The Stress on Modern Women by Alyssa Asquith

Maryanne had an ache in her stomach. It was a hard ache, like a rock settled there, down where her guts should be.

“Drink more water,” the Doctor advised her.

So Maryanne drank more water. Every morning, she stood at the kitchen sink and drank four tall glasses, one after another.

But the hardness did not go away. Instead, Maryanne could feel it moving upwards, from her stomach to her chest. Breathing grew difficult; she developed a cough. The Doctor prescribed her pills, for anxiety.

“The stress on modern women is enormous,” he explained.

Maryanne took the pills every morning, with her water. She worried less about the hardness, which seemed to continue its progression upwards, from her chest to her neck. When she swallowed, she could feel it resting there, at the very back of her throat.

* * *

One night, Maryanne woke suddenly, tasting blood, gasping for air.

“Take deep breaths,” the Doctor told Maryanne, kindly, when she called. “Have some water—you’re alright—you’ll be fine.”

Maryanne followed the Doctor’s advice. Back in bed, she propped her neck up, using three pillows, and closed her eyes, and tried not to worry.

* * *

The next night, Maryanne woke again, and tried to breathe, and couldn’t.

Something was lodged there, trapped in her airway—not hard, she realized, when she reached back and felt it, but soft, and warm, and wet. Maryanne pressed against the thing with her fingers, trying to force it back down her throat, but it was too big and too stuck and wouldn’t budge. When she ran to the sink, to drink from the faucet, the water came out her nose, burning.

She retched, once, then—without meaning to—and felt the thing move up, very slightly, to sit against the back of her tongue.

It moved again, with a second retch; and then again, with a third; and then again; and again and again; and up and up, and up; and then finally out—tasting of mucus, and blood—and into the sink, where it landed, softly, with a low, heavy slap.

Maryanne took a great, shuddering breath and clutched the counter for support. Her chest felt light, and strangely empty; the feeling of hardness had gone.

After a moment, she reached past the sink and switched on the light.

The thing was about the size of a tennis ball: perfectly round, and quite pink. When Maryanne leaned closer—blinking, squinting through beads of sweat—she could just make out the shape of a mouth, and two tiny nostrils, like poppy seeds.

Maryanne prodded it, gently, with her pinky, waiting for a twitch, or a cry. She prodded it again, and again and again, and then scooped it up, with both hands, and held it to the light. Its eyes were squeezed tight, in a kind of grimace. Its skin was bright with blood.

* * *

The Doctor was very apologetic.

“It’s just that this is not the usual progression of a pregnancy,” he explained to her. “It’s a highly unusual case.”

The baby lay in Maryanne’s lap, wrapped snugly in a woolen sock. It hadn’t stirred yet, or opened its eyes, but something about it felt real, and heavy—like a lump of coal, or a paperweight.

“Of course,” the Doctor said, “There was nothing to be done.” He paused, then said, “You mustn’t blame yourself.”

Maryanne, who had not been blaming herself, looked up from the baby at the Doctor. She had the distinct, inexplicable feeling that he was afraid of her.

“Do you want to be a mother?” the Doctor asked.

Maryanne looked down again at her lap. She shifted the baby, pulling it close, feeling its weight in the crook of her arm.

“But I am one,” she said.

The Doctor forced a smile, then reached over and took Maryanne’s hand.

“Of course you are,” the Doctor said, after a moment. “Of course you are, Maryanne.”

* * *

At home, Maryanne propped the baby up on a cushion and sat there for some time, watching it.

It was, she thought, a remarkably good baby: it did not cry or squirm; it did not cough or fuss; it seemed as happy to be lifted and held as it was to be set down again. But Maryanne held it anyway, and rocked it and bounced it, and put her nose to its head.

She thought again, with some resentment, of the Doctor: his apology; his strange fear.

Was she not a mother? The child had grown in her; the child was still growing. Even as she held it, she could feel it growing—if not larger, then denser—thickening, hardening.

Maryanne spent the rest of the day with her baby. When night fell, she tucked it into a shoebox and slid it beneath the bed, for safekeeping. She checked on it eight times, throughout the night, and each time found it sleeping soundly.

 

Alyssa Asquith’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, X-R-A-Y Lit, NEON, Adroit Journal, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. She has her MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The Lesbian’s Guide to Making a Baby by Jax Cassidy

1. Make sure you and your wife are in a comfortable position.

You both love each other and are ready to start your family. But keep in mind, having a child is a big step, one you both should be ready for. It won’t be easy, but it will be rewarding in the end. You’ll not only need to be financially stable enough to afford the expenses that come with a baby (formula, baby clothes, crib, car seat, etc.), but since neither of you are biologically male, you also must find alternative methods of conception that will come at a cost. Luckily, this method is the least invasive and the least expensive. We’re honored that you’ve chosen us for this special moment.

2. Decide on the sex of the baby. Set the temperature accordingly.

Of course, you won’t impose traditional gender roles on your future child. You’ve already discussed this with your wife. You will love your child no matter their orientation or gender identity. However, this method of conception requires a “starting point,” if you will. For a boy, set the thermostat to 60° Fahrenheit. For a girl set it to 88° Fahrenheit.

3. Open the seed packet included with the BabyGroTM  Starting Kit. Plant the seed 12 cm in the soil.

Plant your seed in a ten-inch terracotta flowerpot and keep indoors for best results. Keep in front of an east-facing window, in direct sunlight. If your windows do not face east or let in sunlight, we recommend purchasing a solar lamp. Light bulbs are available on our website, lamp not included.  Make sure you bury your seed deep enough into the soil for your baby to grow to a healthy size. After two weeks, you should start to notice a sprout. If no sprout appears after two weeks, call our Parental Support Line at 555-BABYGRO.

Note: If you requested our Twins Pack, we recommend planting both seeds in the same pot to emulate the bond that twins form in the womb. The flowerpot must be at least twenty inches wide, double the size recommended for the Only Child Pack.

4. Combine eight fluid ounces of water with the included packet of BabyGroTM Fertilizer. Water daily.

It is imperative that you water your baby every day. Water acts as their daily nourishment, much like how nutrients are passed from mother to child in the womb. Mix one teaspoon of BabyGroTM  Fertilizer with one cup of water to help your baby develop healthily. For best results, water around midday, when the sun is at its highest.

Nourishment for your baby can also come in the form of love and care. Even though your baby is still growing in the soil, they can hear you. Sing to your baby. Read to your baby. Play classical music, preferably Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, for your baby. Refrain from cursing or using foul language around your baby.

5. Perform the Full Moon Ritual.

Make note of what phase the moon is in when you plant your seed. When the cycle reaches the Full Moon, bring your baby outside when the moon is at its highest point in the sky. You and your wife must both participate. Greet the Moon Goddess. Tell her your names. Recite the prayer included on page four of this manual. Raise your baby to the sky. Ask the Moon Goddess for her blessing in the birth of your child. If she chooses to bestow her blessing, silver light will shine down on your baby. This means you can expect a healthy birth within five to seven days. Thank the Moon Goddess. Leave an offering in the form of menstrual blood.

6. Prepare for the birth of your baby.

The time has come. Congratulations! You and your wife will make wonderful parents. Once your baby has flowered, pull your baby out of the soil by its stem. This will not hurt your baby. As soon as the baby has emerged from the soil, she will begin to cry. Cradle the baby. Wipe off the excess dirt from her skin. You will notice the flower sprouting from your baby’s head. Trim the flower and replant it, then bring it outside as a sign to the Moon Goddess that the ritual was successful.

Your baby will not resemble or act like biologically born babies. Do not be alarmed. Your baby is just as human as the rest of them. You will notice the greenish tint to her skin. This should fade within the first two months. Feed your baby as you would any other baby, starting with formula, then moving to baby food. You may notice an affinity for plant-based foods as she gets older. Your child will accelerate in growth and development faster than normal babies. By age three, she will have the ability to read and form full sentences. You will refer to her as “gifted.” Your child will prefer to spend her time outdoors. Embrace her wild side. Let her get dirty. She will find comfort in the same environment she was grown in.

When your child inevitably asks you where she came from, or why she is different, you will tell her, “You came from wishes and prayer. You came from water and sunshine, from the earth and the moon, as do all beautiful things.”

 

Jax Cassidy is a queer writer living in New Orleans. They recently obtained their MFA in Fiction from the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. In 2019, they received their BA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Their work has been previously published in Sonder Midwest and Metafore Magazine, and was a finalist in the River Styx Microfiction Contest.

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.

Nails by Julia Kenny

I finally stop biting my nails when my seven-year-old shames me into it. Don’t bite, stop doing that, a gentle slap against the back of my hand. Are you embarrassed by my hands? I ask her, and she kind of shrugs me off. Her silence speaks volumes. So I dig out the clear polish and get to work. I wince as I paint over a broken cuticle. For the first day or so I marvel at how much worse they look with the shiny lacquer, at their vulgarity. If my daughter notices, she stays quiet. I worry about what she’ll find next. My chipped tooth, mottled skin. I try with all my might not to talk about my body in front of her, not to obsess. But she’s always listening when I least expect it. The other day, I hissed fuck under my breath and she called out from the other room, is everything okay?

Friends come over for dinner. She watches them kiss and races up to them. I saw you, I saw you! You saw us kiss? the woman says. We kiss all the time. My daughter giggles and does a dance. I’d bury my face in my hands if I wasn’t trying so hard not to bite my fingernails. My husband arrives home from work with a bag of groceries and we say hello. I went shopping in the morning but I’d forgotten nearly half of what he needed. I help him unpack the bag in our tiny kitchen. Almost immediately, the counter is again a wreck. I rub his back and feel him tense up ever so slightly.

All during dinner, I see my daughter’s eyes darting back and forth between us and the other couple. The other woman smiles a lot. She’s in a very good mood. Her laugh is light and comes easily. Her nails are short and tidy, a subtle crescent of white hovering just past her fingertips. I look down at my own hands, clutching my glass, so much fingertip exposed. I’m distracted and I try to reinsert myself into the conversation. They’re talking about politics while I was sure they were still on TV, and I make a joke that confuses everyone. My husband gives me a sheepish smile and shrugs and my ears go hot. I refill everyone’s drinks and let their chatter swirl around me, nodding along when it seems appropriate, grateful that no one brought dessert.

They finally go home and my daughter heads to bed. Once she falls asleep, I devour her. Her room is just barely lit up by a nightlight, and I study her in all her sleepy perfection. Gone are any angles, her face now slack, all eyelashes and tufts of unruly hair. Later that night, when she inevitably shuffles into our room, I’ll sneak back into hers. I’ll spread my limbs out across her tiny mattress, no one else to knock up against. I tell myself that if I get enough sleep, tomorrow will come easily. I’ll be light, I’ll smile and laugh. 

In the morning, she wakes up like a whirling dervish, full of questions and jokes and stories. I grimace. I’m tired. My husband makes breakfast while I brush her hair, beg her to get dressed a little quicker. I could take her, he offers, when I snap at her to get her shoes on. I glare at him. I’ve got this. I show her how to tie her laces, but she can’t seem to grasp the first step. She gets frustrated and asks for daddy, who swoops in. I move toward the front door, waiting. I check my phone. Within minutes she’s beaming with pride. She’s tied them herself. They hug and I tap my foot impatiently, loud enough that they both turn to look at me, disappointed. I overdo it on our way out the door, embrace him and give her a cookie for the walk, her eyes wide, watching.

Don’t bite, she says, on our way to school. With her backpack on my shoulder, I bring one hand to my mouth, while the other holds her cold hand, her gloves once again misplaced. I pull her soft fingers to my lips and kiss the dimples on her knuckles. For a moment, I feel a weight come off. Then I worry that the teachers will admonish me at the end of the day. We’ve also forgotten her hat. I bring my longest nail, my right ring finger, to my teeth and bite down, relishing in the familiar sting. I start again.

 

Julia Kenny’s fiction has appeared in The Greensboro Review. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.

The Deaths of the Great Lakes by Jeffrey Hermann

The Death of Lake Michigan

First we took one last, long swim. Someone fished and yelled when he pulled up a walleye. I was given the honor of turning up the sun. God, the heat! By shading our eyes we could see it all turn to vapor. We were packing up towels and folding chairs when the fisherman approached me.

“Take this fish,” he told me.

“Take this fish,” he begged.

“Take it.”

 

The Death of Lake Erie 

We led a giant to the edge of the lake. The ground shook with his walloping stomps. His giant daughter walked beside him, holding his big hand. Using a sewer pipe like a straw, he sucked and drank until it was dry. The lakebed was like an endless barren planet. The giant’s daughter was the only one who cried. And this you won’t believe: A woman found the necklace she’d lost as a child, there in the stinking mud. When the giant told the story to his girl, she opened her mouth in awe.

 

The Death of Lake Ontario 

We kicked it full of sand and lawn clippings, boxes, clothes, bricks—anything we could drag over there. On top of that we built a beautiful pretend lake. It was made of tinted glass. Children were allowed to draw fish and beavers and boats on the panes. One made a mistake and drew a giraffe. Some people complained, saying it was unrealistic. I liked it. I liked how it seemed happy down there, not realizing it needed air. I liked that it was smiling.

 

The Death of Lake Superior

It hung itself.

 

The Death of Lake Huron

Some men came offering to buy it, but they only wanted the liquid, nothing living or dead in there. We filtered everything out the best we could. After the men hauled it all away we found the souls of everyone who had ever drowned. They wanted to go back to their old lives now—school children, wives, hotel managers, etc. We said it can’t work like that. They sank back into the sand and rocks, their apparitions like a thick, gray muck. That was surprising. All this time we’d dreamed them a watery blue.

 

Jeffrey Hermann’s poetry and prose has appeared in Rejection Letters, Lost Balloon, UCity Review, trampset, and JMWW, among other publications. Though less publicized, he finds his work as a father and husband to be rewarding beyond measure.

New Forever by Rebekah Morgan

I watched as she moved around the kitchen, arms filling up with fruit. She’d been sick for so long, I’d been the one making us breakfast. Toast usually, all that she could stomach, sometimes pancakes, plain, not even buttered.

But, the day before, we’d seen the elderly man with his banged up farm truck on the side of the road selling oranges when we were heading home from another bad appointment. He’d cut one in half right there in front of us and when he opened it up, the insides looked like the sun, they were almost perfect. “In the morning,” she’d said “I’ll make us some juice.”

I pulled the step stool from behind the trashcan and took the thick green glass juicer down from its perch. She sat at the wooden table, still wrapped in her white robe, and started slicing the oranges, digging her nails into the skin, little drops of juice running down the palms of her hands. Her nail polish was chipped a bit, little red flakes.

I watched her cut and twist the halves upon the juicer, the juice gathering in the cup below. I breathed in deep, smelling the memory of eating oranges on the beach in Georgia last summer. The wind mixed the scent of citrus and salted air as the storm came in and we’d run so fast back to our shitty hotel. I exhaled slowly, feeling my heart pound in my chest, my feet still bare on the floor.

She moved so slowly now. I handed her two purple glasses and she filled them with the freshly squeezed juice. “I’m tired,” she said “I need to lay down.” I followed her to the couch with our glasses, setting hers on the coffee table.

I stared out the window and watched the mountains evaporate and turn to oceans of blue. All the birds fell out of the sky, diving beneath the sea and reappearing at the surface with a small fish. I thought about her swimming. Her beautiful arms moving through the water, her body, so gracefully being carried out to sea, her strength bringing her back to land against all the currents. When she got to shore, her nose was bleeding. “I’m gonna shut my eyes, just for a few minutes,” she said. I took a sip of the juice she had used so much of her energy to make. It tasted like some kind of new forever.

It’s been so long since I’ve had something good to drink. I can’t drink orange juice anymore and I can’t eat oranges either. Just the thought makes tears come out of my eyes and people tell me I look like I’m crying. Sometimes at night I can hear a man sobbing, but when I look around he is gone.

I watch for the elderly man with the banged up farm truck. I miss her so much, I want the old farm man to cut one in half for me and I want it to look like the sun and I just wanna say they’re almost perfect.

 

Rebekah Morgan is a writer living in good ol’ Eastern Tennessee. Previous work can be found in Fence, Hobart, Joyland, Maudlin House, and Tyrant Books, among others places.

Mr. Worldwide by Megan Robinson

One night my father turns to me and says, Son, you should strike out on your own and become a man of the world. Yeehaw!

He says this from his ergonomic chair in the den, in front of his Westerns, among his closest companions, his council of mounted deer heads. I don’t believe in ergonomics. But someday you will, he says to me and goes back to his shows, which he does not remember he has been watching for hours.

He says these things and I half-believe him half the time and the other half I don’t believe him at all, because I was born a girl. My parents even had a lady-stripper pop out of a pink cake. (They used to be fun, before the world and age and the recession and I, their precious one, sent them downhill.) That morning when I asked my mother, finally, that she call me by my real name, she cried and yelled and took a walk around a whole neighborhood block. Dad would’ve yelled, too. He is of that old guard who still believes in intangible things. Freedom. Marriage. Capital gains. Though he is not himself anymore—not enough to believe in much at all.

These days, he does Sudoku. Mom stopped giving him the crossword when its references started to confuse him. He used to do them in red pen with the confidence of a man with a house, a family, a career, and everything to lose.

What my father might’ve meant when he said man of the world, was more like the world was my oyster, or Café du Monde, or Mr. Worldwide. Or perhaps he meant that I should set the world on fire, stop sitting around with him, and go chase a career in something that will make me wildly rich and famous. Carve a road of slim and uncertain success. Acting. Writing. Hip hop. Fireball.

It’s also possible what he meant was, Son, though he’d never say that in his right mind, in this dog-eat-dog world, you should be a man. You should be a mensch of a man, a man who eats not on the ground with the dogs, but at the table with the board of directors. I was on the board, he might say, of a prestigious university. And what have you done?

You know, I have struck out, Dad. If I could, I’d tell you it’s my last night in the house. In a time out of time, you would know that by morning I will be asleep on a friend’s couch on the other end of this cramped, rotten suburb.

But I could say anything. I could say: Hi Dad, you don’t know me, but I was your daughter once. There’s proof, and it’s on tape. A three-year-old that puts on your robe and slippers and glasses and clip-clops down the hallway, then clambers into a chair and pretends to read your newspaper, pretends to drink your coffee. Mom calls them “little dad.” They scribble red lines all over your crossword. You laugh. You ask them for clues, and they tell you all the words they know so far. You call them a baby genius, but all their answers are wrong.

Sometimes I put this on for you, though your eyes glaze over and you don’t laugh like you used to. I try not to unsettle you.

Sometimes you turn to me and say, You should meet my daughter. She’s away at school, but she’ll be back at Christmas. That’s when you unsettle me.

You sit with your father for the night, the first night you’ve come home in years, a prodigal, and your mother might slaughter the fatted calf, prime rib you will not eat, and ask you questions about your mopped hair, your half-sleeve, your girlfriend. Your mother might rise silently from the dinner table, a storm cloud, a spotted napkin falling from her lap, her body and lips tight before she tells you to go. Then there will be your father, who you’ve sat with in the den all day, and you will both hunger and fear for his spark of recognition. He might say anything, he might babble like a baby. He might call you Son, and you might even smile. And whatever sounds he makes will have no rational meaning or origin you can discern. But he is your father, one of your first models of how to be in the world, and there are only so many hours left to tell him where you are going and where you have been.

I never did make it back home that December.

 

Megan Robinson is a writer, designer, and an MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, WA. You can find them on Twitter at @mrobwrites.

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.

Exposure Therapy by Jamie Logan

When her eighty-nine-year-old grandmother calls on Arlene’s twenty-first birthday, it is to celebrate another year spent exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. Few things give Arlene comfort these days, and neither her birthday nor this congratulatory call is among them. The passage of time reminds both women of Arlene’s mother. Lately, they speak of little else.

Arlene spends hours walking in suburban circles listening to podcasts on mountaineering disasters. She starts her day with YouTube content from a friendly neighborhood mortician and ends with exposes on wreck diving. These she finds reassuring. They remind her that there are other kinds of deaths. It’s not all cancer or car crashes, at least not all the time.

She is fascinated by death’s proximity. She places acorn circles around every car-flattened frog she finds. She worries about her cat and what will happen to him when she is gone. Shackleton is a fat boy, whose favorite activity is eating spiderwebs in hidden corners. She reads a book called Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? and is comforted to discover the answer is yes.

Arlene does not want to die, but more importantly, she does not want to die without reason. Her therapist Janet suggests cognitive behavioral therapy. “You are clinging to false beliefs,” Janet says. “You don’t need to quantify your contribution to the world, in death or in life, to justify existing.”

Arlene likes to quantify contributions.

For example, Shackleton is named after the Antarctic explorer. The cat squeezes himself into nooks and crooks in search of camouflaged bugs and forgotten hair ties. He has charted every room and continues to do so on the off chance the topography has changed.

Shackleton’s contributions are small, but so is his scale; Arlene’s scale is slightly larger. She creates memorials for her mother—worn clothes stacked on a cheap folding table, a hand-me-down necklace warmed by her own skin. She imagines these against her mother’s thin, sallow frame. Bodies hold memories and so does she. If Arlene can bear witness, she can continue.

Her grandmother suggests Squid Game, Game of Thrones, and other heavy fictions. “Stop dwelling,” she says. “Do something fun.”

“Like you’re not dwelling, too.”

Arlene’s comment goes unnoticed, as does its implication. Her grandmother admires a handsome actor who lost his hand in Season 3.

“That show aired years ago,” Arlene says. “I already know how it ends.”

She hangs up. She waits, but her grandmother doesn’t call back. If she did, Arlene might admit that she doesn’t know how the show ends.

At night, Shackleton finds her crying on the bathroom floor as her phone narrates the deaths of eleven climbers on the world’s second highest mountain thirteen years ago. Shackleton purrs and she rubs him until he starts crying too. She knows what he wants: to watch the bathwater run. She twists the knob and sits beside him. She starts to feel okay.

“Why do you do this to yourself?” Janet asks. “You listened to three separate podcasts about the deaths of the same eleven people, laid on the floor, and cried. It’s a twisted kind of punishment, substituting this new obsession for the old self-harm.”

It isn’t.

Arlene tells Janet that even though eleven people died, only eleven people died. Sixteen came back. It’s their stories she lives for, their grief she cannibalizes. She watches them scramble for purchase and breath. They reunite with husbands and wives and children, and most of them continue to climb. They pull the past into their bodies, refusing to relinquish it at the cost of frostbitten fingers and friends. Arlene envisions all those bodies on the mountain and all those people who returned.

Those on the mountain remain preserved, along with their memories. Already, though, Arlene feels her mother slipping away. She pictures her mother—burned to ashes, spread in her grandmother’s garden, lost in the wind. The stretch marks on her mother’s abdomen and the scar on her chin are gone and so are the stories of how they came to be. Arlene fingers her own, more recent, scars and fights the impulse to add to her collection. Eventually, she will clean the piles of clothes and jewelry, rid them of her mother’s lingering cells. For now, she stares at these remains. Shackleton joins her. He presses his cheek into hers, and together, they mourn.

The next time Arlene walks, she imagines herself as a stranger might. She sees a girl, barely more than a child, wandering in circles, looking for bodies.

 

Jamie Logan holds a BA from Tulane University in English & Classical Studies and an MFA from the University of Memphis in Creative Writing. She has served as Managing Editor at The Pinch and Product Magazine and now holds the same position with BreakBread. She is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she is an Associate Editor for the Mississippi Review. Her work can be found in the New Ohio Review, Rougarou, Palette Poetry, Variety Pack, and elsewhere.