meant having her. Obviously, that isn’t it. My mistake: thinking I could protect her alone. My mistake: thinking the sunflowers wouldn’t come for her.

 

Emily Behnke is a graduate of The New School’s MFA program. Her work has been published in trampset, Bear Creek Gazette, Tiny Molecules, and other venues. She’s currently at work on a novel.

Closer by Tara Isabel Zambrano

For fun, we make a dating profile and start talking to girls from other cities, words shooting like a script, Hi, what are you wearing?

Pink blouse, ripped denim shorts.

Underneath?

Raspberry colored bra, a purple thong.

Show me? A little lower, yes, right there.

It’s adventurous to sync up on Twitter, push stories on Insta, location enabled, our fingers swiping the apps as if it’s each other’s skin. We ask each other, Will you let me touch you tonight, our tongues circling inside our mouths like thirsty leeches. We rub ourselves to those topless pictures taken in dimly lit bathroom stalls, until our lids go heavy.

Did you cum?

Not yet, did you?

Yes, of course. Heart emojis, a hot-pink smooch. You have an amazing body, we text before we birth a lake on our bedsheets, smother each other’s names into our pillows.

We want to visit the girls, we want to bring them home. We want to untangle each other’s hair. We want to bitch about the size-zero waists and the shrill voices of our exes, show how we dope in the vape-sucked restrooms at school, how we sneak out of the labs to avoid dissecting a dead cat. How we plan to push and prod on the kitchen floor with each other someday, stretch our skin in imaginative designs and bake cupcakes, stick tight, glistening cherries into the fleshy sponge.

When we get bored of sex, we fight without fists, our words screwing the airwaves. To cool down, we watch the same ASMR session, the drowsy wavelengths like eyes blinking in a dark cave until the video runs out and we wait for each other to hang up.

What we have won’t be fixed without touch, though the difference in our time zones makes us safe and complicated. For a while, it’s just, Hi, thought of you.

Me, too.

We cling to, Are you wearing something interesting today?

No, are you? OK, gtg. We give up calling each other, Amazing, Gorgeous, our fingers sore from softening the knot between our legs. Our skin goes cold for a while, until we swipe through profiles, text another name, the exposed ink on cleavage warming through the screen, our torsos bent, our eyes drunk with expectation as we gaze deeply, Closer, Yes, Can you come closer?

 

Tara Isabel Zambrano is a writer of color and the author of a full-length flash collection Death, Desire, and Other Destinations from Okay Donkey Press. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Copper Nickel, West Branch, and Post Road. She lives in Texas and is the Fiction Editor for Waxwing Literary Journal.

When Everyone is President by Maryann Aita

What if everyone is president except for one guy named Steve? And all the presidents would make executive orders and veto each other, and they’d spend so much time debating each other that Steve would get to live his life and eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches whenever he wants? All the presidents would be in charge of things like debt and healthcare and equal rights, and Steve could watch all the movies that were made before everyone became president. Then when he gets bored of those, he could make more movies. While all the presidents are busy arguing about being the most president, they’d approve his Arts grant so he could buy equipment and write a script and hire some of the lesser presidents to act in the movie for him. His landlord would be president now, and so would all the farmers, and grocery store managers, and people who trucked the food to the stores, so he wouldn’t need any money. But Steve is starting to realize he would have to convince some of the lesser presidents to go back to farming or he’d have to learn to farm, which really would get in the way of his peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich-eating. That’s not a life change Steve wants to make. All Steve wants is to not have to make so many choices all the time and maybe to not have to pretend to be happy all the time. But all the presidents wouldn’t make Steve happy either, and eventually they’d have to ask Steve about things like elections and that’s everything Steve doesn’t want: choices. Maybe what Steve really wants is a little bit less responsibility and places to be and reasons to wake up and reasons to shower. Maybe all Steve really wants is to just disappear.

 

Maryann Aita (sounds like ATE-uh) is a writer and performer in Brooklyn, NY. Little Astronaut, her debut essay collection, is forthcoming from ELJ Editions in Spring 2022. Her writing has appeared in PANK, which earned a Best of the Net Nomination, as well as The Porter House Review, The Exposition Review, and perhappened mag, among others. Maryann is the nonfiction editor for Press Pause, a journal with zero social media presence. She has an MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College and lives with three cats.

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.

Where There’s Smoke by Leslie Walker Trahan

I never saw my mother with a cigarette when she was alive, but now that she’s dead, she goes through a pack a day at least. I smell her smoke in every room of my house. I find her butts smashed into my floors. She’s with me while I make dinner. I grease the pan with butter. I prepare the chicken to roast. Then I hear the quick tick of a lighter, and when I turn around, there are ashes lining my pan. Mother, I say, stop it. But she never listens. She’s already burned three holes in her recipe book, one in her wedding dress, too. At night, she waits for my husband to fall asleep before she starts in. There is the smell of smoke and the glimmer of a cigarette in the dark, and when I run my hands over my husband’s chest, ashes grind against my palm. When I go out, I smell smoke on the streets. At the dry cleaner, the bank, the grocery store. Everyone breathes out smoke, long wispy curls that dissolve when I look straight at them. So many people, I think. So many secrets. I remember those final days. My mother in her thick floral nightgown, tucked tight beneath her sheets, and me leaning down to hear her better. I sure would like to get in trouble someday. Her lips were pinched back, her pale pink gums exposed. I stop at a bar and ask a man out front for a book of matches. He winks and drops one into my palm. Come see us sometime, sweetheart. I hear Mother’s laugh behind me. When I turn, her embers graze my hand.

 

Leslie Walker Trahan’s stories have been featured in The Forge, New Delta Review, Gone Lawn, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among other publications. She lives in Austin, Texas. You can find her online at lesliewtrahan.com.

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.