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.

Undertow by Matthew Mastricova

Jeff wants to grows long enough to reach the moon. He’s been doing those stretches, where you grab on the gnarliest limb of a tree and let your body stretch down. Jeff says the neanderthals used to do it. He says one day he’s gonna get big enough to crush the moon between his palms. Serves it right for sitting up so close in the sky, causing tides and shit. His arms have grown like an inch or two. Or maybe he dropped his body so hard he unraveled something. I missed the first two snaps and have to settle for gawking at the rough fractal guts of his uncle’s maple tree. It was like looking at the inside of my own skeleton. I wanted to hurl. The last time I wanted to get sick so bad was when Jeff’s older brother pushed me off their back porch and I landed on my arm wrong and clean broke it. He was that kind of motherfucker.

The third time Jeff’s fat ass breaks a branch, I’m videotaping him to find the moments where gravity drags Jeff’s arms down beyond their limit. No one believes in Jeff but me. They don’t know how much spite is in that guy’s teeth. Venom can take you a long way if you let it, so even though Jeff’s hands are splintered to hell after the branch breaks, he doesn’t even wince. He’s been through worse. At his brother’s funeral, Jeff showed me the scar from where his brother sliced his stomach for hogging the xbox. He pulled me into the bathroom and said “Jody I gotta show you something” and he let me trace the shape of it and I swear to god I could feel it breathing.

Jeff gives me his hands and I get to work removing the slivers of pulp. I want to stick his whole fist in my mouth, suck out the poison that’s keeping him going, but I focus on the damage I could see. By the time I return Jeff his hand it’s swollen like a corpse. Another shot at vengeance the wild stole from him. Even with the dead hand he still plans on trying. He asks me if I’d come over next time and watch just in case something happens and the other hand goes, too. If I’d tie his hands to the trees, then. I say yes, of course I’d do that Jeff, but it’s only because I believe he’d figure a way to do it some other way. Jeff, one day he’ll crumble the moon between his fingers and banish the ocean tides, and then he’ll have nothing left to break but himself.

 

Matthew Mastricova is the fiction editor for Third Point Press. Their work has appeared in Catapult, Joyland, Redivider, The Threepenny Review, and elsewhere.

Bill Murray Terraforms Mars by Robbie Maakestad

When Bill Murray sets foot on Mars, he sets to work terraforming straightaway. That’s not to say he doesn’t first look up at the stars, bright spots of light arranged afresh within the celestial void, radiating down upon Martian meadows. After that briefest of glances up, Bill will deploy his terraform training—memorized and practiced these many years—but right now he’s still glancing up and thinking ever so briefly about how he wouldn’t have aced his terraform test, sped into space, and stepped out upon the red planet had it not been for his grandmother, Mary Agnes, who instilled industry and economy through the assignment of daily chores. If young Bill ever so much as protested his allotted workload, Grandma-Murray lobbed this axiom at his ears: “All play and no work makes Billy-boy a jerk.” And so young Bill had set about sweeping the front sidewalk, dusting between the banister rail-posts, and gathering trash from the bins about the house. On Mars, as Bill first hefts his terraformer while looking up at the stars—but before he flicks the “Grass” switch—Bill will think back to his grandmother’s finest qualities: her patience, her exactitude, her laser focus on the most banal of labors. Before he begins his terraforming, Bill will remember how her nimble fingers slipped the tiniest of colored beads upon her needle, how that silver barb dipped and rose, coursing with exactitude, and how she’d done her best to teach him to do the same. “Here,” she’d say, handing Billy a single bead of the bluest hue. “Look through the center hole and the world opens up on the other side. Stick the needle in one motion, and pull tight. Repeat, repeat, repeat. One motion, Billy. Creation requires the precision of minutiae.” And Billy had tried to be precise, really he had, but he’d always ended up with a Band-Aid on his index finger, a spot of blood blooming beneath the gauzy pad, swirling outward, when pressed, like the arms of a galaxy. That single bead had stuck in Bill’s mind, though, for as he looks up from where he stands on Mars, before sweeping his terraformer, before turning arid regolith into fertile loam, before sprouting green grass from red rock, Bill’s eyes will affix upon Earth—that tiniest of blue beads stitched up within the patterned heavens—and only then will he understand his grandmother’s lesson.

 

Robbie Maakestad is a Senior Features Editor for The Rumpus and an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is writing a biography of place about Jerusalem’s City of David archaeological site. He has been published or has forthcoming work in Boulevard, The Normal School, Essay Daily, and The San Diego Union-Tribune, among others. Follow him @RobbieMaakestad.

Laughing with Anne Hathaway by Megan M. Garwood

He moans at night, but this one rattles the house. It’s 3 am. Bleary minded, we assume he needs changing, this man, so tall he must—no—he used to duck under doorways, this man who can no longer feed himself or hold a pill or two in his hand then place them in his mouth. He probably needs his diaper changed. His blood pressure is 109, that’s good. We smell him. He doesn’t need to be changed, not that way; he just can’t change the channel on his own. He wants Hogan’s Heroes. He can’t sleep. The changer tremors in his large hand. Is it bad that we wish the sickness had taken his brain first? We flick, for him, through the channels until we land on some rerun of a late-night show. Anne Hathaway is talking about a heist movie she shot during the quarantine. In it, she steals a diamond from a department store; her character is restless. He turns to us, it takes all his strength, and asks, could this possibly mean less to anyone? And he and we laugh, so loudly it must wake the neighbors, and he coughs, and we sit down to catch our breath on the worn couch next to the rented hospital bed. On the TV Anne Hathaway, hair and makeup styled to the nines, laughs with us, and all our eyes are tearing except his.

 

Megan M. Garwood is a writer from Metro Detroit. She has fiction published in X-R-A-Y, and her essays on art appear in publications like Triangle House and The Wall Street Journal. She is currently working on a novel. You can find her online at www.megan.wtf.