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 up 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.

Explanation of Your Benefits and Losses by Angie McCullagh

This is an overview of transactions from November 2018 – February 2020.

This is not an actual request for payment. It is only a series of numbers.

Amount Billed – $59,578.66

Number of mammograms, ultrasounds, and biopsies required to confirm diagnosis – 4

Your negotiated discounted rate – $53,243.22

Total anxiety attacks experienced while you waited for the doctor to say invasive lobular carcinoma – 2

How many instances, after you heard and while you drove to your daughter’s third grade class Thanksgiving feast, that you had to pull over to scream into your cupped hand – 3

Amount covered by insurance (A bundle. Plus we allowed you to take advantage of our contractual rates – you should know this) – $37,007.03

Times your husband said he’d watch the kids so you could nap, but then disappeared to the garage – 7

Gift cards you won online playing casino games and taking surveys so you could buy goods, then return them for cash to pay the bare minimum on medical debt – 12

Amount you may owe – $16,236.19

This is definitely not a bill.

Who received care – You, mostly from nurses, who flushed your port and infused you with your chemo regimen and hugged you when you learned the octopus (that’s how you think of it now, with glissading arms and grabbing tentacles) had spread to your lymph nodes.

Head scarves, hats, and even a wig you ordered to find something that made you feel enough like your normal self – 11

Hours spent knowing you should help your son with math or wash the dog with her anti-itch shampoo or cook something, anything, so your family can eat food other than teriyaki from Sunshine Sushi – 3,017

Hey, this is no bill, but it is a heads up that another enormous payment is coming due soon.

Who should be grateful: you. Unless you enjoy, at the age of 43, the slow slither of death while your children who are too young to properly live without you (who else will remind them to wear helmets on their scooters and to cup their pink cheeks in the morning while you whisper they are more precious than Trader Joes Peppermint Joe-Joe’s – an inside joke?)

Occasions you’ve thought sliding toward oblivion and exploding into glittering stardust would be better – 0

 

Angie McCullagh lives and writes (mostly fiction) in Seattle with her husband, two teens, and emotionally fragile mutt.

The Pixelated Tiger by Jack Barker-Clark

I used to dream of traveling down my own throat. I had a stammer and tripped on words, and I would close my eyes and imagine myself passing through roped-off plasma and plunging carbon. I was hoping to find the cause: a constellation of upturned chairs or a picket fence. It was 1998 and every afternoon after school we played Tomb Raider, nosedived off ramparts and swam in low-grade lagoons. I was always zip-lining into clearings where tigers generated. They were pixelated, these tigers, but insatiable, rabid, a frightening blockade of sunburst cubes, and I came to wonder if it was a pixelated tiger rooming in my throat, swallowing up all my consonants.

He always looked over-toiled, moon-starved, whenever I imagined my tiger, which made me cherish as much as revile him, and we ploughed on together, pitiably, through the class register and the English presentations and the randomized swimming galas, one or the other of us always biting my tongue. In 1999 we took a school trip, a pretty place in the Lakes, and we were, my tiger and I, assigned a third party to row with. Alex, the history buff, had not quite volunteered but was rowed out onto the bruised lake anyway, and the dappling jangled and there was flotsam and bits of outcrop reflected back in the water. The rowboat was stiff and from far out the banking’s gradient looked sheer, a bowl, as though the landscape beyond was landless, was watercolour.

Unhappy at the rocking, the pitch of things, at how far I’d insisted we row, Alex berated me in the boat. My words wouldn’t rise and we faced each other in silence, eventually turning to watch the blue noise on the shore, its abstract brightness. Did he stand up or was the boat disturbed? they later asked, and I didn’t know. He was suddenly in the water, gulping, trying to sift the lake out from under him, and I sat with my tiger in the pale light and watched Alex thrashing until he wasn’t. The pixelated tiger rowed me back softly to the shingle beach.

In my late teens the stammer became less pronounced, was dimmer now. I had attended speech therapy, learned to tap my foot, sang in the choir. After such surges in confidence, I found, pixelated tigers often vacate the throat. At first I extolled this miracle. But I was only abbreviated in other ways. He sank into my core and knocked at my chest. Behind the fists of my lungs he hollowed out his den, prowling, unblinking. The pressure on my wide-tracked ribs was concentrated and I longed for my stammer back. At night I performed squat thrusts, my limbs as string, willed him to roll upwards: fundus, adrenal, thymus, trachea, cortex, thick pate, into sky, a ream of ash. But he never rose, he only sank. Did he stand up or was the boat disturbed? I still don’t know. Now here I go. I put myself in the bath, down flat under the skim. My body moves like a gondola. The words crawl all over me.

 

Jack Barker-Clark is a writer and artist from a passé valley in the North of England. He is the founder of Pale Books, a reading project, and writes primarily on literature and ornamental grasses. He tweets occasionally at @jackbarkerclark.

Sleeping Beauties by Tiffany Promise

The Land of Trazodonia is a hidden chamber within the walls of Slumberland Psychiatric Hospital. It both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. This is where we Sleeping Beauties tell our secrets. We all wear masks of each other’s faces.

Instead of swallowing, we let our pills dissolve on our tongues, sending them straight into our mucous membranes. Straight into our bloodstream. We don’t have time for them to dilly-dally through our digestive systems, to fight with whatever thawed-out muck was supposed to pass for Sup. The oblong blue bars that keep our brains from quaking; the tacky, sunshine-colored globules that keep our hearts from over-beating; the chalky, white tabs as big and round as moons. They taste a little bit like Clorox and a little bit like licking frogs. A lotta bit like love.

While waiting patiently for our Meds to kick in, we sit Duck-Duck-Goose-style while gentle technicians re-attach electrodes and sensors to our mottled chests and scalps. Their gloved fingers move across our skin like tiny sparks of hope.

We are so thankful to have ended up here. So far away from Rhinestone, Texas, the Pear Tree Trailer Palace, dead Maxine’s partially-deflated balloon-head. From the grit-grime of spanged change, from Johnny’s calloused hands. His sweet, sweet, sweet till sour breath. From under Pepper Jack’s thumb, the bruised knees & missing gag reflex. Broke-the-fuck-open face. From mother’s dusty attic, the clumps of hair & fingernail clippings. Rotten apple cores. From the fifty-one-fifty-one-fifty-one-fifty. Their bughouse rubber rooms ever-blooming with red storybook roses. From that quiet spot in the library. Backpack full of binge, diuretics, lax tabs & Philip K. Dick.

Far from everything……
                                              everything……
                                                                            everything……
                                                                                                          that hurt us……

Twenty hours of sleep might seem like a lot, but when you’re a sloppy, messy, useless thing—more mercury than blood—twenty hours ain’t peanuts.

So, safely snuggled by seven, we finger the starched sheets as the sleep-tingles slowly creep and we let ourselves sink deep into the deep. That sweet, dark spot where we’ve got whole ribcages of defenses to protect us.

We sleep……
                            we sleep……
                                                        we slee……

 

Tiffany Promise (she/her) is a writer, poet, chronic migraineur, and the mother of two wildlings. She holds an MFA from CalArts, and her work has appeared in Brevity, Black Clock, tiny journal, Every Day Fiction, Blanket Sea, Sunspot, and is forthcoming in Peculiar and Creative Nonfiction. Though she now lives in Austin, Texas, Tiffany is originally from the mudbug-ridden swelter of the Gulf Coast, which is the setting of her recently-completed first novel, Eggs.

Painting Birds by Jennifer Todhunter

Sometimes, when we caught the birds, we’d dip their tails in our fingerpaint, their tiny wings struggling against our clumsy hands, their miniature beaks gasping for breath or a worm, we were never sure which one. Sometimes, we’d sneak up trees toward their nests, shove their fragile shells in our pockets and scale back down, our feet barely hitting the trunk, our hands sticky with sap, our never-brushed hair full of pine needles, and we’d place the eggs in a shoebox underneath our bedside lamp, cushion it on some grass and sticks and we’d die at any sort of movement. Die. 

Sometimes, when a baby hatched in the wild, we’d sit on the windowsill in our bedroom and listen to it cry out for its mum, the frantic chirp of a newborn, and we’d think how familiar that was, how we’d be making the same noise if we weren’t so distracted by this perfection. 

One time, we caught a finch and we painted its tail yellow and after that it perched in the tree outside the kitchen where we scrambled eggs by ourselves every morning and sometimes it sang to us, a warbling lilt.

One time, we watched an eagle swoop down and carry a baby with a blue head away in its giant claws, while its mum flew around like she was on fire, and we looked at each, our hearts stuffed with envy. 

One time, we heard a yellow-tailed bird fly into our bedroom window and drop dead on our deck, and we put it in the freezer because we wanted to preserve its beauty, the contrast of yellow against black feathers, its delicate softness against the stiffness of death, so we nestled its body against frozen rib roasts and bags of blanched spinach, and we left it there until we didn’t remember it was there any longer.

 

Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have appeared in The ForgeHobartCHEAP POP, and elsewhere. Her work has been selected for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and Wigleaf´s Top 50 Very Short Fictions. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes and founder of Trash Mag. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.

 

Three Short Tales by Joshua Jones

Something New

One day, in a park surrounded by skyscrapers, a woman began to float. This was midway through the ceremony. The guests were shuffling and coughing and sneaking glances at their phones. By the time anyone noticed, she was thirty feet up, flexing her toes, paddling the air, kicking until the imitation-glass heels went sailing. One hit the groom, the other the cassocked minister, his face still in his book. The sole made a satisfying clonk against his shiny scalp. The groom—her groom, she had to remind herself—mouthed Why? but she no longer looked at him, no longer looked down at all. From across the park, another white-trimmed figure moved skyward, then another, then another. The brides saw each other and waved, did little twirls. Some pulled their veils free, others ripped at their trains. One by one, they tossed their bouquets to the spectators below. There was a mad scramble.

 

Biology Lessons

It happened when Ms. Robishaw was at the blackboard. The girl, that is, and the frog, a bulbous looking thing that barely fit in the glass jar. It didn’t struggle in its chloroformed stupor but gazed liquidly at the girl. Then came the wet, smacking sound followed by a flurry of giggles and more kisses as the rest of the class took out their specimens and puckered up. By the time Ms. Robishaw turned around it was too late: where once there were frogs, there now slumped the sagging bodies of men and women, all naked. She recognized them all. There was Tony, who once taught PE the next county over, but now was sprawled across the desk closest to Ms. Robishaw. She prodded his belly; it had doubled in size since she’d stopped answering his texts. Two desks over lay either Brad or Brandon, or was it Braydon? He worked downtown, she was sure of that. Was big in something or other, though now he looked, sadly, rather small. And Giselle, who looked so peaceful that Ms. Robishaw felt a twinge of regret until she remembered the yelling, the cutting remarks, the actual cutting, the scars still visible along her thighs. There were no princes, no princesses. At the back of the class, a man began to flutter his eyelids. Garth. He always wrote such earnest poetry. Then threatened to share her nudes on Reddit. He looked better as a frog. Ms. Robishaw clapped her hands, louder and louder, until the class’s twittering quieted. Class, she announced, we’re going to need more chloroform.

 

One Hundred Years

It was over one hundred years ago. The Spindlers’ Guild couldn’t keep up. Prices doubled, trebled, and still people bought the green-tipped spindles—first those bourgeois fawners, you know the type: the ones who doted over the young Aurora, who bought sleeping dresses to match her repose, who outlined strict guidelines as to who could revive them (at least a minor duke; great kisser; no baldies)—but next came the fishwives, the ones who couldn’t give a tit about the royals and some spoiled, sleep-sick princess; they dreamt of a decent night’s sleep, a decent year/decade/century of sleep without grubby hands prodding them for food or favors. Is it any wonder that fights erupted over the last spindle? Or that, to meet demand, the factory foremen mandated fourteen-hour shifts? They threatened the slowest Spindlers with flogging, the prettiest ones with worse. After the Shop Steward complained and was beaten into a coma, half the Spindlers pricked their fingers and swooned right there on the factory floor. The rest walked out, wielding spindles like spears, threatening to jab any foreman who stepped in their way. They picketed day and night while orders mounted up. To Persia, to India, to the Empress of China herself. The town guard was brought in, scattering the picketers with clubs and pikes, cracking ribs, breaking skulls. That night, the empty cobblestones glistened red in the light of the burning factory. Where were the guard, the foremen? Perhaps they nodded off, the strikers said. A prick of the finger is all it’d take. The fire raged higher, engulfing the night. The town slept through it all.

 

Joshua Jones lives in Maryland, and his writing has appeared in The Best Microfictions 2020, The Best Small Fictions 2019The Cincinnati Review, CRAFT, Paper DartsSmokeLong QuarterlySplit Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @jnjoneswriter or visit his website: www.jnjoneswriter.wordpress.com.

Three Fictions by Sara Nović

Hearing Paired

I turn around too fast and quickly we’re laughing; in a room of low-tide silence, our eyes ignite with the insight that they’ve told us all the same can’ts, though you’ve heard them differently, and not at all.

From Peru you bring Español, a little Quechua, Amaya, the Lengua de Señas Peruana, de Inmaculada, de Sivia, though all that gets you nothing except a seat in the special needs work program. Beside you I’m inspiringly bilingual, but English crushes fat atop everything here—not quality nor quantity, just specificity.

Your hands say mouth-tap-W, with agua on your lips, mine answer back water, mouth-tap-W.

Alone at night on the #66 home, my eyelids start open by another’s hot breath. The man is angry that I haven’t listened, but when he hears my voice, his changes. Sorry, his mouth says, hiss of sympathy. I push the color from my self-conscious cheeks, and think about the morning we spoke three languages at once, understood one perfectly.

 

Hunger Games

Sticks and stones may break her bones, but words make easy work of it: thigh gap, wristbone, collarbone necklace, and other lessons she learned at school. That body would be perfect with a little less body, conscious uncoupling, brittle by design.

She is to be seen not heard, unless she says what we need to hear: she already ate, she ate a late lunch, she’ll eat later, she’s not herself. She’ll feel more herself with a little less self. Mind over matter, matter discarded.

Self-inflicted (if you don’t count the ones who cheered the infliction, nursed the affliction).

Detoxed, flushed, returned to the soil, splay of twigs on the forest floor.

 

Kaddish

“There is no mourning on Shabbat,” the Rabbi said, and a feeling like a laugh came up in my throat. I tucked a stray hair behind my ear; I had not seen myself in a week. The Rabbi didn’t look away, superior the partitionHe strode the aisle between our benches and said it with such certainty all I could think was the nerve, to walk across the shul and lie to our faces like that. As if grief could be governed by calendar squares.

I began to fear the ease with which the words fell from his lips. History of falsehood latticed through the floorboards, or running beneath them like a subterranean river, contaminated wellspring. I wondered what other lies we’d built ourselves upon. But, of course, that’s how I’d ended up here—there was no one on earth left to ask. 

The realization sent the room back underwater: chandeliers’ refractions white-hot and writhing, temple contained in the globe of a tear, the tears that do not exist on Shabbat.

So I fought flood with flood. And there was evening and there was morning on the eighth day.

 

Sara Nović is the author of the novel Girl at War, nonfiction anthology America is Immigrants, and another novel forthcoming in 2022, all from Random House. She has an MFA in fiction and literary translation, and lives in Philly.