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, High Shelf, 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. 

Pot Roast by Alyson Mosquera Dutemple

My son rubs the lamp and a fairy godmother comes out. It’s not supposed to happen like this. My husband is mad. The genie’s been misplaced again, and he hates that fairy godmother. He fumes at my son. Put that lamp back down where you found it. Stop messing about! Behind my son’s head, the fairy godmother sheds a little glitter. I go for the vacuum cleaner, but by the time I lug it out of the closet, my son has applied sparkles to his eyelids and my husband is muttering his way out the door.

Why do you put up with that? the fairy godmother asks me, peering through the kitchen curtains as my husband paces the yard. She’s getting bored waiting for my son to figure out his heart’s desires. It’s always like this. She’s supposed to offer him input, sage advice, but she rolls her eyes when he takes out a pen and starts another list. I lean over his shoulder to whisper my own two cents. It seems so obvious, infinite wishes, but he waves me off with a small hand before I can even suggest it.

Seriously, though, the fairy godmother gripes. What choice do I have? I scream over the pressure cooker. A thick meat cloud wafts through the kitchen. Ooh, is that pot roast? the fairy godmother wants to know. She grabs the handles, tries to pry the machine open. I think about warning her to be patient or else she’ll blow us all to bits, but just then my son shoots out of his chair, eyes ablaze. Eureka! he says, and I hope that means he’s got it. That this time, he’s figured it out. A way to capitalize on the small handful of wishes this life would offer. 

Just outside the window, my husband’s footsteps grow louder, loafers crunching up the drive. Mealtime in our house is serious business, meat and potatoes and clockwork, but tonight my son is climbing the table instead of setting it, waving that tiny list high, as if inching all his future happinesses closer to the clouds. I squint up at that knot of jumbled letters there, try to make sense of what he’s written. But it is a tangle I cannot unravel, and, for a moment, I can only marvel at the maze of his heart.

In the doorway, my husband’s shadow looms. The pressure cooker sings. The godmother blows the hair out from her eyes. Here goes nothing. She flexes her biceps, gives a final yank on the handles and pow. Pot roast like ticker tape, gristle like rain.

Through the shimmer of debris, I think I can see my son leaping from the table, think I can catch a glimpse of his trail as he wends his way through the kitchen. A pair of shoes skidders past, and I sit right down on the filthening floor. I watch as my boy goes skipping contentedly on his way. And when I can no longer see him, while everything else is still falling, falling, I close my eyes. I cross my fingers. I hope he doesn’t stop forever and ever and

 

Alyson Mosquera Dutemple is a writer from New Jersey with an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Wigleaf, Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, Pigeon Pages, Empty House Press, and The Middle of a Sentence, The Common Breath’s short prose anthology. She is an Editorial Consultant for CRAFT Literary. Find her at www.alysondutemple.com and on Twitter @swellspoken.

Tchaikovsky by Peter Krumbach

It was when I scrubbed that hideous yellow rug that I found him under the bed. Surprisingly odorless, considering he had to have lied there for all those years. He was so small. Maybe a shade over five feet, a teal cravat still tied under his chin. Pyotr Ilyich? I said, wishing he’d open his eyes and exhale some Saint Petersburg haze. But he just lied there with his brown shoes and hands tucked into his waistcoat. I picked him up and carried him to the kitchen. Why was he so light? Had the bulk of death long been sucked out? I sat him in the chair and tapped on his chest. The tip of his tongue slipped through the beard. I ran to the bathroom to fetch a brush. I wanted to comb his hair before taking him to the station. But when I returned, he was under the table, face down in a puddle of milk. Still no pulse. I mopped, then remembered the thick roll of butcher paper and twine in the pantry. Wrapping the head first, I swaddled him down all the way to his feet. We got on the trolley at Prudhomme and Main. The conductor charged me extra for the swordfish under my arm. By the time we got to the station, he’d become heavier. I leaned him against the wall outside the restroom. It felt good to splash cold water on my neck, then on the mirror, study my warped reflection in the droplets gliding slowly toward the center of the Earth. I listened for their music, but only heard the soft ringing in my ears. When I stepped out, he was gone. I circled the hall for a while, lighting a cigarette, peeking under benches, then bought two tickets to Trenton and headed for the Lost-and-Found. The clerk dipped beneath the counter and produced an umbrella, a set of dentures, and four unclaimed hats. I could hear the train pulling into the station. The announcer coughed over the loudspeakers and as I ran, it felt as though the deceased and the unborn were watching me from afar. I could almost see them, in black and white, the distance taking away their faces. Out on the platform, the cars stood quiet, sooted, the windows redirecting light. I thought about the restroom mirror, how it was wide enough to leap through, if I were that kind of a man.

 

Peter Krumbach has work in or coming from Beloit Poetry Journal, The Citron Review, Copper Nickel, jubilat, The Massachusetts Review, New Ohio Review, Quarter After Eight, Salamander, Wigleaf, and others. He lives in California.

There’s a Trick with a Knife by Meghan Phillips

The knife thrower picks her volunteers based on how they’ll look with their backs against her fake wall, their wrists restrained in little Velcro loops. How the man in the striped t-shirt will look with an apple on his head. How the girl in the sundress will look with a balloon in either hand. Their lips softened to a surprised “o.” A perfect little gasp when the apple slices, when the balloon pops.

She picks her volunteers based on how they’ll look tumbled in her floral sheets. How they’ll fill up her trailer at the night end of the midway. Mouths wrapped in a surprised “o” as she drags a tooth down their neck, drags a nail down their thigh. A perfect little gasp as she thinks: what if I slip just this once.

 

Meghan Phillips is a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her flash fiction chapbook Abstinence Only is forthcoming from Barrelhouse Books. You can find her writing at meghan-phillips.com and her tweets at @mcarphil.