She’s Been Living in the Attic for Who Knows How Long by Steve Chang

And there’s a hole through the puffy insulation below—at her feet!—through which she looks down into the home, at her family, and how it’s changing. The sweet-smelling baby is a boy, a teen, and a man. Her husband is old now, his muttering a mystery.

Is this the original cast? Are these the same actors?

She has to admit she’s not sure.

Should she know?

This is how she’d describe the feeling, how she would if anybody asked.

Some days though, there’s another hole, this one in the roof, through which she watches the sky changing colors—orange, and black, and blue, and pink. Is it always the same sky? She thinks of strangers taking turns at a peephole. The colors blink through, one after the other. It’s almost like somebody’s been watching her back.

She doesn’t know who it is, but she’d like to know, someday, this person, if she can.

 

Steve Chang is from the San Gabriel Valley, California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Epiphany, North American Review, The Southampton Review, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. He likes reviews. He tweets at @steveXisXok and his website is literally www.stevehasawebsite.com.

Not What I Ordered by Ava Wolf

“I’ll go wherever you’re going,” he said.

He was a chef—no, a cook, because when I said, “You’re a chef, right?” he shook his head and sniffed the air and told me I smelled delectable, which was an inappropriate thing to say for a variety of reasons, but then he said, “I’m a cook,” and I was like, “Oh, a cook,” as if it mattered anyway—and he was fine. Fine. Built like a human man, by the looks of it.

Then I said, “I’m going home,” and he asked if he was coming with me.

I thought about it. I did! I sized him up, wondering what kind of person wanted to sleep with someone they met less than an hour ago, and then I remembered lots of people wanted to sleep with lots of people, but few acted upon desire, so if anything, this was an admirable display of forwardness, rather than solicitation for sex by a stranger who kept telling the same story of his Jewish cousin named Ariel who played violin on the subway.

He’d imitated his Aunt Linda (pronounced aunt, not aunt, which made me nervous) relaying this information to him: “Your cousin Ariel is playing violin on the L Train!” He did this several times. I laughed. I thought it was funny because of the vodka water. I had asked for a vodka soda, but when I came back from the restroom there was a vodka water on the counter and he said, “I got you a vodka water,” and I said, “I wanted a vodka soda,” but politely, like I was pointing out an observation about the weather, and he looked crestfallen, so I waved my hands around and said it was fine, I’d never had a vodka water, there was a first time for everything. He perked up a bit, and now he wanted to sleep with me. My pee was green because of the riboflavin in my multivitamin.

Here were the options: I could tell him the truth, or I could tell him something else.

“It’s a bit of a complicated situation,” I said, stabbing the slice of lime in my empty vodka water. “I would prefer for you to think of it as though I’ve been inveigled into an elaborate and nefarious crime. I don’t want to drag you into anything. I apologize.”

He straightened up in his seat. Our torsos were different lengths.

“I’m a little disappointed,” he replied, looking into my eyes very seriously. This was excellent news. I loved to disappoint men.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I lied.

“If you don’t mind me asking,” he said, “what’s so complicated about it?”

I stood up and slipped on my coat, the nice one I wore to work, and turned to face the cook-not-chef, who was disappointed that I had declined to let him, a reasonably attractive person with a Jewish cousin, sleep with me, a reasonably attractive person with many Jewish cousins. Then, I proclaimed loud enough for the whole bar to hear:

“I’m the other woman!”

I left beaming from ear to ear.

 

Ava Wolf is the author of Year of the Pig (Ghost City Press, 2019). Her work has appeared in Peach Mag, Maudlin House, Occulum, and others. She resides in Philadelphia with her cats, Basil and Juniper. None of them have ever done anything wrong in their lives.

How to French Kiss Like a Sonofabitch by Ben Slotky

Right before my second wife left me I pretended to read this biography, an autobiography, actually, about Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin. The autobiography I was pretending to read was called “How to French Kiss Like a Sonofabitch,” and in it, Whitney says that his favorite novel is Russian playwright and author Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.” This is in chapter four or five. He was an Evangelical Christian, Whitney was; he owned slaves. He was considering a run for the United States Senate until his untimely death from bronchial pneumonia or something at the age of thirty-seven or forty-seven. These are facts, this happened, you could look it up. This was back then.

I tell my wife this as she walks up the stairs to go to sleep.

She does not answer.

She is not a history buff, I tell myself.

She is busy, I tell myself.

She is not listening, I tell myself, and this is why she isn’t answering me. This makes sense and this is reassuring to me. It makes sense that there is a reason why she’s not answering me and that I can define that reason. The reason, I tell myself, could be any of those things I just mentioned. Another reason could be because I haven’t said anything. This is more likely, I think, because I haven’t said any of this, not about French kissing or pneumonia or sonsofbitches. Sometimes I don’t say anything and this whole scene, the one I’ve just described, is troubling for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that I may have made the whole thing up.

It’s a possibility, it is.

It’s come to this, it has.

This whole thing is troubling, is disturbing, the fact that I don’t appear to know what I am saying anymore is.

I am not married, I don’t think. Maybe I was before.

I am not married, there are no stairs where I live, and I have no idea when Eli Whitney died, what his political aspirations were, or if there is such a thing as bronchial pneumonia. I bet there is, it sounds like there would be, like there should be, but am not sure.

I also don’t know what it means to French-kiss like a sonofabitch, but it sounds like something I’d say, and we should concentrate on facts, now.

* * * *

Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. This is true, this is was in that book from before, and in real life. My grandmother and I used to play gin rummy. Gin rummy is a card game and I am kind of card myself. Look at what I am doing right now. This is me winking at you; this is as close as I can get, because I can’t wink. What I am doing right now is clever. Clever and amusing, so clever that my pretend wife married me because of it. She was blind in one eye and almost blind in the other, my grandmother was, and I have written about this before. It was in a story about space, and rockets, and Alabama football. One time I tried to write a story in another story. It was going to be told in the form of a memo, a memo from a meeting, this story I was going to write was, but in it there would be another story, a person talking to you. I never wrote that story. It would be too hard, I think.

* * * *

She would watch a lot of television with her blind eyes. Sometimes she would wink at the tv, wink her blind eye and look out her almost blind eye, I think to try and see better. I always got a kick out of that, if that was a thing that actually happened. My grandmother called jazz “toodling.” I told my wife this once, back when I was pretending she existed, back when we were pretending to be married. I told her my grandmother called jazz “toodling”; I said it just like that because I had just remembered it for some reason. I do not remember if she answered or not but do remember that it wouldn’t matter even if she did.

If she did or didn’t. How could it?

If jazz music ever came on the tv, my grandmother would say “I’m not listening to any of that toodling,” and then she’d turn the tv off. She did the same thing when tampon ads came on the TV. She’d turn it down and say, “I’m not listening to those filthy women.”

* * * *

I don’t know what Mikhail Bulgakov thought about his grandmother, but I loved mine very much. I loved my last pretend wife, too. She is dead now. She died of cancer, I think. I am talking about my grandmother. Settle down. This is all part of the story. I used to write stories about cancer, back when I had a wife or pretended to. I would talk about the different kinds of cancer I have. Bone cancer, brain cancer, face and neck cancer. I don’t do this anymore, I don’t think. I have never had cancer, even though I was born on the Fourth of July. That is a joke, a clever thing, a thing that if I had a wife, would not ever get tired of. This wife would never leave, ever. I don’t have a wife, though. I don’t have a wife who is leaving me, I couldn’t have. None of this could be happening. I have written this so many times, it has to be true.

* * * *

I don’t have cancer, I don’t have wives. I don’t have any real diseases and never have. I don’t mean that women are diseases; that is not what I mean. My last pretend wife almost killed me, though. That’s a joke, that’s me being clever. That’s something my wife used to like until she didn’t.

This particular style of mine has not been well received, what I am doing right now, what I have been doing this whole time, apparently. None of this has been received well, ever, if at all.

And yet I keep at it. I keep making up books and pretending and being clever, being clever. None of my wives seem to like it anymore, nobody does, but I keep doing it and am doing it right now. Some would call this behavior “irrational.” some, like the therapist I saw earlier this afternoon. He made it sound like I had some disease, which I clearly don’t.

* * * *

I do have something called horseshoe kidneys, though. That is a congenital deformity where the bottoms of your kidneys are fused together. This actually sounds like real disease. Maybe it is.

Mel Gibson has horseshoe kidneys, too. He and I do. We are alike in this respect, in this aspect, in this fused kidney aspect or respect. There are a lot of ways in which we are not alike. One time Mel Gibson got drunk and called a female police officer “sugar tits.” I have never done that, and I hope that me having the same kind of kidneys that Mel Gibson does doesn’t mean that someday I might. The idea of this scares me for a lot of reasons, none of which are discussed in my pretend autobiography.

* * * *

In my pretend autobiography “How To Blink One Eye,” I don’t insult any police officers, but I do reveal the fact that I can’t wink, and I said that earlier, but this isn’t about that. This is a little bit about me, this is something my wife would tell you about me if she existed and didn’t leave. She would love this about me. It would be endearing. This is something my pretend wife would love about me if she existed, that I can’t do it, I can’t wink. A simple thing, something everybody can do that I’ve never been able to. People always get a grandmother-sized kick out of this. My last wife did. She did until she didn’t.

* * * *

When I tell people that I can’t wink, they always say the same thing. They say “just blink one eye,” like the reason I can’t wink is just because I don’t understand how to do it, like I don’t understand the mechanics involved. They say just blink one eye, like I don’t know how, like if I knew that all it took was just blinking one eye, that I’d be winking like a sonofabitch.

 

Ben Slotky’s novel, An Evening of Romantic Lovemaking, will be published by Dalkey Archive in 2020.  His first collection/novel, Red Hot Dogs, White Gravy, was published by Chiasmus in 2010 and republished by Widow & Orphan in 2017. His work has been featured in Santa Monica Review, Numero Cinq, Golden Handcuffs Review, Hobart, Barrelhouse, and many other publications. He lives in Bloomington, IL with his wife and six sons.

Sanctuary by Jo Varnish

I lift the lid off the glass tank where my bat Kevin has lived for a year since he dove through the evening air into my windshield. I reach in, touching his back, the fur so soft it’s hard to tell if you’ve actually made contact. I take his miniature claw-hand and concertina his good wing out, the leather webbing matching his massive ears. I untuck his bad wing, and open it out as best I can. I do this twice daily as physical therapy. His eyes, shiny black pebbles, watch me, and he opens his mouth wide, tiny shark jaw exposed.

“Where going?”

My little brother Eddy leans on my doorframe, wearing fire truck pajama bottoms and no top. He goes shirtless on account of the heat generated by the latex horse head. Yeah, my brother wears a horse head. It’s chestnut with spooky eyes – the kind where the white goes all the way around the pupils – and stiff lashes, a fuzzy mane. There are holes beneath the nose for him to see through and a slot for his mouth. He found it in the basement a couple months ago and I haven’t seen him awake without it since. It’s less of an issue than you might think as he’s home-schooled. Allegedly. I’m not sure how much schooling goes on, but the home part’s accurate. He hasn’t left the house since before I rescued Kevin. He’ll stand on the front porch, or the deck out back, but he won’t step in the yard. I tried too hard at Christmas to coax him out for a drive to see the lights, and he didn’t eat for eighteen hours.

“I’m running out for milk, then I have work, then homework,” I say.

Junior year means a back-breaking school bag and a spirit-breaking work load. On top of that, I work three evenings for Mr. and Mrs. Fiorino at Magic Fountain, serving scoops to kids from school who aren’t my friends. Often Mrs. Fiorino offers me a treat: a slice of rainbow cake or a plate of large choc chip cookies, or a small tub of butterscotch ice cream, and sometimes I think about bringing it home for Eddy. But I can’t because he’d love it, and then the next time I go to work, he’ll get excited and expect me to bring him something again. It’s kind of sad: he misses out on a treat because his mind makes connections too strongly.

Eddy moves into my room, over to Kevin. He crouches, tilting his horse head back so he can see through the glass.

“Kevin happy.”

“Yes, Mr. Ed. Kevin’s okay.” I pick up my wallet, shove it into my backpack. Eddy is still, staring at Kevin. I wish I could see Eddy’s face and get a read on his thoughts.

“You know, Eddy, he belongs in the wild. He’s here because it isn’t safe for him out there with his busted wing.”

The horse head nods. I look at Kevin and see him through the horse’s eyes, protected in his cage. A few moments later, I nod too: I have a chance to set both free.

“Can you get the damn milk already?” Mom yells from the living room.

I get to work early and make the call, busying myself scrubbing the counters as I talk. I’ve had the number for Woodlands Sanctuary since Mrs. Todd looked it up for me after I told my bio class about Kevin. That was a mistake. Now I’m referred to as Batgirl in the hallways, which is marginally worse than not being referred to at all.

“Why the hell are you gonna drive all that ways out there? For a damn bat? Put him out behind the house. Jesus.”

“Mom, this is hard for me; they’ll look after him.”

“I’m not paying for the gas, that’s for damn sure.”

Eddy sits on my bed as I feed Kevin. The mealworm wriggles on the end of the pencil and Kevin becomes animated as he gnashes at it.

“Why he has to go?”

“It’s best for him, he should be with other bats, living as close to a normal life as possible.” Eddy doesn’t move. “You want to come with me to take him?”

“Can’t. He going now?”

“Tomorrow.” I ruffle his mane, turning my scrunched up face away from him.

Eddy’s in the kitchen when I come home from school, shoving fistfuls of goldfish crackers through the horse mouth, into his own. Orange cracker dribble slides down the square lip and onto his chest.

“Hey, Bud, where’s Mom?”

“Sleep. Kevin go now?”

I nod. The horse head drops down and knocks the carton of crackers off the table, onto the floor. The horse looks startled. Those spooky eyes.

“You’d better pick them up, Eddy.”

He follows me into my room. I have a smaller box for transporting Kevin. As I get close, I see Kevin isn’t hanging on the frame I made him. He’s lying on the soil below.

“No, no, no!” I pull the lid off and pick him up. He’s cool in my hand. His baby bird eyes closed. My knees shift and I sink to the floor, holding Kevin to my chest. Eddy joins me, his horse head on my shoulder, horse breath warm and damp in my hair.

It’s early evening by the time I have Kevin prepared in the smaller box, now his coffin. I’ve made it comfortable with a soft pillowcase folded up. On the back deck, I pull on my sneakers. The cicadas sing for Kevin, and a breeze moves through the leaves behind me.

“Where going?” The horse head pokes out from the screen door.

“I’m going to bury him under the oak tree.”

Eddy steps out and bangs the screen behind him. “I come too, okay?”

“Okay.”

 

Having moved from England aged 24, Jo now lives in Maplewood, New Jersey. Her short stories, creative nonfiction, and poetry have recently appeared or are forthcoming in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, Manqué Magazine, Brevity Blog and Nine Muses Poetry. Last year, Jo was a writer in residence at L’Atelier Writers in France. Currently studying for her MFA and working on her novel, Jo can be found on twitter as @jovarnish1.

A Monograph of Florida Man Headlines by Allie Marini

Introduction

Tell the joke & laugh, but remember: There But for the Grace of God Go I.

Components

Florida Man Arrested Outside Olive Garden for Belligerent Eating of Pasta

Stay drunk. It’s easier to forget where you are, how little you have. Eat like an animal, shoveling handfuls of someone else’s leftover spaghetti into your mouth with your hands, because forks are a luxury. Wolf it down, this is wilderness, & your Styrofoam container will be taken away once you’ve made restaurant patrons uncomfortable with your aggressive eating & the loud articulation of your misery, unfiltered. The bottle allows you to howl about the pain of what you lack. You are given a paper towel to wipe your face before they take the remnants of pasta from you. This small dignity, that you are allowed.

Florida Man Threatens to Destroy Everyone with His Army of Turtles

I need to leave now or you will all be sorry you fucked with the saint, he yells, but it’s only a legitimate emergency once you’ve made a scene at Starbucks. Take refuge at 7-11 instead. Tell the turtles, Be patient. Our time is coming. Try to articulate your desolation, all the places where humans have failed you. Turtles know all about encroachment, about habitat destruction, what it’s like to try & cross roads aswarm with fast-moving cars in search of safe marshland. Be careful you don’t end up cracked-shell in the breakdown lane, dying slowly & unnoticed under pounding sunshine.

Florida Man Attacks Parents Over Pork Chop

After the hunger years, a square meal seems a trap. Too good to be true. It must be poison disguised as meat & potatoes. An increase in paranoia in the ravenous weeks leading up to a meal is not mental illness—correlation is not causation. What starts off as a plate of pork chops ends in a mother glassed over the head & a butcher knife to the chest. No gift can be trusted. No meal without a string attached, a fishhook through the cheek.

Florida Driver Finds Boa Constrictor in His Car Engine

Well, what do you expect of an invasive species with no natural predators, perniciously changing the ecosystem in unpredictable ways? Here, everything in the environment—& the waters surrounding us—is actively trying to kill us, predating the inhabitants (themselves an invasive species, with no biological checks-or-balances), in a fight for domination of the earth.

Florida Man Confesses to Cops, Says ‘Jesus Told Me To’ Drive Ferrari 360 Off Pier

The Lord wants you submerged under 30 feet of saltwater. Wants you to drown the Ferrari 360 preaching, I have made it. Heavy is the head that wears this crown. He tells the arresting officer, Money will be irrelevant in two days, remember to smile, because he has been taught that true wealth is in the afterlife. What happens on earth is just marking time. Remember to smile.

Rattlesnake-Carrying Florida Man Claims to Be ‘Agent of God’

Armed with 7 feet of gentlemanly venom, who’s to say he’s wrong? The rattlesnake is relocated to its natural environs by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission. The homeless Agent of God will not be relocated. The wilderness of the street is his natural environ. There are no commissions dedicated to his safe release.

Florida Man Electrocuted Trying to Remove Bird from Power Line

Even your meager attempts at kindness will become a punchline.

Florida Man Accused of Attacking Mom When She Wouldn’t Dress His Mannequin

At the intersection of domestic violence & loneliness, find a mannequin. Love this female fob of plastic & metal articulation better than the flesh & blood mother who made you. Stuff dumplings in her mouth. See if she smiles showing her teeth.

Florida Man Calls 911 To Get Out of His Fast Food Shift, Cops Say

Your poverty—& the labor system that exploits it—is not an emergency.

Conclusion

You know these are not isolated incidents. You just know it’s in everyone’s best interests to pretend that these things only happen Over There, in someone else’s snake-riddled backyard, full of gators & invasives & clear-cutting & education budget cuts, the land of tourist dollars & minimum wage. You knew all that when you laughed at the uneducated populace & how easy they are for tyrants to manipulate. How easy it is to buy into poison when you were bottle-fed on a steady diet of nothing. Poison will fill your belly, if only for a moment before the toxins take down first the limbic system, then the cardiorespiratory system, leaving you thrashing in the scrub pine straw. This is how invasives with no natural predators gain dominance over an ecosystem. The same way a strangler fig throttles from the roots, leaving the branches to whither & die, even in full sunlight.

Citations:

1. https://thetakeout.com/florida-man-arrested-olive-garden-eating-pasta-1833970785 Accessed April 11, 2019.
2. https://www.clickorlando.com/news/florida-man-threatens-to-destroy-everyone-with-army-of-turtles-police-say Accessed April 11, 2019.
3. https://www.newsweek.com/florida-man-stabs-father-pork-chop-acidic-1390032 Accessed April 11, 2019.
4. https://www.wfla.com/news/florida/florida-driver-finds-boa-constrictor-in-his-car-engine/1699749944 Accessed April 11, 2019.
5. https://www.thedrive.com/news/26006/florida-man-told-cops-jesus-told-me-to-drive-ferrari-360-off-pier Accessed April 11, 2019.
6. https://www.wthr.com/article/rattlesnake-carrying-florida-man-claims-be-agent-god Accessed April 11, 2019.
7. https://www.wthr.com/article/florida-man-electrocuted-trying-remove-bird-power-line Accessed April 11, 2019.
8. https://www.wsbtv.com/news/trending-now/florida-man-accused-of-attacking-mom-when-she-wouldnt-dress-his-mannequin/935524590 Accessed April 11, 2019.
9. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/state/florida/article228487694.html  Accessed April 11, 2019.

 

Allie Marini is a cross-genre Southern writer. In addition to her work on the page, Allie was a 2017 Oakland Poetry Slam team member & writes poetry, fiction, essays, performing in the Bay Area, where as a lifelong Floridian, she is always cold. Find her online: www.alliemarini.com or @kiddeternity.

Nine Fictions by Scott Garson

1. MALL

First strange thing: leaving the Food Court, I notice a hand towel on one of the tables, a Portuguese hand towel, or featuring large red words in that language, anyway, and I say to my husband, That’s weird, and he says, What, and I start to describe the hand towel, but my husband—second strange thing—has led us right to the edge of a spectacle: a woman and man are having sex on the floor by the Eddie Bauer, and I say, Okay—I guess ironically—and turn to relate to my husband, but my husband—third and worst strange thing—is gone, and I turn around looking for him before making the choice to move on, past GAP, past Claire’s, towards JCPenney, our original aim, except by the Hot Topic everyone’s dancing, young and old, dancing in circles, in silence, counter-clockwise, and that’s when I understand what I probably have to do if I want to see my husband again: I probably have to make my way back to the Food Court and read the towel.

 

2. LOOSE

She was trying to read a poem and apparently failing. She didn’t know why there had to be fault, but if there did, she guessed that fault could be split down the middle, like a turkey sandwich: half for the poet, because he had tried to make language without her, and half for her, for the usual reason: her brain and its terrible wildness.

 

3. KINDERGARTEN

About loss, they were never wrong, the old masters. It can be marked—as a shape, in the distance. It can be feared. But you can’t know it until you’re inside, and trying, maybe—he can’t say—to drink your coffee again. Or put on clothes for work. He can’t imagine. He buys a bullet-resistant backpack into which he threads his child’s hands and arms. He kneels to do this. It is, he understands, a gesture, light as prayer.

 

4. HIGH

Hunger must have looked good on me. I was hired, at a very decent rate, by a man whose apparent shtick was to be outrageous and hire skinny young guys off the street. They measured me, had me in clothes, at a table, with all sorts of food and drink that no one could actually touch. We were supposed to be laughing. Me and this white guy and two women, one black, one Latinx. We were supposed to be charmed, like nightclub royalty, having the time of our lives. When they had enough pictures, they took back the clothes. They gave me a voucher. They opened a door. I didn’t know if I should say anything, I just left. I kind of stumbled moving into the afternoon glare.

 

5. STORY

I found a telephone number written in dark blue ink on the back of a claim stub tucked in the pages of a crime novel I’d purchased second-hand. I thought about taking the claim stub out but figured I’d probably lose it if it wasn’t any longer in the place where it had been lost. Plus, the telephone number sang to me from that place, page seventy-three. I’d open the book and turn the stub in my fingers. Ocean View Cleaners. I’d think about what I would say to the person whose number was written in ink, how I would start, what kind of lies I might shape. But I never called. I think I felt that a call would empty the situation.

 

6. BUREAUCRACY

They said, How old you want to be on earth? I said, What? They said, Age. I pointed out to them the fact that I seemed to be dead. They controlled their impatience. Listen, they said, there’s a whole lot of stations after this one, yeah? You might want to pick up your pace. I said, Right, sure, but I don’t understand. On earth, they explained, the minute you die, you get to be generally remembered at some one age, which makes sense—was I following them?—because once you die you have no age: it’s a wide-open situation. I said, Ah! Which was stalling. I saw my own face, back in life, as if in a set of still pictures. Nine. Forty. Eighteen. Thirty-two. I said, I can’t answer. They said, You weren’t old enough. If you’d been ninety or something like that, you’d pick. Sure you would. You’re ninety, you’re old, probably frail, and you die, then ka-boom, you’re twenty-eight again. Just look at you. Yeah? Just look.

 

7. SPELL

Toads no bigger than houseflies, hopping around. Is this even possible? Could be people have magicked these toads, using some ancient equation. She could be biking. Take a hard bend and get hit in the face with giant flies.

 

8. NIGHTSWIMMING

Instead of doing a search for the lyrics, I thought I would write them all over again, for myself, because—and I don’t mean to brag—I’ve probably nightswum more than the crooner in question. I’ve nightswum all of my life, often naked, which is, at least in my view, the best way, because when you nightswim it’s like being born. You shoot from water, everything dripping. You work to secure a few breaths. You start to acquire a feel for yourself, your size in the star-messed darkness.

 

9. HISTORY

He remembers once when they were about to fight, a maybe vicious fight, cause they’d been drinking wine, her more than him, and she was smaller, too, actually borderline tiny, so she was just trashed, and no way could he win a fight like that, cause she was always willing to take the meanness higher, though she wasn’t mean, was just unable to quit, which was actually something he loved about her, as part of her general fucked-up-ness, which he loved, too, and so, to ward off the fight, he made some random, stupid remark—he can’t remember what—and she was distracted, kept asking, What did you say? And she laughed. And she couldn’t quit laughing.

 

Scott Garson is the author of IS THAT YOU, JOHN WAYNE?, a collection of stories. He has work in or coming from The Best Small Fictions annual, The Three Penny Review, Conjunctions, The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, and others.

Modern Ghosts by Chelsea Stickle

I’m sorry to report that if you can hear me, you’re dead. Such a shame. But don’t worry, we’ll help you adjust. Being a modern ghost is tricky. We’re so used to a never-ending stream of information that being deprived of it one day is like running into a wall you didn’t even know existed. It’s a bigger shock than dying. Dying is inevitable. No one knows there’s no shit-posting in the afterlife.

Sometimes, you’re stuck in the place you died. The side of the road can be boring as fuck. But the more you separate from the life you once knew, the more you can move around. Overhearing conversations about pointless shit becomes fascinating. You’ll still reach for your smartphone, but soon adapt to reading over other people’s shoulders. You’ll start to learn who watches what, so you can keep up with the news and even binge whole shows if you’re lucky. It’s the ghosts who stop thinking and growing that become poltergeists. The poor bastards are just trying to prove they still exist by scaring the shit out of the living.

The rest of us know the rules: keep active and avoid the living you know. Staying active is pretty easy. Some ghosts form sports leagues and that keeps them occupied. Former meatheads discover that their physical strength doesn’t translate to the ghostly form. It’s all brainpower. You should see Steve Jobs knocking it out of the park. Literally.

The second rule is the hardest to follow. Sure you still care about them, but when you die, something is severed. The people you love become stories you left unfinished. The desire to know their middles and endings can be all-consuming. It’s the simplest way to become a poltergeist. Watching people talk about you like you’re not there, like you can’t see or hear them is maddening. So you begin following around complete strangers and watch them repeat your mistakes and realize there’s nothing you can do. Your past is chiseled into the earth; your future is written in the air. Your time alive was precious because it was limited. Now you have a meaningless eternity. And then you have to find someone else to haunt. Maybe a therapist.

 

Chelsea Stickle writes flash fiction that appears or is forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Cleaver, Pithead Chapel, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and others. She’s a reader for Pidgeonholes and lives in Annapolis, MD with her black rabbit George and an army of houseplants. Read more stories at www.chelseastickle.com or find her on Twitter @Chelsea_Stickle.

Girls in the Woods by Madeline Anthes

Years later, children will tell your story around campfires. They’ll sit shoulder-to-shoulder, clutching their elbows, whispering about you.

Of course, you can’t know that now.

You just know he’s late.

You’ve worn a white silk dress that grazes your knees. You want him to see you as a bride. You’re wearing soft flat shoes and your feet are sinking into the wet earth. The trees are dense here, and it’s dusk dark though it’s only noon.

You always meet him here, but today is different. Today is a beginning. Finally.

You’re so used to sharing him that you’ve gotten used to the stings. The sickly smell of her in his clothes, her name appearing on his phone. But last week he took your hands in his and kissed your palms. He said he was ready.

So you’ve let yourself wonder what it could be like. No time limits. No hiding behind closed shades and locked doors.

You’ve never loved him in the daylight. You’ve never felt the freedom of a long glance, a hand on your arm when anyone might see. Now is your chance. He promised you. It feels like exhaling after holding your breath for too long. It feels like inhaling after drowning.

* * * *

Time is passing and you sit on a fallen log. Your dress will stain, but your legs are aching. You are trying to ignore the way your heart skips at every twig snap in the distance, every shrill of birdsong.

There is a breeze that rustles the high branches, but it doesn’t reach you below. You wonder what he’s doing. Maybe she wanted to talk. Maybe she put up a fight. A thrill of victory courses through you. It feels good to win.

But as evening sets in, you let yourself doubt him. Only a little. Evening softens the green around you, blurring the drooping limbs in a smoky haze. You should feel scared, but you tell yourself you know these trees. You’ve waited for him before.

You have faith in him. Isn’t faith what held this together all these months? Isn’t faith all you had on the days he went back to her and you were left in a tangle of sheets and an empty apartment? Didn’t he tell you over and over to believe in him, to trust him? And you did, because you had to.

Then true darkness sets in, and the night insects and frogs start their rhythmic chanting. It’s too dark to find your way out, and he told you he was coming for you. You want to believe in him, so you do. You stay and wait.

You pat the ground and find a soft patch of forest floor, curl your body in a tight ball, and try to sleep. You close your eyes against the pressing night, ignoring the scuttling of aphids and beetles. The night will pass, and morning will come.

You don’t know that you’ll wait for days. Your body will start to fail you, so you’ll sit on the forest floor and fuel yourself with hope. With each inhale you tell yourself he’s coming, each exhale you tell yourself to believe.

Soon your skin will grow soft with moss, and your scalp will sprout ropy vines. Your bones will dry into porous wood, and you’ll softly, softly dissolve into the soil. You’ll become the nurse logs stretched across the forest floor, new tree roots straddling your disintegrating body. You’ll become the underbrush and thickets, rustling with whispers. You’ll become the stillness in the ferns, the warm summer wind that bends the canopy.

You will become the earth itself.

You don’t know that one day the campfire boys will hold flashlights under their faces to scare the girls. They’ll say you’re still roaming the woods, looking for revenge.

You don’t know that the campfire girls won’t believe them. They will shiver and cry for you, hear your voice in the crackling fire. They will grip the logs below them and wonder if you are watching them. They will hope you are.

You’re one of them: a lost girl in the woods, raised to believe, to keep faith in broken boys. They would have waited too.

 

Madeline Anthes is the Acquisitions Editor for Hypertrophic Literary and the Assistant Editor of Lost Balloon. Her writing can be found in journals like Whiskey Paper, Cease, Cows, and Jellyfish Review. You can find her on Twitter at @maddieanthes and find more of her work at www.madelineanthes.com.

You Don’t Have a Place Here by Anna Vangala Jones

I have a scheduled meeting with Caroline, our team’s HR rep, today and I’m glad you’ll be coming with me, so I don’t have to be alone with her. There’s something cold about her I don’t like. She’s nice, sure. Just feels like the air conditioning is cranked up too high when she’s around.

Caroline isn’t the small talk type so I’m not worried by her brusque “Let’s get started, shall we?” as soon as I’m seated across from her. Not too sure what this could be about, but I’m a decent employee, so can’t be anything serious.

“Starting sounds good to me.” I smile but she’s not looking at me.

I’m surprised when she tells me that it’s you she wants to talk about, not me. The issue is you’re not supposed to be here, it sounds like.

She says you make people around the office feel uneasy.

“How so?” I want to know, but ask polite as can be. I’m offended of course but best not to get defensive.

The first time I sensed you were still nearby and not as gone as we’d all assumed was on the Wednesday after the funeral. One of the cherry tomatoes I was about to mix into my salad rolled itself right off the counter and I didn’t realize in time to miss stepping on it and splattering emerald green juice and seeds everywhere. You were forever dropping grapes and cherry tomatoes, you remember. Your grip on everything was tenuous, your touch too light and gentle. It made me wonder. I was relieved the more I felt you around, the more sure I became. Our apartment would be too big and much messier without you in it. I never wanted to live in the city without my roommate.

So many people whispered into my hair and left my neck damp and gritty with the salt of their tears in the chaotic hours after you were first found. A body, the police officer called you.

“She didn’t even like you that much,” I said to one of your acquaintances who cried the loudest, but it’s probably for the best she didn’t hear me. She will only miss you until she doesn’t anymore anyway.

I’m pretty sure you stay because I want you to. What I mean is you don’t hang around to punish me or anything. Best friends since I asked to borrow your neon pink glitter pen in fourth grade. I don’t feel afraid or even sad that you’re still here. I’d be both those things if you left. I think you know that, too. I feel bad I was your burden before and you’re still not free of carrying me around on your shoulders now.

Caroline is answering me, so I try to pay better attention. “I mean, you walk around here making it uncomfortably clear to all of us that the specter is there beside you. Following you around. For everything. Everywhere you go.” She stares like my face will change to indicate that I agree with what she’s telling me, but she’s going to be waiting a long time if she thinks that will happen. Since I don’t pipe up with what’s expected of me, she shuffles the stack of pages in her lap, expertly like a dealer with a deck of cards. “It’s strange,” she says. “To put it mildly.”

“The mild version is hot enough.” I follow this up with a too loud awkward laugh that I can still hear even after my mouth is closed again.

She doesn’t smile. “The specter cannot join us here at work anymore, I’m afraid.” Her voice is smooth and kind enough. Word choice delicate. But she is firm. “You’ll just have to leave that kind of personal baggage at home. It doesn’t have a place here.”

“Specter, is that a word people even use anymore?” I say, my cheerful tone not doing enough to mask the hurt straining to burst free and roam wild around the office. Peeking into people’s cubicles, demanding to know who has complained about you to HR, about us. Because you’re such a part of me, that you and I know it’s both of us they must have a problem with, not one or the other. We’re too intertwined now for that to even work.

She looks up and nods. “That’s the word they use here in the paperwork. Would you like to see?”

“No. I trust you.”

When I get back to my desk, one of my coworkers whose name is Joy with a personality to match is there, sitting on it. I try to pretend she isn’t and drop into my chair and swivel it away from her to face my computer.

“Caroline told you, huh?”

“About your formal complaint?” I say, willing the bright screen of my computer to shatter and rain glass shards all over Joy and everyone else, too. I picture it wedge and burrow its way deep into their skin—eyes electrified by the shock of pain—and for a second, I’m happy again, like before the meeting.

“Well, it wasn’t just me,” Joy says, hopping off my desk. She doesn’t leave though. “I’m sorry it hurts your feelings,” she adds and I can tell she means it. I am grateful for her checking in with me, but I’d much rather be alone with you right now. “That’s why it’s taken so long for anyone to even say anything to Caroline. We understand how hard this has been for you. No one’s wanted to rush your—you know—process. However long you need to move on.”

Now I’m okay with letting her know I’m a little annoyed. “Move on. That’s rude. You don’t get it. She didn’t leave. So I don’t have to move on.” My air quotes are a bit exaggerated and my words vibrate with too much sarcasm and irritation for her to ignore.

“I shouldn’t have said that then. Unfair for me to presume. You’re right. Sorry.”

Joy doesn’t seem to bother you as much as she does me. But you are the mellow, generous one out of us two. The roommate who does all the dishes if I’ve left mine to soak and throws my laundry in with yours without so much as a passive aggressive grunt or eye roll. You haven’t changed much since the fourth grade in that way. I’ve grown a little. Stopped taking advantage of your kindness as much by our late teens. The leaning on you though, letting your love prop me up—I still haven’t shaken those habits yet.

Joy’s been talking but I’m pretty confident I haven’t missed anything important. I catch the end. “I’ve talked to my therapist about your situation—how you bring her to work with you every day—and he says it’s probably you trying to cope with your surv—”

“No. It’s not that.” I cut her off. She doesn’t need to finish. We don’t need to hear the rest. You and I have both heard of survivor’s guilt before. We’re not idiots.

Sometimes we reenact that night together. We go through the steps, you and me, like parts we’ve memorized in a too familiar play that stars only us two. It always starts the same way. At the bar. I want to get going. You’re having fun.

“When you want to stay out longer and I want to go home, I don’t leave you,” you tell me. Your fingers on my arm are too timid. Perhaps you should grip me harder so I won’t leave you. What you say is true, but it doesn’t matter. I’m tired and anxious and I don’t want to be here anymore. In my mind I’ve already left. We both order rides home two hours apart on the same app. But mine drops me off at our apartment. Yours never does.

“What was she like?” Joy asks now.

“What’s she like?” I shake my head and gesture at you.

Joy doesn’t say anything. Just waits. Patient, quiet, unruffled. She reminds me of you but only for a moment.

“She’s really nice.” I stare at you instead of her and that’s how I can say it without dissolving right there in the middle of this stupid office. This lonely place full of people who don’t want you here. Who don’t understand it means they don’t want me here either. Not sure why it bothers me when I don’t even want to be here.

“I bet. Want to go down the street to the deli? Eat lunch there today maybe?” Joy half smiles. “I won’t talk. If you’d prefer.”

“Yeah okay.” My purse is already in my hands even though I can’t tell you how it got there. Maybe you should tell me. I motion for you to come with us and I dare Joy to report me to HR. Wish she would, I tell you. You don’t seem to be listening though. I’m not sure you hear me.

 

Anna Vangala Jones serves as Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket and is an Editorial Assistant on the Fiction Team at Split Lip Magazine. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of The Net Anthology, and selected for inclusion in Longform Fiction’s Best of 2018 list. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Berkeley Fiction Review, Little Fiction, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and Jellyfish Review, among others. Find her on Twitter at @anniejo_17 and online at www.annavangalajones.wordpress.com.

Being the Murdered Girlfriend by Cathy Ulrich

The thing about being the murdered girlfriend is you set the plot in motion.

Your boyfriend will say: I was just playing around.

He’ll say: I didn’t mean to.

He’ll say: The gun just went off.

His mother will wait outside when the police arrive. His mother will smoke a cigarette on the back step, look up at the sky, try not to think of your body on the floor of the family room, try not to think of the stain on the carpet. She’ll say to her husband later let’s just pull it all up, God, let’s burn it, I don’t care, I just want it gone. She’ll smoke one cigarette, two, three. Her hands will shake.

She’ll say to her son when the police say he has to come with them: It will be all right. Everything will be all right.

After you are buried, she’ll tell her friends: I never cared for that girl. I knew she was trouble.

Her friends will nod. Her friends will all have sons too. Her friends will think of their sons as precious boys, tucked them in as children with forehead kisses and blanket-smoothing hands: Sleep well, my precious boy.

They will know, like mothers of sons before them, about girls like you, girls who bring good boys to ruin.

They’ll see your photo in the newspaper — it will run once, the day after, clipped from the school yearbook — whisper over your heavy eye makeup, your twitch of a smile, the black shirt you wore, low-cut, they’ll say to each other, too low-cut.

Watch out for girls like this, they’ll tell their sons. Girls like this are trouble.

Your boyfriend’s mother will hire a lawyer. The lawyer will wear nice suits, cheap ties, speak over the top of people, carry a briefcase with a combination lock.

It was an accident, the lawyer will say. A tragic accident.

He’ll get your boyfriend sent home. Your boyfriend’s mother will pick him up at the courthouse, take him out for hamburgers, buy him a chocolate milkshake. She’ll think of how she did the same thing when he was young, after baseball games, do you remember, and your boyfriend will say I do, kind of.

He will sleep in his own bed, he will ignore the torn-up carpet, the reek of bleach. He will grow used to the scent, the way his mother and father will too, something that never quite goes, that scent, something like a ghost. When his friends come by, they’ll say what’s that smell?

Your boyfriend will say: I don’t smell anything.

He’ll say, when they ask, when anybody asks: It was an accident.

He’ll say: I never wanted to hurt her.

His mother will nod, lips pressed firm. Of course not. My son isn’t that kind of boy.

His mother will stand behind him at the sentencing, hand clutched firm on his shoulder. Later, he will show her she has left marks. In time they will fade, little fingerprint bruises disappearing and disappearing away.

She will only release her grip when the judge pronounces negligent homicide, community service.

She’ll say: Oh, thank you. Oh, God, thank you.

She’ll wait outside the courthouse for her son and the lawyer, smoke a cigarette while she waits, loose one in the bottom of her purse. She’ll think, idly, of quitting. She’ll hear the courthouse doors come open, turn to see her son come out, her precious boy, drop the half-smoked cigarette to the ground, grind it out with her heel, my precious boy, and your boyfriend will smile: Mom, let’s go home.

And she won’t know, and no one will, how you rode beside him in his pickup one night, how he took you backroading the dirt trails behind his house, said to you, when you hit this rise just right, sometimes it feels like you’re flying.

And you rode in the cab beside him, flew beside him, looked out the window and thought how far away and small everything seemed, how it didn’t seem like there was a city anymore at all, how it was you and him, alone in all the world. All you could hear was engine roar, low hum of the country station fade in and out. You looked forward and there was something there, something small, cat, maybe, or rabbit, prairie dog. And you said oh, felt the truck go over the top of it, didn’t cry, weren’t the kind of girl who would cry over a small thing like that, over a small thing that had been alive and wasn’t alive anymore, but you said oh again, looked over at your boyfriend and saw, in the moonlight, the brilliance of his smile.

 

Cathy Ulrich once stopped her car for a caterpillar that was crossing the road. Her eyesight was better then. Her work has been published in various journals, including Sundog Lit, Heavy Feather Review, and Passages North. She is the author of the story collection Ghosts of You, published by Okay Donkey Press (2019).