My heart has given me the slip again by B. Tyler Lee

But if you’re searching for real, you’ll likely find him by the railroad tracks south of Settlement Road. Don’t tell the other organs. He’ll have his breakfast—which is also his lunch—wrapped in a handkerchief and tethered to the tea towel he uses as a bedroll. (Dinner is moonshine, always moonshine.) He’ll have his scruffy little dog with him. He named her after Daisy Buchanan: “Her bark is full of money,” he said. But it isn’t, and that’s swell, too. She’s made of tenacity and wire hair and lays down next to him like an ace girl should.

You probably haven’t heard over there in your land where amber waves and Washington’s cherry tree and equality all smell kinda genuine, but my heart’s a goddamned folk hero now. He’s the Johnny Appleseed of affection, the Doc Holliday of delight. He’s hard-boiled Casey Jones—he breaks instead of brakes. They say he doesn’t shy from donnybrooks, but that’s only because my heart seeks out injustice, and sometimes words can’t right a wrong. But he’s never bloodied a body who didn’t earn it.

My heart’s a true American. But not American like Babe Ruth and frankfurters. American like he won’t visit a doctor until his aorta practically smells of gangrene. American like he’d rather amputate his vena cava than admit he couldn’t find due west in the dark.

My heart has never read a Steinbeck novel because he’s the paradigm. (Also, he doesn’t have eyes.)

By day, my heart harvests blueberries three at a go, or he wields doll-sized picket signs and pummels the toes of anti-union goons. It’s all the same, in the end. By night, he sings Woody Guthrie ballads around a campfire to a different half-dozen hobo colons in every Hooverville. And when the bathtub bourbon surges inside him, he rubs an artery across his thimble-cup and thinks of you. No one knows but Daisy, but she’s always there, aware of how his months spent on Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway are really just the warp and weft of him running from you.

Even the ocean is treacherous, though: sometimes the Pacific will waft toward him, and he’ll remember the time you kissed us under the water in Atlantic City, how we rose after and felt you surface and dive, surface and dive, over and over like a mermaid, luring us toward that false realm of yours—bursting with stripes and stars, bootstraps and melting pots—we can never inhabit. This you know. This you knew. And sometimes he can’t tell one ocean’s perfume from another, the way you can’t tell an organ who loves you from one who doesn’t—but maybe he needs that reminder now and then, too.

Look, it’s true. My heart’s been avoiding you and me both. But you should also know that he’s only stolen once his whole life—the Widow Barker’s pocket pies, off her windowsill outside Duluth. Daisy lay starving, her fur patched away by an empty belly and the wind. Ravaged himself, he took two pumps and fed the rest to Daisy, ventricle to dying mouth, until she could roam and fight once more. And even after all this time, everywhere your beliefs have taken you, he’d still shatter his internal compass again like that if it meant he could save you, too.

 

B. Tyler Lee is the author of one poetry collection, With Our Lungs in Our Hands (Redbird Chapbooks, 2016). Her hybrid essay “●A large volume of small nonsenses” won the 2020 Talking Writing contest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Puerto del SolJet Fuel Review, HAD, Acting Up: Queer in the New Century (Jacar Press), and elsewhere. She teaches in the Midwest.

Night Feeding by Lindy Biller

I unbutton my nightshirt and discover them: tiny fire ants tracing the rosary around my nipple, each goosebumped pore and coarse dark hair a prayer bead. 

I don’t have any offerings to give. No crumbs, no crust of sugar for their squirming, hungering children. Mandibles pinch and release, testing ripeness. I brush them off and stomp the ones I can reach. The rest of the colony melts into hiding places: the cracks in the headboard, the chasm between wall and baseboard, the open-mouthed sockets. Do ants notice when fewer of them return? I touch my breast with one finger. Round and hard as a bowling ball, skin stretched tight. Your father is asleep in bed and there are no bites on his face, no dark pixels crisscrossing his skin. 

In the hallway, my hand misses the light switch a few times. The pump waits in the closet, top shelf. I grab all the parts and force them together. There is dried milk on the plastic shield, air bubbles in the tubing. There is mold growing in the first bottle I grab, and I can’t find another one. No time. I am moments from bursting, like the parable I was supposed to teach for Sunday school. New wine, old wineskins. If you mix them, both the wine and the skins will be lost. Isn’t that how the story goes? Your father, still snoring, would know. I’m not sure. I skipped church and took the stale communion bread down to the river and tore off pieces for the ducks, and even they knew better than to eat it. 

My skin prickles beneath the plastic shield. I pump the handle as though I’m spraying Windex on grimy windows. Nothing comes out and my breast is on fire and the rhythmic mechanical gasps make me think of heroic measures in intensive care units, though I’ve never been inside one. No time. The paramedics thought you were probably gone within half an hour of when I laid you down. I didn’t kiss you before I tiptoed out—you were in a deep, warm sleep and it seemed too risky. When we found you in the morning, your father did chest compressions: two fingers pressing straight down, dead center between your nipples. I sealed my mouth over your face and sent small puffs of air inside, inflating you like a balloon. If I could’ve blown my own life into you, I would have.

One drop falls in the plastic bottle. Two. Then the milk gushes. Everloving fuck. Soon I am past the one-ounce line. Soon I’m past two and three and four and I need to switch to a new bottle, except there isn’t one. I fill two cereal bowls and a confetti-glazed mug and the glass pitcher my mom filled with lemonade when she stayed over, doing laundry and cooking dinner and sitting next to my bed, rubbing my back until I fell asleep. She did the same thing the week you were born, except it was your back she was rubbing. Her visits like bookends. 

I break the seal with my pinky and set the pump aside. I am empty. Deflated. Fire ants emerge from the darkness, probing the sides of my mismatched vessels for something to grip.

I should donate my milk to someone who needs it. Next time I will. But for now, I carry the mug and bowls and pitcher outside, milk sloshing over. There are ant mounds sprawling along the back step, bathed in moonlight. I empty the pitcher into their tiny, gaping mouths. Maybe they’ll be satisfied and stop biting me awake. Maybe they’ll drown. Either way, an improvement. There are poppies growing along the fence, buds closed like small fists, and I pour the rest of the milk over them. Maybe when they open they’ll smell like your skin, that yeasty maple syrup sweetness, maybe I’ll hold the blooms close to my face and whisper your name to the soft, milky petals.

 

Lindy Biller is a writer who hails from Metro Detroit and now lives in Wisconsin. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming at SmokeLong Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, Pithead Chapel, and Apparition Lit. She works at a small game design studio, crafting stories and concepts for online learning games.

What is Possible in This, Our Year 2021 by Kendra Fortmeyer

What is possible is loving. What is possible is not loving every person, but loving at least one thing about every person. What is possible is to remind yourself of this thing in traffic, in the grocery store, scrolling.

What is possible is to tell the people you love, and the people you almost love, and the people you love one thing about what it is you love about them. What is possible is to write it on postcards, on sidewalks, whispered into the pennies you press into their palms. What is possible is to linger a moment to see if they smile. If they turn the other cheek, and to what end. 

What is possible, though difficult, is to share the small gem of your love you have polished from the rock, and to have it tossed back through your window. To see your postcards and forests burned, your sidewalks flooded. What is possible is to watch the sun setting earlier and weaker, shadows collecting in the corners of your rooms as your love is returned with nothing at all.

What is possible is to save your love, lock it up in a small wooden box that still smells like the breath of its maker. What is possible, though not without copyright permission, is to hey, hide your love away. What is possible is to overthink, to retreat, to spinout complex calculi: whiteboards and footnotes and string theories of who is deserving of your love. What is possible to retreat to the internet! To publicly declaim, I offered the world my love and all I got was this lousy _____. What is possible to fill in that blank with anything, and preferably something that will get a lot of likes.

What is possible is to tell yourself that you are owed something on the merit of your love.

What is possible is to believe it.

What is possible — and, in fact, certain, according to the unmasked woman sitting in a pile of bags in front of the post office, gripping a tattered copy of the Farmer’s Almanac, and talking, talking — is that the winter ahead will be long, and hard.

The winter ahead will be long and hard.

The winter ahead will be long and hard.

* * * *

What is possible is that you will seal your house up tight. Treat yourself with wool and fleece, with clove and amber candles. Breathe clouds onto the chill windowpanes, and trace tiny hearts through which you glimpse, outside, the gray skeletons of the trees.

What is possible is that you could stay this way a long, long time.

What is also possible is this.

One day, when the shadows in your corners mass dark and deep, lapping at your toes, you’ll spy a girl moving down the street toward your house. She stops, bending on the sidewalk. Comes closer. Stops, bending. Now she’s at the house two doors down from yours. Now your neighbor’s. It is possible that a strange heat will rise in your chest. Hey, you think. They’d better not. Whoever it is. They’d better not. Not in my yard, they’d better — whirling tighter and tighter, until the heat and the pitch send you sweaty, reeling, toward the door. Mask and hat in your numb fingers.

And look — what is possible is that the girl is doing any number of things. Casing the neighborhood. Looking for her lost keys. Collecting acorns. 

It is, in fact, wonderful how many things are possible. And what is most wonderful of all is this:

The girl will be several houses down already by the time you come outside. It is possible is that, in her wake, the weak winter sun gleams on a bright copper penny shining right before your mailbox. As you watch, the girl pulls another penny from her pocket, brings it to her lips. Then stoops, planting it in front of the Ramirezes’ house.

What is possible is that you pick up the penny at your feet. All around you, the air sounds different than you remembered, unbounded. All that space.

What is possible is that, well, now you have a penny.

But this is also possible. What is possible is this: As you rub the coin between your fingers, the sharp smell of copper springs up sweet and strong. As if you can hear a whisper: Hello, and here is what I love about you.

What is possible is that tomorrow morning you’ll wake up, see the penny on your night table, and remember, fiercely, that there is a person in the world who believes in your beauty. Remember that you are loved. And you will rise, and try again.

Or maybe, the most wonderful of all possible things: You won’t wait. You won’t sleep on this love. What is possible is that standing there, penny in your fist, you’ll remember the same you accepted the embrace of a person you loved just one thing about. You’ll remember the gladness with which you both whispered, we are okay, we are okay, we will be okay. And what is possible, though it seems impossible now, is that you’ll take off running. You’ll fly down the sidewalk, past the Joneses and the Ramirezes and the Puris, pennies and whispers and wishes flashing beneath your feet. In your heart, you’ll be singing, It’s possible, it’s possible, it’s possible.

 

Kendra Fortmeyer is a Pushcart Prize-winning writer whose fiction has appeared in LeVar Burton Reads, Best American Nonrequired Reading, One Story, The Toast, Lightspeed, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and New Writers Project MFA program at UT Austin. Her debut young adult novel, Hole in the Middle, has been published in the US, UK, and Germany. Currently, she is the Visiting Fiction Writer at the University of Texas at Austin. She drinks too much tea, probably.

Second Life by Chelsea Stickle

The nutcrackers had gone rabid. At night they worked each other’s back levers to chew the acorn candles on the mantle. Little nibbles at first, on the side facing the wall. Then rivulets down the back once they discovered the wax was softer after the family lit fires. Emboldened by their success, they dreamed bigger. They were face down in the triple chocolate cake with peanut butter buttercream when Sandy came downstairs on Christmas Eve to perform her Santa duties. They lolled side to side in the dim light of the Christmas tree. She armed herself with the fireplace poker. “The fuck is happening?” she asked, holding it like a baseball bat.

“We’re starving,” said the first nutcracker. It didn’t turn to face her. The buttercream was smeared like a bad spray-on tan.

“This is your fault,” said the second nutcracker. It didn’t face her either. “You didn’t feed us this year.”

Sandy lowered the poker. “Feed you?”

“You have to use us,” the first one said.

“This was never a problem with your mother,” the second one said. “She always fed us.”

“My mother’s dead.” And if Sandy had been on her own, she would’ve gotten rid of the creepy crackers with their bulging eyes and the mammoth teeth, but her children had fallen in love with them. Her son made the soldiers reenact famous duels, and their hideous oversized teeth made her daughter feel less self-conscious about what would eventually cause an orthodontia bill from hell. “So you need nuts?”

“Yes,” the first one replied.

The second one lifted its head. “Was that unclear?”

Sandy hid the poker behind her back. “That buttercream is made from peanuts, and it’s mostly butter and sugar. I think we have some walnuts in the pantry.”

The nutcrackers looked at her in unison like twins in a horror movie. Their faces covered in her Christmas dessert. Their eyes lifeless and painted on. The glass dome lay on the counter with a large hole in it, like they’d eaten their way through.

“Come look.”

When they were in range, she swung the poker back and knocked the first one into the fireplace. An arm shattered off when it hit the stone backing. The second one swiveled and leaped away unsteadily, but Sandy slapshotted it in. The nutcrackers bucked and rolled. The fire didn’t stop them. They tried to maneuver themselves upright in the thick black smoke. Their voices became faint. The flames burned high and fast. She nudged them back with the poker after they flailed off. Silence.

It had been upsetting to find them ruining her cake, but there was some satisfaction in using a tool her mother would’ve gotten rid of immediately once they’d switched to gas. But Sandy hadn’t hurried. Sometimes objects found a second life if you kept them around, and that unexpected life could be even more rewarding. As the clock struck midnight, she watched the flames lick the nutcrackers like lollipops.

 

Chelsea Stickle lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Her flash fiction appears in Monkeybicycle, The Molotov Cocktail, matchbook, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. She’s a reader for Pidgeonholes. Her debut chapbook, Breaking Points, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press (fall 2021). Read more at www.chelseastickle.com, or find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.

Experts by David Byron Queen

Terry Rawlings knew nothing about gymnastics when he bought an abandoned aircraft hangar out by the interstate, and needed something to do with it. He hired his hunting pal, Murph, a foreman for a local construction firm, to gut the place. He replaced the dirt with padded Tight-Lock rubber flooring and lined the walls with polyfoam stunt mats. He bought a pommel horse, a balance beam, a few vault boards, some tension bars, uneven bars, parallel bars, a half-dozen chalk holders, and a set of still rings to hang from the rafters, above a thick landing mat.

Terry hired a team of coaches and assistants, then went to a local engraver and ordered a display case’s worth of trophies with our names and made-up achievements. Nobody ever questioned it—why would they? Rawlings Gymnastics wasn’t a place where champions were made; it was a place where parents could leave their kids for a few hours after school, and buy some much-needed time to themselves. If any students did show promise, Terry passed them along to the many more legitimate gyms in Missoula, or Helena. Talent was an unwanted burden; it distracted and drew attention to the place—something he worked hard to prevent.

The staff, of course, knew all this. A Google search had revealed that he hadn’t come in 2nd Overall in the 1973 Big Sky Gymnastics Competition (it wasn’t founded until 1981). But Terry was nice enough, and he paid us well enough. At sixty-four and retired, he was looking for a source of income to supplement what he had already, and (maybe) a place to hide it.

Terry seemed tough when you’d meet him. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and had these rough, knotty hands. He’d made good money at a power plant in New Jersey, before heading out west on a bow-hunting trip and falling for the place and making a down payment on a twenty-acre piece of land in the Bitterroot Valley, a few miles outside of Florence.

Truth is, we inflated our own knowledge and experience knowing Terry wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Sure, we’d done some high school athletics. I had run track at Hellgate, and gone through basic, but my fitness had dropped off by then. One of us, Claire, had gone to state on floor and still had a tremendous stag leap, but for the rest of us it was a stretch.

Everything would have been fine, if Terry hadn’t attempted to relocate. Murph’s crew came in once again, breaking down the entire gymnastics center with the goal of moving it, piece by piece, up a nearby hill he’d also bought about a half mile away.

Why? It’s hard to say. He’d lost a son later in his life, and most of us figured this project was his way of working through it. They’d found the man’s car in a lake in Canada somewhere. A note had been left in marker on the windshield. He was buckled in his seat inside.

As long as Terry was paying us, we’d hang out around the worksite, watching the backhoes move dirt into piles. He’d arrive each day in a truck that had a severed elk head in the bed of it, blood spread out under in a black-red circle. We could smell it up the road, coming our way, adding new life to the smells of the worksite—the stacks of saw-ripped two-by-fours, the torched steel, the power-shoveled earth—as the sun beamed through the ceiling truss on the hill, throwing shadows across the lawn that at certain parts of the day looked like the skeleton of a whale. Terry would approach us sitting there. He’d say how nice the new center was going to look, and how thankful he was for our patience during this “transition.” Some days, we’d see Terry lying on the crash mat for hours, staring up at the sky, watching the gliding clouds.

We did our best with what we had. We set up the pommel horse and some of the mats and, while the weather was tolerable, we’d instruct the kids right there, under the big open sky. We’d talk them through tumbles, handstand walks, hollow body holds, and the steady rings Murph would sometimes hang from his team’s mobile crane when it wasn’t in use.

By winter, everything stalled. The snow and cold prevented us from continuing our instruction outdoors, and Terry had burned through a considerable amount of money. When our paychecks started coming in more irregularly, most of us went our separate ways.

I stayed on longer than most. Less out of a sense of commitment to Terry—though we got along fine, he and I—and more because I couldn’t find a new job.

I had no real plan back then. I applied all over. From the juice stand at the mall, to a place called The Gun Barn, that always had a man dressed as an Ambush 300 dancing by the road. I applied to teach at an elementary school, but failed my trial when I gave one child in the class permission to use the bathroom; seeing my weakness, more kids asked to use the bathroom and didn’t return. Finally, most of the class was gone and my supervisor, Leah, had to leave in the middle of my lesson and track them all down.

One night, I must have written her an email. Leah wrote back to say she didn’t like my tone and a few months down the line we’d be living together and when things were good some nights we’d sit on our patio, looking at the mountains. She’d tell me wild things like you could put your hand theoretically right through a solid table if its atoms were arranged a little differently. And I’d watch her and fall in and out of love. But that’s a different story.

To help cover the rent on our apartment after Leah left, I asked Terry if he’d be OK with me taking on a few of his students. He allowed me to take whatever equipment I could load into my truck and set up in my living room. The equipment had sat out all winter and was rusted and banged to hell with these coiled metal springs reaching through in places, and I had to be careful. I wrapped the balance beam and pommel horse with duct tape and it worked fine for a while until one day this boy was up on the beam and his foot slipped off the duct tape and he hit his head on the coffee table. I got the boy and all the others in my truck and hustled them over to the hospital where he had stitches put in. Out in the parking lot, the boy’s parents said I was lucky I wasn’t well off enough to sue. I’d never considered myself lucky before.

I brought the equipment back to Terry, who was living in the worksite trailer since he’d had to sell his house to pay off his debts. The hill was more or less blasted away, by then replaced by a deep ugly crater in the earth. I said to Terry he should say it was caused by some kind of alien meteor or something, and have people pay to come look at it, you know, bored families driving cross country, but he didn’t seem charged on the idea. “I’d have to get it verified,” he said. “And I’d have to find a meteor to blame it on.” He said he had something for me. A trophy. He’d had them made for the staff right around the time we’d all started leaving, and now they were sitting in a box in his office. He said I could have it, and told me if I saw any of them around, to give them their trophies. I put the box in my truck and forgot about it.

Then later that week I was pulled over after leaving the bar. I saw this red and blue and white swirling light in my rearview. This was out by the airport, from what I recall.

The officer asked me if I’d been drinking. I told him, yes, I had. He had me get out and kiss the little metal beak of his breathalyzer. Of course, I didn’t pass—there’s that. But I think he thought there was more to the situation than there was. So he asked to search my truck. I said OK, and at the time it felt strategic, like I had a bunch more ideas down the line, and each idea was informing and building on the next, when I don’t think I really did.

He shined a light on the box of trophies in the truck bed. “You must be pretty good.”

“An expert,” I said, and sprinted off into the night.

 

David Byron Queen grew up in Ohio. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, VICE, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, McSweeney’s, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from the University of Montana, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. Currently he lives in Brooklyn, New York and runs the indie publishing company word west. Find him on Twitter @byron_queen.

Jumping the Shark by Jennifer Wortman

We’d come to the point in our marriage where I’d forgotten my husband’s name and I barely remembered mine. He was husband. I was wife. I’d been reading spiritual teachings that lauded the virtues of boredom, and when my husband and I stared dead-eyed at each other across the dinner table, I took deep breaths and tried to connect to my vibrant essence. “How was your day?” my husband would ask. “Oh, you know…,” I’d answer. He did know! He could have easily summarized my day for me: I had two or three possible days I cycled through and he knew them all. This familiarity made us strangers. “How was your day?” I’d ask him. He’d say exactly what I knew he would say, and we’d gape at each other.

One night, after once more failing to connect to my vibrant essence, I said, “I want a divorce.” The words just sprang out, like a scroll from one of those joke guns. In the early days of our marriage, we used to demand a divorce as a running gag: You don’t like black olives? I want a divorce! It was funny because it wasn’t true. This time it was true, or not patently false, but my husband laughed anyway. I joined in the laughter and convinced myself I’d spun comic gold.

A few days later, he came home straddling a motorcycle. “How the hell did you pay for that?” I asked.

“It’s a Triumph,” he said, as if that were an answer. “Like Fonzie rode.” He knew of my childhood love of Fonzie, the chaste fantasies I’d concoct to help me sleep, where I’d hoop my arms around Fonzie’s leathered trunk as he zoomed us through the sexy Milwaukee streets. Oh, to be whisked away from my fighting parents! Their every word, gesture, action had significance, was some sort of act of war. Or every so often, a call for peace. But nothing was neutral.

“You looked up Fonzie’s motorcycle?” I asked.

He nodded shyly. “Want to go for a ride?” How could I not? I climbed on.

We drove through the unsexy but not unpleasant streets of our nondescript lower-middle-class residential neighborhood. My husband showed surprising facility with the bike, and I enjoyed the deep leans of our turns, the brief surrender to gravity only to flout it. We returned home exhilarated and holding hands. I let the grim matter of money drop. If feeling alive meant more debt, so be it.

The next day, when my husband came home in a black leather jacket and beckoned me with a flick of his head, I skittered right over and followed him outside. He’d done something different to his hair: a slick substance molded it back, lending his trim Anglo features Mediterranean oomph. I leapt onto the bike, donned my helmet like a pro, and off we rode.

My husband had an obnoxious habit of leaving lights on, but that night, not only did he turn off lights upon exiting rooms but he did so by punching the wall with the side of his fist. Within days, our sex life exponentially improved. It was like back when we first met and each touch a was a new weather, flouting forecast.

I continued with my self-paced spiritual studies and practices. Long ago, someone had told me that marriage was like meditation: the key was, come what may, to hold your seat. So each evening, I’d plop down on my meditation cushion and observe my breath, the rise and fall of my chest, the cool wind entering my nose and the warm air that emerged.

One night, I experienced a sensation of rising from the floor. I chalked it up to spiritual wooziness. But the sensation increased: the beige carpet dropped down beneath me. I’d never aspired to levitation, but now it was just happening: had I achieved a true magic, a transcendence beyond the Fonz?

I sensed something behind me and turned. My husband held his thumbs up, pointing outward, the classic Fonzie stance.

“Put me down,” I snapped. But he was so enamored of his own powers he didn’t hear me, or didn’t listen. “Put me down!” I repeated.

“But it’s amazing. A miracle.”

I’d thought those same words once, about us. Our love had been the Fonz: it was cool and fiery; it fixed broken things; it walked in a room and people cheered. Maybe not: but it felt like that, that together we were enchanted and enchanting. As my husband lowered me, I felt the letdown of our lives.

“Didn’t you like it?” he asked. I did. In fact, the second my hips touched the floor I felt a loss I couldn’t measure. But it was just another trick, and, worse, a trick played on me instead of by me.

“No,” I said.

“But I did it for you. I thought you liked magic men.”

“You’re not magic,” I said, channeling my parents’ habitual antagonism. “And I don’t like you.” All these years I’d kept it down. Most of the time. But being miraculously lifted and lowered shook it out of me.

I locked the door to our bedroom and tried to recreate the levitation on my own. I knew trying wasn’t the answer, but neither was trying not to try. I had to accept the trying without trying to try or trying not to try. This required a lot of failing, which I also had to accept. These conundrums humbled me, and I felt ready to apologize to my husband without making things worse.

I found my him hovering high in the living room, his denimed legs tucked in a full lotus, a position I could never achieve. His half-closed eyes saw nothing but his own bliss.

I wanted him to teach me. We could do this together. I’d rack up debt with my own bike and leather gear. We’d sit on air side by side.

“Hey,” I said. “I’m really sorry about before.”

Nothing. He was lost in the ether, I thought, but then his face, as if painstakingly adjusting itself to lower realms, registered my presence. “I want a divorce,” he said, his legs uncrossing as he drifted to the floor.

I spat out a laugh, but the croak that emerged only punctuated my foolishness. He didn’t crack a smile. My husband, who, if I was honest, had always looked a tad ridiculous as The Fonz, suddenly looked 100 percent not ridiculous. He’d become the Fonziest Fonz there ever was, his white tee a beacon of everyone’s dreams, his jacket a sheath for the blade of his greatness, his coif a plush arrow to heaven.

“Please,” I said. For what can you say to a god in desperate times but “please, please, please”?

He shook his head, and I knew all was lost. I ran outside, and there was the motorcycle poised at a fetching little tilt. I jumped on and rode through our little streets, waiting for a sign from a different god: one that hadn’t failed me; one I hadn’t failed. I should have been meditating, but I was done not trying. I needed a higher power, not an earth-bound cushion. And there, in a corner backyard, was a homemade skateboard ramp, a shallow “U” that if entered right would harness my horsepower and shove me aloft. Though I was barely controlling the bike as it was, I somehow ascended the skate ramp beautifully, launching over tangled backyard grass, a yellow whiffle-ball bat, an abandoned rake, and for a moment—let’s call it a very short eternity—before the humiliating crash, before the endless convalescence, before my husband sold the wrecked bike for parts and lost the leather and became my same old husband again, I soared.

 

Jennifer Wortman is a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. She lives with her family in Colorado.

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.

 

Satellite of a Satellite of a Satellite by Avra Margariti

It’s been fourteen days since my wife made good on her threat to launch herself into space. Locked in accidental lunar orbit, she spins around the moon and her own axis. Meanwhile, I’m getting tired of the stillness in our house. The silence.

I dial the moon base number I now know by heart. Ask the operator, “What’s taking the rescue team so long?”

Luna’s lone operator recites some excuse or other—construction accident in the asteroid belt, freighter lost in space, giant squid invasion. I picture the operator behind an old secretary desk, filing her nails in-between managing the call center.

“Put me through to my wife, please.”

The operator sighs. “She doesn’t want to speak to you.”

Her and her pride. I picture my wife going round and round, acting like she could come down any time she wanted.

“Will you give her a message?”

The operator hums her assent.

“Will you tell her I miss her?”

The call disconnects before I can ask the operator if my wife misses me, too.

I wheel my old telescope onto the balcony and watch my wife orbiting Earth’s satellite the way she used to orbit me. Her luminous skin reflects all the stars and spilled dust of outer space. The unknowable black holes of her eyes seem to swallow the matter around her. I’ve heard it’s cold, up there, and she freezes so easily, toes chilly at night, fingers twitching with minute shivers.

I call the operator again to say, “She likes soup. Can you send her some French onion soup?”

The operator exhales. Drawn-out. Long-suffering. I hear her clicking buttons.

“You want any croutons with that?”

The operator is perpetually exasperated with me. It makes a girl wonder. Is she lonely up there? Does she enjoy the solitude my wife and I have disrupted with our melodrama? All these days—wax and wane—and my telescope has never once caught her leaving her Luna-based station.

I realize the line is still connected, but quiet. Static-y with the sound of our syncopated breathing. That is, until the operator asks, “What was the fight about?”

“What?”

“When she left you. What did you two fight about?”

She didn’t leave me, I want to shout loud enough I’ll be heard in space. All I say is, “I can’t remember anymore.”

Hum. Click. Soothing, strangely.

As I wheel the telescope back inside, clutching the phone tight between my chin and shoulder, I am reminded of my mother. How she once told me adulthood means losing people more than you get to keep them. Later, I can’t help taking another peek through the lens of my telescope, the view obscured by the smudged window. The cream glob drifting toward my wife could be her favorite French onion soup. The bright glint on her face could be a smile. But meant for me, or for the operator?

“Do you talk to her?” I ask the operator some rotations after that. Her voice is all buttered toast and golden sunlight, at least when callers like me don’t irritate her. A good voice to hear in the cold and dark, I suppose.

“Of course. Days feel long on Luna.”

Days are long here, too. Such is the interconnectedness of satellite systems.

The landline’s cord around my fingers cuts off my blood circulation. “Do you talk about me?”

Silence. I hate her silences. The operator isn’t exactly friendly, but hers is the only voice I’ve heard in so long, sometimes it slinks and settles into my bones through the distance between us.

I go to bed—my wife’s side—and picture her and the operator chatting through their headsets while my phone remains silent. My wife explains how to pair wine with soup, then laughs as she and the operator ponder how aeration works in space. She admits, all soft and confidential, that launching herself into space, then being pulled into accidental orbit, was worth it.

Why? the operator asks. And my wife says, Because I got to meet you.

My dreams that night orbit them both.

 

Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Forge Literary, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other venues.